by: Jay Carlson
Indie Revolver recently sat down with My Week with Marilyn director, Simon Curtis, to discuss his newest film, Woman in Gold.
Curtis discusses the expectations of making another film after the success of My Week with Marilyn, “It’s funny because at the time of My Week with Marilyn, I was always thinking that review wasn’t good and this, that and the other. But now people talk about it as this great success in retrospective. But, you know, I felt very lucky to make that film and very lucky to make that film with who I made it with. So I was thinking I’ve got to be as passionate about something else to make another film. Because, you know, you go on such a complex, intense journey making a film. I just didn’t want to make any old thing. This story, The Woman in Gold, I felt very passionate about. It was a story that meant a lot to me personally and I was very excited to go on the journey.”
Woman in Gold is the remarkable true story of one woman’s journey to reclaim her heritage and seek justice for what happened to her family. Sixty years after she fled Vienna during World War II, an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt’s famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way.
Curtis might seem like a new kid on the block but he’s been at it for quite a while, beginning his career in the theater working with the likes of Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle and Max Stafford-Clark in British theater. “They were theater experiences, so you’d learn to work with actors, basically. And listen to actors and find the language to talk to actors. And also to learn to shut your mouth sometimes as a director. You know? I think that some directors talk all the time and that just gets in the way. So, you learn not to say too much. Someone like Helen, she knows what she’s doing but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t want a dialogue, but she doesn’t want to be lectured between every take either. The good thing about being an assistant director is that you get to see other directors at work. Directors don’t tend to see other directors at work. And so that was good. But obviously theater was a great background in teaching me to work with actors.”
From there Curtis moved into a very successful career working in British television. “The kind of TV I was lucky enough to make isn’t a million miles from making a film. You know, it’s like, stuff that’s showing on WGBH Masterpiece (Theater). Working with great British actors essentially, and in BIG projects. Like if you did David Copperfield with Ian McKellen and Maggie Smith and Daniel Radcliffe and it’s three hours long. That isn’t a million miles, in fact, arguably it’s a bigger thing to do than making a movie.”
Coming up this way gave Curtis a unique experience behind the scenes. “I was a producer at the BBC and I watched a lot of other directors working on films. Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry, all those kind of people, you know, we all grew up together in the theater and television at the BBC and so on. I probably know more (of) other director’s than any other director around, for that reason.”
One thing that Curtis seems to have a knack for is pulling together impressive casts. His last two films have featured the likes of recent Academy Award winner, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Tatiana Maslany, Helen Mirren and Daniel Bruhl. Any film would be lucky to have one of these actors. “I gave a schoolboy his first job as David Copperfield and that was Daniel Radcliffe at age ten. I pride myself with being very ambitious with my casting and trying to get great people in all the smaller parts. You know, to have Charles Dance from Game of Thrones or Elizabeth (McGovern) from Downton Abby or Jonathan Pryce in one of the smaller parts. And in this film, Katie Holmes and Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, who is going to be a mammoth star. And also the great German actors, Daniel Brühl and Tom Schilling, they’re some of Germany’s best actors and so they were fantastic to work with. You know, I’ve been very lucky with the people I worked with both at the beginning of their careers and in the case of Dame Judi and Dame Maggie and Dame Helen. You know, these legendary people.”
Along with the cast in front of the camera, Curtis also seeks out the best crew to work with behind the scenes, as well. “The first thing you learn as a director is to get the best collaborators.” Among the talented collaborators on Woman in Gold is composer Hans Zimmer and The Wolverine Director of Photography Ross Emery. “I was very ambitious with the collaborators, and they were all fantastic on this film. That was a big part of it.”
With a film that deftly maneuvers through a nearly hundred year journey, there were surely elements that couldn’t make a two hour feature film. “I mean, there’s so much we couldn’t tell. I think that Maria’s wedding was the last big Jewish social event in Vienna before, so we wanted to get that sense, that dance.. that it was the end of an era. That was important. And actually, the escape (out of Nazi occupied Vienna) was even more complicated than that. But we had to work out, we could only afford THAT many minutes to tell that story before we derailed the film. The joke I have , it’s only half a joke, is that my last film was My Week with Marilyn and this one is my century with Maria. You know it’s a massive undertaking. Frankly Klimt and Adele was a movie. Adele herself, was a movie. Maria and her husband arriving in California, building a life. But we decided the film was this odd couple, these two people who take on this campaign and we wanted to flashback to the past to reinforce that this wasn’t just any old painting. This was a painting that Maria’s uncle commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint of her aunt and it was a painting that was on the wall of the family home. That family was, sort of, the epitome of that whole community that was shattered overnight when the Nazi’s arrived.”
When asked if he felt any pressure dealing with such an important and powerful story, Curtis says, “Yeah, I think if you’ve taken on impersonating Marilyn Monroe for the world (laughter) nothing is ever as frightening as that. But this story is, the emotional truth of it, is very important and the complexity. I didn’t want it to be a simple.. You know, I think so many films are so simplistic. Not all of them, obviously, but a lot are. I wanted this to have the complexity that I felt this story had.”
Curtis elaborates on the logistics of what it was like to shoot a film with such an expansive story and scope. “We were filming in three countries, two languages.. three time periods. We had German actors speaking English, we had English actors speaking German and we had English speaking actors with Austrian accents. It was like a nightmare over there, actually. There was one day when we were doing scenes on the soundstage, doing quite a little comedy scene, interior of the car with Helen holding up a chocolate donut and it was almost played like an L.A. sitcom. We finished that scene and I walked to the next scene and it was Klimt painting Adele in this erotically charged film in German at the beginning of the century and I thought, “How could this be? This is the same movie.” But again, that’s so stimulating, too.”
Even though the film’s heroine Maria Altmann, portrayed by Helen Mirren passed away in 2011, Curtis still had the film’s hero, her lawyer, Randol Shoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, available to him. “Randy was very involved. In fact, I was doing press with him last week in Washington, and his acknowledgement that the film feels accurate is terribly important to me. And part of that is he was very helpful in helping shape the script and so on. So that means a lot, because as you say, it’s such a big story, and it’s such a complicated legal procedure and all that. The fact that it lands as authentic is terribly important. He’d never claim to be a filmmaker. So he would read the script and say, “No, that isn’t quite right. What about this?” It was more that sort of level. We showed it to him early on and one of the proudest moments of my life was at the Berlin premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, he was just in floods of tears, moved by the whole thing. In a good way, I hope. But, he was on set a couple of times. He actually appears in the film in a where’s Wally kind of way, the eagle eyed viewer will be able to see him.”
Ultimately, Curtis has high hopes the film will make audiences take notice of the film’s powerful message. “At a time where there aren’t many people living who remember the second World War and one of the themes is, we mustn’t forget, we must remember what happened. It’s landed at a time where anti-Semitism, certainly in Europe, is in the air all over again. It seems a very timely reminder of the perils of anti-Semitism, or indeed the perils of picking on anybody because of their race or religion. I hope that people will be provoked by it and think about how close they are to the terrible events of World War II and how those things mustn’t be forgotten. The film is (also) a love letter to American immigration policy. These people were able to recreate and live great lives in the United States.”
Speaking to what the future might hold for him, Curtis leaves the door open to possibly revisiting his beginnings in the theater. “The timing (would have to be) right and the right play and so on. I’m always interested in that.”
Reflecting back on the Woman in Gold, the director says, “I think that there’s something about (it). This film works and could connect with people all over the world and that’s a very powerful thing. Also, there’s something about sitting there, which I’ve only done in the last week, or so, and seeing it in its finished glory on a screen that is.. you have to pinch yourself over having anything to do with it, honestly. It’s (been) a special experience.”
Woman in Gold opens in select theaters on April 1.