Talking THE BOOK THIEF With Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, And Director Brian Percival

Based on the bestselling novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief shows us World War II through the eyes of a young, illiterate German girl. I spoke with Oscar-nominated actress Emily Watson, director Brian Percival and 13-year-old star Sophie Nélisse about filming this different view of history.

Emily Watson

Q: Rosa's such a memorable character. How much of her did you read on the page and how much of her came from your imagination?

Emily Watson: Well, she's very full in the book; she's a full very character. I relished the opportunity to go somewhere and be quite unpleasant and I think that that was very necessary for the beginning of the movie because you're seeing everything from Liesel's point of view. You want her to appear to absolutely be the wicked stepmother in that she's sort of mythic in that sense.

As it becomes more complex as it goes along - because we left out the story that they have grown up children of their own, and we constructed the fact that they were a childless couple and that that was something that was desperately one of the things she was very bitter about.

So, actually having this child arrive, a daughter and a son in the house, because she's naturally a nurturer and a carer, and it's sort of fulfilling something for her and begins to crack her open in ways that I think have probably always been there. It's not in the movie, but in the book, Hans says to Liesel, "She was beautiful once," and they obviously do love each other. "She was beautiful and softly spoken once upon a time."

I hadn't really looked at her as the nurturer and the carer because of her brusqueness.

But if you look at the physical setup; she is the one earning the money, running the home, cooking the food. She's physically keeping it all going.

I understand that you stayed in character when you weren't shooting. Wasn't doing that with Rosa exhausting?

It was pretty exhausting. I actually got into a fight at the airport. Because Berlin is really close to London and I have got a young family, I was going home whenever I had a few days off. When we'd finish shooting at 6:00, I'd literally jump into a car, dash to the airport and get the last flight out to London, which was Easyjet, so it's that kind of really horrible scrum. And there was some guy saying I shouldn't have been in the queue and I was really, "You wanna talk about it?" I had to calm myself down and go, 'Actually, Emily, that's not you, that's Rosa talking.' Luckily, the first assistant was also on the same plane and helped me sort it out.

There's so much chemistry and warmth between yourself and Geoffrey Rush as the Hubermanns despite Rosa's brashness. Did working with him before, albeit as very different characters in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS, make it easier to build that relationship?

It was lovely because we knew each other and we liked each other, we had fun before. It was fun shooting together, but it was also really good fun when we did all the press for that; we went to Cannes, we just had a blast. So we had that in our story. Backed with that, I felt I could be just rude to him all the time on set; just really mean, and he thought it was great. So that really helped. There are little touches in the film, like in the scene when I'm sewing the flag where he goes to kiss me and I just pull away. That was not in the script; that was just completely instinctive, just like, 'Don't touch me.'

I understand that you had written or co-written a script based in WW2 [MOOD INDIGO]? Was that experience helpful with this project?

It was very different territory. That was about Britain in 1940; the Battle of Britain. But, yeah, my generation, you can't grow up in Europe and not know this history, I mean, seeing all those movies. It was so telling, a room full of seasoned hacks who have probably seen all the all the Holocaust movies there are - although ours is not a Holocaust movie - and Sophie's there going, "My friends don't know anything [about the Holocaust]." It's a story you have to keep retelling for each generation, I think.

You have worked with so many amazing directors throughout your career. I wonder if between that experience and your writing, you've considered directing a film of your own?

Part of me is very flattered by the idea that I could. But I read an interview recently with Diablo Cody, because she's just directed something, saying, "This is a terrible thing to say, but it is so hard for a woman to do it." Not because she can't do it, because there are brilliant women directors, but if you have a family; it's basically a job where you can't do both. Acting, you can kind of do both because you can come and go, but directors disappear. They disappear in the world of the film for months, if not for years. It's so completely all-consuming, I couldn't possibly do it at the moment. I can just about manage being an actress and that's quite challenging.

What would you like for people to take away from THE BOOK THIEF?

Well, I think the young adult thing is very important; Sophie's generation, there's a whole generation ... Geoffrey was telling me he heard about a survey of kids here - he thought it was a joke at first - that they said, "Was Adolf Hitler: 1) The German Football Coach? 2) Was he a dictator? And something like sixty percent thought he was the German football coach. But most people, unless they're taught, they don't know; it's not their fault. So I think that's really important.

I also think that ... I'd better be very careful with what I say here, but with under threat - it happens in every culture - if you're under threat, if the economy is down the tubes; people start protecting their own and their political positions become more extreme and everything becomes polarised. And you know, you're that many steps away from extreme views and that is very dangerous and these {the Hubermanns} are ordinary people. And a lot of their neighbours would have been not making that choice; making the other choice, turning him [Max, the Jewish refugee] in - turning the boy in to the authorities - and they didn't. As a society, we're never that far away from the possibility that that could happen to us, so I think the depiction of ordinary people with very complex moral choices is vital.


Director Brian Percival

This is not your first time adapting a beloved novel. I think the first project of yours I'd seen was your version of Philip Pullman's THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE.

Brian Percival: Yeah, I've done Shakespeare, Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, a great Victorian novelist. I'd forgotten about Philip Pullman.

What are the important things to bear in mind when you have a popular, well-known source in your hands?

It's being true to the spirit of the book, whatever that might be. There's a sense of hope that you get in The Book Thief, I think; hope or spirit. It's keeping to the author's vision. First of all, if a book has become successful enough so that it warrants an adaptation, you shouldn't really go about changing it too much. The reason it became so popular is because it's good in the first place. There's different reasons for keeping different things in different ones; it's about being true to the author's intentions.

For me, when I get to work with great pieces or work and hopefully bring them to an audience, they are things that have touched me in a way and that's why I want to do them, I want it brought to an audience.

THE BOOK THIEF has a strong following. Did you hear from fans of the novel before shooting? Does that add to the pressure?

I was surprised actually at how many of my friends, it was their favorite book. I mean, literally people I'd known for years had never mentioned it and I was like, 'Who else knows about this?' First of all, you don't want to miss out for them, but there are things that have gotta go, otherwise it'd be an eight-part miniseries.

I think, thankfully, most people who have seen it that are fans of the book feel like it's true in spirit, and Markus [Zusak] who's seen it last week, he said the same thing. He said in one of the most beautiful emails I've read that he was so taken by the film and how much he loved it. He did trust us with it and I tried my best for him.

When you film children, it's easy to either under-direct and let them do what they want, which is a hazard, or over-direct and have contrived performances. How did you get such grounded and natural performances out of your younger cast?

I've done things before with kids and about fatherhood and parenting before. I did a short film in 2001, which my wife wrote about a 13-year old girl growing up in the north of England called About a Girl and it was used as an educational aid by the BBC. I think that was one of the reasons that Fox and [producers] Karen [Rosenfelt] and Ken [Blancato] trusted me with this film, because it proved that I can take a 13-year old kid who's got spirit, but there's a sense of tragedy in her life, as well - and I could direct someone of that age and get something special.

The key to working with kids is to find the right kid in the first place. By their very nature of being 12 or 13 years old, they're not going to have a huge lot of technique to rely on, because they've not had time to learn it, in terms of characterization and depth, those literal things that they're too young to learn generally.

Having said that, Sophie's remarkable and she's got far more technique than you would ever imagine. The idea is to cast someone who is that character, or as close as you can get to that character. In Liesel's case, you need someone who has great spirit, that can appear to be vulnerable, but can be very, very feisty, has got a sense of humor and can be quite tough if she needs to be.

So that's why it took so long; it took about seven or eight months, a thousand girls all over the world, on three continents to find her. But then once you've found the right kid, it's just a case of steering them gently through the fact of story. I'm not saying, "Do it this way. Say it that way. Stop there." I'm just allowing them to be themselves and that's what makes for a natural performance. So, it's really all down to how you find the right person to begin with.

"Steering them gently," is that how you would describe your approach to working with Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush? Do you just let them go on set?

Well, sort of, but we did have rehearsal periods of about four weeks with the kids and about two weeks with Geoffrey and Emily, where we built the characters, where we'd work together and sit in a room for six hours a day and we'd try different scenes. There's no point doing scenes over and over again, but we'd talk about backstory and we'd improvise around certain scenes and we'd build the whole thing up, so that it's quite organic, so that they can become the characters.

And I'm not the sort of director that says, "No, you do it this way, you stand there and do it like that." Part of the enjoyment of the job for me is being able to work together with people that are so talented and just enjoy the experience of everybody contributing to make it something that is our own. Yeah, it is guiding, I'm not the sort of director that screams and shouts and says it should be done a particular way. I want us all to be happy and proud of everything we do.

THE BOOK THIEF is remarkable for showing us an average German family during the course of World War II in a way that is rarely depicted. Is having the events of history told from a different perspective through cinema important?

I think so. Cinema's got lots of different sorts of importance in different ways. But I've always been attracted to historical projects, really, most of the things I've done have been history-based in a particular period of time; everything from Victorian Britain, to Edwardian, to prewar Britain, and now pre-war Germany and wartime Germany. I think anything that makes an audience think in a different way is important.

So that fact that what happened did happen and there was a lot more ordinary folk in Germany at that time, and some of them believed in this ideology and were going along with it; some of them never believed it but couldn't stand up against it because it put their own lives and the lives of their family at risk, and there were others who did stand up and they disappeared.

That could have been any culture at any time in history. The way that Hitler used words and propaganda; he managed to manipulate a generation to believe in something that was so intrinsically wrong was right and that was the path to follow. One of the messages of the film aside from Liesel's story, is the fact that we should never let that happen again. We should never allow an ideology take over to such a degree and make people believe something which isn't fair and isn't just.


Sophie Nélisse

What did you think of Liesel? If you had to describe her to someone, what would you say?

I think she's really strong minded. She's so powerful. I mean, she's an ordinary girl but she made so many extraordinary human things and with nothing. She has nothing to live for at the beginning because her mom's gone and her mother's dead. She doesn't know how to read, so everybody's laughing at her. She doesn't want to be in this world, but she had this little thing for books and this is what's going to make her so powerful and what's going to make her survive.

So I think that's what's so great about her; that if she has a dream, she won't give up. I think she's sort of an inspiration for everyone; she takes all these little things like books - I mean, people my age are like, 'Books, whatever,' but it's so important. She survived with books.

Liesel is someone who lives to read. What are your favourite books?
I read pretty much everything, but there's this book and I never thought I'd like it because I don't like fantasy things with half horse-half human, but it's called FableHaven [by Brandon Mull]. My best friend showed it to me and I got the first book and thought, 'This is so good.' I can imagine myself in them, because it's about a 13-year-old girl, I thought it's be so fun if they'd make a movie out of it and I'd be the one, but I don't think they're going to make a movie about of it. I was so happy when I had read all five. I finished like a month ago; I just read them all in two years.

You and your other costar, Nico Liersch, are so great together onscreen. Tell us what it was like to work with him?

He is like my brother, seriously. I hang with a lot of boys because some girls are bit too much girly like and full of drama and I hate that. I think Nico was perfectly cast as Rudi because he's so innocent and you just want to squeeze him because he's just so perfect. At first I was like, I don't know, he seems a little bit babyish, but after two days, he was like my best friend, my brother. We would just go do everything together.

Can you tell us about working with Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush? You have such wonderful warmth with them, particularly with Hans' character. Were they very helpful to you? Did you ask them many questions about acting?

I think you don't even need to ask them anything, they just do it so well, you could just sit down and look at them and learn everything about acting, really. Emily just stays concentrated all the time, so focused and how sometimes she prepares. Both of them, we sat maybe a week before we started to shoot, and these little scenes, like where she puts the basket on my bed, but she'd try to find every little detail as to how would she do this, why would she do this? I just learned so much from listening to them and watching them act.

They're just great people. Seriously, I was a bit stressed because they're great actors and what if they think I'm bad, but no; they were just do down-to-earth and they were just sweethearts, both of them. They were really like my parents.

What do you think is the most important lesson people can take away from THE BOOK THIEF?

I think the power of books. I really hope that people, when they see the movie, pick up a book and try to see the world in a different way with they have. I don't think it's not because you're rich that you're necessarily happier: Liesel had practically nothing, she only had books and she lived to be a 90-year-old woman that is so accomplished and happy. So I think she had nothing and she just had books to live for and she started to write. And in every bad situation there is good in it; I mean, she's hiding a Jew, but he gives her so many good things in her life.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there. The film opens in limited release in the U.S. on Friday, November 8, before expanding nationwide on Friday, November 15.

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