Marching Off to War
Tim Roth on his directorial debut and the challenges of being taken seriously
By Dennis Lim
Tough, bleak, and unencumbered by actor-turned-director hubris, Tim Roth's first feature, The War Zone, is anything but a vanity project. An adaptation of Alexander Stuart's 1989 novel about a family shattered by incest, it is a film that handles potentially exploitative material with necessary rigor and an almost unbearable directness.
Given the flamboyance of Roth's on-screen (and sometimes off-screen) hard-man persona, the gravity and austerity of The War Zone can't help but come as something of a shock. Not that there was necessarily a pattern to be detected in his acting career. In 1983, he made his mark at home with strikingly different roles in a pair of social-realist TV dramas: a psychotic skinhead in Alan Clarke's Made In Britain, and a slow-witted asthmatic in Mike Leigh's Meantime. Roth's emergence in AMerica, for better or worse, coincided with the Sundance boom of the early nineties. As a Tarantino icon -- the undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs, the small-time stick-up artist in Pulp Fiction, and less fortunately, the flustered bellhop in Four Rooms -- he generously leased his hipster cache to young, mostly American filmmakers.
"It wasn't necessarily the films that intrigued me but the directors themselves," said Roth. "The first-timers who were taking risks -- I wannted to be around them. I've made a lot of crap films but I've learned from a lot of them." Still, Roth said he felt in danger of burning out. "I was becoming bored with myself."
The solution was to direct and, in The War Zone, Roth has found a project that "chose me completely." The film's protagonist, Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), is a typical fifteen-year-old (horny, alienated, resentful) from a family that, on the surface, seems perfectly functional, even loving. Not long after the family moves from urban London to rural Dorset, Tom's sexual awakening collides with -- and is unimaginably complicated by -- the discovery that his father (Ray Winstone) and older sister (Lara Belmont) are having an incestuous relationship.
Concerned neither with assigning blame nor offering catharsis, The War Zone refuses to simplify or explain the complicated psychological dynamic in place between abuser and abused, leaving the film starkly at odds with the glib, confessional talk show take on abuse that, no doubt more familiar to viewers, would have been easier to swallow --- and easier to dismiss. The motivations of the other family members (not just Tom, but the mother, played by Tilda Swinton) remain similarly hazy. Roth also avoids the rough-hewn, pseudo-doc treatment that could have toppled the film over into sensationalist cliche. He elicits raw, subtle performances from his actors, and allows the horror of the situation to mount against a backdrop of improbable grandeur.
An impassive witness, Seamus McGarvey's wide-screen cinematography soaks in the cruel beauty of the winter landscapes and, while indoors, quietly captures the family in one pschologically telling configuration after another. The camera lingers, forcing awkward questions to the surface, allowing time for ambiguities to form and hang thick in the air. Roth said that coming to terms with the material and searching out a truthful way to convey it was "a growing up process for me -- getting rid of the crap, stripping it bare." What's left is an unmistakably bold and personal film, one that isn't afraid to pose difficult questions, and declare them unanswerable.
Q: Abuse is such an obviously tough and problematic subject. Were you ever concerned that the film might seem exploitative?
A: Believe me, this is not a film I wanted to make. But the book broke my heart -- and that's all it took. It became a question of how the hell do I do this, because now I have to. This was not an easy decision -- I didn't want to expose my family to this subject, and now I'm going to be talking about it for the rest of my life. But I regret absolutely nothing. With abused people coming out of the audience and talking to me, sometimes (talking about it) for the first time in their lives, how could I regret anything? I'd been around victims all my life. The closest people to me, with the exception of my children and wife, are victims of this, and they ended up working on the script and helping us through the whole process, making sure we were telling the truth.
Q: The wide-screen cinematography works beautifully, and not just for the landscape. The interiors are very effectively composed.
A: I think it's a magnificent format. For me, it's pure cinema, which is what I love and miss. And I think it served the subject. I love that it gave me those huge landscapes; that it gave me Tilda Swinton's body -- having just had twins in fact -- forty feet across. It also enabled me to never draw attention to the camera. You hardly have to move it, and the actors develop the frame themselves. People were saying, you can't do it in confined spaces. But actually, it was easier in the small rooms -- you stop having to make decisions, you can't worry about coverage. It makes you focus. And it allows the audience to slip inside the screen, to sit at the table with the devil.
Q: Did you ever think the beauty of the film might undermine the severity of the subject matter?
A: The only people who've had a problem with the beauty of it are people who've not been abused. People who've been abused have actually appreciated it. If you have these very real non-performances -- all acting but no visible "performances," with these actors and non-actors. I mean, the kids could be your kids, and then you shoot it like a movie -- not just like a movie, but like cinema. I think it makes the pain worse. It actually connects you with the pain more. I felt a documentary style would have sidelined the issue. You could then put it in a corner and make it a documentary -- not my life, not possibly my life.
Q: The film is incredibly restrained and measured, especially for a first feature. It's very disciplined and unshowy.
A: There was the temptation to show off, but I got rid of it. I don't need to draw attention to myself. I've been in this business too long for that, and it would also be quite abusive and insulting. If you look at the screenplay, there's all sorts of camera trickery going on, and you know what? It was crap. But I thought it would make me look like a filmmaker. In terms of the design, we were also going to change the geography of the entire house. Whenever an emotional thunderbolt came, the familly would be operating perfectly normally but the geography would have completely changed and Tom would have been confused. We were building all these different rooms within the house. But I always said from the very beginning, if it starts to seem like arty bullshit we will stop. nd we did. As soon as I saw what the actors were doing -- especially Lara and Freddie, who'd literally never thought about acting before in their lives, and were genuinely responding to the story -- I thought, why would I screw them out of this? Why would I not just let the audience have them?
Q: The film gets a good deal of its power from its ambiguity. You don't provide answers or motivations, or attempt to make the psychology of the situation comprehensible, which I imagine frustrates some viewers.
A: If I were to show what motivates the abuser, then I would have betrayed the nature of abuse. And our problem with abuse is, we don't know. I could tell you what motivates him, I could give you fifty different kinds of motivation, but I'm not going to insult the audience's intelligence by saying, here's an answer to everything that you want. I'm sick of it, done it myself, been in those films. I thought at the time, I have one shot at directing something, and if I'm going to do it, I do it right. The truth is, the victims don't know why, and I have to be truthful, and sometimes the abusers (don't know either), I presume -- maybe they just like to put their penises inside small, fragile people. Maybe that's all it is. I don't know. If we knew it would stop, we could stop it. I can only say this on behalf of the victims I've spoken to and who worked on the film and who I love. If I'd offered any kind of answer, or even potential answer, if I'd wrapped it up in any kind of bow, I would have become an abuser. You have to be true to the pain, and by that it means you have to take on the abuser too and get to know him.
Q: It's telling that when Tom looks in the bathroom window and sees his father and sister together for the first time, the audience doesn't see what he sees.
A: It's in the book, and we wrote the scene, but I then decided it was better not to show it because I wanted to almost suspect that he was wrong. When we finally see that he's right, what he's done by confronting the situation, after being told time and time again that he's wrong -- which we can almost believe because he's a hormonal kid -- what we finally see is the absolute truth of how heroic he really is.
Q: The sex scene is so harrowing, partly because of how still the camera is -- it's literally unflinching.
A: Even if you turn away, it's not going to go away -- you're going to hear it, sense that it's in the air. There was a lot going on in that scene, and it was important to convey all of it. On one level, there's Dad making love to a woman; on another, there's what she's seeing and what he's not seeing. For me it's not a rape scene, it's not a sex scene, it's a murder scene. People who've been abused have told me, I would've hated you if you hadn't done that, because you really have to see what these people did to me.
Q: What changes did you and Alexander Stuart make in adapting the book, and why?
A: For one thing we set it in the winter because on a completely practical level, there's not many people around in the winter, so I wouldn't have to pay for them. But it's also much more than that. For me, the winter is Tom, it's what Tom's feeling, what they're all feeling. It symbolic, maybe corny, but it does echo the pain. It's also very beautiful -- the drama of the landscape when it's cold and wet. I also that if we had tourists around -- and it's usually a big tourist spot. If I was Tom, I'd be nipping off and chasing down pretty girls from other countries. I wouldn't be looking through that window. We had to remove all distractions, that's why there was no television in their house, no radio.
Q: Neither Lara Belmont nor Freddie Cunliffe had acting experience. Wasn't it a big risk to go with non-professionals for such demanding roles?
A: It was a huge risk. I actually cast them from Polaroids. The casting directors saw about 2,500 people, and the only brief was, no actors. The other rough idea I gave them was they should find me my Kes -- as in the Ken Loach movie -- and my Linda Manz, from Terrence Malick's film (Days of Heaven). Lara was walking down the street one day, shopping, and the casting people saw her on one of their walkabouts. Freddie came in with a mate on one of the huge casting calls.
Q: Ray Winstone brings quite a bit of baggage to the role of the father, because of the violent characters he's played in the past. How did you feel about that?
A: I crossed him off the list at first. I said I'm not having him around these kids; I bought the line, fell into the shit that's been said. But I could not deny him. I'd missed a lot of the stuff he'd been doing over the eight or nine years I'd been in the States, some of it good, some of it bad, but always these magnificent private moments. Also, he was the person that made me want to be an actor in a sense. I saw Scum (Alan Clarke's 1979 prison drama) and that was it. I brought him in and he said, I want to play a good guy, it'd be great to play a good guy for a change. He understood what the role was about. He's such a subtle actor, often misused. It was a brave thing for him to do. He was very distressed by this film.
Q: You're involved in other films at Toronto this year: acting in Giuseppe Tornatore's The Legend of 1900 and presenting a dialogue on Alan Clarke's Elephant.
A: The Tornatore film is very old-fashioned, very romantic. I always think of it as a "glass of wine, feet up, Sunday afternoon" kind of film, and I'd been wanting to do one of those. I can't play the piano so it was very tricky. Elephant is a magnificent piece of work on so many levels. I talked to Clarke about it and I remember what he said. He was trying to take on Ireland, trying to find a way not to take sides because that's not the point. And he came up with this beautifully thought out, designed, constructed, and executed piece of work, his best, I think. You don't know who the good guys are, and it doesn't really matter. You go through an extraordinarily emotional journey. You get bored of people dying, and then you suddenly go, "Wait a minute, what am I fucking thinking?" It shows he could have been one of our greatest filmmakers ever, and he's gone, and he's unknown. It's peculiar, it's like never having heard of Fellini or Pasolini. I don't know if I'm going to be able to watch it, but I think I should, I want to put myself through it. It comes from a time when we were doing things that were so special in this country, and in a way it signified the end of that time.