As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Lancashire-born Michael Winterbottom’s directorial bravura was first noted in his debut feature Butterfly Kiss, and subsequently in Go Now, featuring Robert Carlyle as a man coming to terms with multiple sclerosis. His latest daunting achievement, Welcome to Saravejo, unlike Srjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village Pretty Flame or Emir Kusturica’s Underground, views the horrendous Bosnian conflict from the diverse perspectives of a cadre of international journalists covering the Saravejo siege. It provides a rare, dramatic insight into the dynamics—and ehtical dilemmas—of war reporting. The American freelance “loose cannon” approach, personified by Flynn (Woody Harrelson) is juxtaposed with the more closely coordinated tactics of a British news team. Amidst rival disasters relentlessly competing for coverage, each reporter or producer must make daily judgement calls about what constitutes “a good story,” and strike a balance between observation and personal involvement, between the demands of the job and basic human decency. When the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage, a growing number of whose members are war casualties, is bombarded by artillery fire, the film narrows its focus to the plight of those children and reaches critical mass over a British journalist’s promise to a young girl to evacuate her. The means by which he does so, and the ultimate consequences of his action, limn poignancy with suspense.
Shot on location in the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian hostilities, Welcome to Saravejo is based on Natasha’s Story, a veteran war correspondent’s firsthand chronicle of his own experiences. After covering wars for 25 years, Michael Nicholson felt obliged to abandon a pure observer stance and to intercede on a human plane in the life of a Bosnian child, whom he took home and adopted. Earlier this year the film, which stars Emira Nusevic as the child and Emily Lloyd, Kerry Fox, Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dillanem and Marisa Tomei as reporters, premiered at Cannes and Toronto. It was released in New York and Los Angeles on November 26 and will roll out nationally on December 25.
Michael Winterbottom called me in New York from the bustling cafeteria of Soho House, London, while taking a break from auditions.
Liza Béar What stage are you at on the next film?
Michael Winterbottom Actually, I’m editing it. It’s called I Want You.
LB Sounds like a change of pace. Is it a romantic comedy?
MW No, it’s quite romantic, but it’s dark. It’s about various people who’re obsessed with other people. There are four [main] characters. It’s set in an English seaside town, Hastings, which is a resort but also a fishing town. That’s why we chose it. It’s completely different from Welcome to Sarajevo.
LB At what point in your life were you when the script for Sarajevo arrived on your desk?
MW It was December ’94 and the war was still on. Everyone in England was very aware of what was happening, feeling confused, really, that there was a war going on in Europe in the first place. I was born in the ’60s, and I’d grown up at a time when war in Europe was seen as history, and everything was very stable. So it seemed strange that the war was happening at all, and then doubly strange that it didn’t seem to affect things in England that much. Of course you saw it on the news, you thought it was terrible, but it actually didn’t make much difference. Because you’d thought of wars in Europe, the First or Second World Wars, as the most important thing in your life. Even the Spanish Civil War … Everything you read was about people going off to Spain and writing about it.
LB Like Hemingway.
MW Exactly. Whereas you were reading about [Yugoslavia] every day but it didn’t connect. So when I saw the script it seemed like a chance to find out what was really happening there and make a film about it.
LB So it had been bothering you for a while.
MW But only in the way it bothered everyone.
LB Well, I’m not interviewing everyone. I’m interviewing you!
MW (laughter) What I’m saying is, I don’t feel I had a special connection. I was aware of it, but also feeling disconnected as well.
LB Where did you grow up?
MW In a place called Blackburn, Lancashire, a small industrial town in the north of England.
LB You studied English at Oxford, but didn’t become a writer.
MW No, I can’t write. I like reading. It’s much easier than writing. Then I took a post-graduate film course at the University of Bristol, and another film course in London. At the same time I was a trainee editor at Thames Television. And then I got a chance to work with Lindsay Anderson on a documentary about British cinema that he was making, and after that I made a documentary about Ingmar Bergman. I wasn’t really ever a journalist. Then for three of four years I directed a detective thing called Cracker for TV., which I think is being shown in the U.S. I also did a Roddy Doyle series called Family.
LB So the plight of the journalist in Welcome to Sarajevo wasn’t something you’d been agonizing over because you yourself had been in a similar predicament.
MW No. Not at all. And I hope how the film works is that what the journalists feel and experience is a more acute form of what everyone can feel and experience. It’s not specific to them. They’re in that quandary of being right there, and not being able to do anything about it, but that’s what everyone feels when they watch on T.V. what the journalists have witnessed firsthand. The original screenplay was more particularly about one journalist and his adopting a girl.
LB The screenplay was based on the book, Natasha’s Story.
MW Yes, written by Michael Nicholson. I read the book as well, but I wanted the film to be about lots of characters, not just one. So that’s when Frank Cottrell Boyce came on and we started working on another draft of the screenplay together.
LB He’s a longtime collaborator of yours?
MW Yes. I met him briefly at [Oxford] University and then he wrote things I did for television.
LB Had you been to Sarajevo before?
MW No. It wasn’t clear whether it would be possible to shoot in Sarajevo, because the war was still on at the time. We worked on the screenplay at the beginning of ’95.
LB When did the war end?
MW The peace agreement was in December ’95. When we finished the script it was about May ’95. I had already agreed to make Jude, based on the Thomas Hardy novel, so I went away and shot that and finished filming it in January ’96, and by that time the peace agreement had just been signed. That’s when we first went to Sarajevo, January ’96.
LB What was it like making the film in immediate postwar conditions?
MW Well, obviously there are practical problems. When we first went there it was very hard to telephone from Sarajevo. Roads weren’t great. It used to take about two days to get there because you had to drive in from the airport in another part of Croatia. The water supply. We had to clear land mines. That was the only real danger, we had to be careful. But there was no war going on once we were filming. The situation was relatively stable. In fact, the main problem was persuading the financiers that it was safe enough to film there.
LB Did they make you get extra high insurance?
MW Yes, and we also had to do some interiors in Macedonia because they wanted to know whether we had somewhere else to go if we couldn’t go on filming in Sarajevo. It was like an extra insurance policy. Channel 4 developed the screenplay. They had agreed to finance half of it, and then Miramax came in before we started filming. The budget was $6 or $7 million, because we had to go to so many places. It was quite expensive from the travel point of view.
LB Did you rely a lot on actual news footage of the war?
MW Actually, there’s only about ten minutes of news footage in total but it feels like a lot more because it’s interspersed throughout the film in very brief moments.
LB How did the cast come together?
MW What was interesting about the situation [in Sarajevo], was that the journalists come in from outside and they’re constantly meeting the local people. The script called for lots of children who had to be Bosnian and therefore had no experience acting and no English in most cases, and a lot of them were refugees. So they were essentially being themselves. Then we had to have Bosnian, British and American actors. Inevitably it was going to be a strange mix of cast. Quite an unusual range of experience and approaches and cultural backgrounds.
LB I wondered how you picked the actors …
MW I’d seen Kerry Fox in Jane Campion’s films and also she’d done some British TV. I was trying to find a mix of people who’d be interesting together.
LB How did Woody Harrelson get involved in the project?
MW We had the character called Flynn already [the American freelance journalist], and when we took the screenplay to Miramax he was already supposed to be “the star.” We already had the line, “No one knows about Sarajevo in America, but everyone knows me.” The script required, in a perfect world, someone who could deliver that line and be believable, and it was lucky that Woody had seen Jude—Miramax had arranged for him to see it—and liked it. We met up in Berlin very briefly. At the time, he had just done a few films back to back and wasn’t really looking for a film, but the subject matter, the fact that we were going to film in Sarajevo, must have persuaded him it would be an interesting film to work on. Having someone as known as Woody was great because his image and reputation mirrored the image and reputation that journalists were supposed to have in the film.
LB Other than British and U.S., wouldn’t there have been French and German and Italian journalists in Sarajevo?
MW We wondered about it, but in fact, especially from Frank’s point of view writing it, it was difficult enough to imagine the Bosnians’ experience as well as the British and the Americans’ and we felt the script had enough range. Every nationality had journalists there. But the film already felt as if it was lots of people’s stories.
LB You didn’t want it to be too fragmented.
MW Yeah. And adding another culture to the mix would have been difficult.
LB Natasha’s Story was written by a journalist who’d been covering wars for 25 years, so he was quite a bit older than your Henderson character, who seems more like 35, 36—your age.
MW Probably it was subconscious, I felt more comfortable with that age. We thought Stephen [Dillane], who’d done mainly theater in England, would be great for the lead and therefore went in that direction. But [in the casting] we looked at actors older than Stephen as well. Also, we weren’t trying to imitate the book. We decided quite early on it was just a question of what worked best dramatically. And it felt like the character should be someone at the peak of his career, still ambitious, old enough to be a senior journalist, which he is. Henderson is close to forty and perfectly capable of being the main foreign correspondent of a TV station, yet he’s someone who still has a lot to lose. He wasn’t like someone who was about to retire anyway and was disillusioned simply because he’d been through it all and had enough. If anything, there was more at stake than if the character had been a lot older. But the basic thing was that we’d met Stephen and thought he’d be great for the part.
LB How did you meet him?
MW We’d seen him in a Beckett play at Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.
LB Do you yourself have any ambivalence about the role journalists play in society?
MW When they do surveys of the least trusted profession, journalists always get the worst ratings from the public. What was interesting about Sarajevo was that obviously it was a very dangerous situation and journalists were risking their lives, and a lot of journalists were killed. But also a lot of journalists became very committed to the story, leaving aside their individual morality. There was a lot of reporting in England which said, we’re showing what’s happening, and also, something’s got to be done to stop it. Newspapers like The Guardianand The Independent were running real campaigning stories saying, the government must do something, everyone’s sitting by and watching this happen and it’s terrible. So journalists were fulfilling the true role of the journalist which is to show you what’s happening in the world, show you are connected to those events and that some action should be taken. I like the fact that the film is about a very moral bunch of journalists. The Flynn character that Woody Harrelson plays seems much more frivolous and lighthearted than Henderson, the English character, but in the end they’re all doing the same job which is getting the stories out of Sarajevo. I like that.
LB It seems that we go through cycles. During Vietnam, journalists were seen as heroes, as in The Killing Fields, which Chris Menges shot.
MW Watching all the documentary material of Sarajevo, there were numerous occasions when you see something terrible happening. Someone’s hit in the street. Someone’s shot, a shell goes off. The next second, there are 25 photographers taking pictures of someone as they die. It’s a complicated thing. But equally, if you don’t have people taking those pictures, you never know about it. For people watching that, the first reaction is horrific: How can those people just come and take a photograph of that person instead of doing something about it? But equally they have to get the picture. There’s no way of resolving that contradiction. As a film crew going in after the war, we felt a little uneasy being a Western film crew, bringing in all those resources we needed to make the film—into a city which had just been through a terrible war.
LB And suffering from economic disaster.
MW Exactly. But in doing that we worked with a lot of Sarajevans. Any money that gets spent there is a good thing. But nevertheless, you still feel uncomfortable about it. I’m sure from a journalist’s point of view, being in a city where this was happening, that unease is even more extreme because people are getting shot all around and they’re relatively secure. They fly back out, they have their flight jackets, they have their armored land rover.
LB They’re still privileged.
MW Yeah, relatively.
LB In the film, Henderson actually has two moral crises to go through: fulfilling his promise to Emira to get her out, and once he does, whether to return Emira to her mother or not. Was that in the original story?
MW What happened with Nicholson the journalist in the original story is exactly what happened to Henderson in the film: When he got back to London with Emira, he realized there was a mother and he therefore had to get adoption papers. When we were working on the script there were suggestions that we should drop that second half of the story. The traditional climax of the film would be: the journey out of Sarajevo, and having got Emira out, then that’s the end of the film. She’s safe; he’s got her; he’s done the heroic thing. It always felt like that would be too pat, a distortion. If it worked, that sense of him returning to Sarajevo and having to face up to the mother, and having her give her blessing for what he’d done would be more interesting and truer to the situation. We tried to avoid reducing it to one act of heroism, like “save the girl.” We wanted to make it more psychologically true, so that he gradually falls into doing what he does. It’s not a big dramatic moment where he suddenly sees the light and is converted and then takes action. It’s more that he’s drawn and sucked into it. And it’s only once he’s committed to Emira that he realizes the implications, and one of them is going back and getting Emira’s mother to agree he’s done the right thing.
LB How did you achieve the incredibly disorienting effect of being at war in the first 10-15 minutes of the film?
MW A lot of things I do are for half thought about reasons because it feels right. War in Europe is something I’d been taught as history, it wasn’t going to happen in my lifetime. Seeing these images from Vukovar that could have been the total destruction of the town—it was hardly possible for me to believe it was happening. So at the beginning of the film, to take the image from black and white to color …
LB Took it from the past to the present.
LB The jolting hand held camera movements were really unsettling too. You literally don’t know where you are, things are coming at you from left and right
MW One of the experiences of going there was to see the incredible jumble of contradictions—when you go through a town trying to imagine, where was one side, where was the other side. It was an integrated place originally. One side of a block of flats would be completely destroyed, the other side would be completely lived in. I wanted to get that across, that war isn’t a big great homogeneous whole, it’s more like lots of weird events. One minute everything’s quiet and you can be having a drink in the bar, and the next minute, someone’s shooting at you in the street. The more jumbled up and contradictory I wanted things to appear, the sharper the cuts between shots.
LB I suppose your sense of place and direction, of being able to get from A to B, is totally shattered when shells explode and great chunks of physical matter disappear.
MW For instance the flats that Risto, the translator, lives in in the film—a guy who took us there showed us how at different times during the war he would sleep in a different room. At one point he’d think, this room is safe, there can’t be any sniper fire here, and then suddenly there’d be sniper fire there one evening, or in the next room or the next room. It was impossible to tell where the danger was coming from because they were completely surrounded by sniper fire, you’d never know which was the safe direction. We wanted to capture what it was like to live there through that.
Liza Béar is a short story writer, a contributing editor in film for BOMB and frequently writes on film for Newsday and other publications.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.