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Telling refugees' story by living it

September 16, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Toronto — Toronto

Before Michael Winterbottom began filming "In This World," the story of two Afghan refugees' white-knuckle odyssey from the Pakastani city of Peshawar to London that opens here Friday, the 42-year-old British director decided the only way to understand the perils of such an arduous trip would be to make the journey himself.

It was barely two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In southern Pakistan, where Winterbottom and screenwriter Tony Grisoni went to visit refugee camps to figure out the mechanics of a story, Westerners were regarded with suspicion, if not hostility. One day Winterbottom and Grisoni were traveling in an open-back truck when they had a white-knuckle encounter themselves with an armed patrol of Pakistani soldiers.

"We couldn't talk to them, nor they to us," Winterbottom recalled here during the just-concluded film festival. "We had no idea if we were being arrested or detained or what."

The soldiers went through the filmmakers' bags, discovering all sorts of film equipment, which made them more suspicious. "I kept saying to Tony, give it to them, let them have anything they want. Eventually, they decided we were innocuous enough and let us go. But right there, we had a scene for the movie."

As a filmmaker, Winterbottom is many things, but innocuous is not one of them. After learning his craft making TV films and documentaries, he has become one of the most prolific directors in the indie world, making 10 feature films since his debut in 1995. He had two films here at the festival, "In This World" and "Code 46," a cerebral sci-fi drama co-starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton that is due out early next year.

If Winterbottom still has a low critical profile, it's largely because all his films have been so strikingly different. He's made witty pop confections ("24 Hour Party People"), serious literary adaptations ("Jude"), political journalism ("Welcome to Sarajevo"), family drama ("Wonderland") and a lesbian serial-killer saga ("Butterfly Kiss"). What unites the films is a strong sense of place and the director's restless curiosity. Winterbottom shoots all his films on location, using scripts as a rough blueprint, relying on ingenuity and improvisation.

To recreate a 19th century Old West mining town in "The Claim," he shot for months at 8,000 feet in remote northern Alberta. "In This World," which has the spare look of a documentary, was shot with an on-set crew of three -- a cinematographer, sound recordist and Winterbottom, assisted by Grisoni and a researcher, a runner and two coordinating producers.

"For me, a story exists in a very particular place or environment," explains the director, who has the face of a choirboy but the quiet intensity of a mathematician working on a complex equation. "I hate designing a shot six months in advance. If you plan things out too far in advance, you lose the spontaneity. I like arriving at a place where we're filming and not knowing what will happen or having something happen that you least expect."

Although there were plenty of old masters at the festival this year, the young filmmakers I interviewed were more curious about Winterbottom. That's not because he's directed big hits (he hasn't) but because he has what filmmakers admire most of all -- creative freedom.

Skipping studio economics

The key to Winterbottom's success is Revolution Films (not to confused with Joe Roth's L.A.-based Revolution Studios), which he formed with longtime producing partner Andrew Eaton in 1994 as a way of obtaining financing that wouldn't be subject to the whims of studio economics. In its early years, the London-based Revolution had backing from PolyGram; currently it has a first-look deal with United Artists, who is distributing "Code 46" and recently signed a two-year extension of its Revolution pact.

Revolution gets additional money from the U.K. Film Council and the BBC, where both partners worked during their TV careers. Revolution also makes films Winterbottom doesn't direct. The partners produced another film here at the festival: "Bright Young Things," an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies," directed by British actor and writer Stephen Frye.

On any number of films, Revolution has moved ahead with casting and hiring crew even though the money had yet to materialize. "We cut it about as close as you can get on 'Code 46,' where we had to start shooting in Shanghai on Jan. 6 and we still hadn't closed the deal until Christmas," recalls Eaton. "I went to my wife and said, 'You do realize that if the money falls through on this, we may lose the house.' Even when we started shooting, I was going to the cash machine taking out as much money as possible just to pay the crew."

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