The Book Thief - Brian Percival interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BRIAN Percival talks about some of the challenges of bringing The Book Thief to the big screen and finding the right young actress to play the film’s leading character, Liesel.
He also talks about his approach to making films, how he became inspired to make the leap from commercials to movies (via TV) and why he feels that a film like The Book Thief can help to re-educate a generation of teens who are not aware of The Holocaust.
Q. It was interesting that you decided to shoot this in Berlin?
Brian Percival: Well, we got location reports from a few places in Europe – Czechoslovakia and Hungary – and Germany initially looked the most authentic. When we set out to make the film, we wanted to find the town. So, the plan was to make it quite real and to use an existing town. I set off in July the year before last and we went from the south of Germany to the north but just couldn’t find the right one. Germany is quite progressive, of course, and a lot of building work has been done. There were so many things that if we found towns that we thought were OK, there’d be so much to change anyway. And then the second thing was that, of course, ultimately we have to destroy this town. So, it became apparent that a lot of Germany had been destroyed by the war, so there wasn’t an awful lot left behind. We did some location shooting. But it became apparent that the smartest way forward was to build it and have control. That allowed me to be able to use specific viewpoints that allowed me to vary the exteriors so that I wasn’t constantly looking the same way or returning to the same shots. We built camera traps everywhere and designed it so that I could shoot it from a number of different angles.
We were going to shoot the main street in a town called Meissen, which is famous for its pottery. It was a street that had an awful lot of empty shops and it felt right because we could dress it the way that we wanted to. It even had a town square at the bottom of it, which was perfect. But we were there on what was to be one of the final reccies and it started to snow quite heavily, so we took shelter in this inn in the town square and once we walked in all the walls were covered with photos of Meissen under three feet of snow. It became apparent that if we moved and settled in Meissen, it could well be that we could be shut down for three weeks because we were meant to be filming in spring and summer. So, those logistics stacked up, so the best way forward was to build it ourselves.
Q. How much grief did you cause yourself by wanting to shoot it in Germany with Nazi swastikas hanging from the walls?
Brian Percival: Well, it wasn’t too bad. It gives the piece an authenticity and thankfully the producers backed me on that. Because the history of Berlin is so tangible… when you’re not filming, you’re in a city which is a constant reminder of what happened. Indeed, while we were there, there was a huge exhibition about all the people that became distant and who were forced out of Germany by Hitler when he came to power. And so there’s an atmosphere about the place. We also have 25 cast members who are German and 95 or more per cent of the crew are all German, so that all adds to the sound and the feel of the piece and makes it more authentic. So, really I think it was the right thing to do. Yes, we had to get special dispensation from the authorities to use swastikas and for the German national anthem, because there’s two versions which are sung in the film that have been banned. But we were allowed to do that because it [the film] was deemed to be educational. There’s a strong message in the film regarding how a community can be corrupted into believing something. So, all those permissions were granted with the blessings of the German people and I think it added to the authenticity of the film.
Q. What was it like working with such a legendary composer as John Williams [whose score has been Oscar nominated]?
Brian Percival: Well, I never expected to meet him, let alone work with him! I used to sit in cinemas in the ‘70s and ‘80s and watch Steven Spielberg films and then the next thing you know I hear that he might be interested in the film. So, we met and I was completely in awe of the man. But I was also a little bit worried that he might create a score that was too big for what is a little tale about a humble little town in rural Germany. I wondered if John got all his toys out, it might swamp the film. So, we met and we chatted for a couple of hours and it just became apparent that his vision for the film was exactly the same as mine and indeed that’s what attracted him. I don’t think he’s worked with anyone other than Steven Spielberg for the last eight or nine years but there was something about this film and this subject matter that touched him emotionally and he wanted to make something that was contained, beautiful and emotional and which was in total contrast to the big scores he does with huge percussions and trumpets. So, it was something that was fresh and new to him and something that he really welcomed. He’s just an incredible man to work with. He’s so clever. He’s been doing it so long. I mean, I found out that he worked with Hitchcock on Hitchcock’s last film and I was like ‘wow’. You’re sitting there opposite a piece of history, a legend… but he’s a wonderful, kind man and so creative and so incredibly humble about what he does as well, which was a real joy.
Q. I gather a second dream component to directing The Book Thief was getting to work with Emily Watson? Wasn’t she one of the reasons you wanted to become a director?
Brian Percival: Well, that was weird as well, yeah. I was making commercials at the time and I was quite enjoying it but I was thinking about doing something else. I was interested in Dogma and the sort of films that were coming out of that movement. It changed the landscape of cinema quite immensely for a while. The rules they set up weren’t practical enough to adopt completely but certainly they created a new style. I’d seen Breaking The Waves and it was so refreshing. I’d never seen anything like it up until that point and that was Emily’s first film and I just couldn’t believe it. That’s what sort of made my mind up that there was a style of cinema out there that I felt… I connected with it in some way and that inspired me to go on and do other things. It probably inspired the first short that I did, About A Girl, which got a BAFTA, and that approach inspired me to go down that route.
Q. How did you go about finding Sophie Nelisse to play Liesel and is it true that you ruined her dream of competing in the Rio Olympics?
Brian Percival: [Laughs] She ruined her own dream! Believe me, when she makes her mind up about something it’s her that does it. It’s such a difficult role to play not just because of the physical nature of ageing from 10 to 15, which precludes a 16-year-old [actress] who can’t play a 10-year-old and vice versa… so you have to someone in the middle. But Liesel is such a unique character and has such strength of conviction and spirit that if she’s not played right, the film lives or dies on her performance. She can be surrounded by the best actors but if you don’t believe Liesel, you won’t believe the film. So, on the one hand she has this strength and will and drive, but on the other hand she really has to be quite naive and vulnerable. So, it’s quite a tall order to find someone who can play those six years when, arguably, we all change the most [as people] physically and mentally. So, she was able to do all of that but she was also training about 35 hours a week to be in the Rio Olympics. But after we found her, we sent her a few scenes and there was something about her… there was definitely a presence… something that made her stand out from all those other kids. And there were kids who had stage careers and who were really good, accomplished little actors. But we never wanted someone to come along and act Liesel. I wanted someone to be Liesel. So, that’s probably why it took so long to find her.
My reasoning has always been, particularly with a teenager or a young actor… they don’t have the life experience and they haven’t physically had the years to adopt a technique… they haven’t had time to learn because they’re 12 or 13-years-old, so I always think that the better approach is to find someone who is as close to that character as possible. And there was just something about Sophie that shone. I think her approach to gymnastics… her training, her dedication and focus, she was able to switch that into becoming her character. She’s one of those kids… I wish I was like it when I was 13, they’re so focused, probably because of the sports training, that second best isn’t good enough; you’ve got to prove that you can do it and do it better than anyone else. But she’s never precocious in any way, shape or form. She’s a great kid. She’s really well grounded and down to earth and shuns a lot of the fame thing. So many kids these days are inspired by celebrity. But she just wants to be the best at whatever she does and I think that comes out.
Q. How nervous are you before something of yours gets screened? Or are you confident?
Brian Percival: Not confident. I think it’s very foolish to be over-confident about anything one does because you can never judge how it will be received. I’m probably more nervous around people that I care about and their response to it. At the end, it’s one of those things… I didn’t try to make the film for a critical elite. I tried to get it to be seen by as many people as possible. And I’m unashamedly admit that part of that is because… when we were trying to find Sophie and the other kids, I couldn’t believe how many 12 and 13-year-olds knew nothing at all about The Holocaust. It really surprised me… particularly the kids in America who had no idea. And so, I thought there’s an opportunity here. I could harden the film up a little bit in the sense that it could be more violent and it could be more explicit, but what would that achieve? It may well preclude a younger audience. I thought the age we live in today, everybody has SmartPhones or iPads or whatever, so they’ll find out for themselves what this was about.
We showed it to the daughter of an executive in America and at the end of the film she turned round to her parents with tears rolling down her cheeks and she said: “Mummy, why was everybody so horrible to the Jewish people?” She had no idea. And Sophie’s friends saw the film and her friends were saying: “What was that about then?” But they went away and Google’d it and they’d find out. If I’d made a film that was hardened and a Holocaust movie, if there is such a genre, a) why would I make it because it’s not The Book Thief and it’s been done so many times before and also people who go and see Holocaust films know about The Holocaust generally. They go and see a different perspective on it. So, it’s not going to attract a different audience. At least with The Book Thief, it’s a life-affirming story about the human spirit and the power of words and how you can take control of your life and see the world in a different way. It’s all those things. As a result of that, a generation are seeing something for the first time that they knew nothing about.
So, I feel in some ways that’s vindicated the choice that I made, which was not to copy those other films such as Schindler’s List and The Pianist. Of course, one has sleepless nights wondering how it will be received, but generally it’s a slow process and more and more people gradually get to see the film so that by the time it comes out, although you can never be sure, you have a sense of whether it’s going to be OK, or whether it’s going to be a complete disaster. We previewed the film in upstate California one Sunday afternoon not knowing how anyone would react and I think it got something like a 92% approval rate. I wondered if that was bad but apparently it’s not. So, at that point [Twentieth Century] Fox said ‘lock the picture’ and John [Williams] can do the score. So, from that and from doing so many Q&As in America and around Europe after screenings of the film, I’ve learned that people who see the film generally and genuinely seem to be moved by it and do take something away from the experience.
Q. With the advent of HBO and hit TV series like Downton Abbey, which you’ve been a part of, would you say there is less of a divide between movies and TV than there was, perhaps, when you were growing up?
Brian Percival: I think the landscape has really changed. When you have fabulous directors like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese doing pieces for television then things have shifted. And when you look at the audience that some TV series get and the amount of people around the world that are watching them, it becomes more about content. I think one still has to really be aware of the intentions of the medium that you’re directing for. I would shoot something different for television than I would for cinema – television tends to be more explicit in the way that it tells the story in as much as we’re invited by the director and the editor to choose the series of close-ups to tell the story. Whereas on the big screen, we can hold up a two-shot and the audience can decide who they want to look at during that scene. It’s something that gives more power to the audience and that’s rewarding in many ways because it’s not saying: “Look at this now.” But certainly the landscape has changed and it becomes more about content and certainly these devices we’re using for viewing… people are watching on laptops, iPads, phones… But it’s still about stories and it’s still about characters. There are some things I’d always love to go and see on a big screen and there are things that maybe you do want to watch on a train.