English filmmaker Brian Percival has shot the likes of Pleasureland, North & South, ShakespeaRe-Told(Much Ado About Nothing), The Ruby in the SmokeandThe Old Curiosity Shop for TV broadcast. His nine-minute short About a Girl, meanwhile, which was written by his wife, Julie Rutterford, won the 2001 BAFTA Award for Best Short Film. Percival has also directed seven episodes of the ITV British period drama Downton Abbey, winning a BAFTA and Primetime Emmy for his work. He makes his feature film debut a director with The Book Thief, the big-screen adaptation of Markus Zusak’s best-selling novel that is set in Germany during WWII…
Shooting the book burning sequence in The Book Thief must have been difficult – decking out that square in Nazi regalia?
It’s not easy. It took four nights to shoot that and our time was limited because the kids can only work for so many hours per day. You see that swastika symbol in movies and books but to walk into a square and see the place decked out with it is spooky. It felt very uncomfortable for everyone, because it’s such an icon of hatred. The symbol is banned, obviously, and we could only use it because it was being used for education. Anyway, we got permission to display them but when we weren’t filming they couldn’t be displayed; we had to roll them up. You do feel uneasy looking at that symbol in the square and realising that that symbol and that regime corrupted a whole generation.
Hitler was only in power for 12 years but we still feel the repercussions 70 years later…
Absolutely. We got an eminent German historian to check over the script because I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, and those book burnings were like a cleansing process. It wasn’t a fervour. It wasn’t fired up passion. The interesting thing was that no one brought their own books. The Hitler Youth went into people’s houses and anything they deemed to be inappropriate was collected into the square and then given to people to throw on the bonfire. People didn’t want to bring their own books because that would be tantamount to saying, ‘I own literature that isn’t Nazi-approved.’ The Nazis took control of the power of words.
How important is it that this film introduces younger audiences to the Holocaust?
The film has got that slant to it, because a lot of teenagers don’t know about the Holocaust. One of the motives behind the film is that there’s a whole generation out there who are unaware of it, so we wanted to make the film accessible to a younger audience. It struck me as a story that hadn’t really been told in a way that is accessible to young adults. There have been a couple of films about hiding Jewish people during the Holocaust, but they tend to be Holocaust movies, and that’s not necessarily the sort of genre that teenagers would go and see. They tend to be seen by people who already know about it, so the point of it in many ways was to bring that to a wider audience.
Did you shoot many scenes that you had to trim from the finished film, which might surface on the DVD or Blu-ray release?
There were about four or five and about three of them will be on the DVD. Sometimes when you shoot scenes things become apparent and sometimes things slow the narrative. Nothing was cut for contentious reasons, though.
What are the scenes that’ll be on the DVD?
There’s a scene with Max on a train travelling to Himmel Street. The first scene we cut was Hans being given a copy of Mein Kampf by Walter, who appears later in the film and searches their basement. Hans is waiting outside the school and Walter passes by and gives him a copy of the book. Hans looks at the book and the next thing you know the book turns up at Max’s apartment. Max uses that book as a dummy, or decoy, when he’s travelling on the train, to show he’s a good German citizen. Those are two scenes that we felt we didn’t really need. I felt it slowed the film up a little bit. Then there’s a scene with the two kids sitting outside a sweet shop, or candy store, eating lollipops. Rudy is saying, ‘How about that kiss?’ which is a theme that reoccurs. And then there was a scene with Rudy and Liesel, when they steal a book together from the burgermeister’s house.
The relationship between Rudy and Liesel is a poignant insight into adolescent love…
It is innocence and there’s that awkwardness that the two of them have. I had to get the two of them to kiss at the end of the film and they really didn’t want to! They’d become like brother and sister off screen, because they spent so much time together; they’re a great couple of kids. Really, the story is about the corruption of innocence and when Rudy dies it’s about sacrificing innocence. There are a lot of contrasts in the film where we try and pull you one way and then the other, like seeing Rudy, the cutest kid in the world, but he’s got a Nazi uniform on. It presents a dilemma to the audience. You can tell he doesn’t really understand. Liesel is the smart one. She realises at the book burning that all she’s been told might not be true. That’s what makes her question things — and question the Führer, which is a smart thing to do for a 12-year-old. And when you see the kids singing in the choir, if you don’t know the German language it sounds a beautiful, angelic song, but you read the words and you think, ‘Jesus Christ!’ Then you contrast that with what happened on Crystal Night, with the violence and the hatred, the killing and murdering. The contrasts are a theme that repeats through the movie.
Did you have a lot of discussions about how the cast would speak, in terms of language, accents and dialects?
Oh yes. There have been lots of films in English with German accents – Inglorious Basterds is just one, for example — but the important thing was to unify the sound. We had to unify the cast, and 25 of the cast were German, who had to speak in English with German accents. If we wanted to be really realistic we would have shot it in German but mainstream audiences don’t want to watch subtitles. And I do want a lot of people to see it, not necessarily for financial reasons but because it’s about a kid who picks up a book and sees the world in a different way. It’s important we get as big an audience as possible.
Has it been difficult to move as director from the small screen to the big screen?
I was making commercials all over Europe and I was doing okay but I got bored. I had learned all these skills and thought I’d like to something more worthwhile with them. I did some TV and my wife wrote the film About A Girl. And I think that film probably helped me get this film, because it was about a 13-year-old who had a strong will. It was a different type of story but it showed that I could get a performance from a teenager. Also getting BAFTAs probably helped!
Was directing The Book Thief very different from directing Downton Abbey?
Well, I haven’t really changed my approach in terms of performance or visuals. One thing I do like about it is that film’s a wide-screen format and I’ve always wanted to shoot that. I’d never done that before. Also when you’re directing television it tends to be a series of close-ups. Whereas on a huge screen you can hold on a two-shot for an entire scene and let the audience cut between the characters. I liked that, because it treats the audience with respect. The performances aren’t very different – I go for something natural and quite honest, not too forced. I don’t like to over-dramatize things. I hope that The Book Thief creeps up on people — you’re watching the story unfold and you don’t realise how emotionally attached you’ve become to the characters, so when Max leaves it’s heart-breaking and when Rudy dies its heart-breaking, and with Hans and Rosa, because you’ve got to know and love these characters over the last couple of hours.
Was it easy to elicit the performance from Sophie Nélisse during that emotional scene amid the rubble?
It’s all about getting the right actors in the first place. She said to me that she just thinks it and out it comes. As soon as the clapperboard goes she’s right there, just like Geoffrey Rush, which is probably why they get on so well. Emily [Watson], on the other hand, stays in character throughout and is very focussed. It’s fascinating to watch these different approaches. Sophie went into this hole we’d dug for her on the bombsite and she’d been in there for a couple of minutes and none of us knew what to expect when she came out. But she came out on that first take and everyone watching had tears rolling down their face. We did the whole thing in one take, with a crane moving around. Then we broke it down into various close ups but I think we only did it a few times because she was absolutely remarkable and it had an effect on everyone. The set just fell silent and we all thought, ‘Wow! This kid’s special. There’s really something about her.’ Then she’d just shrug it off and go back to being a kid again!
A lot of your work deals with history. Is it a subject of particular interest to you?
I enjoy social history and I always try and be as accurate as possible. But it’s also one of those things where if you’ve done something successful in one genre then people ask you to do more of it. A lot of it is because of that! I was never really interested in Victorian England but then I did a Gaskell piece for the BBC and I became fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and I found the social history of that time very interesting. I’d done the Second World War a little bit, from the British perspective, but never from the German perspective. I just find it interesting.
You’re working with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes on a film about Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton
There was a film about Lady Hamilton, with Vivien Leigh and Olivier, and that touched upon the story. It is a really fascinating story. She was a scullery maid in the North of England and went on to live a fascinating life.
Did you comes across the story it or was it Julian?
No, it was Julian who wrote it and we’re just getting ready to do something. It has the potential to be something quite different I think.
From Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment The Book Thief is available to download from 23rd June and available to buy on DVD / Blu-ray from 7th July.