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Interview: Stephen Daldry on “The Reader”

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12092008_thereader1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

This deep in the prestige film season, it’s a safe presumption to say the third feature from Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot”) will likely earn the British director his third consecutive Oscar nod; even if he doesn’t win, there’s no denying his impressive batting average with the Academy. Based on Bernard Schlink’s morally complex 1995 bestseller, “The Reader” raises its (iron) curtain on post-WWII Germany, where an explicit and unusual love affair erupts between tram conductor Hanna (Kate Winslet) and Michael (David Kross), a teenaged scarlet fever survivor half her age. Besides makin’ Teutonic whoopie, the two bond over reading, as Hanna loves to have Michael read her Homer, Chekhov and D.H. Lawrence. Eight years after Hanna mysteriously disappears, law student Michael (played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes) next sees his former flame on trial for war crimes, and is torn by his beliefs. Therein lies the crux of both the novel and film: the love-hate relationship and guilt felt by Germans trying to reconcile their feelings for the older war generation. While Daldry was in Los Angeles to promote his latest, I spoke with him by phone about today’s decline in literacy, the children’s film he’d like to make, and why “The Reader” shouldn’t be considered a Holocaust movie.

There are a ton of Third Reich-related films coming out this season, which led critic Stuart Klawans to request “a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.” Any thoughts?

Wow. I guess the first thing I have to say is that I don’t think this is really about WWII-era Germany, but post-war Germany. It’s much more about the consequences of Germans feeling they’re born guilty, rather than an investigation of the actual actions of the time. “The Reader” is about a country, and in particular one person, trying to live under the shadow of the past as she comes out of a situation with a society tearing itself apart through genocide.

More universally speaking, do you think it’s naturally difficult for us to overcome generational divides since everyone is a direct product of their personal environment and time in history?

I think the best way for me to talk about that is in terms of German context. For that country in particular, it’s been an ongoing process of trying to have some sort of, for want of a better phrase, “truth and reconciliation” with what happened in the past. That country continues to battle with the fact that it was on the fault line of the 20th century, that it [was] the most terrifying place ever created by mankind. It’s a responsibility and an issue that still lives very much within the schools, in the churches, and in the psyche of the German mentality.

12092008_thereader2.jpgWe’re obviously not clairvoyant, but do you predict Germany will ever fully come to terms or reach some sign of closure with this in future?

I don’t know whether “closure” is the right term for it, whether one should actually aim for closure. I’m just thinking on the top of my head of other genocides. Is there closure is Bosnia? Should there be closure in Rwanda? Have we even approached closure on the slavery issue in the West, and should we try to create closure? I don’t think so. In issues of recent ethnic wars and genocides — particularly if you look at Darfur — one of the most remarkable things is our inability to act, still, despite the years of analyzing and re-analyzing what it does to subsequent generations. We still find a massive inability to step in and step up to the plate, when genocide is happening as we speak.

Especially in the later courtroom scenes, Schlink’s book was often compared to his earlier, hardboiled detective stories. In contrast, the film seems more focused on its elegiac, reflective qualities. Could you discuss the decisions you and screenwriter David Hare made to present such weighty material?

The book is written in the first-person, so that always [poses] great challenges. You’re never going to find a means, unless you use a heavy voiceover to get inside the interior monologues, which we decided not to do. The key element was to find an equivalence to the actual writing of a book. We didn’t want our main character to be making a film; that would seem slightly ridiculous. We didn’t really want to start and end with a man who has a typewriter. But the act of telling seemed terribly important. In Mr. Schlink’s book, the actual act of writing, of being able to tell this story after so many years was part of this — I hate to re-use the phrase — but coming to terms with the past. Our equivalence of that is the eventual need to tell the next generation of what happened to his generation, so [Michael] tells his daughter.

There will always be compromises or workarounds in adapting a story to an unlike medium. The book doesn’t feature flashbacks, but the film does, and some critics have suggested that the eroticism is more prominent in your version.

12092008_thereader3.jpgWe think the eroticism is more pronounced in the book, to be frank — the sensual nature of their relationship is expressed really explicitly and continually in the book, so we thought we’d pull back on that as a contrast. We also needed to find, in the trial period, some discursive element of what the broader picture was, and so we dramatized the seminar groups as a means by which the students could actually talk about what was going on and how they felt about it. You can get a little more access to the context of these trials, which are not incredibly well-known outside of Germany — the trials by German law as opposed to the Nuremburg trials. Those were our biggest adaptation issues, and also knowing that at certain points we’d have to switch to Hanna’s point of view, particularly when she was learning to read and write, so you get a sense of the struggle that she’s been through. In the book, those leaps are just made through Michael.

I feel that reading has been somewhat in decline, at least with all the new short attention span distractions we have now. Do you think literacy is being undermined as just a hobby for eggheads?

That’s a good question. Illiteracy is an important issue in America, and I only say that because I spent some time in research for this film with illiteracy agencies in New York. I was quite amazed to find that 80,000 illiterate people currently live in New York City, which seems like a very high figure to me.

What was the last good book you read?

What I’m reading right now is Martin Amis’ “Money,” which is an old book. [laughs] I’m having to spend quite a lot of time on airplanes, so that was one I picked up recently and an airport and thought, “You know, I never read that one. I should really have a look at it.”

Are you particular about the kinds of books you go for?

No, it’s very catholic taste, I would be honest to say. One of the great joys of my job is that you spend a huge amount of time investigating different areas of literature. Sometimes it’s to do research on a potential subject that you might be interested in — which, in the end, you might not make the film — but it’s a fantastic journey that I often go through, having to investigate something that I might one day make. I’ve spent an awful lot of time reading about post-war Germany, and actually spent time in Germany itself, working and living. I am reading a lot of kids’ books and just enjoying those, really. I’m [looking to make] a children’s film, so the one I’ve enjoyed the most recently is “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” Making [a film] for my kids would be great. That’s what I would like to do next.

12092008_thereader4.jpgIf you don’t have another film lined up, does that mean bad news for Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” to which you were attached?

No. You know, I went into the comic book world hugely and vastly, and enjoyed that enormously. I do sincerely hope that that will come back into the fray. I love it, and all of Michael’s work. He’s an amazing writer and he wrote a fantastic script for it himself.

“Billy Elliot” was refitted as a West End musical and recently opened on Broadway to some great reviews. But overall, what are your thoughts about this multitude of movies being adapted into musical extravaganzas? Are playwrights too lazy to write original material?

I don’t know. [After] we made the movie, the idea of turning it into a musical was actually Elton John’s. He came to see the film at Cannes when we first did it. But to be honest, I think that particular story has found its natural home on the stage. That’s where it was always destined to be. For everybody that was involved in making the film, I think that we feel happiest now that it’s found its correct milieu as a musical. I think it’s better than the movie, and most people who worked on it do as well.

[Photos: “The Reader,” Weinstein Co., 2008; Stephen Daldry on the set of 2002’s “The Hours,” Paramount, 2002]

“The Reader” opens in limited release on December 10th.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.