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How YA Bestseller 'The Book Thief' Got Made Into a Studio Film: With Difficulty, and John Williams (TRAILER)

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
November 7, 2013 3:54 PM
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Sophie Nelisse in "The Book Thief"

You know things have come to a pretty pass when a movie like "The Book Thief" looks wrong coming from a major studio. How did it get made? Well, it took a while. And the success of "Life of Pi," another gamble from Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, who willed that movie into existence, helped to push this one forward after six years of development.

It helped that "The Book Thief," produced by studio veteran Karen Rosenfelt and her partner Ken Blancato, was based on a global Young Adult bestseller that stayed on the NYTimes list for seven years. (And the movie tie-in edition is there again.) What made it tough to make? It's a World War II period heart-tugger narrated by Death about an heroic little girl (French-Canadian Sophie Nelisse, who starred in Oscar nominee "Monsieur Lazhar") who comes to adore not only her adoptive parents (well-played by Australian Geoffrey Rush and Brit Emily Watson, both Oscar perennials) but the Jewish refugee (New York newcomer Ben Schnezter) they harbor in their basement. Discovery could get them all killed.

'The Book Thief'

The movie, directed by "Downton Abbey" veteran Brian Percival, would seem to be a natural for fall film festival play but was finished too late--it debuted at the Mill Valley Film Fest (our review is here, Rotten Tomatoes here). Modestly budgeted at just under $20 million, this well-made and acted drama pitched at the global market will open November 8. While Fox is pushing it for Oscar consideration, the most important thing is that audiences go to see it so that studios won't continue to be afraid to make these old-fashioned mainstream stories.

Anne Thompson: The stakes are high for this sort of movie. 

Elizabeth Gabler: I realized how horrible it would have been for all of us if it hadn't worked because it would have meant you couldn't try new things. As a studio executive I couldn't champion something I believed in and fought for and made if no one went. That "The Book Thief" did get the reception it did is so gratifying and it gives us a chance to try again.

Over at Fox 2000 you have such a track record. Explain why movies like this don't get made.

Gabler: They are difficult to get made because they are delicate creatures. They require actually perfect execution. Nothing is ever perfect, things always could be different, but they definitely require a high level of execution both on a performance level, and an aesthetic level. Every element of the movie has to reach out to a global world. We have to be cognizant of the fact that it's not just the domestic United States and Canada territory anymore. This film actually had the benefit of what we hope is going to be an international audience and speak to people of all ages. The benefit of this project is that it's based on a book that has been on the bestseller list as a YA book for the past seven years. Thankfully, Sunday it's going to be number one again. The publishing industry and the film industry are working hand-in-hand, and we're going to see it a lot I think over the weeks, with "The Hunger Games." There are just so many great adaptations.

Karen, talk about developing the book.

Karen Rosenfelt: I had just finished "The Devil Wears Prada" and I was at a Starbucks, and there was a discarded Wall Street Journal that I picked up to read. There was a small blurb describing this as the first YA book from Little Brown. It was such a bizarre idea for a young adult book to be told from the point-of-view of Death. I read it that weekend and gave it to Ken and we both shared our passion for it and couldn't get it out of our minds. We thought to ourselves, 'is it a movie, or isn't it?' But we called Elizabeth that Monday and I could just see her face as I'm telling her about this book. Our relationship with Elizabeth goes back through the years. We were secretaries at ICM.

Gabler: We had a wonderful relationship as far as sharing. When someone's that passionate about something and they have such a track record and you just know they believe in something that fully, when you're in my job you support them, and say let's take a run for it.

Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nelisse in "The Book Thief"

Rosenfelt: Right before its publication we optioned the book and we hired an Australian screenwriter, Michael Petroni. We had one writer on this film, which is rare. We picked him pre-"Narnia." We had one draft, turned it in and Elizabeth loved it. She gave it to Tom [Rothman, then Fox co-chairman), who shared her passion, and told us immediately they want to make the movie when the time is right.

Gabler: In that time period, we were both doing really intense stuff and said, 'let's pick our battles.' How much of these kinds of challenges can you put on a studio system? I wanted it to be right for the movie too. I wanted it to be supported completely. We were watching that book stay on the bestseller list, so that made you realize it's been published in 30 languages.

Rosenfelt: You make a film once so you need the right Liesel at the center, you need the right filmmaker and the right cast, because a movie is forever. When you have an opportunity in this tough marketplace to make something like "The Book Thief," you owe it to everyone to make it under the right circumstances.

Why Sophie Nelisse for Liesel, and why director Brian Percival?

Rosenfelt: The casting process was far and wide. We looked at girls in England, the Scandinavian countries, Australia, North America, Germany and Canada. Markus Zusak, the author, had seen Sophie in the film "Monsieur Lazhar." He's a very unassuming individual and didn't want to put himself in the center of the filmmaking process. He had his agent contact us and said he thought he had found Liesel in Sophie. We then got hold of Sophie's French-Canadian agent. And what was really important to Brian, Ken, Elizabeth and I was that we had a Liesel that was vulnerable, feisty and could go from the age of 10 to 16 because we only wanted to have one actress play her. 

As we went through the processes, not only does it have to be right for that character but she's playing off of Max, Rudy and has to fit with her parents, so as we went through it, Sophie just kept emerging. We looked at her self-tape, we had her come out to Los Angeles. We then tested five actresses with the Rudy candidates and with the Max candidates, and that's how it came about. There was a lot of debate along the way, which is healthy.

Gabler: I was not sure about Sophie. The decision was very profound to me because I had to turn around to our marketing department and say this is the face that's going to launch our movie. It's a very, very critical decision and to be my fair, when we first saw her, it was months before her actual screen test. She was months younger, a little more awkward, and was just developing that luminescent quality that I think she has now. It wasn't until her actual screen test, which was done professionally and she had a chance to work on the scenes and really read through the script, that the true nature of her talent shone through enough to give me the confidence to say,' Okay.' But there were many conversations. 

Rosenfelt: When you have a partnership as close as Ken and I do with Elizabeth, it's healthy to have those kind of creative debates. 

Blancato: Sophie did it as a lark. She said on an iPhone audition that she and her brother put together. We showed it to Elizabeth, and she was totally right. She was having fun. Sophie wasn't there to get the role. She never thought she would get the role, to be honest. It was only after we started reading some things, she got more and more serious, that she fell in love, and you see that on the screen. She really made the transition. A lot of things always happen at the last minute.

I want to give you credit for letting this movie breathe. It has a deliberate pace, it's not rushing anywhere. It gets a lot done in two hours. We don't get to see movies like this anymore.

Gabler: You don't want it to be slow but it was very difficult to think of anything that wouldn't have damaged the fabric of the storyline [if we cut it]. It is a 600-page book. It's very rich, and there are a lot of sub-stories. Along the development process, the three of us with Michael Petroni had a lot of decisions to make. What's been most rewarding for us: the most passionate book readers feel the spirit has been maintained.

The danger of a movie like this is it could have gone over the edge of being too glossy or sentimental.

Blancato: Brian and I discussed that it had to be real. Because the first second you don't believe something is occurring onscreen, the movie is over, and you're going to resent it. While some people say it's a little underplayed, it's not really underplayed -- it's played as real. The events take place as they would happen in real life. Everything looks like real life. The house looks like people really live there. It's totally organic.

The movie is really about the power of words. It's cinema, but it's about words.

Rosenfelt: I think that translates universally, and if people walk away realizing the power, we've done our jobs.

Did the author base the book on anything real?

Rosenfelt: His mother and father are from Austria and Germany, and he settled in Sydney, Australia. He wrote it in English.

What are the biggest differences between the film and the book?

Rosenfelt: Hans and Rosa had two children prior and it was an undertone of a political situation between Hans Junior and Hans about what was going on in joining the party, so they became a childless couple, which is big. Also there was a neighbor who was very much involved with the Hubermanns and had her own set of problems and issues. That was a big decision but it's hard, you take 600 pages and distill it to 100 and then there was just some restructuring but the biggest challenge was to make sure tonally that it was about life-affirmation. When you say to someone, 'it's told from the point of view of Death,' it's something we all fear. Our hope was that at the end, while you cry you also laugh, you walk out maybe that much more comforted.

Why composer John Williams? I thought he didn't do music for anyone other than Spielberg.

Blancato: Originally we thought he was retired, so we kind of folded our tent, and then we got a phone call.

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