There have been so many movies about World War II and the Holocaust that it’s sometimes hard not to be cynical about the genre becoming somewhat formulaic and predictable, as important a story as it may be trying to tell. When a movie tries to take a truly unique approach to the subject matter, it’s hard not to take notice, and that’s the case with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, the new movie from Mark Herman (Brassed Off) based on John Coyne’s novel. Set in 1940’s Germany, it follows the story of an 8-year-old Germany boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) who is brought to the countryside by his Nazi officer father (David Thewlis) and whose only friend his own age to play with is a boy named Schmuel who lives on the opposite side of the fence in a mysterious “farm.” In the meantime, the relationship between Bruno’s parents becomes strained as his mother (Vera Farmiga) starts becoming more protective of her son ever finding out what really is going on at the nearby camp.
ComingSoon.net sat down with filmmaker Mark Herman (right in photo) and producer David Heyman (left in photo) to talk about this Holocaust film that leaves a deep impact due to its unique perspective on war and racism.
ComingSoon.net: First of all, I understand that you, David, were interested in optioning the book but Mark had already done so?
David Heyman: Other way around. We were all interested in the book. I was interested in the book. Rosie Allison who works for me showed me the book and encouraged me to read it and I was a little hesitant because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get the film made or how to make it, but I didn’t read it initially, and when did, I absolutely loved it. While I was thinking how to do it, Mark swept in and optioned the material himself and then once he had taken his six months or so to do a draft then showed it to Miramax with whom he had an arrangement and myself. I think he met a few other producers and I conned him into going with me.
Mark Herman: And I think all the reasons people felt hesitant about it was all the reasons I wanted to write it in a way. I felt it was strange the option hadn’t gone and I felt that if people could read a screenplay, they could more easily imagine the film.
Heyman: It’s funny because the screenplay, the first draft, all of it, is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the book, however Mark removed certain things from the book and added certain things into the film that I think make the film obviously a piece on its own terms, but really, I can’t imagine not being in a film of the book. I hadn’t imagined it prior to your script.
Herman: It was weird. I dipped into the book on the flight over and it’s amazing how different it is.
CS: That was the first time you read it…?
Herman: For a long time, yeah. I thought if we would be talking about it… If you analyze this and analyze the words, it’s so different, but everybody thinks it’s very, very faithful, which I suppose is the aim. Even John (Boyne, the novelist) thinks it’s completely faithful to the book. I suppose it’s very faithful to the spirit of the book, which is the main challenge.
Heyman: That’s the key. Given that somebody asked me since I had done a few adaptations, what is the key? I think if you option a book because you love the book, which in my case, both with “Potter” and with this is very much the case, then you cannot… books and films are different medium. The danger–and I think we may have been guilty of it at times on “Potter,” being too faithful to the source material–literally doesn’t make the film an organic piece, and I think the key is to retain the spirit of the material. I think Mark did that, as you say.
Herman: It’s a different language and a different discipline.
CS: David, I know you had some personal history with the Holocaust, so was that the case with you too, Mark? Your previous movies were very different so I was curious what about the book grabbed you initially?
Herman: Nothing from my personal history at all. I don’t think that disqualifies me at all. I could be making a movie about the MAFIA and I don’t have to kill anybody.
Heyman: There’s the thing that’s so important I think to all of us about this is that yes, it’s very much set in 1940s wherever–Germany or Poland.
CS: No, it’s never very clear where it takes place.
Heyman: No, no, and intentionally so, but it is clear in the book, it’s called Auschwitz, the camp, and Mark excised that because he knew quite rightly, it all felt too ploying and a little too cute and actually, by not making it so specific, it made the tale more universal. For me, and I know for Mark, yes, it’s very much about this time, this period, but at the same time, it’s a fable, it’s a metaphor, it’s about today, it’s about alas many times before. It’s about prejudice, it’s about genocide…
CS: Is that what you originally saw in the novel?
Herman: No, I mean I think that’s a bonus that’s come out of it. It was never an intention of mine or John’s I think, to make a statement about today, but you recognize it. The movie’s come out in Europe and you talk to people and the talk of people coming out is how relevant it is to today, and for me, that’s just a bonus. It was never the intention. If kids or anybody comes out recognizing the madness of racism and prejudice then obviously that applies to today.
Heyman: When you read the book, if you don’t cry…
Herman: What got me was the original angle, the unique angle they’d taken. It’s not just another Holocaust story, it’s not just through the eyes of a child, that’s been done before, but I think through the eyes of a German child was a unique angle and a more interesting angle to take.
CS: At what point did you have a discussion to decide which accents they were going to use? Is Vera the only American in the cast?
Heyman: Yeah, we were lucky because Vera came in and we didn’t know how good she was. You had a sense but she came in, did a little work with an acting coach and her English accent…
Herman: …was better than everybody’s.
CS: But in terms of dealing with the British accent, how did you come to the decision to go that way?
Herman: Well, you could shoot it in German and you can use German actors and we wouldn’t be here discussing it, I don’t think. We needed to reach as wide an audience as possible, and the other alternative is to shoot in German accents, which I hate. I think just on a practical level, just for those two kids, it wouldn’t have worked. They had enough on their plate learning the lines and saying the lines without saying it in a German accent.
Heyman: That would have been really sad.
Herman: And also, the other thing turns out as you’re shooting, you realize it makes you question your own nation, the fact that it’s in English, and again, that’s a bonus that came out of it. You realize that it’s not really just about Germans, it’s actually about the human race and behavior.
CS: As far as working with the kids, you were shooting in Hungary and you were dealing with a subject that’s really tough. How hard was it being on the set and getting those performances out of them? I know Asa has done some acting but you had to get them to do some really tough things.
Herman: I think they’re so wrapped up in this bubble of filmmaking that you don’t want to laden them with any burden of the wider issues, and again, they’re only 8 years old and 10 years old at the time. As far as the performance was concerned, we had a fantastic kids’ coach called Celia Bannerman, who would not necessarily go through the lines with them, but get them in the right mood by playing games or roleplaying, just getting them in the right mindset immediately before a take.
Heyman: For example, sometimes with kids–and we’ve done this on “Potter” too–to a certain extent, they begin to swallow their words. They don’t project energy for whatever reason, so that’s for example where she’d be really useful.
Herman: Also, the practicality–well, David knows more about this than anybody–the fact you only get kids certain age on set for very few hours in the day because they have to be fed and watered and educated, and that problem is doubled when in fact you have two kids. I think it was like two or three weeks we had the two kids by themselves.
Heyman: For example, in the “Potter” films, you have the kids for 9 and a half hours a day, three hours for education, an hour for lunch and 15 minute breaks every hour, so you have your lead actor for four hours a day. When you’re shooting with adults, you can shoot on the kids and then you can say, “Okay, why don’t you go off to school? We’ll shoot with David Thewlis or Vera.” When you’ve got the two kids by the fence, there’s nowhere to hide.
Herman: I mean, I’m watching those scenes now and I’m amazed we got it. Whenever there’s a single shot probably, the other kid isn’t there, and we started off by using the Hungarian double for the other kid, say if it was Asa, then he’d be acting through the fence to a Hungarian child. Asa would be really thrown because he’s aware he’s talking to a kid who doesn’t understand a word he’s saying. So gradually, we even put crew members in there to get reactions from Asa and that really worked well, but it’s difficult enough for adult actors to be doing that, for a kids on his first movie, it’s amazing. To watch those scenes now work so well emotionally is a testament to their ability.
CS: I wanted to ask about some of the other changes in the book when you adapted it. Did you develop Vera’s character a little more for the movie?
Herman: I suppose the first thing I ever did was to just lift all the dialogue straight from the book onto the computer and then analyze it a bit, and I realized that maybe 70% of it is the kids talking. That works very well in the book, but on-screen it wouldn’t. It would be very static, and it might even become irritation, so I pared that right down, cut down the frequency and length of those meetings, which created a hole for something else. I felt that the family life was the thing to fill that hole with and to develop that angle, especially having a character in the mother who goes on a journey of discovery.
Heyman: I think it made the film, even though it’s an intimate tale, so much larger. I think the portrayal of the family as a normal family makes this horror all the more horrific because it’s all too easy to paint the Nazi as the evil…
Herman: In a way, the big difference between them is the book is absolutely about the child, in his head, and the movie is about family.
CS: I don’t want to spoil the ending because I think it’s important for it to hit you in the gut as it does. I was curious when you read the book and decided to make the movie, was there any question or pressure about changing the ending? I know it’s different in the novel than how you handled it in the movie, too.
Herman: Well, there’s no point in even taking on the subject if we’re going to change the ending. It was a discussion we had early on and in the first meetings with Miramax, it’s not written down, but it was sort of an agreement that it was no point spending three and a half years making this movie if you’re going to change the ending.
Heyman: The only reason that Mark went with me is that the two other producers who he met said they wanted the two kids to go singing and dancing off into the sunset.
Herman: The ending is slightly different, there’s an extra few pages at the end that gives an update of what happened to the mum and the dad and the sister, and that wouldn’t work in the movie.
Heyman: The other big difference I think is that Mark structured it in a way like a thriller, like a chase, so that aspect of the parents running to the fence, and Bruno and Schmuel going into the chamber and are they going to save them, are they not going to save them? Like a suspense thriller, it’s a Mark construction, because all of that does not come full-blown until the end of the book months afterwards.
Herman: There’s sort of a Hollywood technique for that chase but then you immediately pull the run from under your feet with a non-Hollywood ending.
CS: I think a lot of people wonder what happens to David and Vera’s characters after the movie ended and I wondered why you didn’t think to include that if it was in the book?
Herman: Well, you got to end the film somewhere. I had a question the other night from someone who really wished that David’s character shot himself. Well, he might have done so after the end credits.
Heyman: He did, didn’t he? But you’re right, you’ve got to end somewhere, and also, the film was really about the relation to Bruno and ending it end gives you everything you want.
Herman: And the additional thing is–I don’t think it was ever in the script, but it was thought of on the shoot, was the very final shot, the drawback through the pajamas, I felt an audience be thinking too much about Bruno or Bruno and Schmuel, but it’s such a wider issue that that, so that’s why I put that trackback to show so many pajamas. If we had the budget, that would still be going on now, that shot.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas opens in select cities on Friday, November 7.
David Heyman photo credit: Hosoki Nobuhiro