Exclusive: Director Stephen Daldry Interview THE READER

     December 11, 2008

Written by Heather Huntington

Adapted from Oprah’s book club pick, The Reader (originally by author Bernhard Schlink) is a semi-autobiographical story about a young German law student who has an affair with an older woman only to discover she is accused of Nazi war crimes. Reader writing-directing team of David Hare and Stephen Daldry may be the perfect dramatists, tackling this delicate subject matter with the same skill they brought to their previous collaboration on The Hours. Somehow, when they’re done with it, a story is more emotionally accessible, the acting pitch perfect, and the visuals lovely.

So why haven’t you heard more about The Reader? Well, word is there’s been some studio politics going into its release (and producers wanting to push Kate Winslet for her role in Revolutionary Road over her work in this one). Politics aside, Daldry’s film is a good one—many calling it one of the best of the year. I got a chance to pick Daldry’s brain a little to see what makes him so good at what he does. The answer is: I’m not sure. He didn’t give that much away about his process, instead preferring to have more of an intellectual conversation about the larger questions that drew him to the project in the first place. Still an interesting chat nonetheless.

The Reader opens in select theaters Friday, December 12.

NOTE (to those who have not read the book): SPOILERS AHEAD

Collider: What makes you want to do book adaptations? You did The Hours

Stephen Daldry: It’s not necessarily a profound choice. It’s the way things have gone.

So there’s nothing that pulls you? What pulls you toward the project?

DALDRY: Well, just ‘cuz of the story. And I’d spent a lot of time in Germany as a child, learning German. And then in my 30s, I spent a lot of time in Berlin because I used to run a theater in England called the Royal Court Theatre and we had a very strong relationship with a theater in Berlin called the Deutsches Theater. So we built up very strong relationships there, and I’ve been fascinated by Germany from my schoolboy years. I’m fascinated with this country that’s been through so much, a country that’s coming to terms with genocide, a post-genocidal society.

I think the questions that (author) Mr. Schlink asks, which are very personal for him, are how do you love? How is it possible to love in that context? How do you love your parents? Your teachers? Your pastors? Or any of your lovers? Does that invalidate the love? Does it mean the love didn’t exist? And how do you continue? Is it possible to continue with those relationships when you have the knowledge that they were actively, in this case, involved in the Holocaust, or even passively involved in the Holocaust as many millions of Germans were? How is it even possible to continue, as a human being?

Do you just rationalize your feelings or…

DALDRY: As a human being, how do you—do you just ditch it? Do you just forget about it? Do you start again? How does a process of—if you like—truth and reconciliation, how could that possibly begin and how does it happen?

Had you read the book and then decided you wanted to do an adaptation? Was (screenwriter) David Hare already involved?

DALDRY: No, I read the book. Anthony Minghella was an old friend of mine. I badgered Anthony to let me do it, and he wanted to direct it and write it himself. After a few years, he said “No, I probably won’t get ‘round to it for a while longer,” so basically you can do it if I can produce it with Sydney (Pollock). And Sydney and Anthony and I have wanted to do something together for a long time, so it was a perfect way forward, really.

And then you got David to do the adaptation.

DALDRY: Yeah, and David had wanted to do it as well. He had wanted to do it for some years as well.

He did The Hours.

DALDRY: He did The Hours and we worked in the theater together as well, so he’s a very old collaborator of mine.

So obviously you guys know you work well together.

DALDRY: Yeah, we have a shorthand and we’re very close. We’ve been through a lot of wars together, so you tend to get close.

Then you worked with Bernhard Schlink? Because this adaptation is extremely faithful to the book. What is the process of adapting like?

DALDRY: David and I spent—as we did with Michael Cunningham on The Hours—we spent a lot of time with Bernhard Schlink prior to writing. And David went an wrote, but we kept Bernhard involved and kept on checking with him—particularly when we were changing things or trying to find, to clarify with ourselves, particularly on this very controversial subject matter, exactly what our attitudes were going to be toward certain characters at certain moments where we needed to, for want of a better word, explain. Thus the seminar groups. Things that weren’t dramatized or even discussed in the book, but we thought we should bring to the forefront. How much empathy we were ever going to have for Hannah? How much we should have or shouldn’t have? And for my point of view in discussion with Bernhard as well as obviously David, keeping the character as ambiguous as we could.

Which must be a very difficult thing to do both in writing and acting.

DALDRY: Well, I didn’t want to tie the character’s journey up in to any neat package. I thought that would be facile at the end of the day, so I wanted to keep one’s attitude towards her ambiguous.

Because it helps you understand the character of Michael. That’s the position he’s in. He’s constantly being torn in two directions because she’s such a complex person. It really deals with the gray areas of the world that are so difficult to rationalize.

DALDRY: Yeah. I’m aware and was aware that in the movies, you tend to like to know who the good guys and the bad guys are. And in this story of course, there’s no real good guys. Michael himself makes a series of moral compromises. Although Hannah is definitely a bad guy, there are complications to that.

You certainly have the ability to feel a lot of empathy for her, and I don’t think you ever lose that. And I’m Jewish!

DALDRY: (laughs)

People here don’t think about the German experience after the war.

DALDRY: And I think one needs to be very clear that there is no equivalence to what the Germans did and what they went through after the war. And they battle as a country and they continue to battle as a country with coming to terms with the past.

And the people who were born afterwards, it’s not their fault.

DALDRY: No, but there’s a responsibility there. And I think it’s a responsibility of all the countries that have been through genocide, it’s a responsibility that has been taken very seriously both in terms of the education of the children and what their school curriculums are. But also as a country, Berlin’s a city of memorials. There are new ones being built all the time, and so it should be. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that in Berlin the parliament can discuss actively the role of their soldiers in Afghanistan because is it still possible, literally, for a German soldier to take up arms. This is still an active conversation, which is why they’re deployed in certain areas in Afghanistan and not in others—because there’s still an ambivalence about a German having a gun.

Because God knows what they’re going to do?

DALDRY: Well, it’s not that. Is it appropriate still for a German to have a gun? I only use that as an example of a country that’s still deeply involved and engaged in the conversations about how to come to terms with the fast. Certainly for that country, it’s not forgotten. I mean, there’s certain other countries it’s much more buried. Like, France! (laughs) That’s not a current conversation, I can tell you!

Was there a discussion in terms of deciding how to handle the ending? How much you wanted to redeem Hannah in the end?

DALDRY: Well, yes. I think that the discussion was how much consciousness could she gain of the sins of her past. I was keen that we weren’t going to have a character at the end of the film who was suddenly going to say mea culpa. Partly because from my knowledge and experience of that generation, they didn’t.

It’s very difficult to live with yourself if you did say that, but if you were able to, what a tremendous turnaround—to go from a war criminal to someone who can admit that you were wrong. Is that even consistent within one person?

DALDRY: Is that even historically consistent, and in my experience, not. But I do think that in terms of this specific character, the idea that having spent 20 years in jail, of coming out and realizing you were coming out into a world that not only has changed, but a loveless world. It’s not possible to be loved, given what’s happened. Her only possible option would be to kill herself.

I understand that you have been debating The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?

DALDRY: Well, we did a lot of work on that a couple of years ago.

It was going and it wasn’t going and Michael Chabon is doing his own adaptation.

DALDRY: Correct.

Why is he doing the adaptation instead of David?

DALDRY: Because he’s a fantastic writer and he asked—is the simple answer. He really wanted to have a go and he really wanted to do it himself. And he’s done a fantastic script.

So what’s going on with that?

DALDRY: I don’t know.

It’s in limbo?

DALDRY: It’s a little bit in limbo. It became in limbo for a variety of—

-technical boring reasons?

Technical boring reasons.

Political crap.

DALDRY: Exactly. But I hope it’ll come ‘round. It’s a great project.

Do you think the momentum from The Reader will get Kavalier and Clay off the ground?

DALDRY: I don’t know. You tell me.

Depends on how it goes?

DALDRY: Depends on how it goes.

Well, it’s getting good press. It’s extremely faithful to the book, which is good because if you’ve read the book you’re always patrolling for changes.

DALDRY: And second-guessing the decisions accordingly.

Do you know is there going to be a big Oscar push?

DALDRY: I’ve got no idea. I only finished it last Saturday.

What decisions were made with Kate’s role. She played such a stalwart German, so different from who she is. How did you decide on that?

DALDRY: The great thing about Kate is she’s a transformative actress, and because of that you can go anywhere you like with it, really. So we spent a lot of time in prep, a lot of time rehearsing with little David (Kross), the young German actor.

I noticed he had chest hair when he was in the scenes where he was older.

DALDRY: There you go! Took hours! It was a great collaboration, she’s a fantastic collaborator. I can’t imagine doing it without an actress who didn’t want to go that far and that deep into the questions and the issues.

Even how she walked.

DALDRY: Yeah. She changed her center of balance and it’s amazing. A knockout.

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