I'll have a full review for you on Friday, but THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak is a strange, almost other worldly telling of the events that take place during World War II, in the home of a German family, led by mother Rosa (Emily Watson) and father Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who adopt an orphan girl named Liesel (played by relative Canadian newcomer Sophie Nélisse, who had a pivotal role in 2011's Oscar-nominee MONSIEUR LAZHAR). The family has a tough time under the Nazi regime because Hans refuses to join the party, but things get more tense when they take in a Jewish refugee and hide them under their stairs for months.
If I told you the film was narrated by Death, perhaps you'd been to understand the strange and looming danger that exists over the story from the first frame. But if I also said that it was sweet, darkly humorous and dramatically impressive, that would begin to complete the portrait of THE BOOK THIEF more accurately. And this strange little story somehow caught on with readers (including my younger ones) by the millions when it was released in 2006.
Last month, I had a chance to sit down with two of the film's stars, Rush and Nélisse, as well as director Brian Percival, best know for directing the British mini-series "North and South" as well as key episodes of "Downton Abbey" in all three of its seasons so far. THE BOOK THIEF is his second feature after 2009's A BOY CALLED DAD.
I'm guessing Geoffrey Rush needs no introduction, but I will mention that I spoke with Bruce Dern recently for his upcoming film NEBRASKA (I'll have that for you next week), and he mentioned to me that the single greatest acting performance he'd ever seen in his life was Rush in SHINE. Add to that Oscar-winning performance work in films such as ELIZABETH (and its sequel), SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, QUILLS, MYSTERY MEN, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, MUNICH, THE KING'S SPEECH, and four PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films, and you've got yourself an impressive filmography.
With all of that preamble, please enjoy my talk with Brian Percival, Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush…
Capone: I know people that consider this book one of the best of the last decade, and they were familiarizing me with the story, but not with the tone as much. I’m curious about that very dark fairy tale quality is has. Is that there in the book, or was that something you decided would lend itself to a story like this?
Brian Percival: I mean we all tried to be understanding and faithful to Markus’ original vision as possible. Geoffrey has deconstructed it really well when he talked about Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but that wasn’t really an intention. I will sell this as a fable or whatever, and that will attract people. I think there are a lot of qualities which are inherent with the characters and the situation that are quite often seen in fairy tales--a small poor family, and Geoffrey mentioned that his hands look like a wood cutter's, which is a great analogy for it. And so, there are elements there, and it was a way of making those accessible really. I didn't want to make a black-and-white gritty film that was saying, "This is a Holocaust film." It wasn't about that at all.
It was about making a film that would attract an audience, and if that audience, particularly the younger generations who don’t know about what happened at that point, it’s just one or two clicks away to find out. Hopefully they’ll come away from the film with questions, and the first thing they do these days is Google it. In a way, it’s dressed up, but if taken that way, I don't think it's a bad thing, but it wasn’t intentional.
Capone: I might not have even thought that were it not for the charming, warm voice of Death giving us the narration. He does take away some of the sting of some of the really hard moments.
Geoffrey Rush: That’s hard-wired into the novel, because in the novel the whole story is told by Death, and he’s such a multi-dimensional character. He’s sometimes whimsical, sometimes he’s very blunt, very brutal, very existential, very ironic and raw, you know what I mean? I know the book was always intended as an adult novel, and I think, certainly in Australia and I think globally, it became a young-adult literature phenomenon because the language and the playing with language and this fascinating character--an unpredictable version of Death--really appealed to teenage sensibilities in a Lemony Snicket kind of way. It’s got that element to it, and yet it is dealing with probably one of the worst periods of human history ever, certainly within the grasp of our memories in recent times.
Capone: You talked a little bit last night about getting John Williams to come on board, or I should say John Williams accepting the offer aside to step away from Spielberg. Did he come to you?
BP: Yeah, I think John was aware of it. He had read the book and he was keen, and there was a conversation had somewhere, and I honestly can’t remember whether his people spoke to Fox or the other way around. I think John said the other day that it was Fox who said, “Would you be interested?” And he said, “I would.” And then the powers that be set up a meeting immediately.
We met and we had the same sort of vision for it really. John is known for these huge scores, these huge signature scores, I said, “It should really be a quite small, humble film.” And John always says, “Oh no, it’s a big film because it’s got a big heart and a lot of emotion.” But it’s not really. It’s about a small town, and they're all ordinary people. So I said to John, “You can’t really have anything bigger than the film.” And he said, “Well that’s what attracted me to it because. I’m known for doing these great big signature pieces, and I'd love to do something that is small and intimate and just beautiful, but really has a meaning to it--life and death.” That attracted him, and so I think that’s why he wanted to do it. If you listen to his smaller pieces that he’s not so well known for like ANGELA’S ASHES and SCHINDLER’S LIST even, they’re not all trumpets and warfare and battles; they're really just beautiful, beautiful melodies.
Capone: Sophie, you got day after day to spend working alongside Geoffrey. As a new actor, what sort of things did you pick up watching him, both from an acting point of view and how he was when the cameras weren't rolling?
GR: Be very, very careful.
Sophie Nelisse: Everything. He’s just so so great, and I just love that how he could be downstairs playing with something, and we’ll say "Rolling," and he’ll run upstairs and start and be in position, and they’ll say "Action," and how he acts in the scene will be amazing. And when he says "Cut," he’ll be so funny, even if it’s on a really hard subject. You wouldn’t feel any pressure and you wouldn’t feel that this is a sad story because, with him, when you’re not shooting, you have so much fun. He’s like a clown, always making these magic tricks. Or there was a spoon in the kitchen and a towel, and he would make a magic trick. He would take this hard subject and make something so magical about it, and that’s just what I love so much about him.
Capone: You have this wonderful conspiratorial relationship, especially when it comes to Emily Watson’s character. You have that “Let’s not tell mom” attitude about a lot of things. But what do you learn from working with someone young and who isn’t aware of necessarily of her best angle?
GR: I’d seen MONSIEUR LAZHAR not long before we started shooting, so I knew she could act. That film is strong subject matter. The impact on a series of 10-year-old kids in a school, their parents, their community, their teachers, resulting from their favorite teacher’s suicide, even hanging herself in the classroom during the school break. That’s a pretty tough opening to a film, and to see how Sophie and all of her young costars really rose to the occasion, I was in awe of that.
So when we got onto the set, I could tell already from the rehearsals--you'd rehearse in a corporate room somewhere in the Babelsberg Studios--and already I could feel there was this effortlessness in being able to go very effectively and with originality towards the emotional nuances of what the scene required without it being signaled or acting as cladding where you can see the engine working. And then in between rehearsals or in between takes, having this spirited sense of playfulness. We really clicked on that.
I think you keep your mind on a low-level hum of engagement with the characters in the scenes, and to a degree in real life as two actors on a film set, I’m being like a foster father to Sophie to make sure she feels comfortable, because she is carrying a film. "Do you feel okay about this?" and the way of communicating that is to play and muck around, because I knew as soon as Brian said action, she would go into this rich, imaginative playing arena in her own mind with stuff that would daunt me as an actor. When we were doing scenes like where I have to explain to her 10-year-old self what the First World War meant, what harboring a Jewish refugee would mean to our family, I didn’t feel as though I had to act because I could see this extraordinary fellow actor looking back at me absorbing this information, and it gave me the sense of the right rate and urgency and importance of what I was saying to her came out of this inner life.
Capone: There is humor in this film. Is that a tough balance to strike? Did you have to ever say, “Maybe don't go that big, or maybe not that funny”?
BP: Well, I don’t think so because we played it naturally; everybody was so wonderful about being natural about the way that they approached their roles. There comes with that a certain level of comedy, which isn't going to jump out of it because we’re surrounded by such great actors, and they know the level to go to. It’s also important that there are times that you laugh in this film, because if it had been portrayed as just a dreadful, miserable time it was then there’d be no human spirit, and humans do laugh in the face of adversity. It’s one way to take off the pressure. Naturally, it never bordered on slapstick. It was never going to be like that. These were great actors playing real people, and there was a level of humor that fit with what their characters were. And indeed that’s what came out. So we never had to push anything, and indeed there was just quite often because they were supposedly real, ordinary--actually extraordinary--people, and there’s a level to them, which gave a brighter side to the film.
GR: Well, the snowball scene was not actually in the script, but the snowman was, and I'd read it the night before and went, "Oh wow, this is such a neat scene. It’s probably the first thing that will go into edit because it’s not plot-driven." But then you think actually it is prop-driven, because she's taking snow downstairs to give Max a taste of what the real world is like so that he can keep going. And of course Hans is there like a big kid joining her, and then suddenly it bubbles over into "Let’s give Max a snowball fight. Let’s give him some play in his life because he’s basically incarcerated."
BP: It’s also a wonderful contrast to what’s going on in the outside world. You've go four people, thoroughly enjoying themselves, laughing their heads off, throwing snowballs at one another. The whole film has to be about those contrasts, and it is. You see a beautiful little boy like Rudy in a Nazi uniform, and part of your brain is saying, “Oh, isn't he cute?” And the other part is going, "What does that uniform stand for?” And we tried to do that constantly throughout the film, to take one perception and to contrast it with another in the same scene. So there would be characters who were in a bomb shelter, and they were visibly terrified by what was happening, and the next day you would see them on the street berating a Jewish man who’s being dragged away by the Nazis, and you think, “I just felt compassion for that person, but now look at what they’re doing.” The film has to have those contrasts all the way through it, because that’s what engages; it works on more than one level.
Capone: Geoffrey, you mentioned that ordinary/extraordinary combination, especially in your character, and you do have something of a history of playing more flamboyant characters and exaggerated characters. Here you’re playing more of an ordinary man, who in these circumstances is bordering on heroic in a lot of ways, certainly for the times. How do you make the ordinary seem extraordinary?
GR: The word you used earlier, about the tone. The actor's instinct or whatever about knowing what’s the atmosphere, what’s the tone, what’s the texture of this scene or this line. And I think we all agreed and we all just knew in our bones, don’t let this fall into a given style where the emotional undercurrents of what the implications of the actions are are played. So, avoid melodrama, avoid sentimentality at all costs, even to the point where you might think, “I’m trying to make it so real now that it could be getting a bit boring.” [laughs] And Brian was the tastemaster on that. You would just have to go, “Is this working okay?” And he would go, “Yeah.” And suddenly you have to trust nuance or your actor's color palate has different paints on it, and you think, “Oh this is actually interesting playing on this level.”
I the sub-plotting, it’s not written in with a trough, but Hans has connected with that family of Max and has probably given him the green light to say come down and be there at night and knock on the door and use a code. And then you realize that this simple, happy wood cutter/accordion player/out-of-work house painter is a political maverick by implication. Political maverick because everyone else is self-protective and going and joining the party; we’re living under a regime of anxiety and fear and terror. It’s easier to join a party and make sure my family is okay, and I’ve got a little food on the table and don’t make waves.
Capone: Sophie, I read a couple of months ago about your background in gymnastics, and what I read it it made it seem like you were really on the path to the Olympics. Is that overstating it, or is that about accurate?
SN: Well, I mean it’s a bit overstating. I wasn’t with a team or anything, but I was training to go to the Olympics, and I was at the national level. So I would go sometimes into competition representing Canada. But yeah, that was definitely my goal.
Capone: So what made you decide not to do that anymore? Was acting that cool?
SN: It is.
SN: It’s been three years. I had injured my ankle, and I couldn’t really go forward anymore because there was always this blocking me. And I’d say, "I don’t know if I want to make all these sacrifices, to have like no life and have to always eat perfectly, and be told that you’re too fat to maybe go to the Olympics. There is like one chance out of 1,000 I'd make it. Or I could have like a great life having a job for me that is not a job at all, just going to have fun, meet great actors, travel everywhere. It was like, "Yeah, that sounds like more fun." I still love gymnastics and I follow my friends.
GR: Did you do mat stuff? Did you do all that crazy dancing where they do expressive dance to really weird songs like "Chariots of Fire" or something?
SN: Well, I had four things. The bar, the beam, the vault, and the floor.
GR: Flip, boom! No wobbling!
Capone: Did you stick your landings?
SN: Yeah. Beam is so stressful.
GR: Serious eye makeup?
SN: No, just serious hair that's plastered to your head.
Capone: Were you able to transfer the level of discipline that you need for gymnastics into acting then?
SN: Yeah, because you have to be disciplined, especially with my homework, and with school. When I was doing gymnastics, it would take a lot of time, so I would have to mix them together--school and gymnastics. It’s the same for acting. And also I think that I’m really aware of what is happening around me. On beam, you have to know if something is beside you; you have to know what's happening. Because sometimes there could be a little girl just running next to you, and if you’re distracted, you could seriously get injured. So there's knowing what’s happening around me, knowing the camera’s here, or a light covering me here.
GR: You should write a book: "Acting Through Gymnastics." It’s a really perfect experience.
Capone: So was there a grand search for this character? What was it about her that you said, “That’s the one.”
BP: It was just that mixture of vulnerability and feistiness really. There was this thing where we had this feeling about what we wanted. She was this poor little lost soul, and you wanted to put your arms around her to protect her from this big bad world, but at any moment you could get kneed in the groin.[laughs] She is that sort of kid. And we went right across England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Scandinavia. It didn’t work out; we still couldn’t find anybody. We put feelers out in Australia, Los Angeles, the East Cost of America, and Markus had mentioned Sophie from MONSIEUR LAZHAR, and I love that film and thought she was terrific in it, and our casting director got in touch and asked her to do a little self take, which she did on an iPhone, and there was just something there, there were both of those qualities.
Most kids would either be quite ballsy and quite tough, or they would be quite vulnerable and quite meek. There wasn’t somebody that could switch in between the two. And also they had to be a certain age because they got to play as young as 10 up to 16, and you can't get a 10 year old playing a 16 year old and vice versa. You had to find someone the right age with the right sensibilities and somebody first and foremost that has got the spirit that Liesel has. Because if we found somebody who had the same spirit, then they haven’t got to act so much as be. They’ve got their own life experience to draw on in terms of emotional content rather than 20 years worth of technique to know how to nail that character. So we were lucky to find her.
Capone: I'm really curious about the days that you spent shooting that post-bombing scene at the end of the film. What was that like?
GR: We’d gotten to that point we’d been filming on the street for two-and-a-half months or so, and we went away, and they destroyed the street.
Capone: You saved it for the end of the shoot, sure.
BP: Yeah, I think we all felt the same thing. The street had become a friend to all of us. It was a daily place where there is a lot of warmth and spirit, and we went back in there and the whole thing was destroyed and I think that...
SN: I thought it was awesome.
GR: She thought it was awesome, but Emily and I burst into tears when we walked onto set that day. I said, “Hey, we’ve gotta hold this together, because we’re just going to lie there and be dead for Sophie and give her something real to react to.” But it was terribly moving. And that happens in the book, and we know it was going to happen during the shoot. I said to Brian halfway through, “You know that people are going to die in this film, and hopefully the audience doesn’t know who is going to die." You get the feeling more and more that you don’t want any of them to die, because you get to know them so well.
SN: It was the best day and worst day at the same time, because it was such a challenge, and it was fun and I felt so proud of myself when I was done. And that day I had to kiss Nico, which was the worst thing that could ever happen. He was like my brother, and we had so much fun together, and it was just so awkward that day. But at the same time, it was a really hard scene because I had to cry a lot all day and you get depressed a little bit. At the end of the day, my mom was like, “What do you wanna do?” And I was like, “I don’t care.” I was just so tired. But I mean it was a fun day, and at the end, I was really proud of myself.
Capone: How often did you go back to the actual book to fill in some of the gaps that maybe weren’t in there, especially in terms of character?
SN: Well I never went, because I never read the book.
BP: She read it after, but I think Geoffrey and I and Emily we all used it.
GR: Because in the book you get prosed-out interior monologues of what was going on via Death's reporting of what was Hans thinking. I can think off the top of my head, like what goes through his head when he realizes she's stolen a book and the panic and the implications of what that could mean, or did anyone see you? In the screenplay, it’s all there, but in the novel, you also get descriptions on how Hans’ brain goes into overdrive about How am I going to handle this, what am I going to do etc. etc. So, there’s sort of a lot of value in that.
Capone: You said last night you have GODS OF EGYPT coming out [Rush plays Ra].
GR: I haven't shot it yet. [laughs] I probably shouldn't even be talking about it.
Capone: And then PIRATES 5 got pushed back. When do you actually think you’ll start to shoot that?
GR: I think they said like end of next year.
Capone: Sophie, do you go back to school, or do you have more acting ahead of you?
SN: Well when I come back, I think I’m done doing my touring on November 17 and I have shooting on the 18th, because I have five days of shooting.
Capone: Shooting on what?
SN: I have shootings on the little tiny part of the movie called PAWN SACRIFICE [directed by Edward Zwick], and it's based on the life of Bobby Fischer. It's a little, little part.
GR: Is that the chess player? Who’s doing that? I read about that.
SN: Tobey Maguire. Actually I’m probably not going to see him, but that’s what I have for now. And I’m going to continue playing in this Montreal series, and that’s pretty much it for now.
Capone: And Brian, you mentioned something last night about working with ["Downton Abbey creator] Julian Fellowes again?
BP: Yeah, I’ve got a project with Julian again, which is about the great English admiral Nelson; his life actually ended as a ménage a trois, which is a huge public event at the time in England. So there’s that and a few other things, but right at the minute, it would have been over two years I've been working on this film really, so I wanna get to the end of that process by the spring time of next year, then decide what I’m going to immerse myself in for the next couple years.
Capone: Is the Nelson piece for film or television?
BP: No, no it’s film, with Pathé and BBC. It’s a look at his personal life, a side of his life that not many people know about. Very intriguing.
Capone: Well, it was great to meet you all. Thank you so much.