Friday, January 2, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Filmmaker Mark Herman and producer David Heyman talk about the casting of the young actors and then describe working with the child actors of "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" - Bruno played Asa Butterfield ( from the Young Actors Theatre) and Schmuel played by newcomer Jack Scanlon.

“We saw hundreds of young actors for the role of Bruno, the camp commandant’s son,” says director Mark Herman. “Asa Butterfield’s was the first tape I received and he was the third person I saw. I thought he was fantastic but we kept on searching, just because we wanted to make sure that no stone was unturned. In the end, we went back to him because the crucial thing was to find a child who can hold the screen. Asa does that. And he has just the right blend of innocence and curiosity for the role, and such compelling, watchful eyes."

“Mark helped me a lot by telling me when to do what,” says 10 year-old actor Asa Butterfield matter-of-factly. “The only thing I don’t like about making films is having to do scenes over and over again, but I guess that’s what filming is about!” Before getting the part, Asa knew something of the historical context of the story. “Some of it I already knew about,” he says. “But I didn’t know that it was called the Holocaust. I nearly cried when I read the script.”

For the casting of Shmuel, the Jewish boy on the other side of the fence, Herman says: “I saw Jack Scanlon quite late in the process of seeing hundreds of boys. Jack can be moving without being sentimental; he has a natural dignity about him. But I had to see who had the right chemistry with our Bruno before choosing an actor to play Shmuel. Having narrowed it down to about three boys, we tried different pairings with Asa. Jack and Asa played very well against one another."

Eight year-old Jack Scanlon made his feature film debut in the role of Shmuel.

For the role of Bruno’s sister Gretel, Herman chose young actress Amber Beattie. “She was stunning in the auditions,” recalls Herman. “And, as with Asa, Amber became the yardstick for other potential Gretels to measure up to. Nobody ever did - she was ahead of the pack all the way. Amber has a plucky directness about her, and as Gretel, although she disdains Bruno and is seduced by the Hitler Youth, as the story progresses she manages to retain our sympathy.”

Young teenager Amber Beattie is part of the core audience for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She wept while reading the book and on seeing the film for the first time, and took away a simple but essential message from the story: “I think the lesson in the film is don’t judge other people, treat everyone as an equal. Because, really, everyone else is the same as you.”

Producer David Heyman was impressed with Mark Herman's rapport with his cast and in particular, appreciated his skill in communicating with its younger members. “It’s very easy to pander or to patronize,” say Heyman, “but Mark didn’t do that. He treated the kids as mature people with their own thoughts and ideas; he treated them with the respect they deserved and required and I think the children responded accordingly. I think they realized that they were doing something serious and dramatic, something that demanded effort and attention, and had worth and value. As a result, they treated the work with the same respect Mark gave to them. Mark Herman is a very compassionate director – he has a real sympathy for the characters he writes about and the actors he directs.”

Q: As far as working with the kids, you were shooting in Hungary and you were dealing with a subject that's really tough. How hard was it being on the set and getting those performances out of them? I know Asa has done some acting but you had to get them to do some really tough things.
Herman: I think they're so wrapped up in this bubble of filmmaking that you don't want to laden them with any burden of the wider issues, and again, they're only 8 years old and 10 years old at the time. As far as the performance was concerned, we had a fantastic kids' coach called Celia Bannerman, who would not necessarily go through the lines with them, but get them in the right mood by playing games or roleplaying, just getting them in the right mindset immediately before a take.
Heyman: For example, sometimes with kids--and we've done this on "Potter" too--to a certain extent, they begin to swallow their words. They don't project energy for whatever reason, so that's for example where she'd be really useful.
Herman: Also, the practicality--well, David knows more about this than anybody--the fact you only get kids certain age on set for very few hours in the day because they have to be fed and watered and educated, and that problem is doubled when in fact you have two kids. I think it was like two or three weeks we had the two kids by themselves.
Heyman: For example, in the "Potter" films, you have the kids for 9 and a half hours a day, three hours for education, an hour for lunch and 15 minute breaks every hour, so you have your lead actor for four hours a day. When you're shooting with adults, you can shoot on the kids and then you can say, "Okay, why don't you go off to school? We'll shoot with David Thewlis or Vera." When you've got the two kids by the fence, there's nowhere to hide.
Herman: I mean, I'm watching those scenes now and I'm amazed we got it. Whenever there's a single shot probably, the other kid isn't there, and we started off by using the Hungarian double for the other kid, say if it was Asa, then he'd be acting through the fence to a Hungarian child. Asa would be really thrown because he's aware he's talking to a kid who doesn't understand a word he's saying. So gradually, we even put crew members in there to get reactions from Asa and that really worked well, but it's difficult enough for adult actors to be doing that, for a kids on his first movie, it's amazing. To watch those scenes now work so well emotionally is a testament to their ability.

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