Stephen Daldry has made only two feature films, but he’s overseen four Oscar-nominated performances and netted himself two Academy Award nominations for Best Director to boot. His third movie, The Reader, seems to stand a solid chance of continuing those trends. Based on Bernhard Schlink’s acclaimed novel, the film centers on a 15-year-old, Michael Berg (David Kross), who in post–World War II Germany enters into a sexual relationship with a woman twice his age, Hanna Schmitz, played by the smokin’ Kate Winslet. Their relationship dissipates, but years later, as a law student, Michael reencounters his former lover as a defendant in a war-crimes trial. Just in advance of his buzzy film’s release, Daldry spoke with Vulture about back-loading The Reader’s more intimate scenes, and the clashes between Harvey Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin that eventually led to the latter taking his name off the project.
Notwithstanding its international acclaim, The Reader’s singular significance is as a German novel about the country’s postwar generation. Did that make shooting on location a more intense experience than usual?
Certainly. And I never had any question that I should film it in Germany. I always thought that was where I should make it — with a German crew, and as much as possible cast it with a German cast, with a couple Brits thrown in. But I was particularly keen to find and utilize the extraordinary amount of talent of German actors, many of whom work anyway within the English language, like the fantastic Bruno Ganz.
As much as the film is about Nazi atrocities, and the deep scars of war more generally, it’s also a bit of a sexual-abuse tale, is it not?
I don’t think so. I think it’s a tale of a generational conflict — how on earth can you love anyone from a previous generation, to a variety of different degrees, given their involvement in one of the great terrors of the 20th century? And how does, and how can, that German generation born after the war live with that love? So this is a tale about a young man who falls in love with a woman who is, to a certain extent, controlling, and she is defensive, although at that point in the story he doesn’t know why. It has to do with her illiteracy rather than what she was up to during the war. But I don’t honestly think, even in Mr. Schlink’s book, nor in the film, it is a tale of child abuse, although [within] the issues about all the relationships with younger people, there are inevitably elements of control involved in them.
When did Scott Rudin inform you he was removing his name from the project?
It was a conversation after we’d completed the negotiations to get more time and more money and more resources, which actually all ended incredibly happily. And then Scotty — who’s a friend and remains a very close friend — and Harvey kept on fighting over the details on how to release the film, which to be honest I had not a lot to do with. And then they couldn’t get on with each other, I think they drove each other mad. So it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea at all.
So the film was going to be completed and edited and finished — they were just arguing over release date and the other particulars?
Not the release date, that was fixed and firm and sorted out. It was just about the manner of the release. I don’t know, those two … they fight, what can I say? So at that point, it was Godspeed for both of them, really.
The film does have a good deal of intimacy and nudity. Do you have a directorial trick to establishing a comfort level with your actors?
Well, yes, to be frank, especially when you’re dealing with a young man like David Kross. The first thing we knew we’d do was not shoot it chronologically at all, but shoot the love scenes last, mostly to give David and Kate enough time to get to know each other and get easy with one another. And all three of us talked it through to a great degree of detail, and Kate and I worked it out in total detail so that there was no pressure for any improvisational attitudes. It was just, “Go in and do it quite technically.”
Looking forward, is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay still your next film project?
I don’t know. TBD. Call Brad Grey now and ask him. [Laughs] He’s the one holding the keys to the kingdom of Kavalier & Clay.