I met Michael Winterbottom at the Rosati café in Piazza del Popolo in Rome in the spring of 2010. He had picked up Angel Face, a Beast Book I wrote about the murder of Meredith Kercher and subsequent trial and conviction of Amanda Knox, at an airport in New York and read it during a red-eye flight to London.
His “people” had called to see if I was interested in discussing potentially selling the rights to the book for a movie. It seemed far-fetched, but I agreed. If nothing else, I figured I could use the experience to write about the movie he would eventually make, which, at the time, I was sure would have nothing to do with me. He said I would be able to find him because he’d be holding my book.
I remember the scene vividly, if only because it was re-created in one of the early scenes of the movie The Face of an Angel, which premiers at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday. In the movie scene, British actress Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Total Recall) plays an American journalist who has written a book about a famously heinous and polarizing murder of a British foreign exchange student. Daniel Bruhl (Rush, Inglourious Basterds) plays a British filmmaker tasked with writing a script for a movie based on the book, all the while fighting his demons and struggling to find his personal truth.
In the real life scene, I remember worrying that a movie about this murder would be ultimately sensational, bloody, and disrespectful to Meredith Kercher, who didn’t deserve to be a victim once more. Or worse, it would negate Kercher completely, which has been a regular practice in the coverage of the case. I had followed the story from the day of the murder in 2007 for Newsweek magazine and later for The Daily Beast, watching how Kercher became less important as the story evolved.
But I could tell from our first conversation that Michael really didn’t have a particular take on the crime and he certainly didn’t want to make a film about the debate of Amanda Knox’s innocence or guilt. In fact, by the way he challenged my thoughts on the case, I thought perhaps he was aiming to stitch up the media. There had already been a documentary on the case that aimed to do just that, as if killing the messenger would mute the message. Because the case was one of the biggest media circuses in recent memory, everyone seemed to have an opinion on Knox, who, along with her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, was convicted of Kercher’s murder in 2009, acquitted in 2011, and reconvicted of the murder in 2014.
The media frenzy surrounding the case is what made Amanda Knox the central figure, and, because she was still alive and because her parents had the ear of the American television market, the star. Unfair as it was, the disappearance of Meredith Kercher from the story was largely because Meredith’s parents weren’t as available. They were there, but they grieved their daughter stoically. I was worried that a movie about the case would erase Meredith for good.
I left the first meeting with Michael feeling sure that the film would probably never happen, in part because everyone I mentioned the meeting to told me just that. To my surprise, his people called back a short time later to say that Michael and his researcher and script writer wanted to meet all the principal characters, so I loaded them into my car and took them around Perugia to meet those who I felt were the most important people in the case—the prosecutor, lawyers, journalists, and a blogger. They also did their own research, reading books on the case, watching the myriad documentaries and reaching out to Meredith’s family.
What I hadn’t considered during the initial phases was that while they created their characters for the film based on people I introduced them to, I would inevitably become inspiration for a character myself. When I read the script a few months later, I was nothing short of shocked to find a character who was like me, but yet very different. When filming started, things got stranger. I went to Siena, which was cast as Perugia, for a cameo role as a television journalist in the film. But watching the filming was like an out-of-body experience. I was in scenes where the character based on me did things I would do—and many things I would not, all the while I was pretending to be someone else.
When filming finally ended and I eventually saw an early preview of the film, it was stranger still. The facts of the case represented in the film are spot on, yet the fictional aspects open up an entirely different story. At a private screening with friends in Rome on Tuesday night, many of whom were fellow journalists, I felt the urge to hand-hold them through each scene, explaining what was real and what was fiction.
But it wasn’t just my character I felt blurred the line between fact and fiction. The whole film sits somewhere in the middle, which somehow separates it from the real murder case without straying too far from the truth about what really happened in Perugia during the murder trials. For example, Cara Delevingne plays a young woman who is not based on any real character, yet embodies the victim and the suspect and the filmmaker’s young daughter with her portrayal of beauty, youth, and hope. Italian actor Valerio Mastandrea, on the other hand, plays someone based on an actual person, but does it in a way that transcends that person’s eccentricities to make the character seem surreal. There is scant attention paid to Knox’s as a polarizing figure, and plenty paid to Kercher as someone whose life ended so needlessly; the film is in fact dedicated to her memory.
But in the end, it is still a movie. And only those of us who were in the center ring of one of the biggest media circuses in recent memory will know what’s real and what’s not in the film, if we can separate it ourselves.