Commentary: Reading 'Reader's' Oscar tea leaves

Off to fast start with Globe, BFCA best picture noms

"Reader" report: With Golden Globe nominations for best picture-drama, director and supporting actress under its belt, "The Reader" seems a likely candidate for serious consideration by Oscar voters.

The Weinstein Co. presentation of a Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film production is directed by Stephen Daldry and stars Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz. Its screenplay by David Hare ("The Hours") is based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. Produced by Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack, Donna Gigliotti and Redmond Morris, it is executive produced by Bob Weinstein and Harvey Weinstein. "Reader" is dedicated to the memory of Minghella and Pollack, both of whom sadly passed away this year.

Besides resonating with the Globes, "Reader" also did well with the Broadcast Film Critics Association, which nominated it for best picture, supporting actress (Winslet) and young actor (Kross). Winslet is also one of the Screen Actors Guild's best supporting actress nominees.

Having been thoroughly absorbed in the film's story about a German teenage boy's affair with a woman who later turns up on trial for crimes committed when she was a Nazi concentration camp guard, I was happy to be able to talk to Stephen Daldry about the making of his third feature. We'd also spoken here after he made his wonderful first feature "Billy Elliot," for which he received a best director Oscar nod in 2001 and the film was a Globe nominee for best picture-drama. For his second and also very well regarded feature "The Hours" Daldry was an Oscar, Directors Guild of America and Globe directing nominee in 2003 while the film was a best picture Oscar nominee and best picture-drama Globe winner.

As we read the awards tea leaves, "Reader" seems to fit the classic Oscar nominee pattern. It has a director whose work resonates with Academy and Globe voters, a serious and well regarded book as its source, a distinguished set of producers, a Holocaust-based storyline that Academy members tend to embrace and a star whose SAG nom could translate into support from actors who make up the Academy's biggest voting branch.

"I read it and inquired after the rights straight away and actually they were owned by a friend of mine called Anthony Minghella, who had the rights with Sydney Pollack and actually had decided to make a film," Daldry said about Schlink's novel. "And so I let it rest. But over the years I kept on asking Anthony how his plans were developing. Anthony always had so many projects ahead. He was always two ahead and in the end, I think, out of the responsibility to Mr. Schlink he relented after my badgering him. He was very sweet and very generous. Eventually he said, 'Yes. You go ahead with David Hare and we'll produce.' He and Sydney were fantastic producers."

Asked about working again to develop a screenplay with Hare, Daldry explained, "The first thing we did was go to Heidelberg, where the book is set, with Bernhard Schlink and spend a little bit of time there with Bernhard taking us 'round Heidelberg, taking us through where he was brought up, where it was home, where he went to school, where (Winslet's character) Hannah may or may not have lived, where he may or may not have thrown up (as Kross does when he's ill early in the film and Winslet stops to help him). How much the story is autobiographical or not, it's hard to say and Mr. Schlink isn't letting on. But it certainly is partly autobiographical and so Mr. Schlink was our first and probably our most important resource."

Daldry and Hare also focused on the basic structure of the screenplay, he added, "most importantly, trying to find an equivalent to the first person narration. (In the book) the act of telling is the act of coming to terms with the story for the main character (played by Fiennes) and so the equivalent for us (is) this idea that he would actually in the end tell his daughter, tell the next generation what happened to his generation.

"David went off to stay in the town of Baden-Baden in Germany and come up with a first draft. The great thing about David is we worked together so much (in the past). Before we worked on 'The Hours' we also (worked together) in the theater. It's a very close relationship so we know each other very well. And then there was eight months going through a whole variety of different drafts with Anthony and Sydney."

Unlike the overstuffed novels that many filmmakers find themselves having to cope with when they adapt them to the screen, "Reader" wasn't a big book with numerous subplots. "It's like a fable," Daldry suggested. "David said, 'The hard thing about fables is that they seem very simple, but once you get into them they're incredibly complex.'"

Did he have casting in mind while he and Hare were developing the screenplay? "Yes, we had always thought of Ralph, who David and I both know," he replied. "And we'd always thought of Kate. We contacted Kate to see whether she was interested, which she was, but couldn't (do it) because she was doing 'Revolutionary Road.' So in the end, I went to my old friend Nicole Kidman. Nicole was going to do it and then Nicole got pregnant and, therefore, couldn't do it. So I went back to Kate with a slightly changed time scale for us (and she was able to do it now)."

Casting Kross, who looks a lot like Fiennes probably was as a teenager, posed other challenges. "I knew that I wanted to cast the majority of the film out of Germany," Daldry said. "And I wanted to shoot it in Germany with a German crew. I started the search, if you like, for a young man to play the part and my German casting agent said, 'There's only one boy who can play this part. We will show you everybody else. You'll meet everybody,' which I did. David had made one film before called 'Tough Enough' (a 2006 German crime drama)."

When he was cast in "Reader" Kross was going to school, Daldry noted, and was "living at home in a small town outside Hamburg. I met him and thought he was fantastic. I spent a lot of time with him, as you have to do. And the big challenge, really, with David was he didn't speak very good English so he had to go through the process of learning English. He had to finish school and, as his mother said, get good enough grades to take him out of high school for a year."

At that point, Kross wasn't 18 yet, which posed problems because "Reader" includes several intimate bedroom scenes with nudity between Kross and Winslet's characters. "He was 17 when we started to shoot," Daldry recalled. "We did all of those scenes, which actually weren't that many scenes at the end of the day, at the very end of the shoot when he was 18. He had his 18th birthday off and the next day he went into the lovemaking."

There's nothing lurid or sensational about the bedroom scenes between Kross and Winslet the way Daldry shot them. "What I was aiming for in the first part of the movie is a very intimate and very frank relationship between the two of them," he pointed out, "mostly, I think, because of the secrets that come into play in the second and third parts. But in the first part there's sort of incredible honesty and physical intimacy between them, which felt very important to me."

Daldry, of course, had considerable experience working with young actors from when he made "Billy Elliot" with the young Jamie Bell in the title role. When I observed that that was probably helpful to him now in working with Kross he agreed, "Yes. I've done a lot of work with young actors on the stage, as well. So it wasn't a deterrent for me."

Is there a secret to working well with young actors? "My secret is to treat them like they're very, very grown up older actors," he noted. "It's making sure the young actor does know the amount of research and knowledge that I need and making sure that they're prepped correctly, particularly before they get on to set for a scene. For me it's all about the prep so in shooting you're free to explore but you come from a very solid understanding of what the actions of the scene are and what the emotional temperature of that is."

Asked how he likes to work with his actors, Daldry told me, "I always have to rehearse for some period of time. Kate, who had a few months to prepare, is a fantastic preparer. She loves to do research and I'd done a huge amount of research. I knew the country quite well from spending time there as a schoolboy and in my early adult life. But, actually, we went (and did) a huge amount of research at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt. They were very helpful and really fantastic in trying to meticulously recreate their '60s (Frankfurt Auschwitz) trials. And then we started rehearsing with David Hare and the DOP (director of photography) in the room, which was in this case two -- Roger Deakins and Chris Menges."

Why two cinematographers? "When we started shooting we were still under the expectation that Nicole Kidman would be joining us," he answered, "and then once she got pregnant we had to go on a hiatus and Roger had to go off and do another movie. As luck would have it, I knew Chris and Chris was an old friend of Roger so that transition was incredibly easy."

When I asked if he shoots a lot of takes, Daldry observed, "That's a good question. 'A lot' is always a relative term. It's relative to other people. Apparently some times I really do do a lot of takes and some times I don't. I only know this from what other people tell me. Some times a scene will yield itself or a shot will yield itself quite easily. And then some times you've got to keep exploring it."

In the film Winslet ages over the course of four decades, a process made possible by elaborate makeup work that clearly took hours each day of shooting to achieve. "The first thing we did was weeks and weeks of tests to try to find her the right body as well as the right prosthetics for the different ages the character needs to go through," he said. "We spent a lot of exploratory time looking at not just Kate's mother, but her grandmother, and just really starting to see how Kate might age. That took a lot of testing and then, on the day, Kate was in the chair up to seven hours before she could start shooting."

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