British director Simon Curtis has only technically helmed two feature films in is long career—MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, marking the first time many filmgoers ever got a look at Eddie Redmayne, and his latest, THE WOMAN IN GOLD, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Most of Curtis’ work has been for British television, including series, mini-series and made-for-TV movies, including a really strong adaptation of Charles Dickens’ DAVID COPPERFIELD, starring a pre-HARRY POTTER Daniel Radcliffe in his first-ever acting credit. Probably the first time I ever spotted his name was when he directed several episodes of the Tracey Ullman series “Tracey Takes On…” in the mid-1990s.
THE WOMAN IN GOLD is the true story of Maria Altmann (Mirren), an older Jewish woman who sued the Austrian government in an effort to reclaim paintings done by family friend and renowned artist Gustav Klimt, including one done of Altmann aunt, eventually re-titled “The Lady In Gold.” All of the painting were stolen by the Nazis in the early years of Nazi occupation, during which Altmann and her new husband managed to escape Austria for America. She enlists the help of a friend’s lawyer son, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), who takes her all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually to the Austrian government under part of their flimsy restitution policy. These events all happened in the early 2000s, and took up a great deal of time and money that Altmann simply didn’t have, but she did receive legal defense fund help from unlikely sources.
The film moves back and forth between Altmann’s more modern struggles and her idilic life in 1930s-era Austria, which was shattered forever by the Nazis. Her attempts to get back these painting are about justice and recapturing a part of her youth that was lost, and not surprisingly Mirren plays it beautifully, with Reynolds providing a surprising amount of dramatic heft to his part, while always remembering that sometimes humor needs to be brought in to lighten what could become an oppressive tone. Just minutes after a very moving screening of THE WOMAN IN GOLD (opening April 1), I had a chance to sit down with Curtis to talk about the impact and personal importance of the film to him. Please enjoy my talk with Simon Curtis…
Capone: I’m sure you’ve seen it now that you’ve done a few screenings like this…
Simon Curtis: It plays incredibly well.
Capone: There’s a lot of crying. A lot of emotion in the last 10-15 minutes.
SC: It’s interesting—Harvey [Weinstein] always talked about this—it plays like a thriller. There’s a tension to it. Then there’s this weird thing that happens. There’s this weird joke from the guy who says, “My daughter loves kangaroos.” It gets a huge laugh, and then for the next 10 minutes, anything that’s remotely funny gets a huge laugh. It’s like the release of tension. And then that last 10 minutes is intensely emotional. That scene totally transcends the Jewish experience—saying goodbye to your parents. Everybody can imagine that.
Capone: Especially in a film that has this much tension and this much heavy emotion, that humor is that valve that allows us to let off pent-up emotions.
SC: Sure, well you’ve heard that expression gallows humor.
Capone: I don’t know if that’s quite what this is.
SC: No, I know. I was making the point that people laugh in dire circumstances.
Capone: Definitely. This is not just a story about a painting; it’s a story about reclaiming one’s past and reclaiming one’s family and being able to look back on those moments without getting horrifically depressed and sad.
SC: We also tried to get, in Maria’s case, where sometimes she’s very gung ho about it, other times she’s resisting it. Sometimes she can handle it, sometimes she can’t. Sometimes when she sees a memory of her aunt giving her an ice cream, it’s a lovely experience. Sometimes it’s a terrible experience. We tried to get that complexity and ambiguity there.
Capone: It’s beautiful that she’s allowed to remember her whole life again and maybe not just be paralyzed by some of the events that shaped her life.
SC: Yeah. You get the impression that a lot of immigrant people that left in difficult circumstances don’t want to revisit it. They focus on their new lives. And I hope we got the impression across that Maria’s sister died, leaving her the last one standing. So that’s the moral drive to make some amends before she dies. Randy told me a story when they were sitting in the Supreme Court not expecting it to go their way, he said, “Whatever happens, we’ve told your story.” I thought that was very powerful.
Capone: It’s in the permanent record now. It’s a great moment. What do you hope people leave this movie thinking about? What do you want them to be aware of?
SC: I think a lot of different things. It teaches you to value your family. And I think all of us are here because grandpa met grandma. It’s all those things. Think about that. Particularly in modern culture, everything is so in your face; people don’t even look back a few years. So I think there’s that. And more importantly, that thing I said about the anti-semitism. World War II was arguably the greatest human catastrophe of all time within living people’s lifetime, and yet not a lot of people know about it. A lot of young school kids had never heard of the Holocaust. For me, I was born in the ’60s, as close to World War II as we are now to 9/11, and I had never really thought about that.
Capone: There’s a line that Maria has in the beginning about that…
SC: “People forget, especially the young.”
Capone: You mention at the end that Randy opened up a Holocaust museum in L.A. In my mind, I connect him doing that because of her statement.
SC: Good. That’s exactly right. And then also her father says “Remember us.”
Capone: We talked about the Berlin Film Festival premiere and the reactions there from the German press—and you said there were some Austrian press who saw it there as well. How was that received?
SC: It played in the room of 2,000 people. It was a really amazing experience. It was the first time we had seen that play as a real finished film with an audience in the heart of Berlin with this story, and it was an amazing night. The German distributor was ecstatic about the reviews.
Capone: Maybe the Germans were just happy that someone wasn’t pointing the finger at them for once.
SC: Well, that’s right. There is that German-Austrian thing.
Capone: In the aftermath of the events shown in your, did the whole “can of worms” argument actually come to fruition? There’s this whole idea that now everyone is going to come to reclaim their artwork. Did the flood gates open, in fact?
SC: Didn’t you read last week there was some Klimt mural, some verdict that did not go with the original owners? I don’t really know, because I just focus on my own story. But I would say in this case, this is a painting that her uncle paid Klimt to paint of her aunt, and it hung on the family wall. There was a really specific emotional connection to it.
Capone: Let’s talk about Helen Mirren. You worked on this on and off for many years. At what point in the process did you think Helen was the right person for this?
SC: You wait as long as possible to send the script out, because you want the script to be perfect—you have one shot with these people. It was a long time in development, but we got it to her quite soon before we filmed.
Capone: And with Ryan, how did his name cross your path? What made you think he was the right guy?
SC: You send it to the agencies, and if they like the script—and they did like this—they start to suggest people. I always liked his work, and I think Harvey and Ryan know each other from being neighbors or something. Harvey is a big fan of his. It just made sense. I met him, and he spoke about it beautifully. He’s by no means a look-a-like, but there’s this intelligence and sweetness. It’s funny, sometimes seeing an actor on the Letterman show is as important to me as their other work, because you see their essence and what their qualities are.
Capone: I’m actually a fan of Ryan Reynolds the dramatic actor. He doesn’t do it that often, but I’ve seen the ones that he’s done. I think he’s very good at it.
SC: I do too.
Capone: Talk about this story’s implications to you personally. How does it impact you on a more personal level of the story?
SC: I found it very emotional. I hope to one day love a story in a film as much as I love this one. There’s something about that way it links ’38 with ’98 that’s very important to me.
Capone: What are the lessons we can take from this that we can apply to the modern world?
SC: Well, I suppose one that’s not particularly comforting is that no one is totally safe. I stood in that apartment. It was being renovated so we couldn’t shoot in the real apartment, but I did actually get in, and I stood in that window looking in the Grand Viennese Square, and I thought, “If that was my apartment, I’d feel totally invulnerable.” And of course they weren’t. I think also just to stay beady and remember that you have the right to say no to certain things.
Capone: Watching some of those scenes of the Nazi rallies, and you have that one moment when Maria is verbally accosted by that guy in the modern day, I thought, “Have we learned anything from the upheaval of the 20th century?”
SC: I know. That’s the main point of it all. This is the 20th century informing the 21st century. “The past is asking something about the present.” That’s a line that Randy has.
Capone: Randy has seen the film? He was there at the premiere?
SC: Yeah. He’s seen it a lot now. I did screenings last week, and he’s doing a screening in L.A. tonight, actually. So he’s been very supportive.
Capone: When you’re dealing with a story about someone that is still alive, and you know you’re going to make some alterations and condense things, do you talk to him about that? Or does he sign off on it and trust you?
SC: Yeah. Every experience is different. In this case, what actually happened is we kept sending him the script and rewrites. We took his notes as well as everyone else’s notes. Not all of them, but he definitely had an opinion about the script. Actually, he left us alone and came to visit the set. But you know what it’s like on the set. You don’t know what’s going on. And then we showed him quite a late cut, actually. And he didn’t give us any notes at that point. He’s been wonderful. A real ally, actually, and definitely made the film better. We get two for the price of one, because he’s a legal expert as well as the real person.
Capone: So he can be a consultant.
SC: Yeah, and he helped us through all that legal stuff.
Capone: This is your second feature film. Did you approach this one differently than MARILYN?
SC: I took into MARILYN my team from the BBC. For this, I was working with people I had never worked with before.
Capone: Was that on purpose? Did you want to mix it up a little?
SC: Some of it was availability and things like that. I had [production designer] Jim Clay, who’s done a bunch of movies. It was great to work with him. Harvey suggested Ross Emery who was the DP who had done THE GIVER last year. That was a great experience working with him. And [composer] Hans Zimmer, of course.
Capone: You were talking before about filming in Vienna. Was that critical for you?
SC: Yes, it was. I felt very blessed. We did exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t mind where we did the interiors, but I wanted to do them in London, because that’s how you get Charles Dance or Elizabeth Perkins [Curtis’ real-life wife] or Jonathan Pryce, because they’re at home. There’s that phrase “It’s such a small part, it’s just a cough and a spit.” Jonathan said “This part isn’t a cough or a spit. What are you thinking?” But I thought it was great, because I wanted somebody who would intimidate Ryan, a big man, so Charles was very good at that. And I think it was a nice treat for the audience during the scene with the Supreme Court judges to see Jonathan come in. So I was keen to do that in London, but I wanted to do the exteriors in Vienna and Los Angeles, because the contrast between the architecture and the atmosphere of those cities seems to be what the film is about to me.
Capone: So the Supreme Court is in London?
SC: The interior was. It’s the Lord Mayor’s House.
Capone: We talked about this when you got here, but I remember seeing your DAVID COPPERFIELD on PBS here. I was watching for Bob Hoskins and Maggie Smith, but I remember this kid so well—Daniel Radcliffe. And when he showed up in the HARRY POTTER films, I was like, “Oh, that’s the David Copperfield kid.” I don’t think you don’t get enough credit for is landing him in his first role.
SC: I know. He was a school boy. He had never acted before. And Maggie Smith was the one who kept championing him for Harry Potter, because she was also in it. She was cast in HARRY POTTER, and they couldn’t find the boy for the longest time. I was also very proud of Eddie [Redmayne] as well, because MY WEEK WITH MARILYN was an important break for Eddie.
Capone: I loved him in that movie. Prior to that, he was playing such bizarre characters that I was having a really hard time figuring out why everyone was crazy about him. But I saw him in your movie, and I was like, “There he is.”
SC: I think they cast him in LES MIS the day they screened MARILYN.
Capone: I realize you still have to get this film out into the world, but do you have any ideas for what you’re going to do next?
SC: I have some ideas, but I’m just waiting on casting and everything else.
Capone: Are you going to continue in your tradition of features of doing true stories?
SC: This one is a true story, but it’s weird because on this level of filmmaking, true stories are the ones that get through the system—not entirely, obviously, but by and large. But this one is slightly different. I don’t want to say or tease you, because it could all fall apart next week. But actually what people don’t admit is that films on this level, they’re quite easy to finance, but they’re conditional on actors coming on. “Those three actors.” They say, “We’ll finance this film if you get A, B, or C.” So you’re at the mercy of A, B, and C. What usually happens is A and B will turn it down, so you’re just praying that C doesn’t. And basically the actors on the hot list are the ones deciding what films get made.
Capone: I’ve always heard it’s the mid-level budget films that are the hardest to get done, because if you’ve got a lot of money, you can pretty much get any actor you want.
SC: But actually actors want to do these sort of things, because they’re the ones that get nominations and that sort of thing.