[HOLLYWOOD] Jolie/Pitt Making Film of Daniel Pearl's Murder
- Battling Terror, With Paparazzi in Tow
By ANUPAMA CHOPRA
"A Mighty Heart" concerns the murder of the Wall Street Journal
reporter Daniel Pearl.
A FRAUGHT conversation is taking place around a large, circular
dining table in this town in western India. Angry voices overlap. The
talk ricochets among jihadis, kidnapping, sensationalist press
reports and the somewhat sinister role played by a secret government
agency in all of this. A child's voice breaks the tension. He is 5,
has spiky hair artfully arranged to defy gravity and conveys the
nonchalance of someone not easily impressed. "Where's my mom?" he
Mom in this case is Angelina Jolie, Academy Award-winning actress,
good will ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency and co-
founder of the celebrity entity known as Brangelina. Ms. Jolie's
relationship with Brad Pitt occupies so much global media space that
their first child together, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, was
immortalized at the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in New York when she
was only eight weeks old.
But here Ms. Jolie seems shorn of every title. She is wearing a
shapeless blue-gray tunic with gray track pants. Her hair is pulled
back with a few curling ringlets falling around her face. She wears
little makeup. Shattering her on-screen sex-goddess-with-a-gun image,
she is trussed up to look 6 months pregnant. Ms. Jolie turns to her
son Maddox and gently says, "I'm working, O.K.?"
The job at hand involves portraying Mariane Pearl in "A Mighty
Heart," a movie tentatively scheduled for release next June by
Paramount Vantage. The film is based on Ms. Pearl's book about her
husband, Daniel Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of The Wall Street
Journal who in January 2002 was kidnapped by jihadis in Pakistan and
eventually beheaded on camera. The book, written with Sarah Crichton,
focuses on the four weeks of investigation, negotiations and leads
that preceded a horrific end.
It is a harrowing but inspiring account of one woman's struggle with
overwhelming tragedy and her refusal to give in to
prejudice. "Mariane has all the reasons in the world to be blinded by
hate, but she has chosen not to be," Ms. Jolie said in an
interview. "We are living in a time when there is a lot of anger and
misunderstanding. She is really a beautiful example to all of us of
what we should stay focused on."
Events described in the book take place mostly in a house in Karachi
where an unlikely investigative team huddled together. This included
Ms. Pearl; Asra Q. Nomani, Daniel Pearl's friend and colleague from
The Journal; a Pakistani police officer identified only as Captain;
and Randall Bennett, a tough-talking American regional security
The film was originally meant to be shot in Pakistan, but security
concerns and visa delays relocated the main shoot to India. So a
sprawling bungalow in a tree-lined gated colony called Sindh Society
(locals have since renamed it Brangelina Society) in Pune, a growing
information technology town, substituted for Zamzama Street in
Karachi. Despite the presence of Ms. Jolie, Mr. Pitt (whose company,
Plan B, is co-producing) and an international crew led by the
director Michael Winterbottom, there were no trailers, no crowds, no
glamour very little sense that a picture with a big Hollywood star
was under way.
That's typical of Mr. Winterbottom. He has a distinctive film
grammar, which blurs traditional boundaries between documentary and
fiction, natural textures and stylistic experiments. He often works
with people who aren't professional actors, and many of his films
"The Road to Guantánamo," "Welcome to Sarajevo," "In this World"
address geopolitical concerns with an urgent authenticity.
Dede Gardner, the president of Plan B, sent Mr. Winterbottom the book
two years ago. He was just coming off of a shoot in Pakistan and had,
he said here, decided that he "was never going back there again." But
he couldn't resist the story. "Mariane is refusing to be destroyed by
experiences that could destroy a lot of people," he said. Referring
to Ms. Pearl and her compatriots, he added, "The fact that Danny was
killed but they refused to be defeated by terrorists, there's
something very powerful about that."
"A Mighty Heart" is Mr. Winterbottom's first studio movie after more
than a dozen independent productions. When the deal was announced,
Variety commented that the "quintessentially independent and serious-
minded Winterbottom has become an incongruous supporting player in
the Brangelina circus."
But as Ms. Jolie describes it, he is still not making a studio
picture; rather, the studio is making a Winterbottom film. "It was an
agreement that we all had to blend into Michael's style, not to have
Michael blend into somebody else's," she said.
She added that he got the job over other directors precisely because
he rejected Hollywood convention. "Some directors saw it as a heroic
female movie," she said. "Some of them saw it as a tragic love story,
but he sees it the way it should be, which is a collection of people
who came together and all the different things that means and the
different questions about cultures, faith and politics in today's
The Winterbottom approach means making a film with documentary-style
realism, shooting many of the scenes in chronological order, and
relying on unusually long shots in which actors improvise their
dialogue. Dennis O'Hare, who plays John Bussey, Daniel Pearl's boss
at The Journal, compared it to "writing free verse." "There are no
rules,' he said, "so you have to be really disciplined."
Irfan Khan, an Indian actor who plays Captain, also praised Mr.
Winterbottom's inclination to "let an actor explore." "There is no
pressure from Michael," he said. "He lets you be."
Still, the information overload in the film made improvising doubly
tricky. Mr. Pearl's death was the result of several interconnecting
layers of intrigue. Ms. Pearl and Ms. Nomani had to make a wall-size
chart to make sense of it all. On the set actors struggled to create
powerful drama while keeping the facts straight, all while knowing
that the people they were playing might see the film and take issue
with the performances.
While there have been some rumblings about Ms. Jolie's playing a part-
Cuban, part-French, part-Dutch woman, she said, "I do have the peace
that Mariane and Danny's parents are comfortable with me, and that I
suppose is what I need to sleep at night." She sweated to get Ms.
Pearl's distinctive French accent and her direct manner exactly
right, she said, but harder still was capturing the woman's resilient
"I try to put myself in her place and feel that this woman didn't
collapse," Ms. Jolie said. "She's six months pregnant. So for 21 days
your instinct is just to be hysterical, screaming at everybody and
crying constantly. But she just drove on. The real challenge is the
inability to fall apart."
For Dan Futterman, who plays Daniel, the challenge was to humanize
the journalist who has become a historical figure. An actor-writer,
who received an Oscar nomination last January for his "Capote"
screenplay, he said in an interview in Mumbai that his main aim was
to "capture the real connect that Mariane and Daniel had, to create a
sense of joy and love so the viewer knows what's been lost."
Mr. Futterman researched the part by spending time with people who
knew Mr. Pearl. Other actors touched base with their real-life
counterparts through the shoot.
But Mr. Khan and the Pakistani actor Adnan Siddiqui, who plays a
police officer named Dost, didn't have this luxury. Their
counterparts in Pakistan, the actors said, refused to talk to them.
It was simply too dangerous. Mr. Siddiqui, who is a popular
television star, said that he was doubly careful of his lines,
especially while improvising.
"I'm taking care of my dialogue and avoiding anything that can be
controversial," he admitted. "Being a Muslim, it's a tough thing, but
I'm avoiding words which can get me into trouble. I am a bit nervous
about it. Will I be safe in my country?"
Mr. Winterbottom said that when the crew shot scenes in Karachi,
sometimes at the exact locations where the original events occurred,
they were shadowed by the Inter-Services Intelligence. While cast and
crew were in India, newspapers in the country reported that Mr. Pitt
and Ms. Jolie received threats attributed to Al Qaeda and hired high-
level security to protect them. Ms. Jolie denied that threats were
made but said that she and Mr. Pitt were warned not to let their
children stand in front of windows.
Will Patton, who plays Mr. Bennett, was also on high alert. Mr.
Bennett, who met the actor in Kuwait before filming started, advised
him to avoid certain parts of Karachi, and to make sure his room was
at the back of his hotel. Mr. Bennett had received several death
threats and thought Mr. Patton looked enough like him to be at equal
risk. In the end Mr. Patton wasn't required to shoot in Karachi. But
by that time, Mr. Patton said, he had made out his will.
Mr. Futterman said that "a sense of unease" hung over the shoot,
especially in Pakistan. But the problem that temporarily derailed "A
Mighty Heart" turned out to be more prosaic than Al Qaeda: the
paparazzi. Since their arrival in India in October, Ms. Jolie and Mr.
Pitt were stalked by Indian and international news media. Indian
newspapers brimmed with pictures of the couple and their children
taking impromptu auto rickshaw rides and walks in the park. There
were front-page articles of them visiting an astrologer who predicted
that the film would fail (though Ms. Jolie denied this); of Mr. Pitt
buying a sex-enhancing love potion in Jaipur (the headline read: "Try
with curry, for extra hurry"); and of the couple adopting an Indian
child (again Ms. Jolie denied it but added that they were likely to
adopt before she tried the natural route again).
The face-off came to a climax in Mumbai. On Nov. 16 the crew was
shooting at the Anjuman-e-Islam school in south Mumbai. The exact
sequence of events is uncertain, but sometime in the afternoon
paparazzi and parents waiting to pick up their children rushed the
gates and pandemonium prevailed. Ms. Jolie's three bodyguards were
arrested for manhandling people (a parent accused one of them of
shouting "You bloody Indians") and released on bail.
The following day shooting was canceled, and Mr. Pitt found himself
at the Mumbai police commissioner's office trying to make amends.
Having until then studiously avoided the press, he appeared on a
national television channel, explaining that he and his wife had
a "multiracial family" and would "not hire anyone who is racist." The
Mumbai police are still considering whether to bring charges. The men
were free to leave the country after the shoot concluded.
In an interview in Mumbai Ms. Gardner called the
incident "bewildering and disappointing," but said she hoped that the
film itself would nullify these various controversies. Ms. Jolie said
her dream was for the movie to be screened in Pakistan, despite the
continuing security risks and sensitivities.
"We've come with a lot of good intentions," she said. "We are all
terrified to get it wrong, because if you do, you could send a
message that causes more anger and hatred. But if we get it right,
maybe there's a little better understanding in people, and then we've
accomplished a great deal."