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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.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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