Simon Curtis speaks fast. He can burn through fifteen questions in less than ten minutes. He also has no trouble keeping his answers short if an adverb suffices. The director of My Week with Marilyn (for which Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh received Oscar nominations) is now back in the big screen with the more modern drama Woman in Gold.
In 1998, Austria introduced new legislation to deal with the restitution of artwork stolen during the country’s annexation to Nazi Germany. While the measure was mostly a public relations move, it opened the door to dozen of claims. Woman in Gold follows Maria (Helen Mirren) and her lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) as they battle the Austrian Government for the ownership of five Klimt paintings, including the emblematic “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. The legal face-off is combined with flashbacks of a just-married Maria watching powerlessly as the Nazis wrecking havoc on his family and the Jewish community in Vienna.
I had the chance to talk with Curtis in Toronto a couple of weeks ago.
– Woman in Gold feels particularly timely.
– True, Woman in Gold is a movie of many layers, but the theme that emerges as the predominant one is to what extent do we have the responsibility to move on. The film has landed in very troubled times: Anti-Semitism is definitely alive, much more than one would have hoped so. Woman in Gold is a reminder of the perils of picking on anybody because of their race or religion.
– You shot a portion of the movie in Vienna. Did you face any problems filming in Austria, given the theme of the film?
– The authorities and the people from Vienna were incredibly welcoming. It’s a very cinematic city. We were recreating some sensitive things: Nazi vehicles coming in, Jews forced to paint (“Jude”) on their businesses… We used photographs of things that actually happened. Nobody could accuse us of exaggerating. We premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and some of our best reviews were German and Austrian.
– How did you know Tatiana Maslany could play a young Helen Mirren?
– I adore her acting, I think she is a wonderful woman and she speaks German, so that’s three things in her favour. I’m very proud how that worked out. You already know this in Canada, but Tatiana is one of the great young actresses in the world and she will go all the way.
– Consider the large cast, was it hard to deal with different acting styles?
– It wasn’t as much the acting styles, but it was a tricky thing mathematically. We were filming three time periods, in two languages, in three countries, England, Austria and America. We had German actors speaking English, English actors speaking German or with American accents, Canadian actors doing German and American…
– Do you encourage your actors to research the people they are playing?
– Yes, I don’t think there is any downside to it. Helen studied videotapes of Maria very closely, which enhanced her performance. In the case of Ryan, we deliberately reconfigured Randol Schoenberg, because in real life Randol is very knowledgeable about everything Viennese and his personal history. We wanted the character to go on a journey.
– Before shooting Woman in Gold, did you have an affinity for Klimt?
– I always liked him, but didn’t learn about him until making this movie, like he only painted women, went from naturalism to bold expressionism, and that he fathered 18 children. He is a fascinating character in his own right.
– You seem to be drawn to real life stories.
– Not exclusively. I’m drawn to good stories. Many of the films that have broken through are based on real life events. There is a reason for that: People don’t want to see the same old plots played out time and time again.
– Was it hard to get your wife (Elizabeth McGovern) to join the film?
– Actually, yes. She was shooting Downton Abbey at the time. The two productions had to work together to give her a day in our movie.
Women in Gold is now playing at Galaxy Cinemas.