TIM ROTH'S DECISION TO MOVE FROM ACTING INTO
directing was not one he took lightly. Around the time of
Rob Roy. he said ﬁrmly, ‘I want to be an actor all my life.’ The appeal of directing was strong. but he was reluctant to take two years out from his chosen career. which for him was not just a job. but an all-consuming vocation. It was The War Zone - Alexander Stuart’s harrowing 1989 novel about incest —- that persuaded Roth the time was right. And having caught the directing bug. he was amazed to have found something even more challenging and exciting than acting. At the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Roth said that he had already started to think of himself as. “a director who acts‘ rather than ‘an actor who has directed”.
On the phone to The List from France. Roth admits that discovering a new calling in his late thirties had been both exhilarating and confusing. ‘With acting. you‘re only involved in a small part of the overall process. but with directing you‘re involved in all of it,‘ he says. ‘And I enjoyed that sense of responsibility. the idea that everyone was looking to me for answers. But at the same time. I was torn about going back to acting. Ray [Winstone, star of Ni]
social concerns of Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh. who gave Roth his first acting breaks on Made In Britain and Mean Time. Roth also mentions two films about ‘what we do to our kids‘ — Francois Truffaut‘s The 400 Blows and Lasse Hallstrom‘s My Life As A Dog. The key to The War Ztme’s complex moral ambiguities. however. lies in Winstone‘s perfectly judged performance.
‘The idea was that we would spend quite a lot of time getting to know this family.’ explains Roth. ‘Certain events take place in the first section of the film. where we suspect but we don‘t know. So we end up getting inside the house and quietly sitting down at the table with the man. And then we find out that he‘s the Devil. But Ray understood that you can’t do that by screaming and shouting and jumping up and down. If you play this guy as a monster from the get-go. then there‘s no point. The audience has to come to their own conclusions. That‘s the challenge — for me in making the film. and for the audience watching it.‘
Winstone. of course. is an old hand. but the two teenage leads were non-professionals: Lara Belmont was spotted walking down Portobello Road in London and Freddie Cunliffe simply answered an open casting call. Yet Roth’s
‘As director, I enjoyed the idea that everyone was looking to me for
answers. But at the same time, I was torn about going back to acting.’ Tim Roth
By Mouth] was very good. actually — he sort of pushed me back into it. He kept saying, “You’ll get the buzz back. don’t worry". And I’ve been back in it now. So maybe I’ve found something that runs parallel with acting.’
What got Roth back on track was working with Gerard Depardieu. Uma Thurman and Timothy Spall on Roland Joffe’s Vatel. a period piece about a famous chef preparing a sumptuous feast for King Louis XIV. Hence the phone call from Paris.
Set in a rain-swept, wintry Devon. The War Zone casts Winstone as Dad. an antiques dealer crammed in an isolated cottage with his pregnant wife (Tilda Swinton) and their two teenage children, the sulky. acne-afﬂicted Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and his precocious. sexually aware sister Jessie (Lara Belmont). Dad is a busy but concerned husband and father, but when Tom glimpses him and Jessie in the bath together. he panics. Dare he confront them? Could the family survive the revelation of this dark secret? Jessie insists that Tom’s adolescent obsession with sex has lead him tojump to conclusions: but like him. we begin to suspect the worst.
Given Roth‘s acting pedigree, it‘s no surprise that The War Zone shares the naturalistic acting style and serious
Tim Roth with Lara Belmont (left) and Ray Winstone (right)
skilful handling of their individual needs helped elicit remarkably natural performances from them both. It was a risky strategy. but Roth feels it was worth it.
‘Good actors like Ray and Tilda will rub off on the kids. But I also think that working with non-actors makes the professional actors better. For example. Ray‘s a very naturalistic actor who‘s always striving for realism. So when somebody like Lara comes in and nails everything that he’s trying to do straight away — instinctively. without trying — it knocks him for six.
‘Also. they’re all trying to come up to each others‘ standards. My job is to pull them back. rein them in. shape the process and shape the family. And eventually. they all came up to this standard which was beyond what I wanted. It was wonderful, they kind of urged each other in different directions. It was a great thing to watch and be a part of.‘
Ironic really. that such a traumatic tale of domestic dysfunction should be the product of one happy ﬁlmmaking family.
The War Zone (Film Festival), Cameo 1, 20 Aug, 8pm; Filmhouse 1, 22 Aug, 4.30pm, £7 (£4.50). General release from Fri 3 Sep.
19-26 Aug 1999 THE US? 19