RT Interview: Reading The Reader with Stephen Daldry

The Oscar-nominated director on making and interpreting his controversial drama.

Stephen Daldry - Jim Spellman/WireImage

In bringing the best-selling German novel The Reader to the big screen, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) had more than a few hurdles to overcome -- breaks in production, the recasting of his lead character, headline-grabbing in-fighting between executive producers Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein, and the tragic loss of producers and mentors Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. But somehow, the veteran stage director pulled it all together to earn a Best Director nomination for this weekend's Academy Awards, where his film is up for honors in five major categories.

Rotten Tomatoes spoke to Stephen Daldry about The Reader's tumultuous road to completion (once meant to be a starring vehicle for Nicole Kidman, it has now garnered star Kate Winslet the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, numerous critics' awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Daldry took us into the making of his film, explaining how he and writer David Hare solved the tricky problems of adapting Bernhard Schlink's novel and why, despite the objections of some vocal critics, the film's depiction of nudity and eroticism was integral to the story --- one that, according to him, was never meant to be taken as a "Holocaust film."

The Reader took a long time to complete, with a production that weathered many changes. Can you explain what hindered you the most?

Stephen Daldry: I'd originally asked Kate Winslet to play the part and she wasn't available because of Revolutionary Road, so Nicole Kidman was playing the part. Then Nicole left because of pregnancy, and we had a hiatus while I went back to Kate, who agreed, because she was then free. We had a few months while I was rehearsing with Kate to then fully explore the footage --- we'd shot about seven weeks at that point, so we'd shot quite a substantial amount of the film.

And because of this you had not one, but two acclaimed cinematographers work on the picture.

SD: I started out with Roger, and then once Nicole got pregnant he had to leave to do another job. We went to my old friend and Roger's old friend, Chris Menges; those two know each other really well, which I think was one of the reasons why the cinematic language of the film, the photography of the film, feels quite seamless. And then Chris took over.

During production you lost two of your producers, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. Where in your film can you feel their impact the most?

SD: I think their primary involvement was in the preparation of the movie, both in terms of cast and in terms of script. They were fantastically, and wonderfully, supportive and challenging right through those two difficult processes. And wonderful friends. I think the great thing about the both of them as filmmakers-turned-producers is that they always were keen and considerate in trying to get me to make the best film I wanted to make, rather than trying to impose the film they wanted to make.

What kind of scripting advice or notes did they give?

SD: David Hare, the screenwriter, and I sat down with both Anthony and Sydney on numerous occasions, sitting down working our way through issues with the script -- everything from narrative structure to how to create a context for a discursive element. In other words, what actually the end became a seminar group, so that we have a context in which to discuss the issues.

You have said that you chose your themes in the editing process. How does this work?

SD:One of the great joys about having so long to edit was that we had the opportunity to investigate --- not to choose, but to investigate --- themes, so that you could investigate characters and ideas that weren't necessarily narratively driven, but also thematically driven. That's also due to the interest and collaborative nature of my wonderful editor, Claire Simpson. So you could really delve into subjects and ideas, and really push the envelope on different ideas in the script, and in what we filmed, to explore them fully.

And you do that after you've filmed, instead of having it planned out beforehand?

SD: Well, there are three different processes of making a film, of course. They're sort of re-written three times. You write it to start with, and then you shoot it and you re-write it while shooting and you sort of re-write it as you edit. The advantage of the production rhythm that we had on this was that you could edit during the process of filming, because of our hiatuses. And so what started out as a challenge became a wonderful opportunity.

Next: On Danny Boyle's concept of the "imperfect film"