'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' director Mark Herman talks to Linda McGee about adapting John Boyne's book for the big screen and how wonderful the child actors in the movie were.
Spoiler Alert: Warning - scenes from the movie are referenced below.
Linda McGee: When you first read the book did it immediately strike you that would be a great story to bring to the screen?
Mark Herman: Absolutely, but it also struck me that it would be an enormous challenge. There are a lot of things that would probably put a lot of filmmakers off. It's a difficult subject, it's a difficult ending, working with kids... all these things. But I had just done a romantic comedy and I was very keen to set myself a real challenge and that's why I bought the rights and got in there.
LM: John Boyne (author) mentioned that you read the book before it had been published, so at that stage you had no sense of how the story would be received by the public...
MH: I think a lot of people read those things... There was a lot of good word about the book, but again I think the studios had just held back because of the subject matter. But in the end when you actually read the book you can't imagine the film. It's quite a difficult film to imagine. So I thought if they read the screenplay they would get it. The only way of doing that was to buy the rights and write it.
LM: When you were writing the screenplay were you very concerned about how people would react to historical elements of the story or was your main focus just to try to get across the element of humanity that is so strong in the finished movie - to make your audience invest in the characters in as powerful a way as possible, given the subject matter?
MH: I think if you analyse it, if you read the book and see the film, if you read the words they're very, very different. What I was very keen to do was completely protect the spirit of the book. You know, I've done that to such an extent that John (Boyne) is a great supporter of the film, without actually realising that so much has changed. It's been quite rare relationship because for authors that sell their rights it's usually 'goodbye'. You know I'd done a film called 'Brassed Off', which was then turned into a stage play. You know, you hand over your baby. So I know how it feels. So, we didn't work together on the screenplay but I did send him the drafts just to get approval and he'd send notes, some of which I take on board, some of which I don't.
LM: The movie's ending is so powerful. Was it important to you to leave people with a sense of shock after viewing the film?
MH: Absolutely. We had a lot of discussions in editing, and even in screenwriting stage but certainly in editing, about how far you can go with an ending. I've always argued that, if we're doing it right, you will get that reaction. Last night (at the premiere) you've got 800 people stock still, kids not moving, which was always the intention. And in a way it's perhaps more powerful than the book, you know. There's another chapter and it let's you down gently. You can put a book down but you can't put a movie down when you're in that room. There was a big moment in the making of this film where I went out to America for the music and marrying the music and the image together, for me absolutely blew me away. I know it sounds arrogant but I just really thought that this was something very, very special... the music at the end, together with those terrifying images. The weird thing is, last night probably all of those people had read the book. I mean everybody knows the ending of this film but they're still not prepared for it.
LM: When you were at the writing stage was it difficult to develop the main characters in such a way as to inspire small amounts of sympathy? I mean, some of their actions are heinous but we also get to see a more vulnerable side to most of them. Was keeping this balance very important to you?
MH: Yes, I mean it would almost be racist to paint it in any other way. What I love is the ambiguity. Towards the end of the film where the father is running after the son I love the fact an audience is just stuck in this ambiguity. Do we feel sorry for him? Is he a victim? Or does it serve him right? And I love that people are asking themselves questions about how they feel. And you know, I felt it in the book as well. There are little moments that David (Thewlis) does around the breakfast table that are just so fatherly, and then you think: 'Well, he's a mass murderer'. And there are moments when he does a tired expression when you think: 'He really hates his job actually'.
LM: Did you feel after you finished the movie that it had involved a huge emotional investment?
MH: Yes, it was a very weird journey, the whole thing. During the screenwriting that involves research, and in this day and age your research is usually on the Internet and you find yourself on websites that you really shouldn't be at, and then you click a link and go to one that you really shouldn't be at. And the more you find out about that time the more depressing it gets and disturbing. And you think: 'Well perhaps I don't need to do this much research'. And it's very upsetting. Every department would be doing the same, the costume are doing the same, the actors are doing their research. By the time we got to the shoot we all had this defence mechanism built in and we had such a laugh. You feel guilty having a laugh making a Holocaust movie but it's spirit. I saw a quote from Spielberg about 'Schindler's List' and he said he allowed two jokes a day on set but two jokes wouldn't get us to breakfast on ours. Not just humour, but the spirit and passion, I've never seen that before.
LM: Were you very pleased with the Irish reaction to the film at the world premiere last night?
MH: Oh yeah, fantastic. It was incredible. But you know, it's great to show it where the idea was born. I mean Irish Holocaust films are quite rare, aren't they?
LM: For me the children who acted in the movie were superb at carrying their stories. How was it working with them?
MH: Well, Asa is somebody I saw on a tape. I mean we saw hundreds and hundreds of tapes and kids but he was one of the first tapes I saw. He wasn't doing an audition or reading - he was just chatting, and his face and his eyes especially, I just thought: 'Wow, if you get those on a big screen, he's going to be amazing'. And you know, he's in every scene, just about, on set every day, yet some grown-ups wouldn't cope with that. His stamina is incredible and he's done a fantastic job. Weirdly enough, the two kids are opposed to the characters. Jack, who plays Schmuel, is a real bouncy, in-your-face kid and Asa is very thoughtful, very quiet. So we had two hours every morning turning them around... more biscuits... more biscuits!
LM: Can you tell me a little bit about what you've moved on to - what are you working on at the moment?
MH: Well, I'm writing a couple of things at the moment but they sort of go on the backburner now as we promote this. This film comes out in America in November so we're going out there. One of them is, I'm not sure that it'll be my next film, I'm writing a film about Northern Soul and the Wigan Casino nightclub in the 70s. But this will take us up until Christmas.