Tim Roth Interview

Tim Roth dares to make his directorial debut with the disturbing sexual abuse drama 'The War Zone'

Tim Roth dares to make his directorial debut with the disturbing sexual abuse drama 'The War Zone'

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(Some questions in this interview may have come from other journalists present for the Q&A.)

Today is the end of a very long road for Tim Roth. On and off for the last 18 months, he's been traveling around the world selling, promoting and defending "The War Zone" -- his directorial debut -- a stormy, unflinching, explosive portrait of incest and sexual abuse that has been leaving audiences moved and emotionally exhausted.

But while he does seem a little drained as he paces the catering table of the San Francisco hotel board room where we've met to do one of his last interviews before he goes home to his wife and two kids in Los Angeles, his passion for this heart-wrenching project hasn't waned. After a year and a half, he isn't even on interview auto-pilot, still pausing and stitching his brow in throughout before answering questions that he's probably heard 100 times by now.

Besides tackling such a touchy subject matter, Roth took several risks with "The War Zone," including casting two completely inexperienced actors -- Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe -- in the lead roles of an abused teenage girl and her sullen younger brother who discovers their father has been raping her for years.

It paid off in spades. Both actors give astounding, raw performances along side respected British independent film veterans Ray Winstone (as the imposing, abusive father) and Tilda Swinton (as the fragile mum), helping to make "The War Zone" a deeply disturbing and sometimes savage film. Yet Roth bravely and unflinchingly holds nothing back, making his directorial bow as compelling as it is upsetting, which has garnered him some unusual screenings on this press tour with support groups and on college campuses. Just last night he attended a screening on the University of California's Berkeley campus.

Q: I heard Berkeley went well last night.
Tim Roth: Yeah, it seemed to.

Do you sit in the audience or pace around the lobby when your movie is being screened?
I was outside for this one, because I've had enough of this film. I've gone all over the country with this, doing Q&As and stuff, and I was done.

Q&As?
We went to conferences with (abuse) specialists. We (showed the film) to victims, forensic scientists, detectives, and I did Q&As and focus groups with them, and they're using it as a tool with their groups and stuff.

A movie this emotionally draining cannot be easy to watch over and over again. I mean, it must be hard to watch as a director, seeing little things you'd wished you'd done differently and what have you, but to watch a story like that innumerable times...
There are a couple things I might have done differently because the lenses weren't right, or I shouldn't have had someone speaking that one line, but I'm happy with the film. I'm very proud of it. But sitting through it now, I must have seen it thousands of times. I literally can't bear it anymore. I didn't realize how much work I was going to have to do on this film after the fact. And this is it. This is my last day.

What are you going to do on your first day off?
I've got construction workers in my house. Tomorrow I'm going to kill some construction workers and bury them in my back garden, just for waking me up.

Will you be watching it again down the road? Will you show it to your kids?
Oh yeah. I won't let my 15-year-old see it right now. Because 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 (who watches his father rape his sister). Not right now. I asked him if he'd wait.

Speaking of the rape scene, there's been some criticism (unjust in my opinion) that the scene was too long or it was almost gratuitous, because you treat the topic so carefully before that scene.
We have to show some respect for the pain that's inflicted, so it has to be a painful experience for the audience. If it is a painful experience, then 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. All I do is move in. And I'm moving in towards her face. And then I move back out. He goes to the window, she stays in the middle, and we just stay for a very long time. 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. But it gives you a chance to reflect on it, and then on what you may see later, as well. And I do that throughout the film. That scene is as long as it absolutely needs to be. I played around with it in the editing room, and that's as it should be. Horrible scene.

What was the atmosphere like on the set that day?
I shot that in one morning. 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, because otherwise you've got to come back.

And that's something you certainly don't want to do twice. How did directing that scene affect you? And how did it affect Lara Belmont?
What was interesting was that we created a family that really looked after each other. I prepared the actors. The actors were fine.

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

But as much as you may read it on a piece of paper, nobody is prepared to actually see the reality of it. The boom guy was crying, the focus puller was crying, the operator was trying not to throw up. Tears all around me, and Lara was doing her stuff -- she's a very good actor, this girl -- and Ray's doing his stuff. And I'm the one sitting there going, "Head up, Lara, we can't see your face, love." Talking through the scene what is happening. "Kiss her, Ray. Tell her you love her." And then it's all done. Cut. Done.

And then, I'm busy setting up the next shot, and they come out of this bunker (where the rape scene takes place), and everyone -- there's about four or five people standing there, and they're white as sheets -- they come out. There are a lot of tears going on. [Lara] goes straight to Ray and comforts him. Which I thought was extraordinary. And then we went to the pub and got completely drunk. But Ray, I think we could have lost him that day. It was that bad. He's got a kid that age.

You created a striking, grim look to the film that really depicts the bleakness of the situation.
We chose our palate well. And I had already chosen my palate with the designer. It was black and white film in color. And then the stillness and the lenses we used was something I was very insistent on. I used film references for him (cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) to latch onto. (Andrei) Tarkovsky would be one, but then also David Lean. The opposite of the way that you would normally push to do a film would be documentary style, would actually push the audience away from the subject. We were very careful. (Even) with the film stock we were going to use. I wanted things lurking in the shadows. I also wanted it to be very kind of Rembrandt -- the shadows 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 Steadi-Cam, but we just got rid of all that crap because stillness seemed to work for the film.

I understand you already knew a lot about lenses and even lab processing. Had you been gearing up all these years?
(As an actor), unless the set it just horrendous, I'm not one of those guys who goes to the trailer. 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. I certainly knew what I wanted.

How was your confidence level as you began making this difficult film as your first project behind the camera?
I was never shaken on the set. My only problem when I was going in, before we even cast it, was the actors. Because I knew what it was like to be in a very vulnerable position. And I also knew what it was like to be badly directed, and I can't have that happen on this. That was the only thing that was terrifying to me. The rest of it I didn't have a problem with. If you have good technicians, ask them a question and they'll tell you the answer. Basic. But with the acting, there's no one else to ask. I had to provide all the answers on that level.

Because these roles are so emotionally complex, it seems almost a little daring to take on inexperienced actors (like Belmont and Cunliffe)...
(With established actors) there would have been a baggage getting in the way of the audience. The thing about them being new is that they could be our children. This is our first experience with them. We don't have anything to get in the way.

But, you know, I was a first-timer. Everyone's a first-timer. There's maybe more of a history maybe of doing that in Britain or in Europe than there is of doing that in the United States -- of giving someone a very big, meaty role to get their teeth into for a first-timer. That's what happened to me, and so I knew it was possible. But that being said, we saw 2,500 kids.

Did Lara or Freddie have any acting training?
Neither thought about acting at all. In fact, we did pluck Lara off the street. She was shopping. She thought we were going to steal her purse. We would go up to these people and say, "Do you want to read for a film?" And most people would say, "F**k off." But some would say, "Yeah. Why not?" And she said, "Yeah." We gave her the script to read. She said, "I think I can do this." And I believed her.

What kind of preparation did she do?
Rehearsal was just conversation. That's how I like it. There's all kinds of stuff, but you don't need to know about it. It's all trickery. Smoke and mirrors.

In America the film has been released unrated.
Ratings in American mean nothing. I would say, like I've said to my kid, "I don't want you to see it yet." As much as it may be a film for young people, actually, I'd say parents go see it first. Go scout it out.

Were you concerned about being asked to cut it?
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." And they didn't. But they wouldn't anyway. They're very cool people.

Who is Lot 47 Films, anyway?
It's a guy called Jeff Lipsky. Jeff Lipsky and his brothers. The first film that he did was "A Woman Under the Influence" (1974), Cassavetes film. What they would do was take him out to colleges, they would go around, a lot like what we did, actually. Go to the colleges, go to the schools, take him out and get conversation going. Because they didn't stand a chance getting into (Hollywood).

Today he was down in the cinemas in New York watching the first person paying to see the film.

So where's your acting career now that you've had a taste of directing?
A lot of the films I do now I don't even watch. I get into them with the best of intentions, but, you know. 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. Because it's not happening out here. But then I'm getting ready to direct again.

Would you ever want to direct yourself?
No. I know what I look like. Not interested.


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