Maria Altmann spent her childhood in the sumptuous luxury of the prewar Jewish aristocracy in Vienna–an era and way of life brought to an end when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. In order to save their lives, Maria and her husband fled, leaving behind their mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, to witness the destruction of their people. Sixty years later, in California, Maria decides to fight back; with the help of young attorney Randy Schoenberg, she has decided to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s fabulous portrait of her aunt Adele, stolen from her home by Nazis to become the centerpiece of the Austrian artworld, where it is renamed Woman in Gold. Simon Curtis directs Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as Randy Schoenberg in this lush reimagining of Maria’s real-life story. • Availability: Opens nationally April 1. Check local listings for a theater near you. •Thanks to Rachel Aberly, PMKBNC, for setting up this interview.•
DT: I love that the film is so lush and big and high-stakes but so internally driven at the same time. Can you talk about how you balanced that focus on emotions with such a huge set and cast?
SC: Thank you for that. I don’t really know the answer, actually. You basically just make each scene work and then make the film work in the editing room. In the editing it was always going to be about how the past and the present interact. Photographically we were trying to do something different for each of the time periods, so it was a question of balancing all of that, I suppose.
DT: How did you deal with the different time periods?
SC: I had a brilliant DP in Ross Emery, and we talked about it a lot. We wanted the modern scenes with Helen and Ryan to be as colorful and real and documentary as possible, but contrasting the architecture and light of Vienna and Los Angeles. The earliest scenes, the Adele scenes, should be as golden and as radiant as possible for obvious reasons. For the 1938 past, which was the end of the Jewish community, the end of an era and a terrifying period, it seemed right to desaturate.
DT: Did you use special filters or lights in the Adele scenes, because she’s glowing.
SC: We did a lot of the coloring in post. That’s the simplest answer.
DT: Your enthusiasm for the subject persuaded BBC Films to come on board. Why did this story matter to you so much?
SC: I just thought it was a very moving story of the twentieth century and placed a woman of a certain age in the center of it. That appealed to me, and it was a story of the immigrant experience. We’d all love to revisit moments from our past to make things right.
DT: It wasn’t really the typical immigrant experience.
SC: But the universal of having to leave behind a life and having to reinvent oneself is.
DT: Alexi Kaye Campbell, who wrote the screenplay, consulted frequently with Randy Schoenberg, the young attorney who actually prosecuted the case. Were you involved in those discussions, and did they in any way complicate your job as a director?
SC: No. Randy was phenomenally helpful. We got two for the price of one because he was able to explain the legal procedure, being a lawyer, and he gave us the emotional stories too. So, for example, he told Alexi how he’d broken down in front of the Holocaust Memorial, and that became a very important beat in Ryan’s Randy story, too.
DT: That was actually my next question—one of the most moving moments in the film for me is his reaction to the Holocaust Memorial. To me, it seemed like this moment of self-recognition that comes from realizing you’ve been kidding yourself your entire life. Is that how the real Randy Schoenberg described it?
SC: We tweaked the character of Randy to make him more of an all-American guy who hasn’t really dealt with his past and his family’s history—that happens before our eyes in the film, if you like.
DT: Let’s talk about the sound design in the dancing scene at Maria’s wedding. It was really, really remarkable.
SC: We worked very hard on that. I’d read that their wedding was the last big Jewish social event before the Nazis arrived, so we made it first off as a sort of naturalistic dance, and then it becomes a sort of emblematic dance. We decided to build in the jackboots arriving as part of that concept.
DT: It was very effective. The chase scene, where Maria and her husband escape, was so exciting it had me sitting on the edge of my seat. What were the logistics involved in that?
SC: We had a second unit with us in Vienna because we had a lot of things and locations to shoot in our three weeks there. It was a team effort, and it involved Tatiana Maslany (who played the young Maria Altmann) running more than an Olympic runner ever had to run. I’m very proud of the sequence.
DT: Did you have to build special sets?
SC: Most of that sequence takes place on the streets of Vienna and in an extraordinary building. When they’re running down those stairs, that’s actually the building—built, I think, in the 18th century—to paint the back lots of the Vienna opera house.
DT: What kind of reception did you get in Vienna while you were filming there, because the film is not particularly flattering to Austrians?
SC: Really good; they were really supportive of us being there.
SC: They’re very proud of their city, and it’s amazing how few films have been shot there, considering how cinematic it is. Did you see the homage to The Third Man, where you see Orson Welles’s Ferris wheel at the end of the film?
DT: Fantastic. Can you talk about the replica of the painting?
SC: That was a massive effort, because the credibility of the film hinged on that being close-up proof. It was a really detailed, tricky thing to do. We had a really brilliant guy in London who worked with Jim Clay, our designer, to achieve that. And we also had to do two versions, a sort of work-in-progress version, and then the finished version, so it was a big achievement.
DT: You did something unusual for such a high-budget film—you shot the early scenes in a foreign language.
SC: That was something I was really pushing for, because that’s part of the identity thing—Maria starting her life in Vienna speaking German and ending her life speaking English in California.
DT: That was a very nice touch. How interventionist were you with your two stars?
SC: I wouldn’t use that word—I would say I collaborated with them. They’re both incredibly smart, both incredibly experienced, both incredibly well prepared. But also wanting a dialogue. Usually every member of the cast has a different version of how you can help them, and your job as a director is to work out how you can best help each person on an individual basis. Sometimes that involves a lot of talking and a lot of notes, and sometimes it involves no talking and no notes.
DT: Depending on the actor.
SC: Sometimes depending on the actor in different films. I can work with the same actor twice, in different parts, and we’ll have a different version of working.
DT: What was the hardest thing for you about this film?
SC: It was logistically tricky—three time periods, three countries, two languages, English actors speaking German, German actors speaking English. The hardest job was pulling it all together.
Copyright © Director Talk 2015