With famed Academy Award winning actress Helen Mirren receiving a
special honor from the World Jewish Congress in front of Gustav Klimt's
The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 now housed at New York's
Neue Galerie and the basis of the film Woman in Gold her role
as Maria Altmann comes full circle.
The event featuring speeches by Mirren and
Lauder, celebrates Mirren's portrayal of Maria Altmann, the
Austrian-American woman who won headlines for her legal battle against
the Austrian government to reclaim five Klimt paintings including the
painting of Altmann's aunt, stolen from her family by the Nazis during
But then, British director Simon Curtis has an
uncanny and outsized skill at revealing history judging by the two
theatrically release features he's directed. The first, My Week with
Marilyn, collated Colin Clark's two diary accounts about his time
with Marilyn Monroe The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My
Week with Marilyn into an award-winning film.
The second, Woman In Gold, follows the
travails and triumph of Jewish survivor Altmann, who resolves to recover
family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt's famous
painting a portrait of her beautiful aunt.
When the Nazis shipped off her family and
friends off to the death camps, they confiscated their property; she
fortunately fled Vienna during World War II before they caught her as
Sixty years later, an elderly Altmann starts a
quest with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg
(Ryan Reynolds). This voyage takes them all the way from battling
Austria's establishment to the US Supreme Court, and forces her to
confront difficult truths about the past.
In both films, the 56-year-old Curtis starts
with high-profile scenarios that people understand only through broad
strokes and personalizes them through carefully rendered characters.
Maybe his experience in directing British actors for theater and
dramatic BBC series lends itself to creating such subtle portraits.
Appropriately first screened in the Berlinale
Special Galas section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival,
the film has gathered fans steadily and deliberately. But now that the
Woman In Gold DVD has just been released, audiences can bring the
film home for repeated viewings.
to work as an assistant for Helen Mirren a while back. What was that
Well, she said I made a very good cup of tea
quite a while since you last worked with her. How did you manage to
cast her in this role?
You don't have to be a genius to go off the
edge and [commit] murder when you're casting this part of Maria Altmann.
There [just] aren't as many actresses of her stature at her age . We
believe her as this woman that's like herself, who has lived in Europe
and then lived in California for the second half of her life. She's an
incredibly smart, talented actress. I was ecstatic when she said she
would [do the part].
have two great leads with Ryan Reynolds uncharacteristically playing
this serious character of Randy, but there a lot of other great actors
in the film as well. Was it hard getting everyone on board and on the
just responded to the material. I called in a lot of favors, like
getting [the classical British actor] Jonathan Pryce to play the Supreme
Court judge. Tatiana Maslany [who plays the young Maria Altmann] is one
of the greatest actors I ever worked with; she's just phenomenal in [the
Canadian produced, BBC America series] Orphan Black. It was
thrilling for me working with all these great German actors who I hadn't
worked with before like Daniel Brühl, Moritz Bleibtreu and Antje Traue.
such great choices in these German actors; they were a great picks.
I was determined to have their parts played in
German as well.
it working with writer Alexi Kaye Campbell?
Alexi did a brilliant job with the story. We
had to cram a whole century into the story. Alexi did a job fulfilling
that while making an accessible and entertaining film. He was a very
well-known playwright in the UK, and had done a lot of work that spanned
different time periods. He was brave enough to take on what is quite a
dense and complex story and turn it into something hopefully accessible
must have been hard to get a script together, with this complicated
premise and narrative strands in different time periods?
I would say it was very hard. We went through a
lot of drafts over a lot of years. It worked as it usually does. We met.
I'd give notes. He'd go away and do another draft.
in three different countries, were there difficulties in raising the
It was expensive to make for that reason, but
both the films we made were developed by BBC Films. When I cast the
leading actress, Harvey [Weinstein] and the Weinstein Company became
involved. So that really took care of it. This film meant a great deal
to me personally, but it also meant a great deal to Harvey personally as
well. He was incredibly supportive all the way through.
story goes, you saw a BBC documentary on Maria Altmann and that led to
you making this film. What was the fascination with her?
I don't know. I'm from a Jewish family myself.
That idea of leading on with your life but still honoring the past. The
idea of this couple, Helen and Ryan, taking on the campaign, taking on
the whole government, it means a great deal to me. I was so lucky with
the casting of Helen and Ryan because they adore each other. They
brought some humor and wit to the film that it needed.
your own background influence your approach to this film? How did you
approach the Jewish community in order to tackle this project?
My family was in Britain before the Holocaust,
so I don't have any Holocaust stories in my family. But I obviously
identify with that family and community in Vienna, that powerful, happy
community that was, literally, destroyed overnight. That meant a great
deal to me. I suppose there are certainly women in my family who remind
me of Maria... or the other way around. I feel connected to my family's
past, but don't know too much about it. I was very struck when I read
about it. Maria's wedding was the last big Jewish social event before
the Nazis arrived in Vienna. I felt that was very powerful, that sense
of this mighty family and that its days were numbered.
did you discuss with Helen about the psychology of being her character
being a survivor?
Obviously neither of us met Maria, because she
died before we started making the film, but there's a lot on video tape
and at the Holocaust Museum. She is interviewed talking about it as part
of that documentary Steven Spielberg made [Shoah]. Also, like a
lot of people that have been through something horrific, they don't talk
about it all the time. We tried to get that ambivalence. In the film
she's sometimes very keen to pursue the case and sometimes she's keen to
let it go. We wanted to get that real sort of inconsistency which would
be psychologically true to that experience.
prickly personality we see in the movie at all in the videos?
Not so much, but Randy Schoenberg, who was an
advisor on the film [and grandson of the famed Austrian Jewish composer
Arnold Schoenberg who escaped the Nazis], knew her pretty well and it
clearly was her modus operandi.
influence did you had on the visual style of the film?
I was very lucky with my Director of
Photography, Ross Emery. We talked about it a lot, because the film was
in three time zones. We caught the golden period that Klimt is painting
in, the past in 1938, which is dark and desaturated, and the modern
journey for Helen and Ryan to California and back. We wanted each to
have a slightly different pallet.
the challenges in finding the right place with the right look?
More of the interiors were shot in London and
none of the film is shot in London, so that's quite a challenge. Vienna
is like a dream place to film, they were very welcoming to us. It was
phenomenal to be on the actual streets. It's a very beautiful city. We
filmed them on the steps of the actual art institute where Hitler was
rejected, so it all has great meaning. Then we did a week in Los
Angeles, and I wanted it to be non-showbiz LA, which I think we pulled
was it working with Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer?
Zimmer and [co-composer Martin] Phipps had
never worked together before, but they're geniuses. They identified with
this story. We didn't want it to be a sappy score, we wanted it to sound
like a thriller to drive the film on. It was a great honor for me to
work with Hans Zimmer.
a unique relationship with one of the actresses in this film, Elizabeth
McGovern, given that she's your wife. Were there hesitations in casting
her in this film she plays Judge Florence-Marie Cooper or did you
think that would keep the budget down?
It was actually very problematic, because she's
in a show called Downton Abbey, and we had to make the schedule
work for both. She's the daughter of a law professor in LA, playing a
judge in LA, where she's from, so I can't think of anyone in the world
better to cast.
have a conversation with Helen about the fact that she's married to a
director award winning Taylor Hackford and you're married to an
We did, actually, and we agreed that a director
and an actress working together while married is a wonderful and
have its daunting moments.
Sometimes it's great, and sometimes it's
Elizabeth ever give you advice? Or do you give her advice?
Well you can't go home and slag off your
leading lady and she can't go home and slag off her director. Well, she
can, but I rather she didn't.
have a favorite painting by Klimt?
have to say, The Woman in Gold, since we've [all] been looking at
it for so long.
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