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Debut That Tackles the Last Taboo

By Carol Allen

Actor Tim Roth goes behind the camera to explore one of society's greatest secrets.

Like fellow actor Gary Oldman, whose directorial debut Nil By Mouth won much critical praise, Tim Roth, known for such films as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and an Oscar-nominated performance in Rob Roy, has been thinking for some years that he would like to direct a film.

"Several directors I've worked with have suggested I have a go, but I've always put it off because it takes at least two years of your life. Also, there's always the chance that when you come back to acting nobody will want you." he says.

"But finally I thought, I'll just see if I can do this, so I started looking for material. Now that I've actually done it, I realise that being a film director is an extraordinary job -- the sexiest job in the world. Difficult, but seriously good fun."

Roth has hardly chosen an easy subject for his directorial debut. Alexander Stuart's hard-hitting novel The War Zone tells the story of a family torn apart by incest. The movie is showing at the Edinburgh Film Festival this week, prior to its London opening next month.

"I thought it was a fascinating and disturbing story about children and the terrible things some people do to them," Roth recalls. "I'm a parent and it broke my heart. And I did think it had the potential to be cinematic."

Starting in early 1996, Roth worked closely with Stuart in developing the screenplay from the original novel. Compare the film with the book, or even with Stuart's screenplay (published to coincide with the film's London opening) and some marked differences become apparent. Most notable is the character of Jessie, the 18-year-old daughter of the family, and the object of her father's incestuous desire.

On screen she is portrayed as a hurt and disturbed victim. But in the book, her character is much more ambiguous, at one point even claiming to be the seducer.

"That's a choice I made," he says. "If you went to your father and said, 'I want to sleep with you', he should get help for you. If he crosses the line, then it's abuse. It doesn't matter if you ask for it.

"While the script was being written, friends of mine who had been victims would read stuff we had worked on and say: 'That's not true, that's not what it feels like, this is what it feels like,' or 'That's true, you've got that right.' We were very keen on being respectful of the subject-matter."

Apart from featuring the same leading actor, Ray Winstone, who plays the abuser, Roth's film also shares with Oldman's Nil By Mouth an uncompromising attitude to presenting the often brutal reality of a difficult subject.

This is particularly apparent in the most disturbing scene of what is already a very shocking film, in which Tom, Jessie's 15-year-old brother, watches as his father brutally abuses his sister. Why was it necessary to be so explicit?

"I think you have to show what these people do to their children, what they go through, how awful it is," explains Roth. "You either deal with the subject or you don't. There have been people in the audience who have been abused, who've said: 'That's what it feels like, that's what I went through,' and I think that is the most important thing."

Another important alteration Roth made was that, unlike in Stuart's book, the father never admits his crime and in fact denies it so convincingly that at times you almost disbelieve the evidence you have seen on screen.

"In the script originally Dad does admit it. That was a big topic of discussion. Ray [Winstone] was very insistent on that point and he was right. It didn't ring true. It's possible that a pedophile might confess it, but my view is that the deception is kept. Abusers are very good at hiding it, very good at manipulating children and that's why they go undiscovered most of the time.

"It's a simple exercise to make an audience identify with the victim. But I want the audience to also feel a part of what it's like to be the abuser. You need a very good actor for that and Ray is extraordinary."

In the two years it took to develop the film, Roth was constantly working as an actor - Everyone Says I Love You, Deceiver, Hoodlum, Gridlock'd and the still to be seen Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean -- while all the time he was eager to get started on "his movie". "I was working as fast and as often as possible because I knew there would be a huge amount of time when I was not acting, so I was trying to get the bank balance up and running. I'm a first-time director on a low-budget film, so it's not going to pay me much, but fortunately I have a job that will pay me, so I can go off and do this, and still make sure my kids are fed."

In the early 1990s, when work in Britain was somewhat thin on the ground, the 38-year-old Roth moved to Los Angeles, where he now lives with his wife Nicki and their two small sons. A chance meeting with Quentin Tarantino in 1991 led to his casting as Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs and the take-off of his career in American movies.

Now his acting career is increasingly returning to Europe. The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean, which he completed just before shooting The War Zone, was made in Italy for the director Giuseppe Tornatore. Roth describes it as "a big, old-fashioned, romantic, gentle film, about a man who was born on a ship that brings immigrants from Europe to America and he never gets off. He's an incredible piano player and he just sees the world in sections of 2,000 people as they move through his life. It's the sort of role I don't normally get offered and it was a chance to do something different."

He has just completed filming in Paris on Roland Joffe's Vatel, a dark-sounding tale set at the court of Louis XIV and the only major role he has taken since completing his own movie. "I play one of the king's vicious little people. It's a very strange film. I didn't like the people we were playing. They have no morality and yet they're treated as gods. But I was working with Gerard Depardieu and Timothy Spall and when you get a chance to work with those two together, you have got to have a go at that."

Next on the cards are two films for Werner Herzog, the first of which will be shot in Berlin. Meanwhile, Roth is hard at work developing what will be his next film as director, to be shot in Britain.

"It's being written now and I'm chomping at the bit. I can't wait. Like The War Zone it's a very delicate subject. It has to be done well -- and it will be."

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