Berlin 2012: Stephen Daldry Q&A

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The acclaimed British helmer discusses his Berlin entry (and Oscar nominee) "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," why he loves Berlin and where he was on 9/11.

Three-time Oscar-nominated director Stephen Daldry, whose latest movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is among this year’s best-picture Oscar nominations, has a lot on his plate. Aside from serving as the artistic director working across all four ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, Daldry has brought his latest heavyweight big-screen literary adaptation to Berlin and is ironing out his input on a Richard Curtis-penned screenplay adaptation of children’s book Trash. Daldry spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his busy year.

The Hollywood Reporter: Had you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close?

Stephen Daldry: No I hadn’t. The book and an early script draft from Eric [Roth] came to me in the post in the same envelope one day in New York.

THR: Was Roth’s involvement another part of the jigsaw for you in deciding to make it?

SD: I had known Eric socially for years. We’ve wanted to work with each other for a number of years.

THR: Was the cast in place before you came aboard?

SD: The cast wasn’t in place when I came on board, no. The cast came about some time later after I got involved. I’m not very good with remembering the chronology of things, but it was a significant time after I got involved later, maybe a year.

THR: How did you feel directing Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock?

SD: I was incredibly pleased. They were both my first choice to play those roles in the film.

THR: Not to mention Max von Sydow?

SD: I remember us — me, [producer] Scott Rudin and Eric — having a lengthy discussion about whether to cast a European or an American for the role of the elderly man. We all felt and agreed it should be a European actor, and when that was decided, Max would be at the top of people’s wishlist.

THR: Your first film Billy Elliot discovered a fresh talent in Jamie Bell. And you’ve done it again with Thomas Horn. Discovering raw talent and getting such performances out them must be rewarding.

SD: When you’re dealing with young people, there are a lot of factors. We auditioned for that part all over Europe and America. It wasn’t a deliberate choice to go for an unknown, though there are advantages to doing that. One is they don’t come with any bad habits.

THR: Horn got that central role of Oskar Schell. What did he bring to the plate that no one else did?

SD: He has a very happy background and comes from an amazing family but can garner emotion from his experiences. He knew the character he was playing had to go through this extraordinary emotional journey, and we knew we could get there with him. There was something unique about his audition. He has an incredible intelligence and a fierce courage. He is able to access to an extraordinary emotional life.

THR: What do you do at audition to find out if the person has what it takes?

SD: I have a very established and trusted team of people that I’ve worked with for a long time, and we have a series of exercises we get them to do. At the end, we have a really good idea of what they’re capable of.

THR: How to you feel about bringing the film at Berlin?

SD: Aside from the fact the Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world, it is also my absolute favorite film festival. There’s an amazing energy and excitement that the festival generates, and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the film goes down with audiences. I am fascinated by the German audience’s reaction to it.

THR: Critics have talked about the boy’s grandparents being Jewish. But in the production notes they are not. What was behind that decision?

SD: He [von Sydow’s character] is not a holocaust survivor. It’s a lack of attention to detail by some predominantly American critics that they assume he is. In fact it’s the exact reverse. The family is not Jewish. None of them is. The film is about a German immigrant family coming to live their lives in New York after the war. The grandfather is a survivor of the war and specifically the British bombing of Dresden. I am very aware that because they are from Europe and they are old and they have German accents and we like them, people think they must be Jewish. It’s a projection mainly by Americans [who have seen it] that because we like them and because they came from Germany after the war they must be Jewish.

THR: The lead in the film describes himself as having been tested for Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, but says the results are inconclusive. Was that a conscious choice?

SD: It was not meant to temper anything. It’s in the book and so it is in the script. We [as filmmakers] worked on the simple idea that the child is on the autistic spectrum somewhere and spent a lot of time with experts who work with children with Asperger’s to get that portrayal right.

THR: Where were you on 9/11?

SD: I was in London finishing The Hours with Scott Rudin actually. We were in the cutting room when the first plane went into the tower. I remember that day for one simple fact. That we could get through to people in New York on the telephone because the phone lines from London to New York were active. So both of us spent most of that day on two phones getting in touch with people to make sure they were OK.

THR: You and your films have an Oscar nomination habit. Is there a behind-the-scenes link do you think?

SD: I think as far as I can see, it is entirely by chance. Sometimes I have engaged in Oscar campaigns but not for a very long time. The last time I think it was for The Hours.

THR: You’re artistic director of the London 2012 Olympic Games. What’s that like?

SD: It’s an interesting thing and not like anything I have ever done or will ever do again, I suspect.


Born: May 2, 1961
Festival entry: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Out of Competition
Selected Filmography:
Billy Elliot (2000)
The Hours (2002)
The Reader (2008)