RT Interview: Reading The Reader with Stephen Daldry

The Oscar-nominated director on making and interpreting his controversial drama.

by | February 17, 2009 | Comments

Stephen Daldry - Jim Spellman/WireImage

In bringing the best-selling German novel The Reader to the big screen, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) had more than a few hurdles to overcome — breaks in production, the recasting of his lead character, headline-grabbing in-fighting between executive producers Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, and the tragic loss of producers and mentors Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. But somehow, the veteran stage director pulled it all together to earn a Best Director nomination for this weekend’s Academy Awards, where his film is up for honors in five major categories.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Stephen Daldry about The Reader‘s tumultuous road to completion (once meant to be a starring vehicle for Nicole Kidman, it has now garnered star Kate Winslet the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, numerous critics’ awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Daldry took us into the making of his film, explaining how he and writer David Hare solved the tricky problems of adapting Bernhard Schlink’s novel and why, despite the objections of some vocal critics, the film’s depiction of nudity and eroticism was integral to the story — one that, according to him, was never meant to be taken as a “Holocaust film.”

The Reader took a long time to complete, with a production that weathered many changes. Can you explain what hindered you the most?

Stephen Daldry: I’d originally asked Kate Winslet to play the part and she wasn’t available because of Revolutionary Road, so Nicole Kidman was playing the part. Then Nicole left because of pregnancy, and we had a hiatus while I went back to Kate, who agreed, because she was then free. We had a few months while I was rehearsing with Kate to then fully explore the footage — we’d shot about seven weeks at that point, so we’d shot quite a substantial amount of the film.

And because of this you had not one, but two acclaimed cinematographers work on the picture.

SD: I started out with Roger, and then once Nicole got pregnant he had to leave to do another job. We went to my old friend and Roger’s old friend, Chris Menges; those two know each other really well, which I think was one of the reasons why the cinematic language of the film, the photography of the film, feels quite seamless. And then Chris took over.


During production you lost two of your producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. Where in your film can you feel their impact the most?

SD: I think their primary involvement was in the preparation of the movie, both in terms of cast and in terms of script. They were fantastically, and wonderfully, supportive and challenging right through those two difficult processes. And wonderful friends. I think the great thing about the both of them as filmmakers-turned-producers is that they always were keen and considerate in trying to get me to make the best film I wanted to make, rather than trying to impose the film they wanted to make.

What kind of scripting advice or notes did they give?

SD: David Hare, the screenwriter, and I sat down with both Anthony and Sydney on numerous occasions, sitting down working our way through issues with the script — everything from narrative structure to how to create a context for a discursive element. In other words, what actually the end became a seminar group, so that we have a context in which to discuss the issues.


You have said that you chose your themes in the editing process. How does this work?

SD:One of the great joys about having so long to edit was that we had the opportunity to investigate — not to choose, but to investigate — themes, so that you could investigate characters and ideas that weren’t necessarily narratively driven, but also thematically driven. That’s also due to the interest and collaborative nature of my wonderful editor, Claire Simpson. So you could really delve into subjects and ideas, and really push the envelope on different ideas in the script, and in what we filmed, to explore them fully.

And you do that after you’ve filmed, instead of having it planned out beforehand?

SD: Well, there are three different processes of making a film, of course. They’re sort of re-written three times. You write it to start with, and then you shoot it and you re-write it while shooting and you sort of re-write it as you edit. The advantage of the production rhythm that we had on this was that you could edit during the process of filming, because of our hiatuses. And so what started out as a challenge became a wonderful opportunity.

Next: On Danny Boyle’s concept of the “imperfect film”

I’ve read that you like to do many takes of a scene. Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?

SD: It’s so hard, because I don’t have another director to compare it with. I don’t know, is the honest answer. It is a comparative question — to be more of a perfectionist than somebody else — and I don’t know the answer because I only know myself!

Just as a point of discussion, Danny Boyle told us recently that most films should be imperfect; that he liked to spend a small amount of time on a movie so that he could capture everything that he could at that time.

SD: How interesting! It’s fantastically interesting. That’s part of Danny’s brilliance, I think, and I can see how that would work. I suppose I fret, and I like spending time on things. But I love that and I think it’s a wonderful idea. The truth of the matter is, every film is imperfect. It’s the nature of the beast. One of the things that people ask me all the time is, what’s the difference between theater and film, and one of the biggest differences is, in the theater you always get another go. There’s always another night, always another opportunity to fiddle and play and explore. And of course in film, you get to a certain point and it’s just finished, for all its flaws and imperfections. And you can’t fiddle again; it is what it is at that time and at that moment, and what you came up with at that time and that moment with that group of people. There’s also something wonderful about the completion of that, and also something terrifying.


One aspect of The Reader that I liked very much was how the books that Hanna and Michael read together tied thematically to the story. But the Chekhov story — The Lady with the Little Dog — that one in particular is known for ending without a resolution. Do you consider there to be a definitive resolution in The Reader?

SD: You did your homework. Nobody knows that! [SPOILER ALERT] There’s only resolution in that Hanna dies, and the inevitability of that generation dying. [END SPOILERS]To be honest, I think there’s a resolution in our story, to the extent that the character of Michael decides and elects to tell his daughter, so there is something of an act of confession and an act of release, which is what we were after. We were trying to find the equivalence of the act of Michael Berg in the book, writing the actual book. That was one of the key decisions we had to make in adapting it for the screen.

Speaking of the changes you had to make in adapting the book, Bernard Schlink’s novel is told in the first person and without any time-jumping element. Why was removing the first person necessary?

SD:Well, what options are available in telling it in the first person, do you think? There’s always the cheat of a voice over, and another idea is that you start with a man on a typewriter and you finish with a man on a typewriter, but those all felt quite banal choices to us.

Another less-than-easy choice you made was making your characters fairly ambiguous, to each other and to the audience.

SD: Particularly in this story, because this story is a very complicated one, politically, socially, sexually, and even narratively — what the characters do is a complex series of actions. To try to tie them up neatly into little parcels of cause and effect seemed rather facile to me. The issue of the inactive hero at the center of it, which is Michael Berg; the question of the inactive hero has been a fascination throughout literature. You could say, why doesn’t Hamlet just nail Claudius in Act I? Well, he could do that, that would certainly be one way of dealing with the story, but you wouldn’t really in the end have Hamlet.


The nudity in this film — well, there’s a lot of it.

SD: Is there? I thought there was very little!

Oh, could there have been more?

SD: There could have been a lot more. I thought I was being incredibly spare. [Laughs]

One critic of the nudity in your film called it manipulative, in that the nudity and eroticism seems counter to the horrors of the Holocaust.

SD: Well, it’s not a Holocaust film, so they’re starting off on the wrong track in the first place.

David Hare has said the same thing, that The Reader shouldn’t be considered a Holocaust film.

SD: No, it’s definitely not. It’s about German guilt, the act of and the responsibility and the consequences of being so-called “born guilty.”

Next: Daldry on why The Reader should not be considered a Holocaust film

Can you explain why the sexuality was so important to feature in telling the story?

SD: Because it’s an essential element of the story. It wasn’t something that was “featured,” it’s something that’s integral to the story that Bernhard Schlink wrote. And as I say, if anything, I thought I was rather chaste, with the lovemaking scenes.

Lena Olin has a line at the end of The Reader about the camp experience not being therapeutic; would you say that the film overall isn’t meant to be digested as a Holocaust film, per se?

SD: I certainly hope it isn’t digested as a Holocaust film. And as she says at the end to Michael Berg, if you want catharsis, you should go to the theater. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps, because nothing comes out of the camps. I think what that character is — she’s been left this money, by this guard. And then this German man turns up, who seems to have some sort of relationship with this woman, who doesn’t really know why he’s there, but only that he’s been given this quest, by this dead woman. And I think that her challenge to him — what are you doing here, what do you want from me, what am I meant to take from this — rejecting the money, and rejecting any hope of redemption for her, but actually challenging him for his understanding of this meeting, and what does he want out of it. In the end, bouncing the task back to him, saying, whether you do it or not in Hanna’s name is really your responsibility. It’s got nothing to do with me. And the idea that you would ask or question me, as a survivor, what you should do, is absurd. This is your problem.


And, by extension, the problem of the German people and subsequent generations. Considering that this is a specifically German story — though a worldwide bestseller and Oprah book club pick — how do you expect non-German audiences to react?

SD: I think one of the reasons Mr. Schlink wanted it made in the English language, though it is a very particular German story, was to see whether any of the themes in that story could resonate outside of the country. To see if it wasn’t just a German story, if those echoes could resonate in other cultures.

Do you think that Hanna really loves Michael, as he asks her at one point in the movie?

SD: Yes, I think she does. As much as she understands the concept of the word “love.” If you asked her, as in the movie, what she says is yes — what she understands that to mean is questionable, of course.

Do you see any sort of through line in your body of work, either in theater or in film?

SD: No. No, I don’t. I hope there isn’t any! Who wants to be known for “something?” It’s great to keep exploring, keep redefining.

I was shocked to hear that you were editing The Reader and working on Billy Elliott the Musical at the same time, which sounds like a task for someone with multiple personalities.

SD: No, you have to be Superman! I am, in fact, Superman. [Laughs] Every morning I wake up and go into a telephone booth and change my costume, and then go to work.

Find reviews, trailers and more for The Reader here.