December 8, 2019

Actor Dan Futterman and director Michael Winterbottom

In the first publicity releases last summer for the film, “A Mighty Heart,” Paramount Vantage announced that filming would begin in the fall and that Angelina Jolie would star as Mariane Pearl. There was no mention of who would play her husband, Daniel Pearl, and it was assumed that director Michael Winterbottom had not yet picked an actor for the role.

Actually, actor-writer Dan Futterman had already been chosen and was even then before the cameras in a hush-hush, 10-day shoot in Karachi and Islamabad. Given the volatile situation in Pakistan, the shoot was disguised as a documentary production, without any of the usual Hollywood trappings.

There was another security consideration. Futterman not only resembled Pearl in appearance and age, but, like the slain reporter, he is Jewish. It was only after Futterman returned safely to the United States that his name and role were made public. Last week, Futterman, who just turned 40, sat down in a Hollywood hotel to talk about the film and his own background.

“I was born in Brooklyn, but my father, a lawyer, and my mother, a psychoanalyst, moved to Larchmont, a New York suburb, when I was a child,” Futterman recalled. “I had my bar mitzvah at Beth Emeth, a Conservative shul.”

For “A Mighty Heart,” he explored the character of Daniel Pearl during long sessions with the journalist’s wife, parents, friends and colleagues and by reading many of Pearl’s writings. The more Futterman learned about the man he was portraying, the more impressed he became.

“Daniel was a really good man; I couldn’t find anyone who could say a bad word about him; he had a genuine love of people,” Futterman said.

“It helped my understanding that Daniel, like me, was a person who felt comfortable in his Jewishness,” he added. “I’ve gradually come to think of him as a lamed-vovnik, one of the 36 righteous by whose merit the world exists.”

Futterman also met 5-year-old Adam Pearl, born a few months after his father’s murder. “He is a wonderful kid, a real mix of the two parents,” Futterman said. “I think about him a lot.”

Futterman has had successful and parallel acting careers on stage, TV and film, and as a screenwriter, garnering an Oscar nomination for his first feature screenplay, “Capote.” In the future, he plans to concentrate on his writing, which he finds “endlessly challenging.”

“I see actors like Angelina and Philip Hoffman [“Capote”], who undergo really astonishing transformations in different roles. I don’t operate on that level; I’m more suited to writing.” He and his wife, Anya Epstein, have just completed the screenplay for a romantic comedy, “Finn at the Blue Line,” to star Sarah Jessica Parker.

Futterman drew one other lesson from “A Mighty Heart.”

“Many American Jews have no real idea about Islam and Muslims,” he said. “During the making of the film, I met many Muslim men and women who were truly honorable men and women.”

Director Winterbottom, 46, spoke to The Journal on his cellphone as he was driving through a string of tunnels in Italy. The 46-year-old Englishman has a resume of 14 startlingly diverse films, and last year alone he directed the harrowing docudrama, “The Road to Guantanamo,” and the wildly imaginative “Tristam Shandy: A Cock &: Bull Story.”

In filming “A Mighty Heart,” he said he tried to follow the narrative and chronology of Mariane Pearl’s closely.

“It was not my job to speculate or to insert my own theories,” Winterbottom said. “We had to leave out some parts of the book, but we did not add anything for dramatic effect.”

Although the main depiction of Pearl is as a fair, first-class journalist, the film, perhaps even more than the book, refers frequently to his Jewishness, including his final videotaped words before the beheading.

“My father is Jewish; my mother is Jewish; I am Jewish.”

But Winterbottom believes that Pearl’s abductors initially targeted him not because he was a Jew, but as a meddlesome American journalist.

Said the director, “Danny was an exceptional human being, whose misfortune it was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“A Mighty Heart” opens June 22.

Also in this issue: Tom Tugend reviews “A Mighty Heart”