Stephen Daldry couldn’t have known what he was getting into when he grabbed the directing reins on “The Reader.”
The pic’s original director and producer, Anthony Minghella, died at 54 while the film was in production. Minghella’s producing partner Sydney Pollack also died as the film was being finished. Nicole Kidman, originally set to star as Hanna Schmitz, pulled out and was replaced by Kate Winslet, who wound up simultaneously promoting “Revolutionary Road” during awards season. And cinematographer Roger Deakins ended up leaving in mid-production to be replaced by Chris Menges.
That was all before the much-publicized blowout between Daldry, producer Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, which nearly postponed the film into next year.
The 48-year-old director, who masks a steely tenacity with a cheery British charm, didn’t realize going in how tricky and dramatic this adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 international bestseller about post-World War II German “truth and reconciliation” would be. Weinstein had acquired the book’s rights in 1996 and financed the $33-million film; Daldry brought in Rudin, who had fought fiercely to protect the helmer’s vision on 2002’s “The Hours.” Weinstein and Rudin worked out a production hiatus to accommodate both Daldry’s prep on the Broadway musical “Billy Elliot” and the need to wait for German actor David Kross to turn 18 and polish his English before he could start the film.
“You would be amazed at my resilience,” Daldry says. “As long as you keep your eye on the right ball.”
Kross needed the time to be allowed to play the explicit love scenes with Winslet that are central to the story of a boy who grows up to discover that the older woman he fell in love with may be a war criminal.
While Daldry now downplays the rigors he endured, by any measure this was a perilous production.
The first of many speed-bumps on the project was Kidman’s departure because “Australia” was running over; Winslet filled in, on the assumption the film would come out in 2009. Then cinematographer Deakins, accustomed to more prep and less on-set improvisation, shot all the sequences with Ralph Fiennes as the adult protagonist. During the hiatus, Deakins took Rudin up on his offer to shoot “Doubt” instead. Menges (“Notes on a Scandal”) replaced him.
During production in Germany, when Weinstein visited the set, Daldry begged for eight more shooting days. The mogul agreed to let him have $2 million and the days only if the director promised to test an early cut of the movie; if it tested above 70, he would have to finish “The Reader” for year-end release. Daldry agreed in an email.
When push came to shove, Daldry found himself prepping a musical 12 hours a day and editing “The Reader” at the same time. The Aug. 26 test preview scored a 77; faced with the Herculean task of finishing the film by October, just before his legit “Billy Elliot” was due to open Nov. 13, Daldry broke down and sent an email to Weinstein: “I do not have the physical or mental capacity to deliver the film for release this year,” he wrote. “The last month of doing double duty on the musical and the movie have utterly depleted me. My work on the show is suffering badly, as is my work on the movie. … I am physically exhausted and emotionally nowhere. … I simply can’t do it and I am sorry.”
The editing of this movie was delicate. Both Daldry, who spent time in Berlin in his teens and worked closely with German theater groups, and writer David Hare, Oscar nommed for “The Hours,” wanted to avoid the obvious pitfalls in adapting a Holocaust novel. The movie treads carefully on the issues of loving someone who is a monster and how the second generation in Germany dealt with their parents’ complicity with the Holocaust.
Hare refused to consider Weinstein’s suggestion of a first-person narrator in the adaptation of Schlink’s story, in which a man finally reveals the Big Secret of his 1950s youth: his first teenage love, the older woman Hanna, turns out to be a former Nazi concentration camp guard.
Nor did Hare consider “The Reader” to fall within that favored Oscar genre, the Holocaust film. The movie refuses, for example, to show Lena Olin, who plays a Holocaust survivor, as a victim.
She is wealthy, glamorous, powerful. “It’s not a Holocaust movie,” Hare insists. “It’s about how do people live in the shadow of the great crime? I wanted for once on film to show someone who has come through strong, and made a completely different life.”
Daldry and Hare adamantly resisted easy closure. “Hanna, in any other conventional ‘weepy’ picture would be redeemed at the end of the film,” Hare says. “But she’s not redeemed. She never comes to terms with what she did.”
In the end, it remains to be seen if the rushed year-end release was in the film’s best interest.