With a backstory that provided more drama than the average WWII movie, “The Reader” not long ago seemed destined to be remembered more for its troubled production than for any awards season accolades.
Yet the film now stands as one of the five best picture Oscar nominees and boasts an additional four mentions, including Kate Winslet’s nomination in the actress category.
From the onset, “The Reader” faced obstacles of the sort that often deep-six a production. Nicole Kidman, originally cast as the flawed heroine Hanna Schmitz, dropped out — the official reason was she was pregnant, though insiders suggested it was because “Australia” was running over schedule.
One of the film’s producers, Anthony Minghella — who was originally attached as director — died while the film was lensing. Sydney Pollack, who also served as producer, died before the German shoot wrapped. And cinematographer Roger Deakins left midway through production to meet a prior commitment and was replaced by Chris Menges.
All this predates the epic battle between producer Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein over the pic’s release date. Rudin eventually removed his name from the film. Winslet, who replaced Kidman, found herself in the awkward position of jockeying for actress consideration for both “The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road,” the latter helmed by her husband, Sam Mendes.
Another battle ensued when Weinstein requested that a voiceover accompany the pic; director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare adamantly refused throughout the film’s development and production and eventually prevailed.
“At the risk of killing whatever image I had of toughness, I admit I cried today for the first time (after a best picture nomination),” said Weinstein, who optioned Bernhard Schlink’s international bestseller 13 years ago and thus began the film’s long journey to the bigscreen. “I can only think that Anthony and Sydney were upstairs making it right for us.”
Weinstein faced an uphill battle to the nomination. The critics were divided over the film, with the New York Times ripping it as a film that “monumentalizes every trembling lip and fluttering eyelash, turning human gestures into Kodak moments.” Still, Weinstein says audiences responded to the film, from the first early cut, prompting the mercurial mogul to push full steam ahead.
The key to nabbing a best picture nomination was aggressively luring Academy members into the theater.
“We overscreened the movie,” Weinstein explained. “From the week before the Golden Globes until Monday, when Oscar balloting closed, we had 20 screenings. And this is for people who already had the DVD. We knew that if we could get Academy members to see it in the theater, we would prevail.”
Donna Gigliotti, who produced both “The Reader” and Weinstein’s surprise Oscar best picture winner “Shakespeare in Love,” added, “He has the same approach every time: People have got to see your movie.”
“The Reader” beat two Rudin-produced hopefuls — “Revolutionary Road” and “Doubt” — for a best picture slot. But Weinstein insisted that there are no hard feelings between him and the producer.
“He has been gracious throughout the campaign,” said Weinstein, who noted that he hadn’t received a congratulatory call yet from Rudin but expected to. “His babies are ‘Doubt’ and ‘Revolutionary Road,’ so I totally understand why he did what he did.”
Nevertheless, Weinstein and Gigliotti admitted the development, production and marketing of the film has been a long, strange trip.
“What a way to end it, and it’s not over yet,” said Weinstein, noting that he received more calls and emails this time around than for the other 16 instances his films have been nominated for best picture. “The making of the movie actually sounds like a (Minghella) screenplay.”