Friday, November 8, 2013

THE BOOK THIEF: An Interview by Pamela Powell

"The Book Thief" and many of the cast graced the city of Chicago for the 49th annual Chicago International Film Festival in October.  Brian Percival, the director, Karen Rosenfelt, one of the producers, and Geoffrey Rush along with Sophie Nelisse were scheduled to walk down the red carpet just outside the theater at the AMC River East.  The lobby was packed with people hoping to not only get a glimpse of the well-known actor, Mr. Rush, but even to chat with or get an autograph.  As the entourage of talent approached, the background din rose to a more feverish pitch, bringing  even more excitement to the opening of this film.  I had a chance to catch up with the producer, director, and cast as they strolled along the red carpet, eagerly answering questions about their new production of "The Book Thief."  Their passion and love for the book turned into a film is evident in their conversation with me and I'm sure their information and insight will add that much more to your enjoyment of the film.

Karen Rosenfelt, one of the producers of the film, initially timid, quickly turned that shyness into pride for her project.  She shared that she had the pleasure and opportunity to read the book in manuscript form, prior to its publication.  At that time, there was no intent to make it into a film, but she became "so enraptured by the book" that she and Ken Blancato  presented it to a representative at FOX 2000 to consider it as a film.  Immediately, Michael Petroni was brought on board to adapt the book into a screenplay.  Taking a 600 page book and condensing it into a 120 page screenplay was an arduous task.  Perfection appeared to be Ms. Rosenfelt's goal as both of the producers and FOX agreed that "we would wait for the right time with the right director and the right cast.  So it took 7 years to [get to] that time for it to be magical."  She added, "You make a film once and you have to wait till it's ready."   Now, eight years later, the movie is ready and opening nationwide.

Director, Brian Percival, in his quick paced British accent concurred with Ms. Rosenfelt that the "time has to be right to make the film."  Mr. Percival read the screenplay about 2 years ago and actually wasn't even aware of the book.  He energetically expressed that as he read the screenplay,  he was "completely bowled over" and that he just couldn't put it down.  Although he was in the midst of shooting another film at the time, he was so passionate about "The Book Thief" that he wanted nothing more than to direct it.  As he put it so succinctly, "I just had to make this film."  And just as quickly as his voice was full of excitement, he turned on a dime and meekly stated, "Thankfully, they trusted me with it."
 I asked Mr. Percival if he was at all intimidated by turning such a successful and well-known book into a film to which he jokingly, yet factually pointed out, that he had done quite a few adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens in England.  I guess that might be a bit more intimidating!  He then graciously went on to point out that directing a film in which the book was initially so successful was like having a "580 page reference document."  Percival was always aware of what the author's intentions were at every crucial point.  The actors as well as the directors, using this guide were able to then "look far deeper into the background material to see what was actually meant."  The director then took a more serious note about his intentions with this film.  It "was always to be faithful to his (Markus Zusak's) vision because it's such a beautiful book to begin with."

Were there any difficulties that Mr. Percival encountered trying to bring this book to life?  He quickly responded that there were not.  He did, however, point out that in the book, Markus "has some incredibly vivd and beautiful descriptions of skies and things...some of that visual description I decided to leave out and go for more of the characters because for me, the heart of the story was always with the characters.  Percival wanted nothing more than to make these characters an honest representation and to bring naturalness to their performances.  He felt that if he "had created something that was visually really quite strange, it might look effected in some way and would have distracted from the truth of the narrative."  So for this director, it was about the characters and not to follow Markus' visual descriptions.
For those of have read the book, you might have wondered, like me, how they incorporated the character of Death.  As the book is told from Death's perspective, how will the film stay true to the book?  Mr. Percival reassured me that Death is still in the film, in voice alone, and the camera angles give us a "visual perspective rather than a literal one" of Death.  He then went on to comfortingly share that once you have read the book and/or seen the film, you may not be as afraid of Death as you were before.  This character of Death is "witty and rye...he's not one of those scary characters we get in movies. There's an empathy about him [and] a sympathy about his thoughts.  In many ways, even though it's Death, you're going to be in safe hands."

Mr. Geoffrey Rush then introduced himself in a very warm and unassuming way, immediately making me feel at ease with this Academy Award winning actor.  After the pleasantries, Mr. Rush discussed the book, screenplay and film.  He reiterated that the novel is over 500 pages and the screenplay is just over 100.  So "the novel is the novel and the film is the film."  He then went on to tell me what drew him to this character of Hans, Liesel's father in the film.  Mr. Rush expressed that "...what really personally attracted me to Hans is how so seemingly ordinary he is.  He's a housepainter, he's working class.  He doesn't seem to have any elaborate adjectives that you would use to describe him.  I've played quite a number of quite eccentric or slightly crazy or flamboyant roles.  I wanted to challenge myself" with playing this part.

Did Mr. Rush pull from his own experiences when playing this role?  He shared that he is also a father of a daughter soon to turn 21 and used the memories of her being 10, 11, or 12.  Much of that interaction was on a personal level.  The rest, however comes in the action of the story.  He conveyed that "you do delve into some little secret chambers in the back of your brain that you are in an imaginative world."  Mr. Rush continued to explain that the immediate bond that you see in the film between his character and Liesel was real.  "We were lucky that we worked together for a week and a half or two weeks on a 'table read' and I was very aware that she was a very talented" young actress.  The family scenes around the kitchen table were truly scenes of him getting to know Sophie and her character.   Mr. Rush appeared to be genuinely in awe of and impressed by Sophie's skills at such a young age.  He felt that the part of Liesel is a huge task no matter whether you are 12 or 62.

As Mr. Rush made his way down the red carpet, an angelic looking girl stopped to chat with me about her lead role in this film as Liesel.  With English as her second language, Sophie Nelisse embodied the poise and sophistication of someone 10 years older.  Her command of the English language and her ease in which she expressed herself was impressively elegant.  With "The Book Thief" as her third major role in as many years, Sophie articulated how she, a 12 year old from Germany, prepared for a role of this magnitude.  Not surprisingly, she "watched a lot of movies" ranging from "Schindler's List" to "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."  As this part of history apparently isn't taught in school for her, she also learned first hand from her grandfather about concentrations camps in Chili during WWII.  With the movies and the first hand accounts, Sophie shared that there was a lot of crying.  She feels that everyone her age should know about this part of history even though it's sometimes difficult to learn.  However, after completing the role of Sophie, she wanted to watch a Meryl Streep film.  Her mother suggested "Sophie's Choice."  Miss Nelisse shouted a resounding NO to that suggestion.  It was time for an uplifting, lighthearted comedy.

It's quite apparent that these actors, the director and the producer have a passionate connection with this film.  I hope that the conversation I have shared enables you to enjoy this film to its fullest.

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