In The Zone
Tim Roth on film violence and growing older

Tim Roth's career trajectory offers a rare and heartening example of the non-sell-out. The British actor made his name in America as a roving fixture in Quentin Tarantino's cinema of cool, but as a sort of anti-Travolta, he's used his Tarantino-enabled stature as a springboard for riskier, artsier, and more mature film projects. Such is the case with his directorial debut, The War Zone.

See also...
... by Peter Braunstein
... in the Dirt section
... from December 9, 1999

Based on the controversial 1989 novel by Alexander Stuart, the film centers on a tight-knit British family who moves from London to craggy, isolated Devon in southwestern England. The story focuses on the younger brother's growing realization that his father (Nil By Mouth's Ray Winstone) is carrying on an incestuous relationship with his sister (played by ingenue Lara Belmont). The boy's (Freddie Cunliffe's) discovery of his father's transgressions is stymied and frustrated by denial from all sides, forcing him to spy on them -- ultimately witnessing a brutal rape that confirms his worst fears.

Definitely not geared to that crowd planning to see Toy Story 2 and Bicentennial Man, The War Zone is sure to stir its share of controversy for its dedicated, unflinching realism. GettingIt chatted with Tim Roth about on-screen violence, his directorial debut, the necessity of realism, and his current career path.

GETTINGIT: It seems that you're moving away from the type of violent movies you starred in through much of the '90s. You were evidently affected by the various recent school shootings, and you even told Entertainment Weekly that "If I am to blame for some of this stuff, I have to be much more careful from now on." Was this change in your attitude brought about primarily by the current hysteria over teen violence, or was this a direction you were heading in anyway?

TIM ROTH: It's not just what happened at Columbine. You've got Columbine, you've got [the church shootings in] Texas. It's been called an "epidemic," but it's not an epidemic. An epidemic means that it will eventually go away. It's just that I bring my children up in America, and America has been extraordinarily good to me. I mean, most of my friends are American. But I do get scared for them, since the amount of ammunition and weapons in circulation is absolutely terrifying. And obviously, I get asked lots of questions about my relationship with guns.

GI: Well, you were in Reservoir Dogs [1992], which was the granddaddy of gratuitous violence movies, and...

TR: Well, that depends on your concept of "gratuitous violence," to be honest with you. I think that many action movies depict violence without showing any pain whatsoever, as opposed to Reservoir Dogs where I spent most of the time writhing in pain.

GI: Then there was Pulp Fiction [1994], which features an exploding head scene that's played for laughs. Do you think these kind of movies could be made in the same happy-go-lucky way today?

TR: There has to be a time when one grows up. I do think that as much as they were fun, and there was an enjoyment in the acting, certainly an enjoyment in seeing them, I do think that they're boyish films made by boys. Quentin is growing up and I'm growing up. But we get very much tarred with the same brush as the gun industry. One thing I would say is that I don't think we, the actors, arm children. I don't actually make guns for a living. I don't go out and support free access to weapons.

GI: I screened The War Zone, and I'm wondering what kind of a reception it will receive, given that it depicts a kind of violence that rarely appears on the screen...

TR: It's spiritual violence as well as sexual, the violence that's perpetrated on that girl as well as on that family, and its effects will last a very, very long time.

GI: It seems that in The War Zone both the brother and the audience need to see the incest taking place in order to believe it. Doesn't that speak to the necessity for including disturbing content in the interest of realism?

TR: I cut the film together without that scene [the brother seeing the sister being raped by the father], just to see if it would work, and it was hollow, very shallow, and it became exploitative. I think by putting the cameras on that, we're putting the cameras on ourselves. It's a way of being honest and respectful of the victim, to show the pain that they go through.

If you were making a film about incest your instincts would be to do it documentary style, to separate the audience from the people on-screen and have the audience say, "Well, that's them, it's not me." But I wanted to tear the whole thing down and show that it quite possibly could be them, it could be people that they know. If we are taking this boy [the brother] on this journey, and the audience as well, then we have to see what that journey is. Filmmakers have to be brave enough to do that and deal with the consequences.

GI: What did people think about the climactic scene where the boy stabs the father? Any comments about that?

TR: That was in the book, and I kept it in, although I left it very much in the air as to whether the father is dead or not. For me, when I spoke to the actors involved, I wanted it to be treated as though he just stopped talking, that the brother shuts him up. And that was really how I wanted it to be depicted, as understated as possible. My only concern was -- and I distinctly avoided -- that it fall into the realm of formulaic revenge drama.

GI: Will we be seeing less violence in movies?

TR: I don't know. I mean, if you look at Fight Club, it seems that things are becoming more graphic. If you're on the business side of film, there's money to be made out of making possibly the wrong choice. But when I'm looking at scripts now, when a gun becomes involved or any kind of violence, it would have to mean something for me to be involved in it. It may shut doors, it may open others. Purely for my own well being, and as a manifestation of my parental responsibilities, I'm going to be a lot more careful. But that's a part of growing up.

The War Zone opens in select cities on December 10.

Peter Braunstein writes about film and pop culture for the Village Voice, and is currently co-editing an anthology on the 1960s counterculture.