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Tim Roth Treats Actors With Care

By Geoff Pevere

Director of The War Zone picked teen off street to star in graphic film about parental incest.

For Tim Roth, nothing solves like simplicity.

Take, for example, his philosophy concerning the care and protection of the non-professional actors he cast to play victims of parental incest in The War Zone, the celebrated 38-year-old actor's arrestingly assured directorial debut.

Attending the Toronto International Film Festival to promote the movie, which is based on Alexander Stuart's controversial novel about an outwardly loving family poisoned by a father's acts, Roth describes the care he applied in selecting and preparing previously unknown teenagers Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe -- who turn in wrenchingly convincing performances as an abused daughter and her brother -- for the making of the movie.

A former non-professional himself -- the London-born actor was a student of sculpture when he was lured to acting in the early '80s -- Roth was as determined that the kids be played by new faces ("So they could be any kids, our kids," he explains) as he was to protect those faces from the ravages of sudden exposure.

After finally finding Cunliffe and Belmont, the latter of whom Roth spotted "walking down the street" in London, Roth immediately got them an agent (his own), hired a counselor to be on-set all the time and committed himself to helping Belmont and Cunliffe in any way he could for as long as they wanted. Which means, as he puts it, "My responsibility to them now is forever or until they tell me to bugger off."

When he tells you that he made all these arrangements -- and a great many more -- to "protect them against us," Roth's cocked eyebrows make it clear that the "us" includes parties on both ends of the tape recorder. It's not just the business that brave but vulnerable souls like Cunliffe and Belmont need some insulation from, it's the media that helps that business stay in business.

Between swift swills of take-out cappuccino, the T-shirt and jeans-clad Roth, who is the father of three boys, cheerfully riffs on responsibility. "If you take kids off the street and change their life, which you've done, it may be bad for them," he says matter-of-factly. It boils down to that simplicity referred to previously -- simplicity as filtered through decency and responsibility. "Look," he says plainly. "You don't want to abuse kids in the process of making a film about abuse, now do you?"

It's tempting to speculate that this stripped-down, uncluttered morality -- which is also evident in Roth's decision to have The War Zone's script checked frequently by incest abuse victims and his hope that the movie rings true for "the abused in every audience -- my real reviewers" -- is also what defines Roth's gifts as an actor and now a director.

Perhaps because he was spared the academic self-consciousness of formal theatrical training, Roth's acting is as unembellished and direct as a rock hurled through a window.

An actor whose persona, to the extent that it can be reduced to that, is defined by its capacity for flashes of raw, sudden violence -- Made In Britain; The Hit; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover; Reservoir Dogs; Pulp Fiction; Rob Roy -- Roth the actor is known for the sheer lack of stuff separating thought and action. Along with Gary Oldman, he is the rare example of a British method man, which is to say someone unlikely to be confused with one of the Fiennes family.

His first excursion behind the camera, a shift he'd been afraid to make until his performing career was secure ("I know what this fucking business is like," he laughs) benefits from the same lack of pretense and faith in straight-from-the-hip simplicity. The War Zone, despite the confrontational nature of its subject, is what Roth calls "an old-fashioned movie, a very traditional movie."

Claiming he's learned far more of practical use from bad directors than good ones, Roth sublimated the entire filmmaking process to a very basic principle: "I wanted this to be not an adaptation of (Alexander Stuart's) book," which he knew he wanted to make into a movie the instant he read it, but "how I felt when I read the book."

To the end, the process of making The War Zone was a process of stripping down -- removing anything which stood in the way of recreating the emotional atmosphere generated by reading the novel.

"Which made it an easy adaptation, really," Roth says. "I turned the novel upside down, tore it apart. I changed the setting. I changed the class of the father and son. There were too many distractions in the novel and too many things which just didn't ring true.

"That's why I had victims read the script as it was being written, so they could point out things that, as far as they were concerned, were bullshit. I even told Stuart to go back and re-read his own novel. Hadn't read it in 10 years!"

On set, Roth maintained the honing process. He kept the camera still unless the dramatic necessity made it essential to move it ("When someone in a movie starts dancing around with the camera it bores the crap out of me"), and even went so far as to study old silent-movie scripts for tips on keeping the narrative as elementary and visually-driven as possible.

He watched the films of Andrei Tarkovsky to pick up a few pointers in nonverbal expressiveness, and was ruthless when it came to discarding ideas that seemed unnecessarily indulgent or show-offy.

"My first plan for the scene in the bunker" -- the harrowing moment when father and daughter are caught in an act of anal copulation by the son -- "was to present it through a video camera and then have a steadicam pick up the image and move in.

"I know we couldn't veer away from that scene, it's too important, but I was up all night wondering how to do it.

"When I came with my director of photography to set up the shot the next morning, I was still wondering what do we actually do?

"That's when I realized there was only one solution: just shoot it. Plain and simple. So we did. We had it wrapped up by noon and we were off to the pub."

For Roth, the crusade for unfettered dramatic presentation has paid off -- and not in terms of the praise the movie has accrued. Where it's truly scored is in the response he's heard from victims of familial sexual abuse: victims, he stresses, who are in every audience who've ever seen The War Zone.

"That's how common this is," he says, looking you straight in the eye. "It's ridiculous."

If Roth seems incongruously cheerful for someone out peddling a movie with such a cheerless subject, it's probably because he's still basking in the afterglow of something that happened at the festival's first public screening of The War Zone.

"There was something I always wanted to do and it happened last night. At the end of the Q and A session (at which, according to Roth, a number of victims spoke out openly of their experiences) I brought the producer down and I brought the American distributor down. And then I brought Lara down, and she got a standing ovation.

"And it was fantastic for me because this kid, we found her walking down the road in London, and she came in and she changed my life. And she's already changed the lives of so many people who've seen the film."

That's why he's so happy this morning. Pure and simple. "One of the best moments I've ever experienced was that."

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