Exclusive: Stephen Daldry on Directing The Reader


Eight years ago, director Stephen Daldry worked with playwright David Hare to adapt Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours into a film honored with nine Oscar nominations, including Nicole Kidman winning an Oscar for her performance as writer Virginia Woolf. The duo have reunited to adapt Bernard Schlink’s bestselling book The Reader as their latest film, once again tackling difficult subject matter with a semi-autobiographical story set in post-WWII Germany involving a teen’s first sexual experience with an older woman harboring a horrifying secret from her past.

It stars Ralph Fiennes and newcomer David Kross as the older and younger Michael Berg, a German law student who becomes secretly involved with a significantly older woman, trolley ticket taker Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), only to find out years later she was hiding a dark and disturbing past. Ashamed by his involvement with someone responsible for the death of thousands at the Nazi concentration camps, Michael spends the rest of his life trying to make amends, while also trying to help his first love get over her own shame and guilt for the secrets she kept from him.

While the film works well as a coming-of-age love story, there are a lot more factors at play with the characters including the reason why Hanna has Michael read to her, all wrapped up in an overlaying story about German guilt over their involvement in the Holocaust.

Oddly, we first met Stephen Daldry a few years back at a building on 14th Street, where he, producer Scott Rudin and their team had spent a couple months doing research and development for a movie based on Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The presentation they gave that day was a terrific experience that sadly, we weren’t allowed to write about at the time.

We were looking forward to catching up with Daldry and learning more about the status of that project, although we were cut short of our time allotted by an overzealous publicist and sadly, much of what we wanted to ask the filmmaker about The Reader had already been covered in the earlier roundtable interviews, so we’ll include some of that afterwards.

To make up for it, we’re also including an audio interview with the two writers involved with the movie, the novel’s author Bernard Schlink and award-winning playwright and screenwriter David Hare who adapted the novel for Daldry. If you want to know more about the subject of the novel and the adaptation process, you can check out that interview here.

ComingSoon.net: This is your second time working with David Hare and both times, it was very complex material structured non-traditionally, so what is the appeal of doing this kind of material?
Stephen Daldry: I think the honest answer to that question is why do you pick any material to spend time with, and it’s less about reading a book and turning it into a movie than reading a book and seeing if you want to spend two years of your life in the world of that book. Given the subject matter, and this is a fantastically complex, layered ambiguous subject matter, which I’ve been fascinated with for some time. David Hare is, as you know, an old friend of mine, and I think we work very well together, so it was a fantastic challenge once again to approach another source material like Mr. Schlink’s “The Reader.”

CS: Was David already working on adapting it for Anthony Minghella, when he was going to direct it?
Daldry: No, I read the book and wanted to have a go at it and Anthony had the rights and independently of me, David had read it, actually a bit prior to me reading it, and approached Anthony, but at that point, he was very keen to do it himself, so he wasn’t letting anybody near it. He eventually relented after I badgered him for several years.

CS: Kate also mentioned that she had read it long before the movie was in the works, so it’s strange that the three of you were reading it completely separate of each other.
Daldry: It was a big bestseller.

CS: What was the one thing that struck you about the book that made you want to do it? Was it the characters, the time period, or the overall subject matter?
Daldry: I’d spent time in Germany as a kid and as an adult, so it was really the subject matter I was fascinated with and had been for some time.

CS: What years were you there?
Daldry: In the ’70s. When I was a schoolboy, I went to Germany. I spent a month every year there from about the age of 13 to the age of 18, so a lot of time.

CS: I’ve spent a bit of time there myself, since both my parents are German. It’s definitely an interesting subject, how the German people look back on what happened during World War II. When you decided to make this and knew you were going to shoot in Germany, you probably knew you’d have to deal with the way the country has changed since that time. There’s a lot of the country that’s still the same as it was, but was it hard finding places where they had working trolleys and the like?
Daldry: Berlin now is a city that’s been rebuilt three times in the last century, but in terms of the Berlin of now, it’s not anywhere near what it looked like in the Berlin of ’89 and the Berlin of ’89 was nothing like the Berlin of 1947, so the massive rebuild that the Marshall Plan allowed the country to go through and the German economic miracle transformed that country and then it had to transform again on Reunification. The novel is set predominantly in Heidelberg and that is a very difficult place to shoot because it’s been so changed over the years that we had to move to a different town called Gurlitz on the Polish border in the old East Germany, although most of the towns in East Germany have now gone through the process of renovation. This is a town that still has enough elements for me to work with.

CS: In working with the German crews, I assume there wasn’t any kind of language barrier. Do you still speak German yourself?
Daldry: I learned it as a kid, so I have schoolboy German.

CS: Can you talk about the casting of Kate? I understand she was your first choice but then wasn’t available so you were going to make it with Nicole Kidman, but ended up back with Kate. Had you already been developing it for Kate when you started the project?
Daldry: She couldn’t do it cause she was busy doing “Revolutionary Road” and then we started shooting, and obviously, Nicole never came to set, at that point, she was shooting “Australia” then she was going to come join us after Christmas and then got pregnant and couldn’t, and I went back to Kate and said, “Look, if we delay for a few months, would you be free?” and obviously, she did, for which I was very lucky.

CS: The movie was actually shot earlier this year, though?
Daldry: We started shooting last September.

CS: But I think she mentioned that you finished shooting this past June or July?
Daldry: That’s right.

CS: It seems like a very fast process for getting a movie done.
Daldry: Well, not really. We were shooting for a year, which I think is quite a long time.

CS: So you were editing as you went along and just had to finish it up this year?
Daldry: Correct.

CS: There’s been a lot of talk this season of the number of movies dealing with WWII and the Holocaust. It’s almost annoying how many lazy writers are lumping “The Reader” and these other movies together, when they’re obviously very different subjects. I actually went into this not really knowing much about it so I was shocked by the revelation when Michael meets Hanna a few years after their tryst.
Daldry: Oh, wow, that’s great!

CS: But I was curious how you feel about how the movie is being marketed or talked about as if it was a Holocaust movie?
Daldry: I don’t think it’s being marketed that way, but if it’s being talked about like that, there’s nothing I really can do about that, but I don’t think it is a Holocaust movie. It’s a very complicated subject matter, post-war Germany and how one generation comes to terms with the sins of the past. I don’t know. It’ll settle down, I would have thought, when everyone’s seen all the movies.

CS: When I spoke with Bernard and David earlier (check out the audio link above), I asked them about adapting a novel like this into a movie that can be appreciated or understood by British or American audiences who might not have as much of a connection to the situation that Germans would easily understand. Was that a concern at all or was that already accomplished with the novel and it being relatable to non-Germans?
Daldry: Non-Germans (chuckles)… well, it is a very specific German story, and I think Mr. Schlink wanted it in the English language to see if it could reach a different audience and whether the themes resonated beyond the German experience. Whether it will or not, I don’t know, if I’m being honest about it. I know I’m very much looking forward to showing it in Germany and for the release in Germany. We won’t be showing it until the Berlin Film Festival in February, but I’m really excited. How much it relates, obviously I think it does to a certain extent. I think the themes of truth, reconciliation, forgiveness or not, and how we love people who’ve done monstrous acts, I would have thought they would relate to other cultures and situations… but we’ll find out.

CS: I thought the love story in the first act is interesting because I’m sure a lot of people have had those relationships which are all about going to someone’s place to have sex and that’s the whole relationship. It did remind of “The Hours” in that there is so much to absorb that I’m sure I’ll want to see it again sometime.
Daldry: Oh, great, good.

CS: Also in terms of how it relates to “The Hours,” I wanted to talk about the score. You had Philip Glass doing the score for that film and he has such a distinctive sound. I wanted to ask about working with Nico Muhly on this score. He did a movie called “Joshua” which had a score I loved, and I wondered how you went about trying to do something different from “The Hours” that fit more into this setting.
Daldry: Well, he worked on “The Hours,” Nico’s worked for many years with Philip Glass, and works from his studio downtown. He’s a young composer and I think he’s probably one of the most exciting young composers in America today, and he’s also, in the music world, he’s a big star, a big prodigy and conducts all over the world, and I think he’s going to be one of the most astonishing contemporary American composers, so I think we were incredibly lucky to have had him, and I love it because like Philip, he brings another level of conversation to the film rather than just emotionally supporting what’s happening. It’s another dialectic that goes on, sometimes in counterpoint to what you’re watching.

CS: I remember you were working with Scott Rudin on “Kavalier & Clay” and I was curious what happened with him leaving this project a few months back, especially having seen all the beautiful work you two did together on developing that book into a movie a few years back (which sadly, no one else has seen).
Daldry: I know!

CS: I know that Scott was producing this movie and something happened where he left.
Daldry: Oh, no. Scott and Harvey fell out, but you know, Scott and Harvey fell out and that’s what happened. I sincerely hope that “Kavalier & Clay” hasn’t been lost and forgotten and that Scott and I do get back on the track as soon as we can.

CS: Do you think if “Watchmen” does well, even though it’s a very different story and movie, that might help get interest in bringing this back to life? It does deal somewhat with Golden Age heroes as well.
Daldry: Well, “Kavalier & Clay” is an expensive movie and I do think in the end it will depend on how confident or not Paramount feels about spending that kind of money.

So here’s more with Mr. Daldry from earlier roundtable interviews with a group of other journalists:

CS: Can you talk about what the late Sidney Pollack and Anthony Minghella brought to the film before their passing?
Daldry: Well, we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have made the film without Sidney and Anthony. Anthony was a close friend of mine although I knew Sidney as well, and as I’m sure you know, this was a pet project of Anthony’s, he wanted to write it and direct it himself. I think it was his realization that he wouldn’t get around to it for a few more years and a feeling of responsibility to Bernard Schlink to get the film finally made that he allowed myself and David to go ahead with him and Sidney producing. That was very generous and very gracious of Anthony and both men were very heavily involved in the stage of writing and casting and we had many meetings with them, David Hare and I, as we worked through different drafts with Sidney always having the one single question that was the most important to ask, and Anthony always having the detail and the vigorous examination of what we were doing and why we were doing it. But what’s fantastic of course is given Anthony’s history with the project, Anthony never approached that period to try to make us make the film he wanted to make. He was always a director and a producer who would allow us to make the best film we wanted to make. It sounds like a subtle distinction but it’s actually a crucial distinction with one of the most destructive elements you can have is having a producer who wants you to make the film they want to make rather than enabling you to make the one you want to make. In that sense, both Anthony and Sidney were fantastic champions, and it was a devastating loss when they died for all sorts of reasons.

CS: Can you talk about how you prepared to do the intimate love scenes between David and Kate besides clearing the stages and working with a small crew?
Daldry: Meticulous planning, no room for discussion, and know what you want, so that the actors feel they’re in an environment that’s very solid, clear and trying to make it fun. (David) started giggling and having all sorts of laughs, and it got much better.

CS: What was the mood like on the set for this?
Daldry: Well, we had a German crew, apart from the DoP (Director of Photography), and they were fantastic. They knew the book very well, and they’ve become some of my best friends. The attention to detail was phenomenal. I’ll give you an example: the propmaster is a man called David Hoffman, who you cannot believe the amount of research and accuracy he went into and he brought to the table. But it was a wonderful crew. I think everybody felt it, it was a very unusual and familial and collegiate atmosphere. Maybe it’s because I work in the theater so much and that’s how you work in the theater, but I think it was also a particular collection of German individuals who were just so generous.

CS: Wasn’t there some minor issue of uncertainty whether the movie might be finished in time to get it out this year?
Daldry: Originally, it was going to come out about a month earlier, and that was not going to be a possible, so we had a bit of a fight to get some more time and more resources, and then happily that was resolved, and we all felt very happy at that point and that changed things.

CS: How do you feel about the Oscar buzz surrounding the film? Do you listen to any of it?
Daldry: Do you know, I don’t. Good or not. I think since school, when you get prizes at school, it’s always nice to get prizes, but I don’t know what to say about it. There are bonuses that can be nice, and I do understand that in the United States of America, they’re useful as a marketing tool. To be frank, I’m not convinced that’s true for the rest of the world, but particularly for a film like this, which is very much a European film… Actually, that’s a little bit disingenuous. I think the only thing that is really great for where I would get excited about prizes is for my actors, and in my book, I would give them everything in the world, so if anyone wants to give them prizes, I’m always more than happy.

The Reader opens in New York, L.A. and San Francisco on Wednesday, December 10, and then expands wider on Christmas Day and in January.