Paparazzi showdowns, Pakistani secret police, and rumors of a fatwa -- all part of the behind-the-scenes tale of filming the Mariane Pearl story on location in south Asia

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated April 19, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Peter Mountain

Even in Pune — one of the most ancient cities in India, settled on a remote edge of the Western Ghats mountain range in the Maharashtra state some eons ago — they gossip about Angelina Jolie. In fact, last fall, when the actress spent five weeks there shooting her latest movie, A Mighty Heart, Puneites talked of nothing else. The local papers were filled with headlines about the star’s every move. There was the one about the terrorist group who purportedly declared a fatwa on Jolie (”There was never any serious threat,” she says, although at one point she was told to keep her children’s cribs ”away from windows”). There was another about Jolie supposedly getting spiritual guidance — and career advice — from one of the town’s resident astrologers (”I’ve never been to an astrologer in my life,” she corrects). And then there was that truly outrageous tale about one of her bodyguards trying to strangle a paparazzo who’d been harassing Jolie since she arrived in the country (okay, so maybe there’s some truth to that one, but we’ll get into it later).

Yet for all the media scrutiny, nobody seemed to notice the one truly newsworthy thing about Jolie’s trip to Pune, the reason she was there in the first place: to tackle her most challenging role in her most serious film since winning that Oscar seven years ago for Girl, Interrupted. In A Mighty Heart, she stars as Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose 2002 kidnapping in Pakistan — and subsequent beheading, videotaped and uploaded to the Internet — still ranks as one of the most horrific and tragic episodes in the short, bloody history of modern-day terrorism. Dan Futterman (who got an Oscar nom for writing Capote) has a delicate part in the film as well, playing Daniel in flashbacks; Will Patton portrays the American security officer who teaches Mariane to detangle Pakistan red tape; London actress Archie Panjabi is the Pearls’ closest friend in Karachi; and Bollywood star Irrfan Khan is ”Captain,” the soft-spoken secret policeman who ends up Mariane’s ally.

But, of course, it’s Mariane’s story, based on her 2003 best-seller about her husband’s abduction. The hellish details she lays out in her book about those first few weeks in Karachi after the kidnapping — her frantic phone calls to the American consulate, her slogs through Middle Eastern bureaucracy, the slow piecing-together of what had happened to Daniel — will constitute the bulk of what’s on the screen. ”The story unfolds like a mystery,” Jolie says. ”You’ve got people collecting clues and trying to solve what happened. But it’s also very real and personal. We didn’t want it to be too melodramatic or too polished. We didn’t want it to be a typical movie.”

Which is how Michael Winterbottom — the maverick Brit who built his career by thumbing his nose at Hollywood studios and stars — ended up directing the hottest film actress on the planet in a major summer movie that was bought and paid for by a little company called Paramount. Though he seems a counterintuitive choice, the truth is Winterbottom may be perfect for the job, given his familiarity with the geographic and political terrain (his last film, The Road to Guantánamo, shot in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, also dealt with victims in the war on terror) and experience with the vérité-style camera work needed to give the film that gritty look Jolie wanted. ”It just seemed too good an opportunity not to do it,” the director says. ”I mean, it was Brad and Angelina asking. That’s a very nice position to be in, you know?”

Unlike her director, Jolie earned her part in the film the old-fashioned way — she flirted with a producer. That would be Brad Pitt, of course, Jolie’s sometime costar, all-the-time boyfriend, and the dad to her four children. Pitt read Mariane Pearl’s book in manuscript form and liked it so much he snapped up the film rights before publication. Originally, he sold the idea of the adaptation to Warner Bros., in partnership with Plan B, his own production company. But Warner cooled on the concept and it languished in development for a year or two, until Pitt cut a new deal to bring the project to Paramount’s revamped specialty arm, Paramount Vantage. The guy who had just been hired to head that division, as it happens, was a former agent named John Lesher. And one of Lesher’s former clients, coincidentally, was a certain English director famous for his disdain for big American studios and stars.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how movies get made in Hollywood. A Mighty Heart was immediately put on a fast track at Paramount Vantage. Also, rather unsurprisingly, they ran into problems just as quickly.

NEXT PAGE: A showdown with the Pakistani police, and a brush with the paparazzi leads to a PR nightmare in India