A blend between drama and documentary, “The Road to Guantanamo,” debuted at the Berlinale earlier this year with much media fanfare. The film is the saga of the Tipton Three. In 2001, the three British nationals traveled to Pakistan for a wedding and later took a diversion to Afghanistan. Along the way, the three were captured by the Northern Alliance who were fighting the Taliban, and were later held by the Americans. The three were then sent to the Guantanamo prison camp where they stayed for two years. Co-directed with Michael Winterbottom (“A Cock and Bull Story“), Mat Whitecross participated in iW’s email interview series about the film. Roadside Attractions will open the “Guantanamo” in the U.S. beginning Friday in limited release.
Some basic statistics on Mat Whitecross:
Age. 28 Day job: Filmmaker Former jobs: Film usher, office worker, journalist, cameraman, editor.
Witecross was born and grew up in Oxford, England, and now lives in South London.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I’d always wanted to make films, from an early age. When I left college, after working for a TV company in Oxford on the politics programme, I got a job as a runner at Revolution Films, Michael Winterbottom and Andrew Eaton‘s company. I’ve worked with them now on several films in various capacities, most recently as editor and director.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
I’ve just finished a script about a fictional terrorist attack in London, and the effect it has on the city’s different communities. [And] I play piano whenever there’s time.
Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking?
I never went to film school. I studied English at UCL in London, because I figured if you were really passionate about something, you’d do it anyway. During my time there I shot shorts and music videos, and watched films obsessively. It’s not that I think you shouldn’t study film, but I always hoped I’d get my practical experience just by going out and shooting and making my own mistakes. Shooting and editing digitally has become so simple. Anyone can pick up the basics in a few days. The college had an Adobe Premiere system, so I learnt how to cut on that. Then I worked for six months as a videojournalist at a local TV station in Oxford, which is where I’m from.
Every day we’d have to research a story, go out and shoot it and cut it in time for the 6pm broadcast. Although the product was often a little rough, it taught us all great discipline, because we knew not to be too precious, that filmmaking is always a kick-bollock-scramble, but the thing is to get out there and do it. After 6 months, the channel went bust, so I went to London and got a job as a runner at Revolution Films. Because of my experience in Oxford, I knew how to shoot and cut, so they got me working on 2nd unit and editing promos for them. After that, I worked on Code 46 as 2nd Unit Director, and as Editor on [Winterbottom’s] “9 Songs.”
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Guantanamo” came about…
The Tipton 3 talked to the UK press on their release in 2004 and their story was so incredible and larger than life, that it was begging to be turned into a film. Up until that point, rumours of abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre were rife, but it was only at this point that more corroborating stories began filtering through. I was working with Michael on his film “9 Songs” at the time, and we both agreed it would make an amazing documentary. He was about to start working on another film, so he suggested making contact with the lawyers, and meeting up and researching the story while he was away.
What are your biggest creative influences (this could include other filmmakers or films)?
Michael [Winterbottom] and Andrew [Eaton, producer] have without a doubt been the biggest influence on me in my working life. Their generosity has enabled me to work in the industry on a number of great projects. As far as other filmmakers go, Shane Meadows [“The Stairwell“] in the UK and Robert Rodriguez [“Sin City”] in the US were incredibly inspiring, because they always maintained that anyone could be a filmmaker, that everyone had stories to tell, and that you shouldn’t be blinded by technology. It’s within your grasp: just grab a camera, get hold of a computer, and you can make a film.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
The process of making “Road to Guantanamo” was surprisingly smooth. The shoot itself was pretty arduous for crew and actors, especially in Iran, where we had to recreate Afghanistan and Cuba on a limited budget. But there was a good feeling among the filmmakers that we were working on a worthwhile project, so it never felt like hard work.
How did you finance the film?
We initially approached Tessa Ross at [UK network] Channel 4. She gave us a budget to research the film, and I spent a month living with the Tipton 3, the subjects of our documentary. Afterwards, she agreed to finance the whole film through Channel 4, so we were incredibly lucky, and didn’t need to spend ages seeking finance.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
It’s come to mean so many things. Initially I suppose it meant micro-budget films financed on credit cards or other people’s generosity, which had no strings attached to the usual studio system, and therefore despite their shoestring origins were often more interesting than the usual popcorn fare. But after “Pulp Fiction,” independent films expanded in size and came to be low-budget studio films. George Lucas claimed that the new “Star Wars” films were independents, because he’d financed them out of his own pocket, and therefore didn’t need to listen to any input from studio execs.
If the term has any meaning, it must be to do with a method of filmmaking which is exempt from the usual pressures and influences associated with studio productions. But it’s become such a broad catch-all expression, I’m not sure if it’s that relevant anymore.
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
It’s so hard to define whether a film is successful or not. It’s so subjective and we’re probably not best placed to judge in some ways. People years from now will have a better perspective. Then again, what seems trite or cliched or forced in the future, may well work for contemporary audiences.
As a filmmaker, there are so many hurdles, when writing a script, when shooting, when cutting, when promoting, and because the process is so collaborative, it’s easy for the team to become unfocussed, and for the film to suffer as a result. If you can get together with other people and make a film and feel proud or at least not embarrassed by the outcome, I would consider that a success.
I don’t have any goals other than to make films which seem to me interesting and challenging. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
The Long Goodbye
Pierrot Le Fou
Paths of Glory
Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Don’t Look Now
Thief of Baghdad
Out of Sight
Being John Malkovich
The Firm – Alan Clarke
Rebel without a Cause
Night at the Opera
Time of the Gypsies
Shoot the Pianist
Hearts and Minds
Once Upon a Time in the West
A Room for Romeo Brass
Nil by Mouth
The Battle of Algiers
Touching the Void
My favourite films keep changing all the time, and I’ll watch films now which seemed so important to me growing up, and they’re embarrassing now, because I’m too old to appreciate them. It was necessary to watch them at that time. Luckily there were films I watched as a kid and hated, which I needed to watch later on in life. Like most people, I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to film. I’d love to be like Soderbergh or Winterbottom, or Hawks and Ford and flit from genre to genre.
If I was on a desert island and I could only take 3 films with me, right now (and of course this would all change tomorrow), I’d pack “Boogie Nights” by Paul Thomas Anderson, because it has everything – it’s the funniest, most tragic, best crafted film I’ve ever seen, “Wonderland” by Michael Winterbottom, because it comes the closest to representing London onscreen of any film I’ve watched, and breaks your heart without resorting to the obvious, and “Memento,” because it’s the one film I wish I’d made, for very personal reasons.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
City of God
Shaun of the Dead
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story