Writer-director Mark Herman chats to Movies.ie about bringing one of Ireland’s most celebrated contemporary novels ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ to the big screen.
From rom-coms to holocaust horrors, the British born writer-director Mark Herman concedes he was “setting himself a mountain to climb” with his latest project, an adaptation of the acclaimed Irish novel ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. And quite a trek it is too as Herman and team guide us through the innocent wartime friendship of Bruno and Shmuel, two eight year old boys existing on opposite sides of a concentration camp wall. The film received its World premiere in Dublin’s Savoy cinema last week to stunned silence followed a standing ovation for Herman, writer John Boyne and his cast but as Herman admits, “this was no simple undertaking”. Here, in the first of four ‘Boy in the striped Pyjamas’ interviews, the writer-director talks about the difficulties in bringing Bruno’s story to the big-screen.
Q: You optioned the book before it was even published. What was it that attracted you to ‘Pyjamas’?
A: It was the challenge: working with kids, the subject matter, the ending – all the things you should avoid when you want to make a movie – they are exactly what attracted me. I’d just come off a romantic-comedy (Hope Springs) and I was just keen to set myself a mountain to climb. And not only that, the book obviously knocked me out when I read it.
Q: Like your previous films (Brassed Off! Little Voice et al.) you decided to write as well as direct. Do the two go hand in hand for you?
A: Definitely, the writing process is incredibly important to me. In fact the majority of my direction is within the writing. It’s an odd thing to analysis. John (Boyne) is a great supporter of the film and feels it’s very faithful to the book but, in fact, when you analysis it, the two are very different; the words are very different; I think I made a lot of changes. What I have tried to maintain is the spirit of John’s book and that was the greatest challenge for me as a writer/director.
Q: How involved was John (Boyne) in the writing process?
A: I think the relationship I had with John was very rare. There can be a strange dynamic between the author and screenwriter. Normally when I write, I tend to try stay separate. At the same time, I’ve had it in reverse. I wrote ‘Brassed Off’ for the screen and someone else adapted it for the stage. It’s like handing over your baby to someone else to take care of and you have no rights. It’s a very weird area. John and I had meetings to discussing what he wanted to keep especially but at that early stage I was making promises that I really couldn’t commit to!
Q: You mentioned some of the challenges the book represented (working with kids, the ending etc). Did they cause problems when you went looking for funding?
A: Absolutely, which is why I purchased the film rights and took a few months before I went looking elsewhere – I was buying my freedom so to speak (laughs). When Miramax began to show interest I met with Daniel Battsek (head of Miramax) and, even before we began, I had said there was no point discussing the possibility unless we kept the ending. I would have hated to spend three years of my life doing this thing for it to be snatched away and at the end of the day, the studios do have the power to do that… So we came to a sort of gentlemen’s agreement but there were certainly plenty of discussions about that ending.
Q: One source was quoted as saying the film was the ‘Disneyfication of the Holocaust’. Were you nervous of this type of reaction?
A: I think the studio was worried how certain communities would react, the Jewish audience for example. We actually showed the film at the Jewish film festival in London at the same time as it premiered here in Dublin and the audience reaction was very positive, much more positive than I originally expected.
Q: Similarly, were you nervous about how fans of the book would react?
A:I probably shouldn’t say this but there was a part of me, when I was writing it, a selfish part, that was hoping the book would be a flop. I don’t mean that maliciously. I just mean so many people have their own images of Bruno and this world in their head. That’s very hard to better. That’s why I tried to stay so faithful to the spirit of John’s work.
Q: With Miramax behind the film you could obviously go for some big names. How did you cast the film?
A:That’s something I was very concerned with- levels of fame. I learned from ‘Brassed off!’ Studios will always push for those bigger names. For me, it’s the opposite; I think you need to source the best talent for the particular job. When casting I thought that both Vera Farmiga (The Departed) and David Thewlis (Harry Potter, Naked) were of a level of fame that they would be recognisable but not by name. I cast the pair based on their work alone, I’d never even met them, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. With the rest of the cast we held auditions. Asa, who plays the lead (Bruno), was on the first tape I saw. It wasn’t even a reading or anything, it was just him chatting. It was his face and eyes, I knew if he we could get them on the big screen – it would be fantastic.
Q: And how were the kids on set?
A:It went relatively smoothly. We had an acting coach on set at all times for the two boys. Celia Bannerman, she was a godsend. She was always there to make sure we got the best out of them. She wouldn’t exactly coach them in terms of their performances but she would be there to get them in the mood with role-play and other techniques.
Q: You actually started out as an animator and moved into film. What made you make the move?
A: Yeah I did animation before moving into live-action cinema. I was in the National Film School working with the likes of Nick Park, who was shooting his first Wallace and Gromit picture at the time. I immediately realised that I could never compete with him and the whole idea of spending two years working on one joke just didn’t appeal. So I made the move. I wrote and directed a film for my graduation – it was a comedy about a wedding clashing with a cup semi-final – which was fortunate enough to win a Student Academy Award, so it seemed like it must have been the right decision.
Q: Finally, what’s next on the cards?
A: I’m taking some time off before I start writing. I’m working on a project about the Northern Soul movement in ’60s Northern England. It’s a return to that same terroritory as ‘Brassed Off’!
‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ is in Irish cinemas from Friday, September 12th.