“The Book Thief” is part of the literary tradition of kids growing up in the ordered chaos of the Holocaust. But unlike most of those stories, author Markus Zukus’s protagonist is not Jewish. Liesel Meminger, observes the horrors of WWII while living with her adoptive family, hiding a Jewish refugee in their basement.
The film adaptation of the novel is set to hit theaters Friday. The film stars Sophie Nelisse, 13, as Liesel, and Geoffrey Rush as her adoptive father, Hans. Hans teaches her to read and write at night as he helps her fall asleep. In turn, Liesel reads to Max, the refugee, played by Ben Schnetzer. The story is narrated by Death, who hates war, despite stereotypes. The movie was directed by Brian Percival, who directed “Downtown Abbey.”
The Miami Hurricane got the chance to talk to Nelisse, Percival and Zusak at a media event on Friday. See Nelisse discuss a fight scene, Zusak talk about his father’s WWII stories as inspiration, and Percival explain his decison to cast an unknown child as Liesel.
Media: You beat the snot out of that kid at the beginning of the movie … Can you remember anything about that day?
Sophie Nelisse: That was awesome. I remember he had a headache, so it wasn’t that fun for him but I was really happy to do that.
Brian Percival: He had to lie down after that.
SN: Yeah, he had to lie down, but I was ready for more. It was really fun to do something you don’t always get to do. Slapping and beating up someone.
Media: Do you think that being a gymnast helped you in any way?
SN: I think so, because for example if you’re doing a beam routine, and you’re doing a flip and then in the middle there’s a five-year-old that just runs through the beam and in that minute you’re not concentrated well, you could fall and get seriously injured.
So I think just being aware of what’s happening around you, and knowing your body really well and always being focused helped.
Media: If there was a character that you had to pick in the movie that you have to identify most with, what character would you choose?
BP: Probably Hans in some ways, I think because Geoffrey and I talked a lot about his approach and also the fact that Liesel comes into his life as in the film she comes into our life, in that sense we feel protective toward her and we’re on her side. It’s a really good question but it’s not an easy one. Obviously I’d imagine Sophie would say Liesel, I don’t know what Markus would say…
SN: I’d be actually a mixture of Hans, Rosa and Liesel.
BP: Oh that’s good!
SN: I’d be like hard a bit like Rosa sometimes with people I don’t really know and people that annoy me, I’d be like hard. I care a lot about people like Rosa at the end. And when I feel bad for someone, I’m kind of gentle and know how to speak to them. And then I’m kind of like Liesel in that I do a lot sports, I play mostly with guys, I’m kind of strong-minded.
Markus Zusak: For me it’s definitely Rosa. I now look at it as a parent where I’m always thinking to myself be more like Hans, but that’s not the role I’ve been assigned to in parenthood. I’m generally the “I’m not here to make friends” dad. My daughter, for whatever reason, is nice to everyone but any frustrations she has she takes out on me, so I have to be the tough one. I remember I saw the film for the first time, I thought, “Be more like Hans” and I started letting the kids get away with stuff and then I had to try the line and go alright “You sit there, you sit there and don’t move until I come back.” I often identify most with Rosa
Media: What inspired you to write this book and is there anything different in what you envisioned from the book to the screen?
MZ: It was stories my parents had told me about growing up during the war when they were very, very young, particularly after the war. All sorts of stories about that time that were different. Like my dad having to go to the young division of Hitler Youth and just thinking it was boring and saying “bugger, this. I’m not going to that” until threatening letters started arriving. Going from book to screen I was really open to being surprised, and handing it over. I wrote the book I really wanted to write and I followed every risk I wanted to take. And I wanted Brian and Karen and everyone involved with the film, right down to performances like Sophie and Geoffrey and Emily, I just wanted them to make it theirs.
Media: The transition from the book to the screen, is it everything you envisioned? Would you change anything?
MZ: It’s one of those things, no, it’s not everything I envisioned. There are some things in the book that aren’t in the film and there are some things in the film that aren’t in the book and I love that I idea. Those are some of my happiest moments in the film, the things that I didn’t write.
BP: Getting Sophie to kiss Niko in the last scene.
SN: The whole day crying all day, and then at the end, so let’s just go and kiss the guy that’s been for four months my little brother. Twelve takes which made it 24. What you guys don’t know is I had to kiss him twice in the scene. And then [Brian] only played it once. I was quite disappointed.
Media: This was your first English-speaking role, and probably your first international and lead role, did you feel intimidated?
SN: No, it just made me a little bit stressed. I was worried my performance might be bad and then the movie might be bad and then they blame it on me. But all the pressure went off after like one or two days. It was a lot of fun.
THM: Movies that involve children, so often cast the children in a condescending light. But what’s beautiful about this film is Liesel is not only the strongest and the main character, but also is in every respect an adult. How did you achieve that result?
BP: Well I think a common sort of fault is that people take child actors and try to make something that they’re not and what happens is you get a performance that is essentially that – a performance. My approach is to get the casting right can more or less play a version of themselves, it makes the casting far more difficult – we’ve seen over a thousand kids just for Sophie’s role, but once you find someone who for all intents and purposes is Liesel, once you find that person, then it allows them to create a performance, which is natural and honest. And it feels real. Rather then getting a really good stage kid, and me saying “stand there do this line, then walk over there and do that line,” I just allowed Sophie to be, because she is so special and so talented …
Media: Did you spend anytime with Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson outside of shooting the film in order to have the chemistry come through on screen?
SN: No, we didn’t need to do any bonding but we did rehearse which helped a lot. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen so it felt organic when we went on set. It felt natural like a real family.
Media: Did you take anything away from working with them?
SN: Watching them act and seeing how Emily is always so concentrated and stays into character all the time and you see Geoffrey who is completely the opposite. He’ll do the scene perfectly and when they say cut, he’ll do a magic scene. So it’s really great to see how they’re different but still both great actors.
TMH: There’s a quote in the book that says, “It’s much easier to be on the verge of something than to be actually in it.” In what way do you feel that you’re more on the verge than in the complete stage now?
MZ: It’s both. I feel like I’m at the very end of this now and when this is over I’m just gonna go home and disappear and finish my new book. It’s the perfect way to end. I can’t be the author of “The Book Thief” forever. I’ve gotta be the author of something else.
Media: How did it feel to see characters on screen?
MZ: It’s a bit surreal. Especially for me, Geoffrey Rush is pretty much Australia’s favorite actor. There’s such excitement in the little things I do. That Emily Watson moment when she gives that teacher that final stare – it’s one of my favorite moments in the film. It’s exciting to see people be experts in their field and bring their own magic.
Media: What’s your favorite part about writing?
MZ: When I write, I listen to my favorite CDs and I’m always waiting for my favorite song to come up, and I’ve just been writing in the morning and the CD finishes and I didn’t even hear my favorite song. That’s why I love writing.
“The Book Thief”
DIRECTOR: Brian Percival
STARRING: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer