An Interview with Michael Winterbottom, Director of "Welcome to Sarajevo"
by Stephen Garrett
After making his film debut in 1995 with the killer-lesbian, road-trip
romance “Butterfly Kiss“, and following it a year later with “Jude”, an
adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure, director Michael
Winterbottom next moves to “Welcome to Sarajevo“, a complete departure from
the filmmaker’s styles and a considerable challenge to audiences wherever
it is shown.
Shot on location and intercut with documentary footage, “Sarajevo” brings to
vivid life the intensity of war correspondence, and gathers together the
considerable talents of lead actors like Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, and
Emily Lloyd, all of whom play supporting roles to the story of one man,
portrayed by Stephen Dillane, who makes it his own personal crusade to
smuggle at least one child out of the devastated city to safety in another
Using news journalist Michael Nicholson’s autobiographical novel about
saving a Sarajevan child, “Natasha’s Story“, as source material, Winterbottom
and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce have created a film that
unflinchingly depicts one of the most horrifying and generally ignored wars
of the late Twentieth century.
indieWIRE: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has seen the film, hasn’t she?
Michael Winterbottom: That’s right, and now there’s a screening for
President Clinton. And I think that Albright said that anything that makes
people think about Sarajevo is a good thing, especially since the
[American] troops are supposed to leave next summer. So they’re beginning
Congressional debates soon about whether they should stay beyond the middle
of next summer. So I think they kind of felt that anything that reminded
people about what it had been like might focus people on the fact that it
is worthwhile to keeping the 8,000 troops there to maintain the peace.
iW: Did you ever think that you would be a political filmmaker? Had you
considered yourself to be one before?
Winterbottom: I’m always a bit suspicious about that description because
I’m not sure, really, what “political” means. I mean, I think these days
when the personal is political and the political is personal, it can mean
anything, really. So [the usage] tends to be to try and give significance
to something and say, “well, it’s a political thing.” The aim of this film
was really to try and give some sense of what was happening there, to try
and show something of individual’s experience of Sarajevo and then maybe
from that to build up a bigger picture.
iW: But to have screenings for presidents is quite a change.
Winterbottom: Our hope when we made the film was that it might bring
Sarajevo to the attention of people, because the starting point for making
the film was a sense of the bizarreness — that here’s a war happening in
the middle of Europe, we’re watching it on television, you can see it every
day, and yet we’re not doing anything about it — we’re not doing anything
to stop it. And suddenly when I went to Sarajevo the first time, that was
very much the message I got from people we met. It was terrible to go
through what they had to go through, but it was made even more frustrating
that they knew that people could see it and people were watching it as it
happened. So in a way, it was a bit like a spectator sport.
iW: What was it like working with the people at the Sarajevo-based SAGA Films?
Winterbottom: It was good. We saw them the very first time we went there,
and we showed them the script and they read the script, and they were about
to start filming their own film. But their attitude was: of course ours is
a film from the outside, seen through the eyes of journalists coming to
watch what’s happening. They were making a film from the inside. But they
wanted audiences in America and audiences in Europe to see something of
what was going on. And so they felt the film reflected enough of their
experience to be worthwhile working on. They wanted to be as closely
involved as possible. So they were really helpful.
iW: Originally Jeremy Irons was attached to the project in the main role of
British reporter Henderson. How did Stephen Dillane get involved?
Winterbottom: Once it was financed, that’s when we really started casting.
And we met quite a few people. And certainly by the time we had met
Stephen, we kind of felt that, from multiple points of view — from
Miramax’s point of view, Channel Four’s point of view and my point of view
— that he was the right person. He had a kind of presence and a kind of
questioning, really. When I first met him, he said, “I don’t want to do
this.” And I think he felt nervous because he didn’t want to make a film
set in Sarajevo which was just about a British journalist. And that was my
attitude as well. So I kind of felt that he would bring the same kind of
balance, the same questions to what he was doing. And all the way through,
he was very conscious of trying to make sure that the Sarajevan characters
he meets are just as important as his character. And I think that was good
in relation especially to Emira (Emira Nusevic), but also to people like
the little girl in the hospital, or the baker whose son is in the camp —
in all those scenes, it’s very easy for the star, for the main actor to
drag all the attention. And I think he was really trying to make sure that
the other actors got their scene as well.
iW: The title originally was just “Sarajevo,” wasn’t it?
Winterbottom: I was sent the book, originally, and a screenplay by someone
else, and those were called, “Natasha’s Story.” So then when I started
working on it, I kind of felt that it wasn’t Natasha’s story — it
shouldn’t be just the story of the girl. So we changed it to “Sarajevo,” as
a sort of working title, really. Because no one was convinced that people
would flock to see it with that title. And then, in the film there’s a
little documentary bit where you see, scrawled on the wall, “welcome to
Sarajevo.” So that became the preferred option. Some people did feel that
we should just take Sarajevo out of the title altogether, but I felt that
the idea of the film was so much to be about the things that were happening
in that particular city, so it’s to be about the people from that city and
to try and make people think about not only the characters in the film but
all of the people that live there. And it would be wrong to suddenly lose
that connection altogether and try and pretend that it’s just a film about
iW: That’s the nice thing — for the first half or so, the film is so many
people’s different stories; and then it just centers on Emira’s story. It
was an unexpected turn when I was watching the film.
Winterbottom: Frank [Cottrell Boyce], in writing the screenplay, it was
almost like short stories, like chapters in the film. And the central
thread is Henderson, but you should got off and see other people and then
come back to him. And generally we wanted to have a jagged rhythm and as
many surprises as possible. Because in living in Sarajevo, one of the worst
things would be never knowing what was going to happen next — never being
sure where the sniper was and where the mortar was coming from. And so that
sense of not knowing where the bullet’s coming from, in a way. We tried to
put that into the storytelling as well.
Part of working on the screenplay was to watch as much as we could, so we
watched hundreds of hours of news archives, documentary footage — anything
we could from Sarajevo. So we’d sort of seen all that and we had
incorporated specific scenes into the screenplay because of what we’d seen.
So, for instance, the mortar that lands in the bread queue: we’d seen that
material, that was an incredibly powerful sequence. It was one shot and it
was really the news cameraman running from one person to another person and
back to another person, almost in a circle — and you could see the
cameraman was incredibly panicked and didn’t know what to do. And then the
sniper started firing and the cameraman was then running for his life. And
so, having seen that, I just felt that this has got to be in the film
somehow. So we then got our [fictional] journalists to go and witness that,
so we could include that in the story. And so then we had to recreate it as
well. So it was really working from the archive footage. And the general
principal was that if we can use the real footage, then let’s use the real
footage. And to try and recreate as little as possible.
iW: Were there a lot of stories which didn’t make the final cut?
Winterbottom: Certainly there were lots of stories that we wanted to have
in the film which didn’t get in: stories that we’d seen on the news and
some stories that we did film — and then it was just too much, and there
were just too many stories. I wanted to make sure the film had this sort of
energy and pace and compression that I felt the screenplay had. And I
didn’t want it to be huge and sprawling. The first cut was 3 hours of
incidents, so we pulled it down to something where you could cope with it
and still get the sense that there were thousands of other people who
should have been in the film.
[Stephen Garrett, a frequent contributor to indieWIRE, is a writer and
editor based in Los Angeles.]