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Controversy sidles near comic

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

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."

Mr. Winterbottom didn't even make that casting decision: Mrs. Pearl asked Miss Jolie to play the part.

He's leaving the controversy behind as he starts filming in Italy just a week after his press tour ends. What sounds like a warm-hearted film starring the man most famous for playing "Pride and Prejudice's" Mr. Darcy shouldn't upset too many people.

But critics, get your poison pens ready: "After that we hope to do a film in Uzbekistan with Steve Coogan, which is a comedy about torture," Mr. Winterbottom says with a slight smirk.

Kelly Jane Torrance

'Eagle' gives Waititi wings

America may be having a bit of a Kiwi moment this month, what with the talked-up premieres of New Zealand director Taika Waititi's "Eagle vs Shark" and HBO's new "Flight of the Conchords" series, which stars two of his countrymen (one of them also an actor in his film). When we meet up with Mr. Waititi at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, however, he's having a bit of a lemon and hot water moment.

It seems that Washington is the last stop on his very first press tour for this, his very first feature film, and he's "totally exhausted."

Clad in a white T, brown corduroys and socks (no shoes), the 31-year-old sinks into a moss-hued couch and fills a teacup with healing elixir while explaining, "I just got a sore throat this morning so I'm a little ... argh."

He and his quirky little flick — a comedy about two geeky young adults who fall in love after a dress-as-your-favorite-animal party — have apparently spurred a lot of questions about the director and his background, and his voice is now paying the price.

For the record, his history goes a little something like this: He first stole the spotlight in his homeland as a comedian and also cultivated skills in painting, photography, acting and filmmaking. His 2003 short film, "Two Cars, One Night," earned an Oscar nomination, and he received an invitation to workshop a script at the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs in 2005. That's where the "Eagle" began to take flight.

Much of the inspiration for the flick came from actress Loren Horsley, who's the leading lady in the film as well as in Mr. Waititi's personal life. Sick of portraying "confident, blonde, heady people," she dreamt up an awkward outcast named Lily, then began to brainstorm with her director beau. They wondered, "What kind of person might Lily date?"

The onscreen answer is Jarrod (played by Jemaine Clement, one half of the "Conchords"), a Napoleon Dynamite type whose outward confidence masks the fact that he's really a big nerd.

Lily and Jarrod's love affair is odd and complex, and becomes more so when Jarrod dumps her so he has more energy to stage an attack on an old high-school bully.

A tale that pokes fun at oddballs as well as one that reminds us of our own painful moments of outsiderdom, it's indeed a bit "Napoleon"-ic, as well as a little "Welcome to the Dollhouse"-like.

"The whole rule while we were shooting was to keep the performances truthful and honest and not try and play for comedy," says Mr. Waititi, who adds that despite this emphasis, his focus puller wrecked a few shots because he kept cracking up.

The flick hasn't wowed every last critic, yet it's certainly garnered a lot of attention for the up-and-coming artist and his talented cast. Many overseas filmmakers and actors at a similar career crossroads might be tempted to relocate to Los Angeles, where more work is available — but this Kiwi couple isn't really interested.

"Whenever we lose talent from home it weakens our pool of creativity," says Mr. Waititi. He'd rather stay home and support his homeland's artistic community than hit Hollywood pay dirt — "even if that means remaining kind of poor most of the time."

"The way I see it, I've survived 31 years without being a millionaire," he says. "I can survive another 60."

Jenny Mayo