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Portraying Pearl `in small ways as well'

June 20, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

In some ways it's hard for Dan Futterman to talk about Daniel Pearl, the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Futterman portrays in the new film "A Mighty Heart." Kidnapped in 2002 by terrorists while he was on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan, Pearl was brutally murdered, a videotape of his death providing a gruesome postscript.

The film, which costars Angelina Jolie as Pearl's wife, Mariane, and details her view of the exhaustive search for her husband, doesn't lend itself to pat observations or glib opining. It's a wrenching story, and Pearl, whose murder was broadcast across the world, has become emblematic of a more savage strain of terrorism that continues to this day.

All this weighed on Futterman as he settled into the booth of a Los Feliz diner near his home to talk about the film.

"I remember at the time hearing about Danny Pearl during that period and seeing Mariane being interviewed," he said. "But before he committed to the project, he said, "it was important to me to know that it was something that had Mariane's blessing and involvement."

Futterman said director Michael Winterbottom's documentary style of shooting -- no rehearsals, long takes, improvisation, no lights, no call for "action" -- not only added a sense of urgency to the story but also added authenticity to his portrayal of Pearl.

"Often he'll use stuff that's already in the script anyway, but you've kind of worked your own way up to it," Futterman said. "And at some point you have dropped this actorly artifice that everyone has. Particularly in the stuff Angie and I were doing, he was looking for those moments that were resonant."

The film, which opens Friday, is based on Mariane's 2003 book, and she ultimately helped guide Futterman, corresponding with him via e-mail, giving him insight on her marriage and odd bits of detail on Pearl's personality. She also introduced Futterman to the son that Pearl had never known, Adam, now 5.

Later, Futterman sought out Pearl's parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, who created a nonprofit in their son's name dedicated to building cross-cultural alliances. He visited them at their Encino home, where Pearl grew up.

"It wasn't their decision to make a movie of this," Futterman said. "But once it was being done, they wanted to be as helpful as they possibly could. They showed me photos and talked about his upbringing. I was curious to hear from them about his Jewish upbringing. It had become such an iconic thing. What did it mean to him? What did it mean to them?"

Futterman also spoke to Pearl's close colleagues Asra Nomani and Steve LeVine, the Wall Street Journal folks who kept vigil and searched tirelessly for Pearl, until a videotape of his murder was released four weeks after he disappeared. He even met with Pearl's fixer, or intermediary, Asif, the man who unwittingly introduced Pearl to his killer.

In the end, Futterman chose to portray Pearl as he believed Pearl saw himself.

"People put on him the symbol of the plight of journalists, the fact that he was a Jewish journalist," said Futterman, 40. "That's not anything he asked for, or tried to be .... This was the guy who lived life, in an adventurous way, but in small ways as well."

Most of Futterman's work in the film depicts Pearl's happy days before his abduction, when Pearl and Mariane were newly married. Mariane was five months pregnant and the couple was days away from a long vacation when he was kidnapped. The interview that ultimately led to Pearl's murder was to be his last before leaving the country.

In many ways, Futterman said, "I was in a different film than everybody else."

Futterman and Jolie portray the couple in flashback traveling, exchanging vows at a French chateau and at home, relishing their pregnancy.

"We made an effort to capture a lot of goofiness and fun," he said. "They really loved each other and delighted in the fact that they came from such different places in the world and yet connected in such a deep way .... They would go to each others' interviews if they were available, as explorers of the world in a way. They made a pact when they got married to always explore, always meet new people, and they loved doing that together. Being together added to that experience for them."

Futterman adapted Pearl's personal quirks, such as recording interviews and using shorthand so as not to break eye contact with his interview subject. In ad-libbed scenes with a cabdriver -- a guy who was cast from a Karachi taxi stand -- Futterman attempted to capture Pearl's unceasing interest in the world.

"This was someone who just loved meeting people," Futterman said. "He had conversations with absolutely everybody, whether they could speak the same language or not."

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