A: Hello, Stephen. How are you feeling today? Or more appropriately, how did you feel on January 22?
SD: Well, I can’t complain. It always feels good to be an Oscar nominee.
A: Not just any Oscar nominee, you obviously know. I believe you may be the only director to ever be nominated for three Oscars for his first movies!
SD: Oh thank you. I’d like to say that I planned it that way, but I certainly didn’t.
A: Was the nomination for The Reader a surprise to you?
SD: Well, wasn’t it a surprise for everyone? This movie was getting wildly mixed reviews from different critics, so I had no idea what to expect. And the release of the film was so rushed and there was so much controversy over Kate having two movies out at the same time. I try and stay out of all that happens after I make the movie.
A: What was your interaction with Harvey Weinstein like? The media makes him out to be a shrewd, calculating marketing genius.
SD: Well, he’s certainly shrewd. I will give you that. It’s funny that all three of us – Harvey, Scott [Rudin] and I – wanted the same thing. We were all looking out for the best interest of the movie. It was sort of like the three of us were going through a rough patch in our marriage and we had to keep our tempers on hold for the sake of our baby. I was not willing to release The Reader in a sub-par format and Harvey was not willing to release the movie at a time when it would make no money.
A: Can you give us any insider information on why Scott Rudin bowed out of the film? The rumor mills are saying it was because he had to choose between Revolutionary Road and The Reader and he went with Revolutionary Road.
SD: Much of that is speculation, but all I want to say is that Rudin is listed as a producer for Doubt as well. When you are involved in as many movies as Rudin is per year, you will always run into the problems of playing favorites. I think the dispute over The Reader had other political groundings that I really don’t feel comfortable commenting on.
A: Can you tell us about why you chose The Reader as your third feature film?
SD: I love literary adaptations and when David Hare signed on to be the screenwriter, I knew it would be given justice. I was eager to visualize his words again after working with him on The Hours. Also, I felt that the movie had an important message and profound talking points.
A: It actually may have had too many talking points. As I was watching the movie, I couldn’t figure out if this movie was about an unusual romance, about literacy or about the Holocaust.
SD: Can it not be all of those things?
A: Sure, but the first half and the second half seemed like they were two separate movies.
SD: Well, they were two episodes in the life of Hanna Schmitz, but it is all one life, so I cannot see how they are separate. If you view the movie as a character essay on Hanna’s life and analyze her motives for doing the things she does, everything will fall into place. The movie can be about those three things you mentioned, but at the same time, they are not about any of those three things specifically.
A: Since you bring up motives, a lot of criticism has erupted over both Hanna’s motives for seducing the young Michael Berg and her motives for letting the 300 Jewish women burn. Can you comment?
SD: I don’t think Hanna has her own morality. As the director, I was not trying to justify the actions of Nazi guards, but rather just delve into this woman’s psyche. In the post-World War I era, Germany was in such a state of despair and disillusionment that people were fighting for jobs and very willing to simply take orders as long as it put food on the plates. As evidenced in the courtroom scene, Hanna’s reason for not unlocking the gates was because she could not let the women escape; that was exactly what her job was supposed to prevent. So, the question becomes do we fault Hanna for being blind to the genocide she was part of or do we find her guilty of being anti-semitic?
Similarly, the morality of bedding a sixteen-year-old boy did not play any role in Hanna and Michael’s affair. As far as Hanna was concerned, Michael was a “kid” and lover that showed interest in her. In the scene where Hanna first bathes Michael, she looks down at him and says “..so that’s why you came back.” Both of their intentions were known at that point. Everything was hanging out in the open so to speak. It was not like Hanna was attempting to seduce Michael or take advantage of him clandestinely. A lot of the controversies over the sex scenes, I believe, come from American prudishness or just the uncomfortableness people feel when they see an older woman with this young boy. As a director, though, my goal is never to make a comfortable film and so the fact that this film is getting people uncomfortable, getting people talking means that I did my job. I hope people are not just saying they think these things wrong, but really take time to analyze why their morals are shaped the way they are.
A: So you find nothing wrong with a woman in her 30s sleeping with a sixteen year old boy?
SD: I think we are too traditional with our definitions of appropriate relationships. Michael and Hanna made each other happy. They provided each other with things the other needed. Isn’t that all it should take to make a relationship work?
A: Do your own personal relationships have an effect on the way you see other relationships?
SD: Certainly, my personal life affects my opinions and as much as I try to separate that from my work, some will spill over. I am a gay man with a fulfilling romantic and sexual relationship with my wife, so yes, I know a thing or two about unusual relationships. I still stand by my statement that as long as all parties involved are mutually benefiting, there is nothing wrong.
A: Both The Hours and The Reader are very different in tone from your first feature, Billy Elliot. Do you see yourself sticking to dramas or will you make another light-hearted feature?
SD: The Hours and The Reader were certainly grimmer than Billy Elliot, but I disagree that Billy Elliot is light-hearted. Sure, there was much music and dancing but there were deep, universal themes in the film. Billy Elliot was as much about escaping the world one is confined to as The Hours was about the inability to do so. I think it is very important for people to not let societal pressures be the barrier to keep you from living the life you think you are destined for and I try to embody that theme in all my work. Too many people in this world are unhappy. If you are one of the lucky ones to know what it is you need to do to make yourself happy, whether it is dancing, getting out of suburban life or learning to read, by golly go and do it. We have become so in love with conforming that we have become afraid of making ourselves happy.
A: In The Reader, Hanna does teach herself how to read, yet she is not happy. How do you explain that?
SD: Well, one of the things I liked about The Reader is that Hanna is a dynamic character. I truly believe she had time to do a lot of soul-searching in prison. At the time of the court scenes, Hanna felt no remorse, but I believe she formed a guilt she could not live with in prison. When Michael came to see her the week before she was to be released, Hanna saw the lingering disapproval and intentional distance Michael was keeping from her. Hanna literally had nothing but her guilt to keep her company.
A: This year, you have directed your fourth actress to an Oscar nomination – Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and now Kate Winslet. How do you know women so well?
SD: Haha, I wouldn’t say I understand women. Much of my success in that department has come from the screenwriters writing such compelling characters for these talented actresses to bring to life. Not every woman is a happy housewife sex object. Women have as many layers as men do. A good example would be the relatively simple role of ballet instructor that Julie brought to life. She understood something about the very blue-collar environment in which her character lived and infused that culture into all her actions.
A: Well, that was certainly a more sensitive answer than Melvin Udall [from As Good As It Gets] gave! Thank you for sitting for this interview and I wish you the best of luck on Oscar night and on your next feature. You know I will be there!