I had the pleasure of being involved with a roundtable interview for the upcoming film “The Book Thief” with director Brian Percival, star of the film Sophie Nelisse, and author of the best-selling book, Markus Zusak. The film is about Liesel, (Sophie Nelisse) who is handed over by her mother, to a foster family in pre-World War II Nazi Germany. Liesel tries to fit in with her foster parents, the kind hearted Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and the strict Rosa (Emily Watson). Soon, a new house guest arrives, a Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer) whom the family must hide from the authorities as his very presence threatens Liesel’s new family. “The Book Thief” Website
Sophie, talk about your experiences shooting the film in Germany.
Sophie Nelisse: It was great that the film was shot in Berlin because there is still a bit of a feel that World War II happened there. Everywhere you go there is history, posters and plaques that tell you about the history of the country. I visited places like the Berlin Wall to get a feel of the place. Walking through the city was a great experience.
When did this story come to you? Did you read the book and feel compelled to make the movie?
Brian Percival: I was sent the screenplay, and when I read it I felt that I had to do the film, it really touched me. I didn’t even know about the book at the time. I read the screenplay and immediately ordered the book. I was telling friends that the book was amazing, and so was the screenplay. So many people that I knew had read the book, even though it was regarded in America as a Young Adult book, people my age and read the book and loved it.
How did you find out that your book was going to be made into a movie?
Markus Zusak: I sold the rights to the turn the book into a film right around the time that the book came out in America. I remember signing the contract around the time that I had just bought a couch that I couldn’t afford. It was a bloody good couch. When you sign things like that you just don’t know if it will ever be made. When you’re a writer, you assume the worst. Everyone tells you don’t count on this film ever being made. You are told you won’t ever make a living as a writer. Your book will never be made, and if it is, it will be awful anyway. First off, I thought that “The Book Thief” would be my least successful book. Then, when my book was bought by a studio, I thought it would never be made. I knew that a screenplay had been written but didn’t think anything of it. I mean the screenplay had been written in 2007, so I didn’t think it would ever get done. But then, last year at around this time, I was told that it was going to be made, and I was shocked.
What was your inspiration for the book?
Markus: My mom and dad. They didn’t bring a lot with them from Germany when they immigrated to Australia in the late 1950s, but they brought their stories with them. They were really great stories. It’s rare that you have more than one or two great storytellers in a family, but I had two of them, and they were under the same roof. I grew up hearing about cities that were on fire, about giving bread to starving Jewish people on their way to concentration camps. I was told about people who didn’t want to hang their flags up on Hitler’s birthday. My dad told me about having to go to Hitler youth meetings. He hated the meetings, said that they were boring. So they both told me stories about that time, and I turned it into this book that means everything to me.
Sophie, did you feel any pressure about making a movie based on such a well loved book?
Sophie: I actually didn’t read the book until after making the film. So, I really didn’t feel any pressure since I didn’t know much about the book, other than it was a bestseller. Sorry, Markus. But I think that was better because I could just read the script and do my best. I did read the book about two months ago and thought it was the most amazing book. I was really surprised when I met Markus for the first time in Berlin. I was shocked on how young he was, I was sure he was in his fifties.
Brian, did you feel any pressure making the film?
Brian: No, I really didn’t feel any pressure because when you take an adaptation on, you love the material to begin with. I loved what Markus had created and felt their was a certain duty to respect the material. If I thought about the pressure of making the film, I would waste a lot of energy. I just focus on making a film as good as I can and keep close to my heart, the spirit of the book that Markus intended. It’s really about embracing the material and keeping focused on staying true to the material.
Markus, why did you give complete control over your book when they made the film and did you feel that they did your story justice?
Markus: I had heard of so many horror stories about writers who were involved with the making of their books into films, so I didn’t want to go through that. Plus, I was really empty after writing the book. It took so much out of me that for a while, I couldn’t even write. I think I had about a five year hangover from writing that book. I’ve written four books that mean something to me, but I’ve only written one book that means everything to me. So, I was really happy to give over control. As far as doing justice to the book, I wanted them to do the best that they could do, and I trusted them. In some ways, the film and the book are different, but they share the same heart, and you can’t ask for more than that.
When you cast the film, did you have certain people in mind to play the parts?
Brian: Certainly, especially with Geoffrey. He was someone who we felt was right to play the part of Hans on so many levels. Both he and Emily are actors that I aspired to work with. Both of them have such integrity about their work and they bring an intensity to their work. It’s funny that the very first person we cast in the film was the best friend of Liesel’s, Rudy. We had a network of casting directors all over the world looking for the boy who could play Rudy. We got a call to go down to Munich, and when Nico walked through the door we went, “Oh God, please let him be able to act,” because he was perfect for the role. He is what is described in the book, “the boy with the hair to color of lemons.” He is perfectly charming, just like he is in the film. We spent quite a time working with him so that he could become Rudy. We wanted Nico to become Rudy and Rudy to become Nico. It was a different approach than I usually do, but we wanted his performance to be really natural and I think it’s one of those performances that makes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, it’s so good. And amazing thing is, he lives in the village outside of Munich that was the inspiration for the book. We then did a huge search to find someone to play Liesel that spanned over three continents, and we found Sophie. And then we managed to get someone that I was always a fan of, Emily Watson to play Rosa. Emily does just an amazing job in the role. She is absolutely perfect. It was a difficult role to cast because there aren’t a lot of women in their forties in Hollywood that want to take on that type of role, a woman that is described in the book as someone that looks like a wardrobe.
Sophie, talk about working with Geoffrey and Emily.
Sophie: I was really honored to be in the film with both of them. From the first day of filming, they treated me like I was their own daughter. They were really like my parents, always taking care of me, making sure that I was ok. I felt really comfortable going on set with them every day. I learned so much from just watching them work. Emily was always so focused and smart, staying in character all day. Geoffrey was a little bit crazy, he could go in and out of character so easily. When they said action, he would go into his character and then when they said cut, he would then do a magic trick for me. It was so much fun to work with both of them.
It sounds as if they were both very similar to their characters, where Rosa in the film is very focused on the task at hand, and Hans is more of the dreamer, willing to have fun.
Sophie: Yeah, but Emily wasn’t like Rosa in that she wasn’t cold like her. She was more like Rosa is at the end of the film.
Brian: And there is more to Hans that you first realize. Hans seems to be a very simple guy until you strip away the layers, and you find that this guy is incredibly emotional intelligent. My perception of that family is that while it looks like Rosa is the one who wears the trousers in the family, it’ actually Hans who makes the decisions, for instance, the hiding of Max in the basement of the house, and it’s Rosa that goes along with those decisions. That’s what I found very interesting in that relationship that on the surface, it looks like a simple man in a relationship with a domineering wife, but if you get below the surface, you find that they have a great bond, understanding each other very deeply.
Thank you so much for talking with us today and much success with your film.
“The Book Thief” opens in Atlanta area theatres on Friday, November 22, 2013