Michael Winterbottom’s last film was the controversial docudrama “The Road to Guantanamo.” Shot in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the film was a sympathetic account of three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay for two years, despite claims of innocence. When one later admitted attending an Islamist training camp, critics of the film’s point of view had a field day.
Mr. Winterbottom might be forgiven for wanting something of a vacation after that. But the prolific English director — he has directed 12 films in 10 years — had lined up a plum project. “We were going to have a nice little summer in Italy,” filming a movie starring Colin Firth as a newly widowed father of two, he recalls on a recent visit to the District.
He put that off a year and instead took on his most high-profile project yet.
“A Mighty Heart,” opening in theaters today, details the investigation into the kidnapping — and later murder — of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi, Pakistan, by Islamic terrorists. It stars Angelina Jolie as the reporter’s wife, Mariane.
Mr. Winterbottom seems relaxed enough in a D.C. hotel suite, the final stop of the film’s press tour. The thin Brit wears a T-shirt and denim pants and jacket, his hair almost buzz-cut short. He just presented his film at the media-crush that is Cannes, but shows no signs of exhaustion as he talks animatedly about his work.
The director usually cultivates his own projects. “You have a different relationship to material you develop,” he says. “Even if you can see it’s not right, you have a sense of where you want it to go.”
But he couldn’t resist “A Mighty Heart” when producers sent him Mariane Pearl’s book. One of the “attractions” was that “this story seems to be the other side of the coin” of “Guantanamo.” “But both happened because of the aftermath of 9/11,” he says. “Both are about people who are the victims of extremists on both sides.”
“Guantanamo” isn’t the only film in which the 46-year-old director has explored similar themes. “Welcome to Sarajevo” (1997) was about a journalist in another war zone, and “In This World” (2002) showed the journey of two Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Britain.
But recreating a true story that had embarrassed the government of Pakistan led to some particular problems filming in that country.
There were security worries. “You make a film that’s quite controversial, there are probably people who would like to get publicity by doing something violent,” he notes.
It turned out not to be terrorists, however, but the intelligence agencies who proved the real impediment.
“There were always people in the lobby, following us around,” he reveals. “They harassed our crew.”
The film has even created controversy in the Western world: Some critics have complained about Miss Jolie playing a woman who is part black, even using the term “blackface.”
“It never crossed my mind as an issue because they seemed very similar, very close,” Mr. Winterbottom says. Of Mariane, he notes, “Her mom was Cuban, her dad was Dutch. She has a Chinese grandparent. What, are we supposed to find a quarter-Chinese, half-Cuban, half-Dutch, French-speaking-but-could-act-in-English actress? It’s ridiculous.”