The culmination of our dedicated coverage of The Reader — from Rudin/Weinstein blow-ups to Oscar prognoses to its sexual audacity — arrived this weekend when director Stephen Daldry phoned Defamer HQ. "Sorry, I overslept," he said in his dignified brogue — a forgivable lapse under the circumstances, with his Kate Winslet film following his Billy Elliot stage adaptation by mere weeks on his late-'08 calendar. Nevertheless, we got him properly caffeinated and settled in for a rousing installment of Five Questions (plus one, just for appropriate awards-season breadth):
DEFAMER: There's a legend that Harvey Weinstein dispatched an associate to buy the rights to The Reader, saying not to come back without them. How soon after you were familiar with the book did you know you wanted to direct its adaptation?
STEPHEN DALDRY: Just as soon as I read the book. It was not immediately after it was published; it was a couple of years later. I immediately started to phone up to see who had the rights, and it was my old friend Anthony Minghella. I asked what he wanted to do with it, and he said he wanted to do it himself — write and direct it. And so I kept badgering him over the years: "Are you going to make it, or are you not? What's happening?" I think in the end Anthony realized he wan't going to get around to it for at least a few more years, and he felt a responsibility to [author Bernhard] Schlink to get it made at some point. He eventualy relented very generously and allowed me to make it, with him and [Minghella's producing partner] Sydney Pollack.
D: 36-year-old Hanna's seduction of 15-year-old Michael has proven pretty controversial in the last week, essentially hijacking the discussion of why these two have a relationship in the first place. Do you resent that the conversation has taken that turn?
SD: It's funny, isn't it? Did you watch Mr. Schlink's interview with Oprah Winfrey when the book first came out? The first thing Oprah started talking about was the abuse. Interestingly enough in that interview, it took Mr. Schlink some time before he realized that what Oprah was talking about was not the atrocities Hanna was involved in, but rather the abuse of a 15-year-old boy. He was slightly taken aback, and later said, "This seems to be a peculiarly American question."
But the key element of that relationship is the sins of of the past — not the sins of the relationship. Does the boy love her profoundly and maybe too much because it's his first love? Yes, he probably does. Should she be involved with a 15-year-old boy? Inevitably, different cultures will have different ideas about that. And I do understand that it's a bigger moral issue in America than it might be in other societies. Having said that, I think I'd be disingenuous if I didn't say yes — there is a controlling element about a 36-year-old woman having a relationship with a 15-year-old boy. But I don't think the subject of this story is child abuse. And of course he's not a child; he's going on a 16-year-old sexual being.
D: At least it's deflected some attention from the Scott Rudin/Harvey Weinstein meltdown a couple months ago. As the filmmaker, what was your impression of that imbroglio at the time, and how do you think it impacted the final product?
SD: I don't think it did impact the final product. It's funny, isn't it? I spent two years on this. People talk about the sex scenes, and we took two days shooting those. People talk about the argument between Harvey and Scott, and that took two weeks. In the overall scheme of things, these aren't necessarily pivotal moments for me. In finishing the film, we absolutely did need more time, and Scott was absolutely fantastic — and in the end, so was Harvey — in getting a solution that we were all very happy with. So the fact that subsequently, Harvey and Scott couldn't get on, was a sadness for those two. But it came to a very happy resolution for me.
D: These guys tangled over your film The Hours, too. Did you ever see this coming, or at least have any reassurances early on that such pyrotechnics could be avoided on The Reader?
SD: Yeah, I've been through it with them, and I know how they do it; they have a good old time! I'm just being ridiculous, but yes — they have a combative relationship. There certainly wasn't a creative burden. It was more a practical point about resources and time. And neither of those two were my immediate producers. My immediate producers were Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack.
D: What was your reaction when Rudin took his name off the film?
SD: I thought it was absolutely the best thing for him, given the potential meltdown those two were heading into on a personal level.
D: To what extent do distractions like these — especially all the awards-race politics — rattle your faith as a filmmaker?
SD: It's only in the United States. To be frank, the discussion only happens when I get to Los Angeles. I'm sure that the infighting on movies is much more interesting here than it is anywhere else in the world. You have to take it all with a big pinch of salt. I don't think one can worry too much about it. It would, again, be disingenuous of me if I suggested that I'm not aware there's a marketing advantage to the so-called "awards season." But I think that one has to perceive it as a marketing exercise, not get caught up in the idea that it's too important. I don't come to Los Angeles very much, but what's great about it is that everybody's sort of here, and it's like a mini-film festival. Everybody's rushing from screening to screening, and you meet your friends, and there's something rather collegiate about it — not a competition. It's rather lovely.