'Reader' between the lines

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Stephen Daldry is talking about pedophilia.

The provocative director sits under a row of poinsettias at New York media lunch spot Michael's, squeezing his arms tightly around his body while responding to the suggestion that his latest film, "The Reader," might endorse illegal sexual activities.

"I don't mean to be glib about it," he says. "I have to stop myself from being glib about it. The notion of pedophilia is incorrect on every level. And ... insane."

But...

"Is it appropriate for a 15-year-old boy to have a sexual relationship with a 36-year-old woman? I don't know," he continues, leaning in to make his point while fluidly pressing out the wrinkles in the tablecloth. "Maybe, maybe not. Love comes at you in many different ways, at many different ages. But do I think the boy is abused? No."

That kind of frank talk is a hallmark of the fiercely independent 47-year-old director, whose posh English accent has been lowered and slightly coarsened by countless cigarettes and three decades spent directing theater. Daldry's voice commands attention without being particularly loud or insistent. There is confidence in his inflection and his frequently arched eyebrow.

That confidence comes in part from the fact that Daldry has made just two films -- 2000's "Billy Elliot" and 2002's "The Hours" -- and both earned him best director Academy Award nominations. "The Reader," with its Oscar-baiting cast (including Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes) and Holocaust subject matter, has primed the publicity-wary director for more awards season attention, especially now after his Golden Globe nomination.

"He's an anarchist who can work within systems," says David Hare, the screenwriter of both "The Reader" and "The Hours," "and who can make systems work for him."

Not that Daldry didn't endure his share of challenges in bringing to the screen Bernhard Schlink's difficult novel about the Germans' struggle to come to terms with their Nazi past. The story centers on Hanna (Winslet), who has an affair with a schoolboy, Michael (played by David Kross and then, in his later years, by Fiennes), who only later in his life discovers that she was a guard for prisoners at Auschwitz.

Finessing such delicate subject matter was tough enough, but Daldry's film also overcame the departure of its original lead actress, Nicole Kidman, because she was pregnant; a delay of production while waiting for its German star to turn 18; and, finally, a public battle between two of its producers, Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, over whether the film would be released in 2008, among other matters.

But according to those who worked with him, Daldry never faltered under pressure.

"I'm not sure Stephen doesn't quite thrive on it," Hare says. "He's the most thorough and indefatigable person. And he's physically incredibly strong. Most directors would have buckled."

Indeed, Daldry once climbed Mount Everest while he was contemplating making a film based on Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air." (He opted out because he "couldn't make the story work," he says.)

Even his sexual identity doesn't fit in with the crowd. Daldry, who identifies himself as gay, happens to have a wife with whom he has a 5-year-old daughter. The family lives primarily in New York, and Daldry also has a home in London. "I have so many wonderful straight friends who have such terrible marriages," he says. "And my marriage is the happiest I can imagine."

Daldry's willingness to cut against the grain has served him well in hopping between the stage and screen.

"Stephen is not frightened by America," Hare says. "Most British stage directors have been bewildered by Hollywood, with Hitchcock being the most notable exception. Hitchcock was a director who was really liberated by Hollywood. And I feel that Stephen, in a sense, has been as well."

Growing up in Taunton, in Somerset -- the son of a cabaret actress and a bank manager -- Daldry was never interested in being in the spotlight. Initially, movies weren't his thing either. "I wasn't one of those kids," he says. "I went to the theater." He began directing plays at school when he was 16. After directing professionally for several years, he was appointed artistic director of the Gate and then the Royal Court theaters.



Daldry facetiously blames Working Title's Eric Fellner for his movie career. The producer invited him to lunch while he was still running the Royal Court in 1998 and asked if he might want to direct a movie.

"It's Eric's fault," Daldry says. "At the time, I was thinking about what to do next. It felt like a great new challenge."

"Billy Elliot" had been passed on by directors who didn't take to its odd mixture of ballet and coal mining. For Daldry, it was a welcome introduction to a foreign world.

"People love the idea that something must be autobiographical, but no, I had no interest in dance," he says. "And no, I was not a coal miner." Regardless, the film garnered three Oscar nominations and grossed $109 million worldwide.

After returning to theater, Daldry was lured back to the screen for "The Hours." That film, starring Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, collected eight more Oscar nominations (and one win, for Kidman). It also topped $100 million in worldwide boxoffice.

"It's very rare for a first-rate stage director to become a first-rate film director," notes Hare, who cites current awards hopefuls Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road") and Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") as being part of "a new, movie-literate generation" that finally knows where to put the camera.

Daldry had read "The Reader" back in 1999 and had wanted to direct it as a film, but his friend, director Anthony Minghella, had already bought the rights. Daldry says he "badgered" Minghella because he was drawn to the story's "incredibly complex moral maze," as well as to exploring his own fascination with Germany, where he had spent a month every spring during his teen years.

When Minghella became overcommitted to other projects, he allowed Daldry to take the helm while staying on as producer, along with Sydney Pollack.

Daldry worked on "The Reader" for two years, from 2006 to 2008, with the actual shoot lasting a year in and around Berlin. He began with long rehearsals with Fiennes and Winslet, then took several breaks, one to wait for German actor Kross to turn 18 so Daldry could shoot the sex scenes.

During production, Daldry constantly pushed scenes to see how far his actors could go.

"I think he likes tension," Fiennes says. "It means your days can be very long. It's a good, creative tension. There's always more that you can discover. And Stephen works off instinct."

When Minghella and Pollack both passed away during production, Daldry was forced to rely on his instincts even more. Their absence was most felt creatively when Daldry was in the edit room, he says, furiously trying to finish the film. (He was also preparing to debut the Broadway version of "Billy Elliot.")

Then Weinstein, who is releasing the film though the Weinstein Co., and producer Rudin began battling over when the film would be released.

"To be frank, the conflicts between Harvey and Scott would not have emerged had (Minghella and Pollack) not passed (away)," Daldry says. But the director now says the impasse "came to a good resolution" when Rudin withdrew from the film. "Scott is one of my best friends, and I was really happy that he fought so hard for getting what we needed from Harvey. We got another month and a lot of cash."

Daldry's arch sensibility might make him an ideal party guest. And there is also a warmth and conviviality that he reveals when giving a long, warm embrace to a friend.

Plus a sense of humor. When asked what his next challenge will be, Daldry doesn't mention "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," a hot property that he's been developing.

"I'm really interested in running rapid transport systems," he says. "Wouldn't that be a great thing to do?"
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