A woman approached independent film distribution veteran Jeff Lipsky at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. Actor Tim Roth had just finished a question-and-answer period following a screening of his directorial debut, The War Zone, a stunningly powerful drama about incest. Lipsky, the film’s distributor, was discussing the intense reaction to the film by abuse professionals when the woman asked him Roth’s whereabouts. “I just wanted to thank him for making this film,” said the woman, “because I’m a survivor.”
While many films have dealt with incest in recent years with varying degrees of frankness and severity, none have shocked audiences into thought like The War Zone. The film introduces first-time actress Lara Belmont as the teenage victim of her father’s horrid indiscretions, and presents graphic depictions of incestuous acts and the emotional jungles they create. Unlike today’s short-attention span Hollywood mindset, Roth lets the camera linger, illustrating a cinematic patience and honesty required to bring the audience into the family’s heartbreak. At the Fort Lauderdale screening, the audience’s horror was palpable, resembling not a reaction to, say, Hitchcock’s best work, but more like that of the witnesses of a real-life murder, or a baby falling out a window. What the movie conveyed, with every action and expression of mood, was undeniable tragedy in its purest uncensored form.
For Roth, veteran of indie stalwarts such as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, entering directing with The War Zone was a brave move, one that few veteran directors would have had the courage to make. It is obvious in viewing this film that no major American studio would touch it, nor would it have a prayer for anything other than an NC-17 rating had the producers submitted it to the MPAA (which they didn’t—it’s being released unrated.)
But, in keeping with his indie roots, Roth’s commitment to the film was such that those factors never mattered. Searching for material for his directorial debut, Alexander Stuart’s 1989 novel The War Zone was the first and last project he considered.
“When I sat down and read the book, it completely broke my heart,” said Roth. “I’ve known victims of this, and I’m a parent. It’s monstrous what people will do to their children. So I thought it was important to tell the story. My first question wasn’t ‘should I do this?’ it was ‘how do I do this?’”
In The War Zone, Roth saw the chance to achieve both cinematic and humanitarian objectives. “First and foremost I wanted to make cinema, not MTV fodder,” explains Roth. “I wanted to be true to the subject, so if a victim sees it they will absolutely identify with what’s on the screen. I wanted to be careful not to abuse them in the process of making a film about abuse. And likewise, with abusers—I got them…I nailed them. I showed them for what they are.”
The project came with $2.9 million sterling (approximately $5 million American) in financing from England’s Film Four, the same company that produced Trainspotting. Roth had Stuart, who wrote the book after the death of his five-year-old son from cancer, write the screenplay, and asked him to read silent film scripts to see how to best “write down thought and intention without pissing off actors,” according to Roth. “I don’t like reading scripts where it says ‘and he is thinking this.’ Well, how the fuck do you know what he’s thinking, because it’s me now. So I wanted to know how he would write that down without being offensive to actors. It was a good exercise for him. He did a terrific job.”
With the screenplay set, the film’s casting posed the greatest challenge. Roth selected two veteran English actors, Ray Winstone (Nil By Mouth, Quadrophenia) and Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Edward II, The Beach), as the parents. But for the roles of the seventeen-year-old victim, Jessie, and her fifteen-year-old brother, Tom, Roth wanted faces the audience had never seen before.
“If we were thinking ‘oh, they were terrific in this film, or in that episode of this,’ then we would not be looking at the kids. It would take out the element that they could possibly be our children, and it would be a barrier between the audience and the film.”
Roth’s casting directors went on “walkabout,” just walking the streets and talking to kids who looked the part. They looked at 2,500 kids, and ultimately found Belmont, who was shopping in London’s Portobello Market, and Freddie Cunliffe, who had just come to the audition accompanying a friend.
As Tom, the younger brother who discovers the horrible family secret, Cunliffe brings a wondrous vulnerability and sincerity to the role. But nineteen-year-old Belmont, who still works at a Burger King in London as of this writing, is the film’s revelation. This wispy innocent, so shy at the Fort Lauderdale screening that she buried her head in Roth’s chest for security instead of facing the audience, was heartbreaking, courageous, and emotionally shattered as Jessie, displaying nuances rare in many seasoned Hollywood veterans her age and older. A Best Supporting Actress nomination would not be out of line for Belmont, and Burger King is sure to quickly become a part of her past.
In addition to highly-charged performances and the fog-laden English locale, much of the movie’s force comes from Roth’s patient direction, his willingness to leave the camera on scenes long after the audience’s comfort level has been exhausted. “That was a conscious decision,” explains Roth. “It’s a wonderful thing for the audience to sit and reflect on what they are seeing, and it helps them engage with the characters. There’s a lot of fancy footwork in films now, as far as camera moves, acting, and music, to disguise the fact that there’s actually not much going on. With this, there’s a lot going on. We have to give the audience a chance to slide in and get involved with this family, because if we give them the time, they become part of the family, and they watch their own family being destroyed. So it’s gonna affect them on a much more visceral level.”
Roth was well-prepared for the directing experience because of the expansive education made available to him on film sets, and strongly advises all actors to take advantage of what he feels is a wonderful opportunity. “Actors always talk about how boring it is on film sets. Well, pay attention. It’s not boring on film sets. There’s a reason why you have so much time, it’s because people are doing stuff. On the technical side I paid a lot of attention, I listened and watched and learned stuff. So get out there and find out what they’re doing to help you be successful in filming this character.”
Roth believes that making The War Zone through Film Four, and not with a major Hollywood studio, allowed him to make the film he needed to make. “If someone wanted to tell me I couldn’t do this, or this, that I gotta be careful over here, then I would have made it with someone else,” says Roth. “I cannot, and will not, make a film with a board of directors. What’s the point? The films I want to make don’t require the kind of money that would bring that situation about. I have good financiers and good producers around me. I don’t need to be set upon by a bunch of guys in suits who don’t know anything about filmmaking. They’re thinking about commodities.”
From here on, Roth will be splitting his time between directing and acting duties. His next acting project finds him collaborating with Werner Herzog for a project that begins filming early this year. He’s also in the research stage of his next directorial effort, a project he won’t yet divulge details on except to say that it’s “extraordinarily heavy.”
For now, Roth can take pride in creating a film that is resonating in an honest way with audiences. He is now frequently sought out by victim’s groups, although he has seen a few reactions the other way, as well. “You get walkouts,” relays Roth, “but walkouts are fine. I can see how some people think ‘I can’t go there.’ But it’s the noisy walkouts, the dramatic walkouts, whose motives I wonder about. I think we’ve found ourselves some pedophiles there.” And on the occasions when people react to Roth with what he describes as “absolute fury,” he has the perfect answer. “I say to them ‘you know what, I’m furious, too. I’m right with you. This is a film that shouldn’t exist.”