Tony Grisoni worked in many different areas of filmmaking before turning to screenwriting. Queen of Hearts (1989), directed by Jon Amiel, was his award-winning first feature. Since then he has worked closely with a number of directors including Terry Gilliam (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1998 and the forthcoming The Brothers Grimm, 2004). His collaboration with Michael Winterbottom resulted in the extraordinary documentary-drama In This World (2002). Interview by AFC Project Manager Jackie McKimmie.
In 2002 Tony Grisoni embarked on a trek with director Michael Winterbottom (24-hour Party People) along the people-smugglers' route from the Pakistan-Afghan border across Europe to London. The resulting low-budget documentary-drama fusion, In This World, went on to win the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003. The film is remarkable, not just for its moving and understated story about the journey of two Afghani boys, but also for the non-traditional way in which it was written and shot.
The idea of a journey
Tony joined the project in July 2001. 'Having emerged from the car crash that was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote … I clambered out of the wreckage and worked with Terry Gilliam on Good Omens. That also went nowhere, so I was looking around for something new and other people to work with. Michael Winterbottom was top of the list.'
Winterbottom suggested two projects - one about Laika the canine cosmonaut, the other about the journeys made by refugees. Both interested Grisoni, but when asked to choose, he picked the refugees. Six months later they were in Pakistan, making the film. 'Michael Winterbottom moves really fast. Filmmaking relies on belief and momentum - and he has both.'
The story was always going to be the refugees' journey, rather than what happened to them when they got there, but the filmmakers didn't know where this journey would start. They began an intense period of research. 'It was a time when politicians were making obscene mileage out of illegal refugees - with the media involved to the hilt.'
'We read all the articles we could and found interviews with people who'd been smuggled to Britain, Australia, Denmark, wherever …'
No script - just scenarios
Out of the research, a rough route emerged, from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, through north-west Pakistan, overland to Iran through to Tehran and through the mountains of West Iran then Turkey, to Istanbul and Trieste (by boat), then by train to France and the refugee camp at San Gatte, and finally by train chunnel to London.
The plan was to go to Pakistan with Michael Winterbottom to test the overland journey - travel it, get some feeling for it - collecting stories from people they met and making contacts for the production along the way.
But then 9/11 happened. Fear escalated. Tony Grisoni found the trip a 'scary thought' but egged on by his partner and her daughter ('if you don't go we will') and by Michael Winterbottom, who was more keen than ever, they left three weeks later, on the first flight from Dubai after 9/11, on tourist visas.
The trip gave Grisoni a loose scenario based on the journey of two young men, one from Pakistan, the other from Afghanistan. 'Think of a road movie: that's your structure. Two guys in location A want to go to Location B. How will they get there? Will they get caught? It then becomes a matter of pace. Every border is a moment of tension…'
He didn't write dialogue. 'You can't do that for non-professional actors.' He did write dialogue for himself - so he could get into scenes - but he mainly wrote a scenarios.
Casting agents found the two lead 'actors' - Jamal Udin Torabi from Pakistan, and Enayatullah Jumaudi from Afghanistan.
The filmmakers gave potential financiers a one and a half page outline. 'They wanted to see a more extensive script but Michael told them there was no script; we were going to create it as we shot it. So they said, well, can we see the rushes? Not really, said Michael. Too hard to get them back. And that was that. They went with it as a well-placed act of faith in Michael Winterbottom, who was used to taking risks and making it work. And the price was right.'
The film had a budget of £1.3 million pounds, financed by the BBC and Film Consortium.
The shoot - evolving the story on the run
Tony went back to Afghanistan in January 2002, shortly followed by Michael Winterbottom and the rest of the crew of eight. But due to delays in obtaining visas and permissions, and passports and documentation for the two main cast, the shoot didn't start until March. 'It was a political minefield getting the permissions. Sometimes we wouldn't know if they could get to the next country until the day before.'
They used two Sony PD150 digital cameras and a camcorder, with the main camera left switched on constantly. The shoot took eight weeks with a break in between. 'Pakistan to Turkey/Istanbul, a month's break, then the Istanbul/UK leg.'
The basic road movie scenario was revised and fleshed out on the run as the filming progressed. 'The plan was I would travel ahead by a day and remake contact with people we'd met. If I'd written "a taxi driver arrives", I'd go and find a taxi driver. Despite the bombing in Afghanistan everyone was very nice to us.'
Things didn't always work out as planned, however. On the recce they had gone to the Ararat mountain range on the border between Iran and Turkey. 'A treacherous crossing with less patrols - the weather was bad so it was more dangerous - wolves, landslides; we were frozen cold. Research had revealed different groups of people smugglers who would shop one another to the cops - they'd run away, but the refugees would be captured. The cops were corrupt and would sell them to workshops and slavery.' The plan was to include this in the scenario, and have the boys captured and put to work as slaves.
But when Grisoni went ahead to the border during the shoot, he didn't find any smugglers, only a Kurdish village. 'The people were very amused and helpful - no way could we use the old scenario - so it changed. The boys are brought in and given tea and a beautiful woman with a headscarf strokes Jamal's head - it becomes a little oasis before the journey gets worse.' Being light on their feet meant the filmmakers were able to incorporate such changes.
Documentary or drama? Does it matter?
Needless to say, at the end of the shoot they had a phenomenal amount of footage, and Michael Winterbottom and Peter Christellis, the editor, needed to sift through mountains of material.
The film starts like a documentary, with some voice-over and statistics, and then moves into drama. 'When the music comes in it's a crossover point. It's an audacious mixing of styles.'
Is it a documentary or a fiction? 'What is truth? I love the fact that the film doesn't kow tow to notions of genre and separate boxes [for documentary and fiction]. The most exciting thing is that it's always crossing.'
Grisoni found himself stimulated by such an organic approach to filmmaking. 'This is the only time I have worked in this way. It was terrifying at the beginning and I was unclear at times, trying to figure out what I was going to do - what my job was. But in the end that's what was most rewarding, because it pushed me to keep re-defining and thinking about it. There's nothing like taking away the things you lean on …'
It wouldn't work for everyone, however. 'With this process you have to be working with people who know what they are doing.'
'The making of In This World was one of my most joyful times, working with people I have such regard for and such love. Those people are rare. I'd give my eye teeth to try it again.'