Combustible Celluloid

Tim Roth

Shaking the Gangster Rap

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Before meeting with Tim Roth, there were some stipulations. No photography, and no asking him about the Quentin Tarantino films (1992's Reservoir Dogs and 1994's Pulp Fiction) for which he is famous. That was fine with me. Roth's new film and his directorial debut, The War Zone, is an incredibly rich and powerful film. But even then there were questions that Roth refused to answer.

How did you prepare the actors? "That's for me to know."

On what level did you identify with the material? "You just draw your own conclusions."

Can you talk about your various tattoos and the events they commemorate? "Get on the internet. You'll find out."

But Roth's responses are understandable. His movie has been finished for 18 months and has already been released in England and Europe. (Roth never thought it would be released in America.) His stop in San Francisco is literally the last one on his press tour. He's bloody tired of answering questions. On the other hand, he's still very honest, passionate, and open about his film, and more than friendly enough. More importantly, he's shaken his gangster image and emerged as a brave and forceful new filmmaker.

The War Zone tells the story of a family who has just moved from London to Devon, in the sticks. The son (newcomer Freddie Cunliffe) begins to suspect that something is going on between the father (Ray Winstone) and the daughter (another newcomer Lara Belmont). Behind their home, near the edge of a cliff, is an abandoned concrete bunker that becomes a place of horror and a place of sanctuary. This is very tough material, but Roth knew just what he was doing and just how to do it to make it work. Roth talks about shooting the pivotal rape/incest scene. "First of all, we have to show some respect for the pain that's inflicted. So it has to be a painful experience for the audience. If they're feeling it, they're on the right track. What that scene also does is put some people into the shoes of the abuser. So that's why it's a very dangerous scene. The actual act is very quick. The scene is very long. What that does is it gives the audience a chance to reflect on what they've just seen. And we're not going anywhere. We're staying in that room until I'm good and ready to let you out."

Roth talks about the mood on the set that day. "It was horrible. It was like there had been several deaths in the family. It was not a good day. But I've got to get it right the first time, because otherwise you've got to come back. What was interesting is, the boom guy's crying, the focus puller's crying, the operator's trying not to throw up. Tears all around me, and I'm the one sitting there talking [the actors] through the scene. And then it's all done. And then, I'm busy setting up the next shot. There's about four or five people standing there, and they're white as sheets. They come out of this bunker, and [Lara] goes straight to Ray and comforts him. Which I thought was extraordinary. And then we went to the pub and got completely drunk. We're laughing and crying all at the same time because we got through it. The whole thing is to get through this stuff. In life, you try and get through this stuff and come out the other side. But Ray, I think we could have lost him that day. It was that bad. He's got a kid of his own."

Many crew members were emotionally affected by the film. It turned out many of them had been abused. Roth says the experience made some of them talk about it for the first time. "Just behind where we built the bunker is a hotel and a pub and a little gift shop. And this one particular woman, when we were in there on a location scout, we went into the gift shop. There were these drawings on sale there, and they were done by her abuser. And so we built the bunker there. It wasn't because of that, but it seemed like a good place for the bunker to be."

First-timers Belmont and Cunliffe give extraordinary performances. Neither had any acting training. Roth talks a little about showing the warts-and-all look of everyday living, like Cunliffe's acne. "We can all identify with him completely. He's a hormonal nightmare. He's 16 and he can't walk through a door straight. The trouble with Freddie's acne was that it kept moving. So we had to track it and re-create it. Meanwhile, it's gone all the way around his head. They literally had little stencils."

After watching the film, audiences may be startled by a title card dedicating the film to Roth's father. "That's a tough one," Roth says, "because it's not for the obvious reason. He's dead. I miss him. I juggled with that idea. I wanted to dedicate it to him, and I though, 'people are going to make up all kinds of stories,' but then I thought, 'fuck it.' He was in the other side of the equation. He was a very special man on that level, and he would have been very proud."

The look of the film is extraordinary. It contains many still, wide shots, decorated in wet grays and dead greens. Roth told his cinematographer to look at films by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966's Andrei Rublev and 1979's Stalker) and David Lean (1946's Great Expectations and 1962's Lawrence of Arabia). "We chose our palate well. I wanted things lurking in the shadows. I also wanted the shadows to come around the form of the body. I wanted to make the body beautiful. Because then it becomes terrifying, your response to that body. We did all kinds of things. We were going to have loads of Steadicam, but we just got rid of all that crap because stillness seemed to work for the film."

In fact, Roth seemed to know quite a lot about film for a first time director. He says that he's actually been researching his whole acting career without really knowing it. "I'm not one of those guys who goes to the trailer [between shots]. I'm poking around the camera, talking to technicians. A lot of actors set about making mischief to make a name for themselves. I find them the most tedious people to be around. I generally don't hang around with the actors. I try to hang around with the technicians. So I think I picked up a lot."

Now that he's achieved his goal as a director, Roth admits that he's grown slightly disillusioned with acting. "A lot of the films I do now I don't even watch. I get into them with the best of intentions. I wanted to make a grown-up film. I was sick of making boys' films. And all I'm seeing out there is the same old crap. I'm doing a comedy now [called Numbers due out next year], which is like being on vacation. I'm going to go off with [Werner] Herzog in Europe after that. Try and get my acting buzz back. But then I'm getting ready to direct again."

Roth admits that the film may be hard for some people to watch. He and his producers decided to release the film unrated rather than cut any important material. "I wouldn't have shown it if I had to cut my film. Very straightforward. I told them, 'you cut one frame, I take my name off it.'" He suggests that parents go see the film first to decide if its appropriate for their children. Roth himself doesn't want his own 15-year-old son to see the film. "I don't want it to be part of his first sexual experience. I don't want him looking through that window like that boy. Not right now. I asked him if he'd wait." Roth does hope that many abused people will go see the film. "They might go and see the film and change his or her life."

Many actors-turned-directors love to direct themselves, a la Orson Welles. Is Roth interested in that? "No," he deadpans. "I know what I look like. Not interested." Now that Roth is finally finished with the film and the press tour, his plans are simple: "I've got construction workers in my house. Tomorrow I'm going to kill some construction workers and bury them in my back yard, just for waking me up." Maybe Roth hasn't shaken his gangster image after all.

Dec. 10, 1999

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