“If they had said, ‘this is terrible’, it would have been an extremely complicated situation.”
Michael Winterbottom, the director of 24 Hour Party People (2002), A Mighty Heart (2007) and The Look Of Love (2013), is no stranger to mixing fact and fiction. With his latest effort, however, he treads ever closer towards the topical – and altogether controversial – present in The Face of an Angel.
Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale and model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne head-up a cast charting a story defiantly transparent about its similarity to the aftermath and circumstances surrounding the Meredith Kercher murder in 2007.
Bruhl plays Thomas, a documentary filmmaker inspired by Beckinsale’s Simone Ford’s book covering the case. He meets Simone in Italy and together the two attempt to uncover the grisly truth at the heart of matters.
We sat down with Winterbottom to discuss the Kercher family’s reaction to the film, tabloid culture and how he went about the casting process for such a controversial subject.
We also asked him if he thinks Amanda Knox is guilty.
How did the project come about?
I read Barbie’s book (Barbie Latza Nadeau’s, ‘Angel Face’) and then went to meet Barbie in Rome. When I met her I thought she was an interesting character. The whole nature of the trial was quite interesting; the amount of publicity there had been and the fact that there were three different angles; the Italian, the American and the British.
Also, the way that Barbie talked about it, it felt that there was a parallel between the journalists as a group going up to Perugia for a couple of days, partying, getting to know each other, becoming friends; the social world of that, and the world of the students. I liked that idea; that although they were writing, commenting, criticising and talking about the students and what they were doing, that they were in a kind of parallel to that.
There is an atmosphere of troubled souls; that each character is fighting their own demons. Was that intentional?
I think that Thomas’ character is the person having the most obvious crisis, because he’s separated from his daughter. And he sees in the father of the girl that has been killed a parallel situation. He starts imagining that his situation is similar to Dante and his separation from Beatrice, and his own daughter also happens to be called Beatrice.
I think that Kate’s character is in a similar place to Thomas – although she has a career and a family life, she is separated from her kids. She has all the same stresses that Thomas has, but by being a woman, she just gets on with it. She just juggles it and manages it, whereas Thomas is being more of an adolescent and having a breakdown about it.
Are you as despairing of tabloid culture as Thomas?
One of the reasons for having Thomas as a character is that I didn’t want it to be, as a filmmaker, that we were taking the higher ground and saying that all tabloid journalists are rubbish and exploiting a case; we’re making a film and we’re now slagging off the journalists. But, having said that, I think…. for instance, all the journalists that I met were bright, intelligent people. Most of them were foreign correspondents. English language journalists working in Italy. Like most journalists, you start by wanting to tell people about the world. It’s incredibly important that journalists do tell people about the world.
I think that it’s important that people cover cases. Trials have to be made public. The idea of the court reporter has been around for hundreds of years. The whole point of a trial is that it is public. It’s not supposed to be private. It’s a public thing and everyone should know about it. That’s how justice is done. You know, all that side is good. But even the journalists themselves are aware that they have to sell stories. If the market is for titillation, gossip, speculation about how someone was murdered or their sex lives etc; if that’s the market, and you want to live and you want to make money, then you have to satisfy that market.
Filmmaking is as compromised as journalism. The real journalists that we met were frustrated that they felt they had to write certain sorts of stories in order get sold. They were bright people, who want(ed) to inform others about all the important things in the world, but they also knew they have to package a story in a certain way. Obviously, filmmaking has similar pressures. They’re different, but they’re not completely different. Almost every job has a contradiction between the idealised idea of what you want to do and the reality of how to achieve it.
Deliberately, Thomas is not a good guy. He does as many bad things as anyone else in the film. He as weak as anyone else in the film. He’s having a crisis and so on. At the end of the day, within the context of the film, Thomas is still trying to grapple with how to make a film about this story and say something that he feels is true and worth saying, which is very simple; at the end of it all, this girl had her whole life ahead of her and she’s been killed, what about the family’s love for her and the tragedy of her losing all of the possibilities ahead of her?
That’s why he wants to make his film and I think that is something that the tabloids don’t do.
How did Kate, Daniel and Cara get involved? Were they people that you were thinking of from the outset?
It was a normal casting process. We were working on the script for a long time. Sometimes you meet people whilst you’re working on the script, but in this case we already had it. Daniel was the first person I cast. He had done Rush, and Andrew Eaton, one of the people who I often work with had produced Rush, so I knew from Andrew that Daniel was a great guy to work with, so I met Daniel in Brussels. When I met him, I thought he’d be great for the part. Obviously, the part wasn’t written as German, so we made a few adjustments to accommodate that, but he seemed to me that not only is he a great actor, but he’s also a really nice person to work with.
Roles such as a writer or a journalist are difficult, because being a writer is quite a passive thing. In the case of a writer/journalist is that you have to make them seem intelligent in a certain way that is believable, that they are that person, and Daniel had all of that. I also wanted Daniel’s character to do some negative things but, at the same time, sympathetic enough that people would still want him to come out of that crisis and want him to find some way out.
I met Kate in L.A. and we were looking for Americans, but only because we wanted all the different angles in the story to be the same way that the real story had. Now, obviously Kate is not American, but she’s been in L.A. a long time. When I met her, it was apparent that she is very, very bright. Daniel was extremely impressed by the fact that not only does Kate speak Russian, but it turned out that she’s also very good at German, so they’d always be jabbering away in German at the back of the car when we were driving along!
What about Cara?
To me, she was the hardest part to cast, because she has to represent something. She is supposed to be a sort-of modern day Beatrice for Dante. She has to somehow make you feel that she embodies something of Elizabeth, the girl who has been killed. She has to have a sex appeal, but she also has to have something to represent the daughter that Thomas is missing ie a sort-of innocence.
It was very tricky to find someone that makes you remember that you should grab life, be in the moment and so on. I met lots of good people, but no one that I thought was right for the part. I didn’t know who Cara was, but someone in my office said, ‘you should think about Cara Delevingne’. She showed me on the internet what she looked like and then I met her. She flew in overnight on a transatlantic flight and came straight from the airport into the meeting full of energy. And so, in those minutes that I met her I felt she was perfect for the part.
Did this feel like a risky project for you to undertake? The true life case hasn’t quite concluded and there is the potential that some people might be cynical…
Yes, it was quite a difficult film to make. It was quite difficult in the beginning in how to deal and how to handle (both) the fiction(al) and the real story. A lot of the films I’ve done are fictional films but have a connection to real stories, but it’s an area that was particularly difficult in this case.
Normally when you are making a film no one hears about it, but we had quite a lot of publicity about us making it beforehand, so even in Italy where we were filming, it was always written up as an ‘Amanda Knox film‘, or are we saying ‘this‘ about the Italian justice system? Are we saying ‘this‘ about Amanda Knox? In the end, now that it is finished, it’s like, ‘look at it’. We’re not saying anything about that, but when you’re making it it’s very hard to get away from that. It made it quite hard in a practical way, so filming was quite tricky.
For me, the heart of the film is about a girl that’s been killed; a girl who has had her life taken away from her. The Kercher family, in the real case, had avoided the media. They had gone to the trials occasionally and said that the reason that they were there was to make sure that Meredith is not forgotten. But they stayed out of getting involved with the media.
I didn’t want it to feel as though I was dragging the family into this, but at the same time, we were trying to say a version of what they were saying; ‘Why was Meredith forgotten?’ ‘Why, in general in these cases, is the person who is killed forgotten?’ It was a difficult area.
Since we made it, we showed it to the family and the family felt it was appropriate. They said it would be a good idea to put the caption on the end in memory of Meredith, but that wasn’t something you could resolve beforehand, because you don’t know how it’s going to go until the end. If they had said, ‘this is terrible’, it would have been an extremely complicated situation.
Through the research in and around making this film have you formed an opinion as to whether or not Amanda Knox is guilty?
No, I haven’t. To be honest, I didn’t have an opinion at the beginning and I don’t have an opinion at the end. We talked to lots of journalists who covered the case from the beginning and they were divided between ‘yes’ and ‘no’; exactly like in the film between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’.
If you think how long the case has been gone on and how long they’ve been covering it for, and all the details that have been found out, I think it’s one of those cases where you’ll never know. So people have to make a fairly subjective opinion on ‘do I think this person is guilty’, rather than proving one way or the other.
I don’t have an opinion, and to be honest, weirdly, I suppose that I made the film I did because, actually, I don’t think in the end of it all all the kind-of ‘Who did it?’, ‘How did it happen?’, ‘Why did it happen?’, ‘Who was there?’, ‘How many knives were there?’ and so on – all those things are fine – but they’re not actually all that interesting compared to what is at the centre of it; someone died. That, to me, is more emotional and more interesting than trying to speculate on whether it was ‘that guy’ whose ‘shadow disappeared down an alleyway’ or whatever.
The Face Of An Angel is in cinemas from 27th March 2015.
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