An aircraft cuts through the Eastern European sky, carrying dozens of frightened civilians out of the war-torn former Yugoslavia to safe ground. The commanding officer responsible for the rescue mission: Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein.
During the filming of the fact-based Bosnian war drama Welcome to Sarajevo in the summer of 1996, Weinstein learned that his cast and crew were dodging land mines and paying off the local Mafia to keep the production working on location. From his post in New York, Weinstein hired a cargo plane to airlift his players out of the Balkans and on to London, the next location. ”I just said, ‘F— this. This is insane,”’ says Weinstein. ”So we flew all 80 people out.”
The craziest part: They thought their troubles were over. Judging from the disappointing performance of Brad Pitt’s equally politically minded saga Seven Years in Tibet, it looks like fun-seeking audiences may not be in the mood for this one, either. Unlike Tibet, though, Sarajevo (starring Woody Harrelson, Stephen Dillane, and Marisa Tomei) counters its good intentions with the compelling story of an orphan and brutal documentary war footage. ”I’d much rather there were bits of the film where people think, ‘Aww, I didn’t like that,’ than make something that’s more [politically] correct but doesn’t get a response,” says director Michael Winterbottom.
Based on British journalist Michael Nicholson’s 1993 book Natasha’s Story, a personal memoir set against the relentlessly bloody ethnic battle between Muslims, Croats, and Serbs, Sarajevo was never an easy sell. The producers got half their $9 million budget from U.K. production company Channel Four Films, then went looking for a U.S. distributor. Miramax seemed the obvious choice, but even to the risk-friendly company, the story of two competing TV journalists — an American (Harrelson) who risks his life to save local shooting victims and a Brit (Dillane) who attempts to smuggle a Bosnian orphan back to England — didn’t spark immediate interest. ”The script said Sarajevo on it,” recalls Weinstein. ”I said, ‘This is going to be the most depressing thing under the sun.”’ But after reading it a week later, Weinstein agreed to match Channel Four’s funding.
With a Hollywood distributor attached and in for $4.5 million, the filmmakers needed a star. Initially, Jeremy Irons had expressed interest in playing the unassuming British protagonist Michael Henderson, but Weinstein lobbied for Dillane, a British stage vet who had just tested unsuccessfully for Miramax’s The Wings of the Dove. That left the role of Jordan Flynn, Henderson’s cocky American Scud-stud rival. Weinstein’s first thought was Harrelson, so at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996, Weinstein approached the actor and suggested he attend a screening of Winterbottom’s Jude, a dark adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure starring Kate Winslet.
”I had just done four movies back-to-back and I was beat,” says Harrelson, though he wasn’t too tired to take Weinstein (or, more accurately, an athletic Miramax consultant) up on a tennis bet: If he lost the match, he’d see the film. Harrelson, it turns out, wasn’t in top form that day. So he saw Winterbottom’s work — and was sold.