‘The film is about how a young person’s mind can be opened up to the world,” said Brian Percival, the director of The Book Thief, which just opened throughout Israel, speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv earlier this week. Based on the enormously popular novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is the story of an orphan in Nazi Germany whose adoptive family hides a young Jewish man, and whose love of books nourishes her spiritually.
“It was not my intention to make a ‘Holocaust film,’” he explained. Flanked by his acclaimed young star, Sophie Nelisse, who first made an impression in Monsieur Lazhar, the Oscar-nominated film from Canada, and by Karen Rosenfelt, one of the film’s producers, Percival said, “I did want to attract a young audience and to make them aware of what happened. But I wanted the film to be populist and accessible. I wanted to allow them to discover what happened [in the Holocaust].”
He admits to having been “shocked by how little most children know about what went on... If just a hundred or a thousand of them pick up a book afterwards, that’s a wonderful thing.”
For producer Karen Rosenfelt, it was an eight-year journey to bring the novel to the screen, but one that she feels was well worth the effort.
“I’m a voracious reader, and as pure entertainment, the novel just grabbed me,” she said. She read the 580-page book “in two sittings.” Although it was a challenge to get the film made, she always felt she had the studio behind her.
“They always told me it would be made when the timing was right,” said Rosenfelt, who has also produced the Twilight saga, The Devil Wears Prada and the Alvin and the Chipmunks series. Acknowledging the difficulty of making serious films these days, she admitted, “It’s extremely difficult to make a movie like this and it’s going to get even more difficult. We live in a world of brands, of Marvel and Pixar. You have to have belief and drive to get a movie made.”
Sophie Nelisse, 13, a gymnast who initially went into acting to earn money for her sports training, said she knew little about World War II before making the movie. “In sixth grade, we read a book about the Holocaust called Anna’s Suitcase, and we did some exercises based on it, but then we never heard about it again.”
In order to prepare his young leading lady for her role, Percival suggested Nelisse see some films that dealt with the Holocaust, including Schindler’s List, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life is Beautiful and others.
“Watching all those Holocaust movies, I tried to think how I would react in different situations. I learned a lot making the movie,” said Nelisse.
Nelisse admitted that she was intimidated at first at the prospect of working with her on-screen adoptive parents, Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.
“I was a bit scared of Geoffrey Rush at the beginning. I was scared that he would find me a bad actress. But in the end, he was like my father on stage. And Emily was like my mom. He gets in and out of character really easily, he was like a clown between takes.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after the press conference, Percival mentioned how moved he had been on a visit to Yad Vashem the day before.
“It’s quite dangerous to stereotype Nazis, with leather gloves and black uniforms.
The dangerous thing is that ordinary people can get turned into Nazis.”
While The Book Thief is Percival’s first high-profile film, he has directed some indie features in his native England with his wife and screenwriting collaborator, Julie Rutterford. He is best known for directing many key episodes of the wildly popular television series Downton Abbey, including the premiere episode.
Raised in Liverpool, Percival comes from what he describes as a “quite humble background.”
His father worked on the docks and his mother worked in a factory and was in domestic service for a short time. “My family lived on a street that wasn’t so different from Himmel Street [the location of Liesel’s home in The Book Thief].”
Percival credited his working-class roots with helping him bring authenticity to the “downstairs” segments of Downton Abbey.
“Julian Fellowes [the series creator] is very upper class. My own background is unlike his. So I have a different perspective on life.
For the people who live downstairs, what goes on upstairs is a soap opera. That was the world I can relate to... Initially, we used a kind of documentary style to convey the reality of what was going on downstairs.”
It’s not surprising that while growing up, Percival never imagined that he would have a career in the arts. “I had had some dead-end jobs, and then went to art school, when I was about 20. I had always felt that there must be something more to life but I didn’t know what it was.”
His art studies were “like someone opening a book for me... It gave me a passion for something that I didn’t know existed.”
He acknowledged that his artistic awakening in his twenties parallels his heroine’s literary and moral awakening in the film.
Now that The Book Thief is opening throughout Europe and the Middle East, Percival is free to think about his next project.
“I’m working on a few things,” he says.
One of these projects is a new look at Lord Nelson, which he is working on with his Downton collaborator, Julian Fellowes.
You may remember the heroic Lord Nelson immortalized by Laurence Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, but this will be a different perspective on that figure.
“Lord Nelson was quite an interesting man. He was involved in a ménage a trois with Lady Hamilton and another man,” he says. “And he was a thorn in the side of the authorities, which is something I quite like.”
Asked what book he would be most likely to steal, or to rescue from a bonfire, Percival thinks a moment and says, “Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. I read a lot of Orwell during art college.”