As you make movie-going plans this weekend, be sure to check out “The Book Thief,” in theaters Friday, November 22. The film, based on the best-selling book with the same title, is about a young girl living in World War II Germany who steals books in an effort to find comfort, solace and hope. Eidé Magazine had the great opportunity to chat with Director Brian Percival, Author Markus Zusak and Leading Little Lady Sophie Nélisse about the well-received picture.
What was your experience filming in Berlin?Sophie Nélisse: “I think it was great that we started filming in Berlin. It still has that feeling to it there (of war). It still feels like that happened there. Everywhere you go there’s posters and walls of information, telling you parts of history, stories about what happened. I walked by the Berlin Wall and bomb shelters, things like that. Walking through the city was great, learning, it was amazing.”
Brian, when did this sort of story come to you? Was this a project where you read the book and then felt compelled to get a screenplay done for it so you could direct it?Brian Percival: No not at all. I was sent a few screenplays, and this was the one at the time that really touched me and made me feel like I had to do it. Shamefully, I didn’t even know about the book. Within a couple of days, I was saying to friends, I’ve read this incredible screenplay and they were like 'Are you for real? That’s my favorite book, it has been for like five years.' … It’s only really in America that it’s regarded as a young adult book. But a lot of people my age, my peers, have heard about it and read it. And so it came about the other way for me. I read the screenplay first and enjoyed the book a few days later.”
Markus, what was your inspiration for writing the book?Markus Zusak: “Just my mom and dad brought not a lot with them from Germany and Austria when they immigrated to Australia in the late 1950s. But they brought their stories with them. They were really great stories and great storytellers. It’s really rare that you have more than one or two really good storytellers in your life, that also have amazing stories. And I have two of them, living under the same roof. Two of the closest people to me. So I grew up hearing about cities on fire, kids giving bread to Jewish people who are so-called criminals on the way to concentration camps, things like that. People who didn’t want to hang their flags up on Hitler’s birthday. My dad had to go to the youth meetings, and he just didn’t go because they were boring. When he did go, they would give him quizzes like ‘When was our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler born?’ They would just say Christmas, last year. So I started hearing different stories about that time. I thought, that’s what I’m going to start with. It turned into this book that means everything to me.”
How was it to see your book on the big screen? Did it fit with what you envisioned? What was the pressure to bring such an acclaimed book to life?Markus Zusak: “ I didn’t see it as pressure. I didn’t go in there and say, ‘Right, let’s see what they get right.’ To me, it’s not even like that, it’s not comparing. Like my dad’s Combi van to a small car I drive around. It’s just two different things. I just sat there right like I was going to the movies. There is a part of you that’s going to be critical, but not critical in the sense of finding something wrong with it. For me, seeing that world from the outside in, there were so many revelations. The things that were different but have the same heart.”
Sophie Nélisse: “I actually didn’t read the book, I read it only two months ago. So I didn’t really have any pressure. Since I didn’t really know that it was a famous book. That way I felt like I just had to read the script and do my best. I was just trying to do my best and see what the results were. By the way, I thought it was an amazing book. I was really surprised when I saw him in Berlin, seeing how young he was. I thought he would be like fifty or something. He came in like 20 years old and I was like woah."
Not a lot of authors give away their creative control over something like this. Why did you decide to give away free reign on this? And did you feel like Brian and Michael really did your story justice?Markus Zusak: “It’s a combination. There’s a dark side and a positive side, like in everything. The dark side is that you hear so many horror stories of authors that get involved, and then they get sacked. Or they get into so many arguments with the producers who have their own sort of vision for they want to do. They feel like they’re being tortured in a way through this process. For me, it really killed me writing the book. I felt empty when I finished that book. I have like a five year hangover from writing that book. I wrote, but I really struggled. I wrote four books that really mean something to me, and I covered one book that means everything to me. You never want to go back to just writing about something. You can’t give a job like that to a director or screenwriter who are experts in their own field. ‘Be creative but do it how I want you to do it.’ I don’t think you’re going to get a good result out of that. As far as doing justice to it, I wanted them to do justice to themselves. And that goes back to that idea of pressure. I want them to show up saying, ‘alright this is what I want to do.’ They are different in so many ways, but in many ways the book and the film share the same heart, can’t ask for more than that.”
Brian, with the film, it’s really these amazing characters and how they come to life and what goes on around them. But what makes it such a compelling story is how perfectly acted it is. It’s so beautiful. The delicate relationships between daughter, parents and those relationships. Did you have an idea of people you really wanted to play those roles?Brian Percival: “Geoffrey (Rush) was someone we felt was right on so many levels. He was on everybody’s radar … Because he and Emily (Watson) are the sort of actors that I aspire to work with. They are considered serious in some way but are great to work with. They have a certain integrity to their work. It tends to be at that level that I like people to work with. Following Emily, the first person we ever cast was Rudy. We had a network of casting directors all over the world looking for a Rudy. We got called to come down to Munich one Sunday morning to see a couple of boys, and Niko (Liersch) came in. We immediately went, ‘please tell me he can act.’ We had to make him and Rudy one in the same, because before then his acting was pitiful in comparison. We had to spend quite a bit of time to help him develop in Rudy and Rudy into Niko. It was a different approach for me, because he had to be very natural."