Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It’s hard to name a screenwriter in Hollywood right now who is more successful than Dan Fogelman. Yet I found him to be unassuming and even slightly self-deprecating in an interview about his new comedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”—starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling—which he sold to Warner Brothers for an astounding $2.5 million. And, of course, he was hilariously funny.
Fogelman not only talked about “Crazy, Stupid, Love” opening July 29, but about growing up on the East Coast with a dad who helped found Babies"R"Us: “He was in the baby schmatte business,” Fogelman quipped. The screenwriter also discussed his predominantly Jewish summer day camp, Blue Rill in Monsey, NY, where he made the core adolescent friends who remain his best friends today; and the script that got him an agent—titled “Becoming a Man: The Horrifying Ordeal Otherwise Known as Robbie Levine’s Bar Mitzvah.”
Almost three years ago, Fogelman’s beloved mom, Joyce, died at 60 after being diagnosed with a massive tumor; she is the inspiration for Barbra Streisand’s character (also named Joyce) in Fogelman’s upcoming film, “My Mother’s Curse,” which just wrapped production.
“It’s completely about my mom,” Fogelman told me of the movie, which stars Seth Rogen as Barbra’s son, Andy, an inventor. “I took a cross-country road trip with my mother four years ago, before she got sick, as research for a film I wanted to do about a mother and son going on [such a] trip together. We drove from New Jersey to Vegas, so it was basically being locked in a car with your mom for two weeks.
“The autobiographical parts of the movie are two-fold: One, the character Barbra plays—not her story, but her character type—is very much based on my mom. She collects frogs almost religiously (my mom had always collected frogs); she’s obsessive about drinking six bottles of water a day and about Weight Watchers; and she’s got a group of yenta friends that she relies on heavily—that kind of stuff. And then the road trip itself is very much modeled after things that happened to my mom and I on the road. Like, we didn’t think that it would snow in Tennessee, but it did and we got stuck in a blizzard.
“The movie’s theme is basically when you discover that your parent isn’t just a parent but is actually a human being who had a life before you, and the same goes for a mother or a father. It’s the point in their lives when they realize their child is actually a grownup and they have got to let go a little bit.
“My mom and I were exceptionally close and I really, really dug her. But I couldn’t necessarily start in that place at the beginning of the movie, or the characters would have nowhere to go. So creative liberties were taken with the relationships, as in any movie.”
“Crazy, Stupid Love” opens July 29; “My Mother’s Curse” will hit theaters in 2012.
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July 21, 2011 | 7:21 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“It’s fascinating that you could construct a whole view of who you are, through no fault of your own, that’s absolutely wrong,” Aidan Quinn said of his character, William, in “Sarah’s Key,” opening July 22.
The fictional William is stunned to discover his true identity, in a film that tackles how the events of the Shoah continue to reverberate in the present. Based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel, the story is so wrenching that it should haunt even viewers jaded by so-called Holocaust movie fatigue. (Here’s my story on the journey from book to film.)
The drama cuts back and forth in time to tell of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris circa 2002, and Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance), a 10-year-old arrested with her parents by French police in the roundup of 13,000 Jews in July 1942.
Before being herded off for internment in the Velodrome d’Hiver, Sarah manages to hides her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him in their secret bedroom cupboard, promising she will return to release him. That promise will not only haunt Sarah, but decades later will come to obsess Jarmond, who is about to move into the Starzynskis’ old apartment. And it will ultimately envelop William (Quinn), who is horrified to learn of his own connection to the “Vel d’Hiv” roundup.
Quinn, a veteran of more than 70 films, was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” for the chance to play such a complex character – and for the way the film explores the previously taboo subject of French complicity in the Shoah. “France didn’t really admit this until 1995, when [then-President] Jacques Chirac made his famous speech on the site of the velodrome,” Quinn, 52, said from his New York home. “The Vel d’Hiv is a place the nation was in denial about for 50-something years.”
“It’s very important to deal with these kinds of national denials that go on in the culture,” Quinn (“An Early Frost,” “Legends of the Fall”) told The New York Times Syndicate. “There was a big one in Ireland, which was about sexual abuse and general abuse of orphans in institutions run by priests. We need to remind ourselves that we are capable of horrible behavior, and we need to be vigilant against it.”
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin (which has been controversial) represents the right kind of vigilance, Quinn told me: “It’s a fantastic placement of a monument, in the central area where all the tourists go, with all the embassies around it,” he said. “It’s a great example of placing something in such a way that it will become a constant reminder – with the embassies from all the other countries that were involved, having to look at it.”
Quinn, whose white-blue eyes convey an intensity mixed with vulnerability, began his career in 1984’s “Reckless,” opposite Daryl Hannah, and will next star as an NYPD detective in NBC’s upcoming “Prime Suspect.” He first came to the attention of Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the director of “Sarah’s Key,” for his turn opposite Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall.”
[SPOILER ALERT] When Paquet-Brenner was casting “Sarah’s Key,” something about Quinn’s expression reminded him of Mayance, the actress who plays Sarah – William’s mother – as a girl.
William is unprepared and mortified when Jarmond informs him that his late mother was, in fact, a Holocaust survivor; he had never known the story of Michel and his cupboard. “Getting over his denial is a huge effort for the character, who initially cannot take on the idea that his mother is Jewish and he is Jewish,” the actor said. The fury of his dissent perhaps stems from having somehow “genetically absorbed” his mother’s fear of persecution as “the other,” he added.
Quinn – who grew up with devout Catholic parents in Illinois and Ireland—has some understanding of the perception of Jews-as-other. While living in Ireland in the 1970s, he noted “the leftover of an implied anti-Semitism that comes from the catechism.
“With some of the older priests, brothers and nuns, it was kind of implied that there was something [about Jews as Christ-killers], and then there was the Shylock thing,” he said. “It was definitely in the culture at the time, although 95 percent of it was a non-issue because there were so few Jews in Ireland.”
As it so happened, the Quinns had a close Jewish friend in Dublin, “so we grew up with an Irish Jew as part of our family,” the actor said. “What distinguished him in my mind was his physical affection – which made him a very positive influence—because in my father’s generation of men there was not a lot of hugging or touching.”
Quinn, a veteran of more than 70 films, has often explored his heritage on screen, portraying an IRA leader in “Michael Collins,” for example. His 2003 film, “Song for a Raggy Boy,” exposes brutality and abuse in a Catholic orphanage in 1939.
Turning the conversation back to “Sarah’s Key,” he said, “Part of why we’re here is to try and learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen throughout the world. I think that’s a very important message.”
View Danielle Berrin’s videotaped Q & A of Gilles Paquet-Brenner here.
July 18, 2011 | 5:14 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Kristin Scott Thomas conjures images of the quintessentially British thespian, having portraying upper crust or reserved characters in films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The English Patient,” for which she received a 1997 Oscar nomination. In previous newspaper stories, writers also have described her as reserved.
But Scott Thomas was thoughtful, even passionate while discussing her new movie, “Sarah’s Key” (opening July 22), in which she portrays an American journalist living in Paris who uncovers secrets involving the Shoah. The actress has already earned stellar reviews for her emotional but never-maudlin performance in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film, adapted from Tatiana de Rosnay’s bestselling novel.
The drama cuts back and forth in time to tell the slowly intertwining stories of Julia Jarmond (Scott Thomas), an expatriate in Paris circa 2002, and Sarah Starzynski (Melusine Mayance), a 10-year-old arrested by the French police during the infamous “Vel d’Hiv” roundup of 1942. In July of that year, 13,000 Jews were corralled into the Velodrome d’Hiver and held in appalling conditions for several days before internment in transit camps, then Auschwitz.
Before being herded off with her parents, Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return to release him. That promise will not only torment Sarah, but will haunt Jarmond, who, while researching the little-known history of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, discovers that the apartment she is about to move into once belonged to the Starzynskis.
“I don’t see [‘Sarah’s Key’] as a Holocaust film,” said Scott Thomas, 51, who has lived in Paris almost all of her adult life. “While it takes place during this dark and dismal period in French history, I don’t see it as a reconstruction of a movie about what you would call the Holocaust. After watching Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah,’ for example, I’ve found most films reconstructing those events to be rather pitiful.”
Scott Thomas was drawn to “Sarah’s Key” because it “doesn’t just recreate events but explores how the past continues to affect the present.” And she has her own connection to the material. Her ex-husband, the renowned fertility doctor Francois Olivennes, is Jewish; they were married for 17 years and have three children. And her former mother-in-law, who was hidden as a child during the war and with whom Scott Thomas remains close, was active in an organization that placed memorial plaques around Paris.
Has the actress ever pondered what might have happened to her own half-Jewish children had they been alive during World War II? “Since they were born, I haven’t stopped thinking about it,” she said. “In Paris, you can walk down the street and see the plaques commemorating children who were taken from their schools, from orphanages, from hospitals – unbelieveable. If this were 1942, my family would be in hiding, terrified of being turned in.”
Aidan Quinn plays another expatriate who is swept up by Jarmond into Sarah’s heartbreaking story. “Part of why we’re here is to learn from how these things are allowed to happen, are manufactured to happen, and how they continue to happen throughout the world,” he said. “In ‘Sarah’s Key,’ we really burrow into our human behavior, and it’s an important message.”
The mark of the past on the present is prominent in Scott Thomas’ own life, which was irrevocably altered when her father, a pilot in the Royal Navy, died in an airplane crash when she was 5. The eldest of her siblings, Scott Thomas was warned not to cry lest it upset the younger children. Six years later, her stepfather, also a pilot, died in almost identical circumstances. “You survive terrible grief,” she said of the ordeal.
At 18, the aspiring actress enrolled in London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, but professors told her she wasn’t talented enough for the profession. In an attempt to leave unhappy memories behind her, Scott Thomas relocated to Paris, enrolled in a French drama school, and met Olivennes, whom, she has said, became “her rock” during periods of depression stemming from her childhood.
His extended family, which consisted largely of Holocaust survivors, provided her with a startling kind of education. In high school in England, Scott Thomas had learned little about the Final Solution: “It was not [considered] part of English history; certainly it wasn’t in our bones,” she said.
Her husband’s relatives “were people who had been in hiding during the war; who had survived or escaped camps; one branch of our family had actually caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said. “Every Sunday when we would have lunch together, all these stories would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories. Of course now many of these people have passed away, or if they are still alive, they’re in their 80s and 90s. But they really, really, really affected me,” she said with a sigh.
The survivors proved to be “fantastic role models” for how to live in the wake of tragedy: “I didn’t survive viciousness or anybody purposely injuring me and trying to ruin my life,” she clarified. “But I have survived great emotional suffering.” The Holocaust survivors impressed her with their will to endure and their “sense of the preciousness of life, which I found quite seductive in a way.”
Scott Thomas had long hoped to do a film that touched on the Shoah, but found the scripts she received “all turned out to be just a cheesy reproduction of events.” Then she read “Sarah’s Key” and met the film’s director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who was well aware of the dangers of Holocaust movie “fatigue.” He aimed to make a film that would resonate with younger generations, as well as a French public only beginning to acknowledge France’s role in the Final Solution.
“I personally would have had issues pretending to be suffering from [Nazi persecution] when I’m just an actress,” Scott Thomas said. “So when this project came along and had relevance to contemporary life, I fell in love with it. I didn’t want anyone else to do it. It was mine.”
It helped that Scott Thomas, in her words, “felt very close to the character,” who becomes estranged from her husband as Sarah’s story meshes with her own. “Julia is somebody who is reaching a crisis in her life, and I had separated from my husband [in 2005],” the actress said.
“Julia is battling with is her own sense of what her life is about, as well as the breakup of her marriage. Her search for the truth is her own way of making herself better, because she’s in such turmoil. She’s using this search for Sarah and Sarah’s life, as a kind of template for what her future will be.”
Before making “Sarah’s Key,” Scott Thomas visited concentration camps around Krakow with her three children and one of her Ex’s cousins, an 86-year-old survivor of numerous camps and a death march.
Her performance is strong but understated. “What I liked about the way Gilles Paquet-Brenner dealt with this subject was that he made it unsentimental and really quite tough,” she said.
July 15, 2011 | 8:40 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“Lucius Malfoy espouses the language of racism and eugenics,” said Jason Isaacs, the British actor who has portrayed the Muggle-loathing wizard supremacist in seven of the eight “Harry Potter” films, concluding with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II,” opening July 15.
With his long, blond hair, and imperious blue eyes, Lucius Malfoy – a henchman of the genocidal Lord Voldemort—has a Nazi-like obsession with the preservation of blood purity, disapproving of marriages between Muggles (mortals) and magic folk.
“But you don’t need to look to the Second World War for the concept that blood shouldn’t be mixed,” he said of his inspiration for the character. “You can look around the world today and see many politicians standing on that kind of anti-immigration, separatist, backwards-looking platform. There’s no shortage of right-wing politicians trying to make people feel more comfortable and superior in these times of great uncertainty and fear.
“It’s not like I don’t understand racism, fear, bigotry and ignorance,” he added. “Being Jewish, I think, has brought me a more nuanced perspective on it than most.”
“Potter” novelist J.K. Rowling has deliberately woven parallels to fascism into her magical tale; the affable, witty Isaacs, who began a Friday morning interview with a hearty “Good Shabbos,” had an up close and personal experience with fascist thugs as a boy. They were members of the National Front, back when he was a teenager in the 1970s and 80s: “I remember being chased with pickaxe handles and chains; windows being broken in youth clubs; and cowering inside a restaurant while people “Sieg Heiled” by the front door throwing bricks,” he said from his London home. “I remember running, often, when we gathered in groups, when people just would race up and try to beat up as many of us as possible. And this growing horror that even at my school, people were passing literature around appropriating the language of that kind of fascism, which was becoming mainstream [for a time].”
Lucius Malfoy may wield a wand rather than a pickaxe, but Isaac doesn’t regard him as evil. “He’s very vain, very entitled, arrogant; he comes from old money and old wizardry and thinks the world was a better place when things were simpler and more homogenous,” Isaacs said. “Much of his motivation comes from fear.”
The character’s flowing platinum locks, recalling Hitler’s blond Aryan ideal, was Isaacs’ idea. “Lucius wasn’t blond when I first turned up; sketches showed him with short, salt-and-pepper hair and a pinstriped suit,” he said. “But I thought, if I’m going to play a wizard once in my life, then let me dress up with all the toys in the dressing-up box.”
I spoke to Isaacs this morning as he was preparing to move on – literally – from the “Potter” films. First he will visit Comic-Con 2011 (July 21-24 in San Diego) to unveil his NBC series, “Awake,” in which he’ll star as a detective living in parallel universes. After that, he’ll spend a week visiting his parents, who now live in Israel, at their home near Tel Aviv. Then it’s back to England to pack up his wife and two young daughters in order to move to Los Angeles for “Awake.”
Here are further excerpts from my conversation with Isaacs, whose character receives his share of comeuppance in “Deathly Hallows: Part II” – including a slap on his face from a testy Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
NPM: You didn’t initially want to play Lucius Malfoy when filmmakers approached you about “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002).
JI: I was offered the role of Captain Hook in P.J. Hogan’s “Peter Pan” the same week, so I thought I shouldn’t play two children’s baddies. But then the phone just melted off the hook with people telling me I was being an idiot—particularly children who wanted to visit the Harry Potter set.
NPM: How would you describe the arc of your character, Malfoy, over the years?
JI: I’ve been lucky because Lucius has an actual journey throughout the films. Initially he’s so arrogant and he’s also a terrible father, which is why his son, Draco (Tom Felton) is such a bully. The most important thing to me when I first came along was to find a way, in the shortest possible period, to grate on everyone’s nerves. So I tried to come up with a voice that was like fingernails on a blackboard.
I was hoping Lucius would get his comeuppance at some point, and Jo [J.K.] Rowling is such a brilliant writer that she had Voldemort see right through him as the narcissistic, status-obsessed fool that he is. The ultimate insult is, Voldemort can’t even be bothered to kill Lucius; he takes my wand and snaps it, which is, basically, castration in front of my family and peers.
NPM: You’re played so many wonderful baddies, from Captain Hook to Col. William Tavington in “The Patriot,” opposite Mel Gibson. What’s the draw?
JI: Like most people I like to be liked, so every now and then to be able to let loose [on camera], to be utterly immoral and unethical and unconcerned about your effect on other people, is a great escape route. It allows you to alleviate any kind of resentment or rage that you may be bottling up.
NPM: Speaking of Mel Gibson, what’s been your take on his anti-Semitic remarks?
JI: When he had that anti-Semitic outburst against a police officer, he was drunk, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge people from when they’re drunk. He was, I think, embarrassed and horrified that he was A) drunk and B) anti-Semitic. He had come from the house of a Jewish friend of his, ironically, which doesn’t excuse what he did, but he apologized for it. And when I saw him some time afterwards, he apologized to me. I think you have to allow people to apologize and mean it and change their behavior, which I hope he had and did. The more recent stuff, I can’t be a judge off those tapes and the things that happened between him and his partner. My experience of him is that he was a lovely guy, and very complicated…Obviously he’s had terrible trouble recently and caused a lot of trouble and grief; I hope that he and all these people can get through it. I wish him well.
NPM: When I interviewed you back in 2000, you said you were low-key about being Jewish in the British press because “There is this sense that England can be a very xenophobic country; it’s not directed just at Jews but at anybody who isn’t the perceived version of what ‘Englishness’ is.” How do you feel about this today?
JI: America is a country that’s made up of its various different ethnic immigrant groups, and that’s its great glory. But that isn’t true of what it is to be English—and it isn’t even what I celebrate and love about being English, either. What we do here is, we all aim for the middle ground; that’s our attempt to bring peace to the land and get on with each other. So it’s partly that; I think I was also trying to express something that I understand better now 11 years on, which is: I hate reading stuff about actors…I like watching stories unfold knowing nothing about what’s going to happen or the people who are telling them. No one should be watching Lucius Malfoy going, “How interesting and ironic there’s a Jewish actor playing the part.”
NPM: You once did an episode of “Entourage,” which I find to be a very “Jewish” show.
JI: Many things set in Hollywood are going to have some Jewish content, because there’s a lot of Jews in Hollywood. I can’t pretend I don’t like that; it’s very comfortable for me. I live and move in a world here where there are very few Jews and I do very little Jewishly in my life [in England]. I’m a member of the artistic community, and we are deliberately rootless and tribeless; that’s what allows us to be who we are. But when I come to America, I suddenly feel, certainly in Los Angeles, infinitely more Jewish because it’s everywhere.
NPM: What’s it been like saying goodbye to Harry Potter this week?
JI? Absolutely awful.
At the premiere, they had to shut down Trafalgar Square [in London] probably for the first time since the victory in Europe [after World War II]; there was this enormous crowd of people both grieving and celebrating. But it’s been lovely—as one of the actors—to be able to give that much pleasure to people, and to be part of this film series that I think families will watch forever. It’s also nice that it’s over, because I’m not sure I could live quite in the glare of that white heat much longer.
July 14, 2011 | 4:52 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
As the final chapter in the boy wizard franchise “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” hits theatres July 15, producer David Heyman – who last spoke to me about his 2008 Holocaust film, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—will be closing a 12-year chapter of his life.
And what a chapter it has been.
First, convincing author J.K. Rowling to sell the movie rights to her bestselling novels, with the promise that he would remain faithful to her story and characters. Then discovering Daniel Radcliffe, after auditioning hundreds of prospective Harrys, while they were both attending a play, of all places. Hiring unexpected directors such as Alfonso Cuarón and David Yates to keep things fresh. And keeping the young cast together through eight films without anyone having a Britney Spears-type meltdown.
When I interviewed Heyman about “Pajamas” several years ago, he was giving his infant son a bath at their London home: “I do believe you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said at the time. (Now the boy is 3, and, reportedly, a Potter fan.)
While bathing his son, Heyman told me about the humble beginnings of what has become the most successful franchise in cinematic history: He had moved back to England in 1996 after some inauspicious years in Los Angeles and set up a modest office, Heyday Films, above a music shop in London. He had hoped to focus on adapting books for the silver screen, with projects that eschewed what he called “a ubiquitous Hollywood sensibility.”
It was at Heyday that a colleague chanced to read a review about a not-yet-published novel, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (its British title) and asked for a free copy in 1997. It was promptly tossed on the “low priority” shelf at the bottom of a bookcase.
“Then my secretary, who was fed up with the rubbish she had to read, remembered the good review, took the book home, and brought it up at a staff meeting. I said, ‘Bad title. What’s it about?’ And she said, ‘It’s about an 11-year-old who goes to wizard school.’ I thought that was a great idea, so I read it and fell in love.”
“I hadn’t a clue that the Potter books would become an international phenomenon,” Heyman continued, “but I loved the author’s voice, that the book didn’t talk down to kids and that it made me laugh. I also liked it because I had gone to a school that reminded me of Hogwarts. We’ve all had friends like Harry’s [hyper-studious] friend, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, the good-time pal. The book talked about loyalty and friendship and courage and trust, which I most certainly related to. And it was the story of an outsider, an orphan, Harry, who must overcome adversity.
“I’ve felt myself to be an outsider as a British producer in Hollywood—and for personal reasons I won’t expose,” he added with a laugh.
“People who fight adversity and struggle to overcome difficult situations fascinate me,” he said of both Potter and the Jewish boy at the center of “Striped Pajamas.”
The producer’s own Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman (the original spelling may have been Heymann), was an economist, newspaperman and broadcaster based in Leipzig—one of the last announcers to speak out against Hitler in early 1933.
Heyman was 6 when his grandfather died—at his typewriter—after completing an article that ran two days after his death as the lead story in The Financial Times.
The producer—who often visited Israel as a child—is continuing his family’s literary tradition with his knack for book adaptations. Post-Potter, he’s optioned Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and assigned Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves to adapt and direct it.
Also in the works is an animated movie starring a dung beatle and a ladybug, set to Beatles songs.
But this past week, Heyman has been busy saying goodbye to “Harry Potter” and the series’ young stars, Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, as well to the older thespians such as Ralph Fiennes (the evil Lord Voldemort), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange).
“Working on ‘Harry Potter’ has been the most incredible odyssey,” Heyman told Parade magazine. “It’s been the gift of all gifts. That being said, I’m very excited about having the time to face new challenges.”
July 13, 2011 | 12:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the opening sequence of “Sarah’s Key,” 10-year-old Sarah Starzynski (Mélusine Mayance) tickles her younger brother as the family cat grooms itself in the sunshine. The sweet domestic scene is shattered when a thunderous knocking signals the arrival of the French police. It is the morning of July 16, 1942, and the authorities are rounding up some 13,000 Jews for internment in the Vélodrome d’Hiver before deportation to transit camps, then Auschwitz.
In the film — based on Tatiana de Rosnay’s best-selling novel — Sarah tries to save her 4-year-old brother, Michel, by locking him inside a bedroom cupboard, their secret hiding place, promising to return before being herded off to the velodrome. Her desperate attempts to return cut back and forth in time with the modern-day story of Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American journalist living in Paris who, while researching the little-known history of the deportation of French Jews, stumbles upon a searing discovery: The family apartment she is about to move into was once the Starzynskis’ home. As Jarmond becomes obsessed with Sarah’s heartbreaking story, she tackles complex issues of how to live with the past while also moving forward into an uncertain future.
“You must be careful when attempting another Holocaust movie because you don’t want people to become fatigued by the subject,” the film’s 36-year-old director, Gilles Paquet-Brenner (“Pretty Things”), said from his Paris home. “But I felt ‘Sarah’s Key’ is unique, because it explains how the past continues to affect the present. You have the character of Julia, who is not Jewish and not even French, who realizes she has a strong connection to what happened in the Holocaust. And that is important to show, especially to younger audiences. Even if they feel these events are far removed, they can literally be next door.”
The novel and the film, along with the 2010 movie “La Rafle” (“The Roundup”), are fictionalized stories spotlighting the previously taboo subject of the roundup and the collaboration of French citizens in the Shoah.
But when de Rosnay first learned of the so-called Vel d’Hiv, she said, she “did not know the role of the French police, nor how many children had been arrested.” When she was in high school in Paris in the 1970s, that history was not taught.
The first time she visited the site of the velodrome — which was torn down in 1959 and now houses an annex of the Ministry of the Interior — was a decade ago, while researching her 2003 book, “Walls Remember,” exploring how buildings and streets can harbor dark secrets. “As I stood in the Rue de Nelaton, one of the saddest streets I have ever visited, I could feel the suffering coming back,” she said.
De Rosnay was disgusted and angered by how hard she had to search for the tiny plaque commemorating the Vel d’Hiv events. Those feelings fueled “Sarah’s Key,” which, she said, was excruciating to write and has left a kind of psychic scar. “Sarah’s personal quest and tragedy is symbolized in her key, which is the ‘key’ to her terrible secret [about] Michel,” the author said. “And Michel, in his cupboard left to die, is the horror of these little ones sent alone to their deaths and the silence that they have been wrapped up in so long.”
Paquet-Brenner chose not to reveal in the film exactly what occurred in the cupboard. But he can understand his heroines’ feelings of survivor’s guilt.
His own paternal grandfather, a German-Jewish musician living in France’s free zone, was deported upon the Vichy takeover and died in the Majdanek concentration camp. “I know what it is to be brought up in a family where you have the ghost of someone who has disappeared,” he said.
He was wary of taking a too-sentimental approach to the subject, which could make viewers feel manipulated and angry: “So I tried to stay realistic and raw,” he said. “It was handheld cameras, with short lenses, right in the middle of the action. And we worked hard on the sound, because the sound was intensive in the velodrome. Survivors told me about the noise, the lights, the smells, which I tried to convey on screen.”
Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas (“The English Patient,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) also had personal connections to the story. After moving from London to Paris at 18, she married into a Jewish family whose older generation consisted primarily of Holocaust survivors. “They had been in hiding, in camps, some even caused a rebellion in Treblinka,” she said from her home in France. And her mother-in-law had been active in the organization that had placed commemorative plaques around Paris. “When we would all have lunch on a Sunday, all their experiences would be taken out and aired, and there would be a jousting of terrible stories, but at the same time a keen sense of the preciousness of life,” she said.
It was an outlook that profoundly affected Scott Thomas, who had suffered from depression as a result of losing her father, and then her stepfather, both in plane crashes, when she was 5 and 10, respectively. She chose to make “Sarah’s Key” “as a way for me to participate in the recounting of these stories as a non-Jewish person,” she said. “I’m not saying you can’t fictionalize them, but personally I would have had issues pretending I was one of those mothers brutally separated from their children [in the transit camps], when I am just an actress.”
Yet Scott Thomas’ pain is real during the scene in which her character sees photographs of those vulnerable children at a Holocaust museum in Paris; in real life, it was the actress’ first visit to the museum.
It was while preparing to shoot this sequence that Paquet-Brenner’s usually reticent mother disclosed a story about her late father: The elder Brenner reportedly committed suicide in Majdanek, using some poison he had hidden in his ring. The director subsequently added a scene to the movie in which a Jewish musician defiantly brandishes a ring filled with poison, declaring that only he will choose the time of his death.
“At the Holocaust museum, my mother also found her father’s name on the wall, which was like the closing of a book,” Paquet-Brenner said. “It was as if she could finally face her past.
And while the production of the movie was painful for her, it was also a healing process. It’s exactly what Scott Thomas’ character says in the movie: ‘The truth hurts, but you need it.’ ”
Also as a result of the film, Paquet-Brenner has discovered that he has relatives in Israel; he plans on tracking them down when his 16-month-old daughter, Sunnila, is older. She was born the day the film wrapped. And her middle name is … Sarah.
The film opens on July 22 in Los Angeles.
July 5, 2011 | 6:15 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In her television studio in El Segundo, Roseanne Barr is singing the Israeli national anthem — and it’s good.
“If I asked you to sing ‘Hatikvah,’ would you slug me?” I had hesitantly asked her, remembering her screeching mangling of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game in 1990.
Roseanne responded with a look of genuine shock. Of course she would sing it, she said, even though, she added, “I haven’t practiced it and I do forget a lot of the words.” But then she began crooning the Hebrew in a rich, vibrating alto, carefully pausing before the high notes, crescendoing to a heartfelt peak — before stopping midsong. “The rest is really hard,” she explained. “The only songs I can sing really good are the Hebrew songs of my childhood.”
Even so, Roseanne, at 58, comes off more like a Jewish wise woman than the sardonic “domestic goddess” who transformed her blue-collar feminist comedy into a hit sitcom, “Roseanne,” from 1988 to 1997. Now a grandmother of five, she’s wearing her salt-and-pepper hair long, stylish red glasses and little makeup. And even after leaving Los Angeles for a simpler life in Hawaii, she has continued mouthing off on her blog, RoseanneWorld.com, as well as in a 2011 memoir, “Roseannearchy: Dispatches From the Nut Farm,” which describes her Jewish journey amid rants about politics and her ex-husband, Tom Arnold (the book appears in paperback Oct. 11).
Roseanne’s adventures on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii will be chronicled in her new reality series, “Roseanne’s Nuts,” premiering on Lifetime July 13. The show may touch on her plans to once again publicly sing the American national anthem, this time, she said, triumphantly.
Roseanne has been practicing her singing, which has also improved courtesy of the breathing techniques she’s learned since becoming one of the first celebrities to frequent the controversial Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles in the 1990s.
“So many people in Hollywood go, like, ‘You’re such a Jewy Jew,’ ” she said, laughing. “But I think it’s just fantastic to be a Jewish person. Jews are such a fantastic bunch — thinkers, creators, moralists — and the more people know that about us, the better.”
Roseanne traces the rage and fear that has fueled her comedy to growing up in a Jewish family profoundly scarred by the Holocaust, in predominantly Mormon Utah. “It was all exile, all the time,” she said.
While her feminist stance began courtesy of her two strong but very different bubbes, she was disgusted by the sexism in her family. “Because I was the oldest girl, I was always the slave, and I had to serve,” she said with distaste. “It was so much about class,” she added. Barr’s more affluent cousin, Debbie, got to search for the afikomen every Passover while Roseanne did the dishes.
“Debbie had dimples and light hair, a waist and a butt — all the things I didn’t have, which is why I hate her,” she said. “I shouldn’t say hate,” she added, sheepishly. “But I had been the Shirley Temple of the family, performing on every Shabbos, until Debbie came along and made me a has-been at 6.
“And then Debbie and her brother, David, got a Dr. Ross Dog Food commercial that was actually on television, and I was just burning alive with envy and at the injustice of everything, which has made me who I am. My comedy was always so full of all the negative emotions. But once you make a joke, it helps dissipate all that stuff, and you can become human again.”
Jewish practice has also helped mellow Roseanne; the change came when her friend, actress Sandra Bernhard, introduced her to the Kabbalah Centre.
Barr has described the transformation in a stand-up routine about how she felt driven to tear her ex’s hair transplant plugs out by the roots. “I was like, ‘Man, I almost killed a human being. I’d better give some money to, like, f—-ing crippled children or something,” she said. “And my rabbi goes, ‘Well, Roseanne, those are real nice ideas, but I think probably the best thing for you to do is just try to be nice.’ I thought, how hard can that be? I didn’t know it was going to be like a walk through hell.”
She told me: “After years of trying to gag down all that ‘nice’ crap, the rav [said] I had totally misjudged his advice. He said, ‘You can be the meanest person on earth; that’s how you’re made. It’s your target that matters.’ So there’s a new paradigm for me to be angry at the right things, which actually are the wrong things [in the world].”
She’s generated controversy for some of her shock tactics, such as the time she appeared in Heeb magazine dressed as Hitler, removing burned, people-shaped cookies from an oven. She claims the cookies were meant to represent Palestinians in Israel.
Barr once called for a “10 million bitches march” on Washington, D.C., to challenge Sarah Palin.
“It infuriates me that she goes and talks with Bibi Netanyahu, saying she’s pro-this and pro-that,” Barr said of Palin’s stance on Israel. “But it’s like, ‘Do you hear anything this woman is saying — that her messiah will return to a Jew-free world? Does that bother you, Bibi? Because it bothers me.”
Roseanne said that in 2012, she will “run for president of the United States and also prime minster of Israel — it’s a two-fer.”
She views herself as wise enough for the jobs. “My book is kind of me rewriting Torah, because they say, after you study kabbalah for 50 years and are bearded, you are qualified to write commentary,” she said. “And I fit the description.”