Jamie Bell Interview – DEFIANCE

     January 15, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Opening this Friday in wide release is “Defiance”. The movie is based on the extraordinary true story of a group of Jews that banded together to survive in a forest in Eastern Europe during WW2. The film was directed by Edward Zwick and it stars Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell as the three Jewish brothers that made it all happen. Here’s the synopsis:

The year is 1941 and the Jews of Eastern Europe are being massacred by the thousands. Managing to escape certain death, three brothers take refuge in the dense surrounding woods they have known since childhood. There they begin their desperate battle against the Nazis. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell star as brothers who turn a primitive struggle to survive into something far more consequential – a way to avenge the deaths of their loved ones by saving thousands of others.

At first it is all they can do to stay alive. But gradually, as whispers of their daring spreads, they begin to attract others – men and women, young and old – willing to risk everything for the sake of even a moment’s freedom. Tuvia (Daniel Craig) is a reluctant leader and his decisions are challenged by his brother, Zus (Liev Schreiber)who worries that Tuvia’s idealistic plans will doom them all. Asael (Jamie Bell) is the youngest – caught between his brothers’ fierce rivalry. As a brutal winter descends, they work to create a community, and to keep faith alive when all humanity appeared to be lost.

To help promote the movie, I recently participated in roundtable interviews with most of the cast. The one below is with Jamie Bell.

During our interview, Jamie talked about all the challenges of making the movie and he told us a lot of great behind the scenes stories. As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here. And if yo’d like to watch some clips from “Defiance”, click here.

Q: It’s a long way from Billy Elliot.

Jamie Bell: Yes, I was trying to convince Ed to try and slip in a dance sequence somewhere, but it just really didn’t work out. Yeah, almost ten years, I feel like a veteran. Back then I really didn’t expect to be doing this as a job really, so I’m very lucky in that regard I guess.

Q: How much research did you do on this, did you talk to anyone who knew him?

Jamie Bell: I mean, initially the first kind of research was obviously reading the Nechama Tec’s book, which is incredibly informative and I felt like I knew a lot about this time in history but I was embarrassed when I read the script to find out that I actually knew nothing about the Bielski brothers, I knew very little of Jewish resistance and resilience. So upon kind of digging deeper you realize that actually Jewish resistance happened across the board, they are an incredibly resilient people, every possible moment they were fighting for their freedoms, and in the script Asael is not quite portrayed the way he actually sorry, Asael was actually much older, he was thirty years old, he was actually the second eldest brother, he was actually the guy who first created a small fighting unit, which then Tuvia then took command of that, so in actual fact Asael was actually the hero of the story (we all laugh), it should really be all about me. In that regard I did find it important to understand the history of it, but because we had a little bit of freedom with the character, I felt it wasn’t that necessary to go to family members, which we later met, they actually came out to Lithuania, that was pretty crazy. I think more crazy for Daniel and Liev to kind of sit and look at their ‘son,’ their off-spring was kind of weird, I think it was for all of the filmmakers, the crew members and the cast, them coming out that was [an] incredibly valuable experience for sure.

Q: Do you have any theories on why this is a story that we don’t know?

Jamie: I do, I think it’s because – it is a story of heroism, but the things that they had to do to get there are pretty brutal, and I think we find it hard to accept, we have no idea of the circumstances back then, we can’t really comprehend what it must have been like, and to survive you have to do some pretty brutal things, whether it’s murdering your neighbor for food, or murdering another guy for some medicine so that people can stay alive. The conditions were incredibly brutal. And I think that’s why Tuvia Bielski did not want this story to be told, purely because it was too hard for him to explain why he had to do certain things. He’s a hero because he saved lives, and that’s why the story should be told, and I think that – Ed wanted to blend the fact that they did have to do some pretty brutal things, but also in the act of heroism.

Q: The other thing I thought was kind of interesting about this was the different classes of people, and it was kind of a class conflict within that little group, was there some kind of research that you did for that, were you aware that there were these different classes?

Jamie: Oh absolutely, the Nechama Tec book is actually so informative, when I read the book I was like, there’s so much in the book that didn’t actually then make it to the script, some of the stories that she would tell, this one older woman escaped the ghetto with someone else’s child, which she [fled] with, and then she got there and realized that she’d forgotten her brassiere and then decided to go back, and took the kid with her, and they never came back. And there are these very bizarre stories, just little stories of people, but what she did illustrate is that all of these people came from many different walks of life, they came from rich backgrounds or incredibly poor backgrounds, or they were doctors in their previous lives, or intellectuals in their previous lives, and what’s great about the story I think and why overall I think the film really should be a celebration of the human spirit is because they come from different walks of life, they come together and they survive for each other, and they pull each other through it.

Q: Often times you hear about the stories about the difficulty of filming a movie, you hear actors complaining a little bit and you laugh because it’s on a soundstage, but this one you guys looked like you were really in the forest, can you talk about the challenges of filming on location.

Jamie: Yeah, upon arrival in Vilnius, I don’t know if any of you have been to Vilnius, it’s actually about to become the European capital of culture, which is interesting, bizarre choice but interesting, but upon arrival there you realize, you look at the history around June ’41 when the Germans started going east, they entered Vilnius and the had a Jewish population of about 60,000 and within days 21,000 of those people were dead, the rest of them were herded into the Jewish court and then eventually those ghettos were liquidated. We were making this film about an hour outside of that city, so it really felt like that’s how it would have been, that’s exactly the Bielski situation, they had to survive in rural areas, they had to get out of the urban environment, and they had to flee to these forests. So actually being there was just incredibly valuable to all of us. I think the first day we got to the set we’d seen what our production designer had done, and I think for me I was like, this is ridiculous, are you trying to tell me that people actually built these things, they built schools, they built theatres and kitchens, like this is ridiculous. But then you see the reference photographs, and if read Nechama Tec’s book you see that incredibly civilized way of living. But it was cold there, it was hard work for the crew, for everyone. What we were experiencing was purely a minutia of what these people went through.

Q: Does any of the original settlement remain?

Jamie: No, no, I’m sure that’s gone.

Q: Did the Nazi’s take it down?

Jamie: Well, they had to leave within a heartbeat often, death was always a day away, whether it came through disease or malnutrition or the Germans were hiding behind the next tree, they were constantly moving, I don’t think – maybe a better question for Ed, that any of that stuff actually survived. But where we were shooting geographically is only about 100 kilometers away from actually where these guys were hiding out, and where they were moving around.

Q: How big was the forest that they were hiding in, did you get to see any of that?

Jamie: Yeah, I would say the scale of it was pretty, and I would imagine for those people, was pretty disorientating. You suddenly find yourself in one long collage of green and brown, and suddenly all the forest starts to look the same and I remember I went to use the bathroom in the forest, because conveniently they placed the trailers about 30 minutes away from the set so that we wouldn’t go back there, and I remember coming back and I really had to listen, I was like, ‘Where the fuck has the set gone? Where the fuck has it gone? I’m totally fucking lost.’ And then imagine what it must have been like, because they were exhausted these people trying to move 1200 people across forests, these people were just absolutely exhausted, and I would imagine if someone sat down to take a rest and they just saw them disappearing they’d be fucked, because you can’t figure out where you are. But if you talk to any surviving partisans they way they talk about forests is so different from the way that I think we see forests, the forests and the trees were their savior in a big way. But the forests of Lithuania were vast, endless, we would drive for 40 minutes, nothing but forests on the side of the road, just pine, and also there are these weird settlements within that, you would see people now, still today, walking into the forest with their shopping bags, it’s bizarre. You can’t imagine the way these people still live their lives, and it’s incredibly quaint, it’s like a time capsule, it really is, and we’re very thankful of that.

Q: What’s the accent you have in the movie?

Jamie: Well, it’s a Russian/Belarusian almost, Polish accent that we did. But our dialect coach, Neil Swain, manage to somehow create a nuance with – just how different everyone sounded, many of these people who joined them in the forest came from very different geographical areas, so you wanted to make sure that lots of different places were being represented.

Q: You’ve done accent work before, is that something that comes relevantly naturally for you at this point?

Jamie: You have to. Being a Brit it’s like you have to get rid of the accent quickly. Pretty much everything I’ve ever done there’s always an accent and it becomes the same ritual, just the different sound in the end.

Q: Are any easier or harder at this point?

Jamie: Generic American is like you can just click your brain and you start doing it, it’s pretty good. But I did Scottish recently which was a challenge, a real challenge because – what was it that I wanted to slip into? Oh no, it was this one, I did Scottish and then doing this kind of accent I almost wanted to slip immediately back into Scottish, because there are certain vowel sounds that kind of sound the same for some reason. But I got a – Liev and Daniel had to learn another language, which is a little different.

Q: How were they as your siblings, did you guys form a bond out there in the woods?

Jamie: Very much so. I have a big admiration for these guys as actors, even more so now as men. With Daniel, he’s obviously a fellow Brit, so that comes with the territory, but then I’ve been a massive fan of his for a very, very long time, I remember a TV show he did in England, he probably hates me talking about this, but it’s a show called Our Friends in the North, and it was an absolutely fantastic show. And I saw him on stage, a friend of mine directed him in a play, so I think our knowledge of this guy seems to fall to one name, and that’s James Bond, but for me that isn’t the case at all, I know Daniel Craig the very fine versatile actor, so getting to work with him and then translating that admiration that I have for him into this brother who basically idolized this guy was actually very easy.

Q: Did he limit you to one James Bond question a day?

Jamie: I never talked about James Bond. I never questioned him. The only thing I actually did question him on was action sequences, because I don’t really know how to do it. What I usually do in those kind of situations, and I’ve done other films with action in them, is that I click to Honesty, I go to Truth. I go ‘Well, what would Jamie do in this situation?’ And, of couse, Jamie’s do, ‘Oh, f***ing, f*** f***.’ Of course, that doesn’t look incredibly good for the camera. It’s not incredibly heroic. It’s not… So, just seeing the way Daniel does it, because obviously he’s had to learn it, and it really becomes more like a dance rather than anything else. It’s a number of choreographed movements that are sharp and effective and you want to make it look good for the camera, so, in that regard it was just more of a technique, learning that technique from him, which I thought was important, because Ed Zwick really focuses on that. He really likes the action. He likes heroes and the likes these kinds of big stories.

Q: You have a big action scene toward the end…

Jamie: That’s exactly what I needed help with. Because I was like, ‘Dude, if it’s just me with a gun for five minutes, I’m gonna need to not be like [makes some sort of high pitched sqeal]’ And it wasn’t like he sat me down and said, ‘Right, this is what you’ve got to do.’ He was never a mentor to me, which is what I loved about him, because I think it’s very easy when younger actors look up to older actors that they then become the mentor and he wasn’t that. He was just a nice, generous person with his knowledge and with his experiences. And Liev was the same. Liev is a much different kind of guy. He’s also a filmmaker in his own right, so as an actor he approaches things in a much different way than most of the actors you work with. His intellect is fierce. He acts and his presence on set has a kind of visceral immediacy about what he wants to do and he elevates your performance by being in front of him, so I was in really good hands with these two guys.

Q: Were you surprised by the worldwide success of Jumper?

Jamie: I don’t know, because that a little bit of a departure for me. I had a lot of fun doing it. Doug Liman is a fantastic, bizarre mad-scientist filmmaker person. So that was a lot of fun. I did have a lot of fun with him. I haven’t really seen much else from Fox this year. I guess nothing else has been of interest to me. I really want to see “Australia” because I’m a massive fan of Baz Luhrman. But it did do incredibly well internationally.

Q: Here in the states as well

Jamie: Moderately, I’d say. It wasn’t “Dark Knight,” but you know.

Q: How was it going from the crazy working experience with Doug Liman to anything else?

Jamie: It was a really different experience for me. That took a year to make. It was a year of my life which I’ll never get back. But I can’t complain. We went to nine different countries for that movie. It was a great experience in terms of traveling the world in a certain fashion. That’s never gonna happen again. But also it was an exercise on discipline as an actor and discipline at trying to understand why so many people have their hands in the pot all at once. It was a real lesson in Hollywood filmmaking for me and it was very difficult. Everyone had a really hard time on that movie, but also it was a lot of fun. It’s always kind of balanced with a lot of fun.

Q: Has seeing that sort of filmmaking impacted the kinds of choices you’ve made subsequently?

Jamie: Definitely. I don’t know. I just think that the script has to be solid. I learnt that pretty quick. Because no matter how much you put your energy into it, no matter how much you think you can change something, you have what you have. If you start with an OK script, you’re probably gonna end up with a kind of OK movie. So I feel like learning and understanding the script and understanding how much you can put into it has definitely changed my choices, for sure. Because I put a lot of energy into that movie and a lot of energy into that performance and a lot of energy into that character. I think it worked. I watched it on an airplane recently just because you can’t escape it. You know those domestic flights where they put it on and you’re like [He mimes trying to avoid himself]. And I was like, actually, I kind of enjoyed myself in it, which is rare for me. It’s really rare, because I’m a really harsh critic of myself, my own worst critic and I was actually like, ‘Ah, that’s a lot of fun.’ Getting to flip off Sam Jackson is not bad role at all.

Q: What do you have coming up?

Jamie: There’s a lot of things that were supposed to go this year, especially early this year and then late this year. And then we all kind of found ourselves in a global economic downturn and now nothing’s being made. Everything is on the runway waiting for the tower to clear it and as usual they’ll all get cleared at the same time and then we’ll end up doing absolutely nothing.

Q: The possibility of the actors going on strike…

Jamie: It’s ridiculous.

Q: Do you think once that’s resolved the floodgates will open?

Jamie: I hope so. I really do. I don’t know what my position is on any of that, really. I just know it’s a pretty bad time right now for a lot of people and a lot of people don’t have any jobs and a lot of people are running out of money and people need to get back to work. Across the board. Everywhere. All over the world, not just the entertainment industry. But a strike right now seems utter lunacy to me.

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