DENIAL – Interview with director Mick Jackson

Released in Irish cinemas this week, ‘Denial’ tells the remarkable true story of American historian Deborah Lipstadt – played by Rachel Weisz – who finds herself in the strange situation of having to prove that the Holocaust actually happened, when she is sued for libel in a London court by Holocaust denier David Irving (Timothy Spall).

‘Denial’ is a fascinating film about the power of the truth, so was delighted to get the chance to talk with director Mick Jackson about his new film, and just why he came back to cinema to tell this story, after a lengthy absence.

How did you get involved with ‘Denial’?
Mick Jackson: There was the sound of a “plop!”, which was the script landing on my desk, sent by my agent. The front page said “Denial by David Hare”, and I said “I’ll take it!” [laughs]. Not quite, but I have always wanted to work with David Hare, he is one of my heroes, so that was one reason for just turning the page from the title page, to see what it was about. I have tried, in my career, to do a variety of things, both entertainment movies – comedies or rom-coms or whatever – and movies that have some sort of social content, being about something; subjects as diverse as nuclear war, child abuse or journalists in Iraq, and this seemed to be, from the first page, about something that seemed to be a movie worth doing. Whether people want to see it or not, it was worth actually putting on film and having there in the record.

Was David Hare’s script the main appeal for you?
MJ: This was about 2010, 2011 when I saw the script, and David had already done a couple of drafts of it and I thought “This is really really interesting” and it’s interesting not just because of the subject it’s about, which I actually have a personal connection to, but because it’s about so many other things ay the same time. It’s hard now, thinking back, when so much denial is in the air of all kinds. It’s been around for a long time; it’s been building for the last decade at least, maybe longer than that. People, at the time I started sitting down with David, were questioning all kinds of scientific things like climate change and evolution, vaccination and political things like questioning whether Obama had American citizenship, demanding to see his birth certificate, was he a Muslim? Even though the subject matter was very important and worth doing, I thought the resonances were great, and have been growing ever since; we have been growing towards a greater topicality than we knew.

Were you aware of the trial at the time it happened?
MJ: No, I live in Los Angeles, and I had moved about 10 years before the year 2000, and surprisingly given the size of the Jewish community in the States, it got very little coverage in the papers, or I just missed those particular editions, I don’t know. When I was reading the script, I was reading it for the first time.

Your cast is wonderful; you have Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall to name but three. How did you go about casting the film?
MJ: Easy! [laughs] I never saw anybody but Tom Wilkinson in the part of Rampton. He is the movie equivalent of Ed Murrow, I think, he is the epitome of decency and morality, and is one of the best actors working in film today, so that was a first choice. Rachel, she’s English but has become a real Hollywood star, and she has played a number of parts where she’s American, but never anything that’s Jewish. I don’t know whether that’s through choice, but she hasn’t wanted to be typecast as a Jewish actress – she is Jewish. She, like Deborah [Lipstadt] is very feisty; she is very passionate about what she does and very headstrong, amazingly articulate and intelligent, so that seemed a marriage made in heaven. Timothy [Spall] is wonderful, and I think he is one of the bravest actors working in television or film today. He seems prepared to take on, as an actor, he sees his duty to take on roles that other people can’t or won’t play; Timothy said “Yeah, I’ll have a go!” [laughs]. He said the actor’s job is not to play the outside, not to play the villain; no person is a villain to themselves, you have to find the person inside. You may not agree with them or sympathise with them, but you can, at least, empathise with them as a human being.

Did Deborah Lipstadt have involvement in the film?
MJ: [Rachel Weisz] wanted to meet the real Deborah, and to see what the person was like, and they got on like the proverbial house on fire [laughs] and mind melded over the course of production and the first part of the shooting. Obviously there was an accent to master, so we had a dialect coach, but I think the dialect was the least part of it, the fellow feeling of someone, of empowered women – which is what they both are – was what powered the performance. Half way through Rachel said, “OK, it’s nice having you on set, and I have enjoyed being able to go over into a corner with you and ask you [things like] this scene we are about to shoot, how did you feel when you walked through the door? But now I have got you inside me, I have managed to make the transfer, I feel I am you in these scenes, so you don’t need to come by the set any more” [laughs] “because otherwise there would be two of you in me!” That was wonderful and done in very good humour.

David Irving is obviously quite litigious, seeing as ‘Denial’ is about him suing Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Were you ever afraid of being sued?
MJ: Oh absolutely! That’s why everything in the courtroom scenes is verbatim; it’s taken from the transcripts. Absolutely! Edited a little, because it went on for 32 days, but David Hare is a marvellous editor.

Is it fair then, to assume that David Irving was not involved in the film?
MJ: He was not, but everything that he says in the film are words that he actually spoke or wrote. They are taken from interviews and speeches, and magazine articles and books that he’s written. He can’t claim that we have misrepresented him; indeed we left out things that would have been highly unflattering to him. He wrote on his website constantly when we were shooting and, I think, revelled in the fact that we had a beautiful Hollywood actress to play Deborah Lipstadt, and said “My casting choice would have been Ernest Borgnine to play her”. He’s an equal opportunities offender.

To go back to the topicality of the film, Mark Gatiss, who plays Professor Robert Jan van der Pelt in ‘Denial’, recently tweeted “Very proud to be a part of #Denial. Even more timely in this terrifying age of ‘alternative facts’.” Obviously you could not have known how the political climate was going to change when you got involved with the film, but do you feel that this is something audiences will identify with in the film?
MJ: I hope so. Many people did in the States when the film ran there, they saw David Irving in the film, and they saw a would-be demagogue who could raise crowds of people to emotional responses, who was a misogynist, a racist, an Anti-Semite, a person who is very careless with facts – or a liar, as we say in technical terms – and that they might have seen some similarity between him and some political figures. Some did and some didn’t, it’s interesting. it’s a big sharper now that Mr Trump is elected and his councillor is using terms such as “alternative facts”. This is not only very pertinent to our movie, but it sounds like something George Orwell might have written. It’s chilling.

You mentioned a personal connection to the material in the film. Could you elaborate on that?
MJ: I have been in a position about 45-50 years, and I started out as a documentary maker way back in the ‘70s. I worked on a series of documentary programmes called ‘The Ascent of Man’, which is one of those blockbuster documentary series that one made back in the ‘70s, where you take a subject and a presenter who is going to take you through history at a particular bent. Jacob Bronowski did it with science, that was the one I worked on, it was about science and man and ethics, and one of those was about tolerance, and I went with him to Auschwitz. [Bronowski] was Jewish, and apart from being a distinguished science – he was one of the first people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs exploded – also many members of his family had perished in Auschwitz, so it was a keen moment to make a reckoning there. I filmed a scene with him that has become kind of iconic, where we found at the back of the crematoria, a stagnant pond which, for convenience, the Nazis had dumped human ashes; there was nowhere else to out them because there were so many of them coming out of the crematoria. [Bronowski] walked into the pond and took a handful of the sediment at the base of the pond and I, rehearsing it, did the same thing. I felt an intimate connection there and subsequently, a great sense of anger that people could deny something I felt so viscerally with my own hands. I read the script and realised one of the characters, not the main character Deborah Lipstadt, but her lawyer Richard Rampton [played by Tom Wilkinson] goes on this trip with her to Auschwitz to collect facts before the trial, and he has a similar experience to mine. I thought “That’s really interesting because it makes it, by incorporating him into the emotional narrative – feeling like I do, not a Jewish person, but someone who has a sense of decency – that it makes it ecumenical, not “just” a Jewish movie, and no longer “just” a movie about the Holocaust, but something we all share as human beings.

You were granted permission to film at Auschwitz again for ‘Denial’, what was it like for you to go back again, obviously such a long time later?
It’s awful. It’s something you feel your brain isn’t big enough to take in. The scale of it if vast, it’s huge, it takes hours for you to walk around the perimeter, and it’s really just a big industrial complex for killing people. You can’t look at that and not be moved, and angry that someone should have the arrogance, the awfulness to deny it actually happened.

Congratulations on your BAFTA nomination for ‘Denial’, how does it feel to be nominated?
MJ: Very good. I started my career working in the BBC, and I was fortunate enough to have a string of BAFTA wins. That was 25 odd years ago, so after all this time to get a BAFTA nomination again for something is very wonderful, it feels like a sense of a circle.

You have been working on TV a lot recently, with shows for HBO and CBS…
MJ: Really good material! A lot of feature directors have done what I did.

Do you see yourself staying with cinema for the moment of going back to TV?
MJ: Don’t know. Like a lot of filmmakers, we don’t know quite what to do with the current situation, which has taken many of us by surprise. Looking for a way of somehow addressing it without addressing it directly; you try to find some way of sneaking up on the material and the situation that we have found ourselves in.

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘Denial’ is released in Irish cinemas on January 27th 2017. Watch the trailer below…