The Production of ‘The Reader’ – Just as Interesting as the Film

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The Reader

Photo: The Weinstein Co.

The Reader is one of the films this awards season that has really stuck with me. I can’t exactly put my finger on the reason why, but I can’t seem to get it out of my head and I have a feeling it may ultimately end up on my year-end top ten. The film has undoubtedly the best performance by Kate Winslet this year and while it didn’t fair very well with critics I have a feeling it is one of those films that will get better with age. Will people give it a second chance? Considering the movie world we live in nowadays, I don’t think so. However, that doesn’t make the story of its production any less interesting.

I kept a story by Anne Thompson at Variety open in my browser for almost a week now since I was hoping for a chance to reference it and I think the time has finally come as Liz Smith just wrote a column about the film at Variety and Mark Olsen did a write up with the film’s young star David Kross. All of which present a compelling story of how the film ultimately made it to the big screen and some of the aftermath.

The film is set in Germany with Kross as Michael, a 15 year-old boy who falls in love with an older woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet). The two have an affair only to have it end as Hanna suddenly vanishes. Eight years later, the war is over and Michael is at law school and watching over a trial involving several women who worked as concentration camp guards during World War II. Hanna is one of those women. The film is directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours) and hit theaters on December 12.

The story for so long was how Daldry was rushed into post-production in order to have the film ready for Oscar season, but before that even started just read Thompson’s breakdown of the earlier days:

The pic’s original director and producer, Anthony Minghella, died at 54 while the film was in production. Minghella’s producing partner Sydney Pollack also died as the film was being finished. Nicole Kidman, originally set to star as Hanna Schmitz, pulled out and was replaced by Kate Winslet, who wound up simultaneously promoting “Revolutionary Road” during awards season. And cinematographer Roger Deakins ended up leaving in mid-production to be replaced by Chris Menges.

That was all before the much-publicized blowout between Daldry, producer Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, which nearly postponed the film into next year.

Strangely enough, I think the production benefitted huge by Kidman leaving as her career seems to be going backwards while Winslet has become the greatest actress of our generation. Care to dispute that?

On top of everything mentioned above the film had to contend with the fact that when shooting began Kross was only 17-years-old, a situation Mark Olsen lays out for us at the Los Angeles Times:

Newcomer David Kross faced a starring role in “The Reader” opposite five-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet, a role in which he’d be the one required to convey the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the film. Nerve-racking for a young performer, right? It gets worse. The film is also the German actor’s first English-speaking role. Oh, and did we mention that Kross is just 18 and the movie required sex scenes and full frontal nudity? […]

As Daldry tells it, the film began shooting in fall of 2007, took a break just after the holidays, picked up again in the spring, took another break to wait for Kross to turn 18 before filming his love scenes with Winslet, and finally finished production this July.

The end of production is where we pick up the story on how it ended up being rushed for a release date, which basically came about as Daldry wanted eight more days of shooting and Harvey Weinstein agreed giving him the days and $2 million, but only if he would agree to testing the movie early and if it tested above 70 he would finish it for Oscar season. Daldry agreed to the deal and when it tested at 77 the scramble began as he was also prepping the musical “Billy Elliot”.

Things came to a head as an email from Daldry to Weinstein became public which read, “I do not have the physical or mental capacity to deliver the film for release this year… The last month of doing double duty on the musical and the movie have utterly depleted me. My work on the show is suffering badly, as is my work on the movie. … I am physically exhausted and emotionally nowhere. … I simply can’t do it and I am sorry.”

Well, he did do it and it was released, but to a split group of critics as the film holds a 56% rating at RottenTomatoes. However, that is where Liz Smith comes in as she had a chat with Weinstein from the set of Nine in London where he told her about the reaction of Elie Wiesel, the famous Nobel Laureate writer and Holocaust survivor, to the film and his comments regarding the character played by Lena Olin whose younger self wrote the memoir that exposed Hanna and the group of women she was on trial with. Many have been negative with regard to Olin’s character, but Wiesel found plenty of praise:

“I don’t know what people think when they say things like that. The Germans who colluded, or looked away, were ordinary people. But they were people who had been convinced that Jews were actually sub-human. Twenty years of propaganda works its evil. And why is it unrealistic to show a person who has survived the camps and then made a good life?

“Do you know the way many ‘ordinary’ war criminals were found and brought to trial? The phone book! Investigators just looked in the phone book. These people had simply resumed their lives after the war. They didn’t try to hide because they still didn’t understand they had done wrong. When I sat in on some of the trials, I myself was actually shocked at how normal they seemed. No horns, no outward ugliness. That is the great horror — they weren’t monsters. But they did monstrous things.”

While the film hasn’t scored the highest of ratings with critics I think its ability to split the group with passion speaks to its quality. Sure, it’s easy to hate a film like Max Payne or The Punisher, forget about it and never speak of it again. However, just take a look at the review written by Manohla Dargis at The New York Times and tell me a conversation with her wouldn’t be appealing, especially if speaking from the other side of the fence. Personally I think this film rises above Dargis’ critique, but I found it interesting when her argument affected the way I looked at a film that is very similar in tone and subject matter – Good starring Viggo Mortensen. Dargis may be a prickly critic that I loathe more than like, but at least her reviews get my wheels spinning. It was definitely a fun to see Patrick Goldstein, a previous co-worker of hers, comment on her Reader review on the LA Times Blog.

Sure, The Reader may not be a film everyone loves, but it is a film many have passionate opinions on, and to me that is the making of a classic. Will it be remembered as one? Not likely… but it most certainly won’t be forgotten by me.

You can get my full review of the film right here.

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