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When actor Tim Roth expressed his desire to direct a film, the universe heard him: he was handed a dark and powerful novel called The War Zone, with a subject that couldn't have been more apt for a man who'd suffered sexual abuse as a child, he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Isn't life funny, you might be tempted to say, how the first thing that actor-cum-aspiring director Tim Roth was given to read by his agent (as a film he may wish to direct) was Alexander Stuart's shattering novel of paternal sexual abuse of a daughter, The War Zone. Why funny? Because as a child, Roth had himself been sexually abused (not by a parent, he hastens to add).

'Be careful what you wish for - it may come true'

Quieter and perhaps a little more reserved than you might have expected, Tim Roth seems quite a serious man, although far from pompous or overly earnest. He hides a deep sensitivity under his Englishness, and is self deprecating enough to be modest without being vapid. This is at odds with his frequent screen image of a cocky, intense and sardonic character. But then he is an actor, after all - although he is now talking as a director, promoting his first film.

As the Chinese say, 'Be careful what you wish for - it may come true' - not that Roth has any regrets about it.

"It was quite shocking to me when the book arrived - an extraordinary coincidence that this book arrived on my doorstep. I sometimes wonder what a director would have done with the story who hadn't been abused …. they may have made a perfectly good film, but it felt good that it was in the hands of someone who knew the subject."

The other surprise for Roth was realising how much he'd absorbed about filmmaking while working with a plethora of directors. It made his directing debut less daunting than it may have been, and he puts a lot of it down to staying on set during the long waiting times, instead of going back to his trailer.


The one concern Roth did have, though, was how well he would work with the actors, having been badly directed himself on occasion. "Actors working with such difficult subject matter are very vulnerable and if they come to you with a problem, you have to have the answer. I was worried how well I would be able to communicate with them and able to give them advice when they needed it."

In the end, he needn't have worried: he communicated well, if the result is anything to go by. But after the film's screening at Sundance, it was in the public domain, and he wasn't prepared for "the onslaught of attention…the amount of press, the amounts of conversations I was having with strangers about their own experiences, and it was often a bit difficult, but in the end it was cathartic. And I think a very good thing for me to do - as painful as it was. It's the sort of film you make at the end of your years not the beginning, so I'm very interested to see what happens."

"emotional big dipper"

Roth went through the emotional big dipper during the making of the film, and agin during editing. "When you sit in the editing suite you go through elation and depression on a day to day basis; you sometimes think it's working, then of course it's abominable. Then you screen it for people and you go back and attack it again and again, and you have to keep your spirits up during that."

But there was one moment, at last, when Roth sensed that it did indeed work: "We were screening it at Sundance and I was doing a Q & A session with the audience afterwards, and a woman stood up and started to talk about her abuse for the first time, and that we'd captured the pain of it accurately. . . that's when we all started to think that we'd succeeded, at least on that one level."

In the re-published novel (Black Swan, 1999) there is a diary* of the making of the film by novelist and scriptwriter Stuart, plus an afterword by Roth, in which Roth recounts how many people have since asked him why he chose to make something as emotionally difficult as The War Zone, and he replies defensively; what do you want me to do, a light comedy - what's the point. Reminded of this during our interview, he laughs and chides himself. "That's very disrespectful of light comedy because that's a very hard thing to do - as I know to my regret!"

Indeed - so was The War Zone. Not only for Roth personally but for his whole family. "It was difficult for many relationships within the family, but my wife (Nikki) was very supportive."

"very challenging"

"The commitment you have to make as a director is far greater than the commitment you have to make as an actor so the material you choose must be something that really matters, otherwise it's a waste of time. And that applies whether it matters in a dramatic piece or a comedy. The stuff I'm looking at as a director now is of a very challenging nature - but that's what I was looking for anyway. And there's nothing more challenging for me than this (The War Zone), really."

Perhaps not, but his next adventure in the screen trade will be a new adaptation of King Lear (to be shot in 2001). A challenge, to be sure, but he does have a big advantage in the writer working on it: Harold Pinter. "And," he says, "I do have something new I feel I can bring to it…."

June 15, 2000

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Tim Roth - director

- Australian release: June 15, 2000

* Alexander Stuart's diary entry for June 4, 1997
(a month after Channel 4 had committed to financing the film);
"Tim calls from the Chateau Marmont to tell me he likes my recent Guardian questionnaire, and particularly my answer to the question 'How often do you have sex?: 'Why would anyone want to know?' Tim's comment: 'It's a little bit sweet, a little bit "F**k you."'

Stuart's diary, preface:
"For a book as undeniably dark and difficult as The War Zone is, the response it has provoked has been a remarkably positive force in my life. Even the publication-year furore, in 1989, when I was told my novel had won the Whitbread Prize, only to have the award snatched away because juror Jane Gardam so objected to my 'repellent' book that she complained to the organizers, was probably more prestigious - and certainly more interesting - than winning the prize itself."

Extract from Tim Roth's Afterword:
"What has impressed me most about this whole project is the commitment of the crew and the actors who came to it with a passion . . . I think they loved this family and were heartbroken by its destruction."

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