Growing up we didn't have to look far for horror stories. Why look to Hollywood when we had our own family histories?
Raised on terrifying tales from forebears who managed to survive the atrocities of the camps, I found films such as "Escape From Sobibor," "Europa Europa," "Schindler's List," "Life Is Beautiful," and "Bent" truly important but painful to watch. I often wondered why others who weren't familiar with let alone touched by the Holocaust would even view such films, and in my opinion, these were the people who most needed to see them.
Director Brian Percival (best known for his BAFTA- and Emmy-winning work on "Downton Abbey") seemed to agree when, during our recent interview, he admitted that he never wanted to make a macabre Holocaust movie. He yearned to create a film about the triumph of the human spirit and the good among the evil so that audiences would be drawn in and "begin to ask questions in their own minds about what went on there and become aware of it, because they're interested in it and not from me ramming it down their throats."
The film, based on Markus Zusak's bestselling and award-winning book, follows illiterate, young, and communist Liesel (Sophie Nélisse), who is forced to move in with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in World War II Germany. She struggles to fit in with her new community, to learn to read, and to attain new books at a time of extreme scarcity, censorship, and oppression.
Download.com chatted with director Brian Percival and his actors, Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and newcomer Sophie Nélisse, about bringing "The Book Thief" to the silver screen -- and about their favorite apps!
How important was it for you to remain faithful to the book?
I've done lots of adaptations, and I enjoy doing them, because the book is the bible, if you like, and gives us a 580-page reference document for the 100-page script that we have, and there's always going to be a degree of subjectivity about it. There will always be people who prefer the book, and that's absolutely fine.
But it's equally our interpretation of what the author, Markus Zusak, has done, and we hope we've been faithful, because we all adored the book and everything the book stood for. So, it is our interpretation...and one thing that I hope it will do is reach a wider audience, being that film is a visual medium that you can watch for two hours and five minutes. If enough people see it, and if 100,000 more people read the book because of the film, then that's great. At the end of the day, I wanted to make this film accessible. I didn't want to make an art house movie, because while there's a time and place for that, the core message is that it will be more effective if more people see it.
"Schindler's List" was very controversial for focusing on a German -- rather than a Jewish -- hero, when there were still so many untold acts of Jewish heroism during World War II. This movie also concentrates on acts of German heroism.
This story is about the human spirit, first and foremost, and there's a whole generation coming through that are not really taught about what happened in the Holocaust. Films like "Schindler's List" have been made, so I wasn't trying to make another "Schindler's List"; I wanted to make a film about the human spirit. Part of what that encompassed is what happened in the Holocaust. Now, this new generation, they probably wouldn't see "Schindler's List," because it's not subject matter that they'd find appealing. Now, they may see "The Book Thief" and begin to ask questions in their own minds about what actually went on there, and to become aware of it, because they're interested in it and not from me ramming it down their throats.
An executive who's seen the film, she showed it to her 10-year-old daughter, and the first question she asked afterwards was, "Why was everyone so horrible to the Jews?" Now, if that's the question that it raises in a 10-year-old's head, then that's probably a more effective way to raise in the mind of someone who doesn't know any history of what actually happened and then giving them the opportunity to find out about the terrible atrocities themselves. Otherwise I'd have been making a film that's already been made.
You've talked about the Germans living in "an age of terror," and some would say that we, today, live in "an age of terror." Do you see more than a history tale in this film?
There's a cautionary tale about how ordinary, simple folk can be affected and corrupted into an ideology, which is based in evil as totalitarian or fascist beliefs blind it. In that sense, ordinary people are always at liberty to be manipulated in some way. I mean, I suppose, it's not a film about anti-terrorism; it is about how ordinary folk can be corrupted into believing something that's probably not the best to believe in.
You've said that in preparation for the film, the book became your bible. What specifically from the book influenced your portrayal?
The first thing I did was, once we had a week of rehearsals and table reads, I started to search for places where the novel and the screenplay seriously overlapped, where you go, "Wow, this scene is absolutely in the novel," or moments I would use to get that aspect of the character even though this set of events are not in the screenplay, but it says something about Hans that I found interesting.
For example, just because he isn't working, I didn't want to just have him sitting at the kitchen table saying, "I've got no work; I've got no work," so I asked, "Can I be fixing something?" That's what people do when they're out of work, like maybe fixing all the chairs or tending to his accordion and keeping it well-oiled or little things like that.
When you first read the script, what did you find appealing about the role of Hans?
I hadn't read the book, and shamefully I hadn't heard of the book -- and it's a very notable Australian novel that isn't about Australia with a very subliminal Australian subversiveness in the playfulness of the language and the freedom of the imagination.
But from the screenplay, which is what I read first, I liked the matter-of-fact ordinariness of Hans, especially in comparison to the more extreme characters I've played before. He was a quiet guy who got on with his life, but you realize that underneath it, he's almost, politically, a radical in honoring this ethical bond with his Jewish colleague from the First World War and taking in Max as a refugee; or even on behalf of the town, in going to the Nazis and saying, "We know this person, and he's not a bad guy."
What did you know about the Holocaust before joining this project?
At my school we didn't really talk about it till the sixth grade, and I knew a little bit more because I think my grandma hid some communists during the Second World War, and they got killed right in front of her.
Did you find that you identified with Liesel? Was it easy to become her?
Yes, because I had a lot of points in common with her. I love to read. My friends don't, but I really like to read when the book is interesting. "The Book Thief " -- I read in a month, which is really good for me.
This final question is for each of you. Switching gears, what is your favorite mobile app and why?
Nélisse: I would say Video Star or iMovie. iMovie, because I get to create my own trailers with it, and Video Star, my own music videos, and you get to do effects on them. If I have nothing to do, this will fill my time, and it's really fun to do.
Rush: Sophie and [the makeup and hair artist] were amazing. They would film themselves in the makeup van with an iPad getting made up, and at the end of makeup, they would have edited a few clips, done a few tricks, and put music behind it.
Nélisse: Yeah, me and the makeup girl, we made a crazy video with all the cast members. When we were at the book burning, we just said that [Brian] in the winter, wearing his big North Face coat, just looks like a big teddy bear that you want to hug; and there's a song called "The Gummy Bear Song," so we thought it would be funny to do "The Teddy Bear Song." So I remember telling Geoffrey one night when we had the dinner all together. I talked to Karen [Rosenfelt], the producer, and said that me and the makeup artist would find this interesting. So we got everyone together for a big video, and the editors edited it and added some props and the music.
Rush: It's a bit like "Build Me Up Buttercup" from "There's Something About Mary."
Will it be uploaded to YouTube anytime soon?
Rush: No, and it's not likely to go on YouTube.
Geoffrey Rush, what is your favorite app?
Rush: I'm not big on apps, but Viber -- it's a free program for phone and texting. It's free, but what do they get out of it? They're probably zapping my information out of my body.
Percival: I use Yelp, because I travel around a lot, and that's really handy. And there are a couple of cinematography apps: Artemis is one, and Sun Scout is the other. Sun Scout tells you where the sun is going to be in the sky at any time, on any day of the year, and Artemis works with lenses and aspect ratios, and it's there on your phone. So they're handy for work.