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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - Mark Herman and David Heyman interview

David Heyman

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MARK Herman, director of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and David Heyman, its producer [who also produces the Harry Potter movies], talk about the challenges of keeping faithful to the novel and ensuring that the ending was kept intact?

Q. How did you protect the two boys?
Mark Herman: Well, it was really interesting… we saw hundreds of kids at the auditions and it’s not our place to explain about the Holocaust to these kids. It was always the question we asked them, what did they know about it, just to gauge what they did know. Many of those kids were between eight and 12 and they had very sketchy ideas of it. I thought it was important to the film that we didn’t change that. So Asa Butterfield’s take on the Holocaust wasn’t changed by us and for the first eight weeks of the shoot we just kept it that way. We made sure that the final scenes of the film came at the final days of the shoot, which doesn’t always happen. But it was useful in this case so that we could prepare the kids for those final days. I think they probably learned a lot more.

David Heyman: The parents were very involved. I think the last scene, which was the last day, was quite challenging for them. It was then that the full weight of what they were involved in, and what they were working on, really came home to them. Here they were in this room with all these men and there was a real discomfort. The parents were always close and we always informed them what we were doing and made them very involved in the process. The kids were absolutely fine.

Q. How much did they know about the Holocaust and how much did you end up educating them?
David Heyman: Ultimately, Mark made the decision not to educate them too much. For Asa, it was a process of discovery on many levels. I think he discovered himself as an actor, I think he discovered the importance and relevance of what he was involved in, and there was this wonderful, safe environment created for him that gradually – as the last scene approached – changed slightly. So, it was a real growing experience for all of them. They emerged older than they started.

Q. Where do you stand on the issue that so many Germans claimed not to know what was going on at the time of the Holocaust?
David Heyman: The truth is, it’s very hard looking back… we look at this now with such knowledge and such a sense of the horror of what it was, that it’s hard to believe even now that in 1930s and 1940s, before something like this had happened, that it could be impossible to imagine the extent of this horror.

Mark Herman: I think, to a certain degree, some things are too horrible to imagine and even if you did live there, you wouldn’t really know what it is. It’s like the scene in the film where Bruno sees the smoke… obviously now, it’s obvious what’s going on. But then it was just smoke coming out of woods as seen through the eyes of a child. The other thing to explain what people were thinking at the time, which wasn’t in the book, was the propaganda film… which was another way to explain how people were being misled.

David Heyman: That was based on a real propaganda film we found, that Mark adapted to suit our camp…

Mark Herman: We thought about using the original but it’s too old now. It needed to look like brand new film, so we recreated it.

Q. Was there ever any suggestion of changing the ending – or even to soften it?
David Heyman: None. Miramax have been incredibly supportive of this project and I’m not saying that so that I can just get my next job! Let’s be honest, making this film is a courageous thing to do and making this film with the original ending even more so. But Mark would not have allowed it to be changed.

Mark Herman: In my first meeting with [author] John Boyne, I made him promises about keeping the ending… promises that weren’t in my power to keep. But in my first meeting with Miramax, I said there was absolutely no point in going down this road unless we decide and agree now that we’re going to keep the ending. It wasn’t in writing. But it’s paying off now because in the screenings we’ve had so far, like you say there’s complete silence and people don’t leave until after the final credits have rolled. In all my films prior to this, I’ve had people come up to me and say “that’s rubbish” or “that’s OK”. On this, I’ve had people come up and say “thank you” and that’s a weird thing to say after a screening, I think. But they’re saying thank you because of the ending, and because we haven’t ducked out.

Q. Did you visit Auschwitz?
Mark Herman: I haven’t gone yet. I promised I’d go just before the shoot, but unfortunately didn’t get there.

David Heyman: I went quite a while before this film was made. I was making another film in Slovakia, and I went across from there to it. More than any Holocaust museum, more than any museum I’ve ever been to, it has an effect on you like no other. Without wanting to disrespect any of the Holocaust museums, because I’ve been to quite a few of them, but you do feel more of the manipulations… the sound effects. But there’s something about the simplicity of Auschwitz… there’s just nothing. There’s just photographs, there’s a room full of limbs, a room full of hair, and then you go into the place where the gas chambers were. You walk down these halls and the efficiency of it is so inhuman. The place is so powerful, just for its utter bald, bare simplicity.

Mark Herman: It’s interesting because we had a day with Eva Newman, one of the survivors, who was 15-years-old at Auschwitz. Her job was to clear away the pyjamas and she takes student trips now. She says the kids don’t quite emotionally connect because it’s too much like a museum. But she’s seen the film, and she’s a big supporter of it, and she feels this is the ideal first step for kids and bringing them into learning about the Holocaust – even though it’s fiction.

David Heyman: It is a first step. We want to encourage people to read more. As far as this film is concerned, it is really, really important – not just to keep the Holocaust alive and to remember the 11 million people who died. But also because today – and ever since – there are holocausts of a different scale. In Rwanda, or the Sudan, or Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Georgia. It goes on and on. There’s that wonderful Graham Greene line: “To hate is to lack imagination…” And one of the things I love about this story is that Bruno’s idea is so simple. You come into contact with the other and it’s not quite so frightening. It’s relevant and timeless. It’s the great thing about travel, when you’re exposed to people that are different to you, the similarities are as acute as the differences. It’s rewarding.

Q. What’s next for you?
Mark Herman: I have no idea. It’s such a special film that it’s quite hard to think about what’s next.

David Heyman: Well, I’m in post-production on a film called Is There Anybody There?, which John Crowley has just directed with Michael Caine and Bill Milner. And Yes Man, starring Jim Carrey, and I’m in post-production on Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince and pre-production on Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows.

Q. Are the next two being put back because Half-Blood Prince has now been put back?
David Heyman: No. They’ll still be coming out on schedule. After Harry Potter, I’ll be working on Paddington Bear, The Curious Incident Of The Dog in the Nighttime and then hopefully, one day, another film with Mark.

Read our review of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Read our interview with David Thewlis and Rupert Friend