Q&A by Roger Durling with director Brian Percival and actors Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush
Durling: Welcome Sophie Nélisse and director Brian Percival! Brian, what an amazing film. How did you get involved with this?
Percival: I was sent a script by my agents because it’s my first time in Hollywood. I had just gotten a new agent at CAA and they started sending me scripts. Amongst them was this one, and it was just so special. I had never read anything in my life that had touched me in so many different ways. I was so moved. It was 1:30 in the morning, and I had to be up at 5 to be shooting the next day. I emailed it off and said, “Please, if I don’t do anything else I’ve got to make this film.” And they trusted me with it. So, that was it.
Durling: It’s such an internationally loved book. Were there any fears about living up to this beloved book?
Percival: Not really, because it is almost like having a Bible to work with. You know we’ve got a 120-page script with a 580-page reference book attached to it. So anything that we weren’t sure about or anything that we wanted to delve a little deeper into, we actually went back to Markus’s book. Because it was such a wonderful book to begin with, we didn’t want to change anything about it. We just wanted to realize it and spread it wider–you know, spread the wonderful sentiment behind it to a bigger audience. And so the hardest thing then and the biggest worries were to find someone who could play Liesel. (Applause)
Durling: And you found Liesel. Sophie, congratulations! Unbelievable performance!
Nélisse: Thank you.
Durling: How were you cast? I heard that you were hesitant about going for the role because you wanted to go to the Rio Olympics.
Nélisse: Yes. Since I was four I had been training in gymnastics and my dream was to go to the Rio Olympics. And then when they offered me an audition, I said I didn’t know if I wanted to go because I didn’t want to give up gymnastics. So, I auditioned really for fun, saying that obviously I’m never going to get the part anyway. Then they called me back to go to a second audition in LA. I read the script on the plane. It is actually the first time that a script made me cry. And I think that was good. I did a third audition in Berlin and then, yeah, it was a bit weird because I kind of felt like I was in a reality show. On the first day we were about five girls and three boys and then a girl and a boy got sent back home. (Laughter) And then I was like, “Whoa, am I the next one?” I didn’t know if there were some cameras up in my room filming whatever I say. And then I got the part.
Durling: And what was it like walking on the set and working with Geoffrey? Did you know this actor Geoffrey Rush who was going to play your papa?
Nélisse: No . . . (Laughter)
Rush: Thank you.
Nélisse : Yeah, I’m sorry but I had no idea who he was.
Rush: Do go on . . . (Laughter)
Durling: That must have been hard on his ego that you had never seen this master actor.
Nélisse: You know, when I saw my friends, they would ask me, “Who are you playing with?” And I would say, “Geoffrey Rush.” And they would say, “Who is that?” And I would say, “Well, he is the guy in Pirates of the Caribbean.” And they would go, “The guy from Pirates!” But then I heard that apparently he is a good actor.
Durling: He has an Oscar!
Nélisse: I watched Shine and I thought he was terrific in this and his performance really blew me away. I was honored to play with him. But I haven’t watched him in a lot of movies. Recently, I saw two clips from Quills in which he gets naked. (Laughter) Um . . . yeah. So at times it’s hard to look at him because that is the only image I have in my head. (Applause)
Rush: I didn’t know this was going to be a comedy roast. (Laughter)
Durling: That is what you get for showing up late!
Nélisse: But really, I was honored to play with him and I was a bit scared at the beginning. Because I had only seen him in Shine, I thought he would be that crazy. But he is not. When I went on set I really didn’t feel that I was working. I was just feeling that I was going to watch a clown all day. He is really fun and he took a lot of the pressure off. It is just impressive to see how he gets in and out of character so easily. He’ll be doing a random thing downstairs and then they’ll say “Action” or “Rolling,” and he would do the scene perfectly every single time with the same quality. Then when they’d say, “Cut,” he would take a spoon and towel in the kitchen and make a magic trick out of it. So I just think we had a lot of fun and I can learn so much just by looking at him.
Durling: Geoffrey, welcome! I know you had a bit of a problem getting here. So glad you’re back. What attracted you to this part?
Rush: Um, rather shamefully I hadn’t read the book or heard of the book, despite Markus being a fellow countryman. But I was sent the screenplay and I really, really loved the story. Then my daughter who was in her late teens at the time said, “Are they making The Book Thief into a film?” I said, “Yes, they are offering me a part in it.” And she said, “Oh are you going to play Death?” (Laughter) You know, everyone in my house is a casting director. I said, “No, they are offering me Hans Hubermann.” And you know I was so attracted to it. As well as shooting films, I have gone back and done a lot more theatre. So I have done an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman. And I played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest in Melbourne. Then I played Pseudolus, the great comic slave in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was a very burlesque kind of show. So, it was hard in my mind to find a new challenge and Hans Hubermann’s natural simplicity, his empathy, his subtle inner life were all a challenge for me. And that’s was what I was looking for.
Durling: That was actually one of the things that I love about the character. At first you think this is a very uncomplicated man, and then all of these layers start appearing. Was that fun?
Rush: Yes, and that was very evident in the writing of the screenplay. When we started filming–and forgive me if I repeat what you’ve already said–we started filming in the kitchen, which was really by default a very good way to begin. (I sound like I’m coming from The Sound of Music.) It was a very good way to start because we got to know the household, and the heart of the film is this domestic triangle primarily. And then you slowly get to meet Rudy, and Rudy’s parents, and the shopkeepers, and the rest of the community. And Emily and I talked about how the novel is a much bigger book being compressed into a film. One of the subplots that probably had to go was their grown-up son who had a political estrangement from Hans. So we went with the idea. We took advantage by saying they were a childless couple. And that, certainly for Emily, really fueled a part of the disappointment, the anger, and the qualities that she had. So, when we first shot Sophie’s arrival as Liesel we almost tried to play with it, because I knew Percival was doing a lot of her point of view with his camera. She was in this state of grief, having had her mother taken away, and Emily and I imagined the way she was seeing us was a bit like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. I said to Emily, “I am described in the book as having a face like a cuckoo,” or something. I said, “Well I’ll be the happy woodcutter as my initial contact with her and you can be the wicked stepmother.” Because as you were just saying, we knew that as the course of the story went on, you would see deeper and deeper into the dimensions of all of the characters.
Durling: Percival, this movie is so lovely, so beautifully directed. There is so much darkness, but there are these glimmers of light and hope all throughout the movie. Can you talk about balancing the feel of the movie?
Percival: Well, there is such a wonderful line that Sophie has in the film when Liesel turns to Hans and says, “Well, we’re just people and that’s what people do.” And I think the thing that struck me about the book and the screenplay to begin with was its incredible sense of humanity. But really it is about ordinary people and how ordinary people at that time and that place in history could be corrupted to believe in something so horribly wrong. And it was important for me; you know I grew up in a community quite similar to that in Liverpool. My mom and dad, I remember, had memories from the war, the Second World War. I imagined my childhood and my really fond memories of it. It was poor, but it was proud and it was humble, and it had that great warmth to it. So I just wanted to recreate that world that I grew up with on screen. And then I brought in these wonderful characters that Markus had written about and added them into the mix. But I think that it’s just . . . we all have fond memories of how we grew up and it is just a way for me to go back and recreate that atmosphere in which I grew up.
Durling: And Sophie, you have such a strong bond with both Emily and Geoffrey on screen. How did you guys work on your relationship, the family dynamic?
Nélisse: I just think it went really naturally. We had two weeks of rehearsals about ten days before we started to shoot and we would just rehearse the scenes and do a lot of the scenes in the kitchen. So we got to know a bit of how a family would work. I mean what is Geoffrey’s favorite chair, what is mine, where is Rosa’s spoon. So I think that really helped so that when you got on set it felt really natural. And also we would sometimes go to dinner together or watch the Oscars on TV. And I think it just went really naturally.
Durling: You go through this transformation of being an 11-year-old girl, and we see you grow up until you’re 17. Was this scary for you to do such a challenging part?
Nélisse: No, I just think the only challenging part was maybe that it is on a subject that I don’t know. I have never experienced what people would feel during the Holocaust. But I think it was really fun because when you are young you want to be older. When you’re old you want to be younger, but that’s OK. So when you’re 13 you always want to play 16, so that was a part that I really liked to play–15 and 16. And then when I played 10 or 11, I would just imagine how my sister would react, because she is not always aware of what is happening. So when I would play younger, I would just try to be like my character is not aware of what is happening. She was not really mature, and as the movie goes on I would just be a bit more mature and know the impact of what was happening.
Durling: Geoffrey you have worked with Emily in the past. What was it like working with Sophie, as such a young actress?
Rush: A lot of people have asked me, “Did you give her lots of acting tips? Did you mentor her?” And I have to be honest and say I had no need to do that. I mean I had seen Monsieur Lazhar before we had started filming. Her performance in that had comparably very tricky, dark, heavy, dramatic scenes about the suicide of the teacher in a school where five children and their parents and staff are left with how to deal with the aftermath of all that. And as an audience member, I thought her performance, her relationship to the camera and to her fellow cast members had such a kind of emotional honesty. She never chose generalized states. She never clouded up the purity of the kind of essence that she was getting into with any kind of bad acting styles. So I was really quite in awe. And I thought she can act, so there is no problem here. Fortunately, on set we didn’t have a dramatic coach who would put us through bonding exercises. I would have punched their lights out if they had. And as Sophie was alluding, it was very organic. I mean, you’ve seen the film and you know what imaginative, emotional places that Sophie can take you to as a beautiful artist. What you saw when I first came in was what it was like on set every day. (Laughter) That is the way I do like to work. And I think when you have material like this, you don’t want to burn it up in every rehearsal, in every run-through, or when you’re working on the accent. You want to save, and she had a wonderful gift for going swiftly to that place and I found I was very satisfied in the challenge that I had set myself. I felt that I acted less in this film because I had someone that I had a lot to just naturally react with. So, it was wonderful.
Durling: Percival, the character of Death is such a tricky part. How did you go about developing that character and the voice?
Percival: In the book, Death makes the whole story, more or less, and so we had to make a choice about how we were going to approach that. If I had used his voice throughout the film, sort of every few scenes or something, it almost felt to me that we would get in the way of the audience’s relationship with the wonderful people in the film. With the characters we wanted to get to know, we had to be reminded that the story is from another point of view as well. We limited the amount that we used his voice. I tried to do it more from the viewpoint and from the angles that I chose to show. We would get involved with the scene and feel a part of it and then we would just keep stepping back and then come above. There would be something just to remind the audience in an almost subliminal way that the scene is from another point of view. That was the sort of approach. You know most people read the book and come away from it and think, “I don’t really feel so bad about Death now. He is not so bad really. When I go, if he is around, then it will be all right. We’ll get along fine.” So we wanted something that sort of felt confident, and wise, and witty and dry. And also it was important that no one really recognize the voice. If we had used a really well-known star, it would have taken us out of the film. Everything was about trying not to take an audience out of the film or to have nothing that was bigger than the film. It was, as a whole, sort of humble in that way. So, that is how we came to find Roger Allam who I think has a terrific voice, you know?
Durling: The gorgeous score is done by John Williams, who works only with Spielberg. How did you get him to do this score for you?
Percival: Yeah, I sort of waited all of my life to get a film in Hollywood. “Oh, and by the way, John, we can use a score.” Oh boy. (Laughter) It doesn’t get any better than that. I really never imagined that when I used to sit in an Indiana Jones movie as a teenager, loving every minute of what he did, that I would ever meet him–let alone work with him. But there was an approach made and I met John about 18 months ago and I think it was my feeling, again, that the point it is that it shouldn’t really take us away. Nothing should be bigger than the film. Of course, John is known for these terrific scores that he does which are really powerful and have a huge presence. So we had a conversation. We sat down for an hour or two and he had a take on the exact vision of the film that I did, which I thought was wonderful–that it was beautiful and very gentle. He didn’t really take us out of the film but it just was something about the way that we tried to portray death as being possibly a beautiful thing. And so John and I agreed to do it and it was just unbelievable to work with him. You know it’s a great honor. Really. And I think he’s done an absolutely terrific job. He completely got the spirit of the film.
Durling: Sophie, I don’t know if it is correct, but I read that you and Geoffrey went stealing books somewhere?
Nélisse: No I stole them alone. Um, no it was because it was the birthday of someone on set and I had no idea of what to buy. So I went to see Geoffrey one day and I said, “What would you think if I stole some books?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” (Laughter) There was this store right in front of my hotel which sold a lot of things–and books. So I went to steal books and it was really fun because you get this kind of stress and adrenaline, you know? You are kind of scared you might get caught. I had no idea what books I stole because I just took the easier ones. But then you know if ever I got caught I could just say, “Hey, I was just trying to get into character here.” So I stole the books and then a week later my mom paid for them. So I didn’t really steal the books. But I was happy that she paid for them because I don’t steal. I’m not going to rob a bank tomorrow. But at the same time it was kind of as if she broke my fun. I could have said I really stole some books. No, but it was a fun experience. Once in a lifetime.
Durling: Geoffrey, I mentioned earlier you worked with Emily in The Life and Death of Peter Sellers. Both of you were great in that movie, and great in this one as well. You had this banter in the movie where she’s nagging you and she seems disappointed in the marriage but there is so much love between the two of you. How did you guys work that out?
Rush: It was predominantly written into the screenplay very nicely and subtly, I believe. We knew that in the storytelling, all sides, particularly Rosa’s character, were going to soften once that hard nut got cracked. You were going to see a greater humanity come out of that woman. Emily couldn’t be with us today because she has children at home. She did join us for a couple of days in New York. But she has said in interviews she was thrilled when Percival cast her in this role because she felt that that was the challenge that she had been looking for. Unlike other things she had been offered, she wanted Rosa’s bitterness and anger and resentment and disappointment, all expressed in this rather caustic way, to come from a real place. So we talked a lot about it and we had time to rehearse on the set. It was just that feeling again of going back to the reference book of the novel. I think I may have added little things like he’s always saying, “Shhh, Rosa! Rosa, you don’t need to go there.” He’s always trying to keep her from over-ranting or over-dramatizing or whatever. But Emily said you know from the moment that young man falls in, Rosa is faced with a life-changing decision. And that evening she procrastinates, thinking should we turn him in tonight, but they take him upstairs and she says “I’ll get some soup.” She’s agreed to shelter this young Jewish refugee knowing that their lives will now be in greater peril. Her very humane instincts won over self-preservation at any cost.
Durling: Well unfortunately I need to get them off to another event. Let’s thank everyone for coming! (Applause)