Back to IndieWire

How YA Bestseller ‘The Book Thief’ Got Made Into a Studio Film: With Difficulty, and John Williams (TRAILER)

How YA Bestseller 'The Book Thief' Got Made Into a Studio Film: With Difficulty, and John Williams (TRAILER)

You know things have come to a pretty pass when a movie like “The Book Thief” looks wrong coming from a major studio. How did it get made? Well, it took a while. And the success of “Life of Pi,” another gamble from Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler, who willed that movie into existence, helped to push this one forward after six years of development.

It helped that “The Book Thief,” produced by studio veteran Karen Rosenfelt and her partner Ken Blancato, was based on a global Young Adult bestseller that stayed on the NYTimes list for seven years. (And the movie tie-in edition is there again.) What made it tough to make? It’s a World War II period heart-tugger narrated by Death about an heroic little girl (French-Canadian Sophie Nelisse, who starred in Oscar nominee “Monsieur Lazhar”) who comes to adore not only her adoptive parents (well-played by Australian Geoffrey Rush and Brit Emily Watson, both Oscar perennials) but the Jewish refugee (New York newcomer Ben Schnezter) they harbor in their basement. Discovery could get them all killed.

The movie, directed by “Downton Abbey” veteran Brian Percival, would seem to be a natural for fall film festival play but was finished too late–it debuted at the Mill Valley Film Fest (our review is here, Rotten Tomatoes here). Modestly budgeted at just under $20 million, this well-made and acted drama pitched at the global market will open November 8. While Fox is pushing it for Oscar consideration, the most important thing is that audiences go to see it so that studios won’t continue to be afraid to make these old-fashioned mainstream stories.

Anne Thompson: The stakes are high for this sort of movie. 

Elizabeth Gabler: I realized how
horrible it would have been for all of us if it hadn’t worked because it would
have meant you couldn’t try new things. As a studio executive I couldn’t
champion something I believed in and fought for and made if no one went. That “The Book Thief” did get the reception it did is so gratifying and it gives us a
chance to try again.

Over at Fox 2000 you
have such a track record. Explain why movies like this don’t get made.

Gabler: They are difficult
to get made because they are delicate creatures. They require actually perfect
execution. Nothing is ever perfect, things always could be different, but they
definitely require a high level of execution both on a performance level, and an aesthetic level. Every element of the movie has to reach out to a global world. We have to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not
just the domestic United States and Canada territory anymore. This film actually
had the benefit of what we hope is going to be an international audience and
speak to people of all ages. The benefit of this project is that it’s based on
a book that has been on the bestseller list as a YA book for the past seven
years. Thankfully, Sunday it’s going to be number one again. The publishing
industry and the film industry are working hand-in-hand, and we’re going to see
it a lot I think over the weeks, with “The Hunger Games.” There are
just so many great adaptations.

Karen, talk about developing the book.

Karen Rosenfelt: I had just finished
“The Devil Wears Prada” and I was at a Starbucks, and there was a
discarded Wall Street Journal that I picked up to read. There was a small blurb
describing this as the first YA book from Little Brown. It was such a bizarre
idea for a young adult book to be told from the point-of-view of Death. I read it that weekend and gave it to Ken and
we both shared our passion for it and couldn’t get it out of our minds. We
thought to ourselves, ‘is it a movie, or isn’t it?’ But we called Elizabeth that
Monday and I could just see her face as I’m
telling her about this book. Our relationship with Elizabeth goes back through
the years. We were secretaries at

Gabler: We had a wonderful
relationship as far as sharing. When someone’s that passionate about something
and they have such a track record and you just know they believe in something
that fully, when you’re in my job you support them, and say let’s take a run
for it.

Rosenfelt: Right before its
publication we optioned the book and we hired an Australian screenwriter, Michael
Petroni. We had one writer on this film, which is rare. We picked him
pre-“Narnia.” We had one draft, turned it in and Elizabeth loved it.
She gave it to Tom [Rothman, then Fox co-chairman), who shared her passion, and told us immediately they want
to make the movie when the time is right.

Gabler: In that time
period, we were both doing really intense stuff and said, ‘let’s pick our
battles.’ How much of these kinds of challenges can you put on a studio system?
I wanted it to be right for the movie too. I wanted it to be supported
completely. We were watching that book stay on the bestseller list, so that
made you realize it’s been published in 30 languages.

Rosenfelt: You make a film
once so you need the right Liesel at the center, you need the right filmmaker
and the right cast, because a movie is forever. When you have an opportunity in
this tough marketplace to make something like “The Book Thief,” you
owe it to everyone to make it under the right circumstances.

Why Sophie Nelisse for Liesel, and why director Brian Percival?

Rosenfelt: The casting process
was far and wide. We looked at girls in England, the Scandinavian countries,
Australia, North America, Germany and Canada. Markus Zusak, the author, had
seen Sophie in the film “Monsieur Lazhar.” He’s a very unassuming
individual and didn’t want to put himself in the center of the filmmaking
process. He had his agent contact us and said he thought he had found Liesel in
Sophie. We then got hold of Sophie’s French-Canadian agent. And what was really
important to Brian, Ken, Elizabeth and I was that we had a Liesel that was
vulnerable, feisty and could go from the age of 10 to 16 because we only wanted
to have one actress play her. 

As we went through the processes, not only does it
have to be right for that character but she’s playing off of Max, Rudy and has
to fit with her parents, so as we went through it, Sophie just kept emerging.
We looked at her self-tape, we had her come out to Los Angeles. We then tested
five actresses with the Rudy candidates and with the Max candidates, and that’s
how it came about. There was a lot of debate along the way, which is healthy.

Gabler: I was not sure about
Sophie. The decision was very profound to me because I had to turn around to
our marketing department and say this is the face that’s going to launch our
movie. It’s a very, very critical decision and to be my fair, when we first saw
her, it was months before her actual screen test. She was months younger, a
little more awkward, and was just developing that luminescent quality that I
think she has now. It wasn’t until her actual screen test, which was done professionally
and she had a chance to work on the scenes and really read through the script,
that the true nature of her talent shone through enough to give me the
confidence to say,’ Okay.’ But there were many conversations. 

Rosenfelt: When you have a
partnership as close as Ken and I do with Elizabeth, it’s healthy to have those
kind of creative debates. 

Blancato: Sophie did it as a
lark. She said on an iPhone audition that she and her brother put together. We
showed it to Elizabeth, and she was totally right. She was having fun. Sophie
wasn’t there to get the role. She never thought she would get the role, to be
honest. It was only after we started reading some things, she got more and more
serious, that she fell in love, and you see that on the screen. She really made
the transition. A lot of things always happen at the last minute.

I want to give you
credit for letting this movie breathe. It has a deliberate pace, it’s not
rushing anywhere. It gets a lot done in two hours. We don’t get to see movies like
this anymore.

Gabler: You don’t want it to
be slow but it was very difficult to think of anything that wouldn’t have damaged
the fabric of the storyline [if we cut it]. It is a 600-page
book. It’s very rich, and there are a lot of sub-stories. Along the development
process, the three of us with Michael Petroni had a lot of decisions to make. What’s
been most rewarding for us: the most passionate book readers feel the spirit has been maintained.

The danger of a movie like this is it could have gone over the edge of being too glossy or sentimental.

Blancato: Brian and I discussed that it had to be real. Because the first second you don’t believe something is occurring onscreen, the movie is over, and you’re going to resent it. While some people say it’s a little underplayed, it’s not really underplayed — it’s played as real. The events take place as they would happen in real life. Everything looks like real life. The house looks like people really live there. It’s totally organic.

The movie is really about the power of words. It’s cinema, but it’s about words.

Rosenfelt: I think that translates universally, and if people walk away realizing the power, we’ve done our jobs.

Did the author base the book on anything real?

Rosenfelt: His mother and father are from Austria and Germany, and he settled in Sydney, Australia. He wrote it in English.

What are the biggest
differences between the film and the book?

Rosenfelt: Hans and Rosa had two children prior and it was
an undertone of a political situation between Hans Junior and Hans about what was
going on in joining the party, so they became a childless couple, which is big.
Also there was a neighbor who was very much involved with the Hubermanns and
had her own set of problems and issues. That was a big decision but it’s hard,
you take 600 pages and distill it to 100 and then there was just some
restructuring but the biggest challenge was to make sure tonally that it was
about life-affirmation. When you say to someone, ‘it’s told from the point of
view of Death,’ it’s something we all fear. Our hope was that at the
end, while you cry you also laugh, you walk out maybe that much more

Why composer John
Williams? I thought he didn’t do music for anyone other than Spielberg.

Blancato: Originally we
thought he was retired, so we kind of folded our tent, and then we got a phone

Gabler: He knew about the
movie being made and was interested in the project. He saw the movie
before I did. He saw it so early on because we had to know if he was going to
actually say yes. But he maintained a strong interest the whole time, and what
a lovely man to go onto the scoring stage, the most beautiful scoring
stage, the Newman stage on Fox lot. He had
actually never worked there and had done most of his work at Sony. Originally
we were going to score the movie in London, because we wanted to do it closer
to home and have him with us. He came every day. It was just mesmerizing to go
and listen to this process take place. It was one of the highlights of my whole

You shot in Babelsberg in Germany?

It’s a huge studio lot with different facets. “Inglorious Basterds”
shot there, “The Pianist” shot there. It was important to Ken, Brian
and I that we shoot in Germany so that we could take advantage of the German
actors and of the local locations. And there was obviously a wealth of history
we were able to apply to the filmmaking process by being there. The Burgermeister’s
house is shot in Wannsee, and was two doors down from where they had the dinner
that ratified the Final Solution. 

You got the
greenlight from Fox with a reasonable budget? But as a period film, this is
hard to do.

Gabler: One of the
sacrifices made was that Brian felt strongly that the book-burning square
could have been built on a lot in Babelsberg for a much more economical version
of the scene, but it would have had no scope. To go outside the city of Berlin
and to go to a distant location where the book-burning took place was a big
decision. But they were passionate about it and when you’re in a studio
situation, you don’t want to regret the fact that we made it wrong for not that
much more money. At the end of the day it was a supportive decision and still
our budget was under $20 million. Everybody did it for love. Florian Ballhaus,
the cinematographer who’s a brilliant man we’ve worked with on several movies,
loved it. He wanted to go back and work in Berlin and he loved it. Everybody
did. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t do this for love.

Blancato: Florian was born in
Berlin. His father is Michael Ballhaus, who did all of Martin Scorsese’s pictures,
so he grew up with a brilliant cinematographer, and he applied everything he
knew and you see the work on the screen. He did an incredible job. We’ve never
had a picture look like that.

The film has a
global cast, and you handled the segue from German subtitles to German-accented
English very well.

Rosenfelt: These are the most difficult
movies to get through the studio system. One of the rare places is Fox, and with
an advocate like Elizabeth. It’s an international marketplace so when you get a film
like this you need to make sure you’re touching, in these characters, a primacy
that’s going to translate to the audiences in England, Australia, New Zealand,
in the states. It takes passion and fortitude and hopefully everyone will tell
their friends so audiences will come out for these movies so they can get made.
Come that Friday night and you’re looking to see a movie, there will be something
that motivates you.

A lot of talent is
being driven away from studios and heading toward television.


Rosenfelt: It’s great for
television but I love going to the movies, and I find it extremely frustrating
that during the summer, there is nothing for me to see. It’s coming down to
what opens between now and December, but we’re a 52-week year, and there should
be choices.

You premiered at Mill Valley, but why did you otherwise hold
back from the fall film circuit?

Rosenfelt: We were originally
scheduled to come out January 15, but we were hurrying through production. We
wrapped at the end of May. As Elizabeth mentioned we showed John Williams the
film not only before she saw it, but before we saw it.

Audience: Who was
the voice of Death?

Gabler: He’s a wonderful
British stage actor named Roger Allam. He’s also done film. But he was the temp
voice that we never expected to be the real voice. We listened to about 50 or 60
actors’ voice takes.

Rosenfelt: We didn’t want a
voice that would take you out of the film, or a voice that you would recognize.
It needed to be seamless.

Audience: How old was Sophie
Nelisse and where is she from?

Rosenfelt: Sophie started the
film when she was 12, and she turned 13 while we were shooting. In the book,
she is more like 9. 

Gabler: She’s from Quebec, and she lives in Montreal. French is her first language and English is her second language.

Rosenfelt: She brings to it the discipline of an athlete.

Audience: How did you come to hire Brian Percival?

Rosenfelt: During the process…basically, Ken got addicted to “Downton Abbey.” His agent had sent it to him. I was in Vancouver working on a film, and he had gone to Elizabeth to pitch himself on “The Book Thief.”

Gabler: He’s a native of
Liverpool, England and lives in the north of England and we had this conference
call with him. He’s very soft-spoken. It was hard for him to articulate his
vision, but mentioned he was coming out for the Golden Globes in January and
said eagerly, ‘let’s meet.’ He came in with this book of his vision, of his
images, photographs and different drawings and said, ‘I know these kids, I grew
up in a hardscrabble life in Liverpool.’ He had made a PSA with his wife, who’s a screenwriter, about teenage pregnancy and he actually won a BAFTA for it and it became one of
the premier BBC public service announcements against teenage pregnancy. You
could see how he had this fiber of being able to work with young people. These people
are blue-collar. Where they live on that street, these kids are rough-and-tumble kids. And he had that life, and I realized this is somebody we need to take
seriously. I think we were just captivated by him and there was never anybody
else after that.

Audience: This
summer has proven to be the summer of disaster. When you look at this movie for
$20 million, that’s 5 movies instead of one $100 million movie. Is it finally
time for quality movies? Where are we going from here?

Gabler: There have been over
the years but mostly they’re coming out of specialty divisions, such as Fox
Searchlight, Sony Classics, Focus, The Weinstein Company. There is a wealth of
films that are made for much less money than this one is; they’re just
basically couched as more of an independent movie than what you’d expect from a
big studio like Fox. But that’s what our division is.
We have the ability to make movies for any budget. It’s hard to do these kind
of movies but, for example, “Black Swan,” grossed hundreds of
millions worldwide and cost nothing. Movies via the Searchlight division like
“The Descendants” are being made but they are hard to make because
there is a lot of that. For every one of or two that’s being made there are 40
of them. 

I can’t tell you how many emails I get from people with scripts who
want to get their stories made. But for all of us we have to pick and choose
which ones are going to break the barrier. And it is hard because the mass
audiences around the world want the big tentpole movies. Those are the
four-quadrant movies that are going to get the teenage boy, the 40-year-old guy
and the wife to go. You have these $60, $70 million opening weekends, and
they’re massive. Wait until “Hunger Games” come out.

have to make good movies. If they’re big, $150, $200 million movies they have
to be good. If they don’t work it’s because they feel fake, don’t have an
emotional through-line, they don’t have characters you can relate to, and they
don’t feel unique and fresh. That’s what our goal should be in creating films
for the audiences of the world.

Anne Thompson: There
have been a lot of management changes at the studios. It just feels like the
tectonic plates are shifting. It isn’t working.

Gabler: Some of the moves
have been more from a corporate management level than from a creative level,
because it’s really hard when you have someone who’s trying to manage an entire
department, and they’re a creative genius. Sometimes the two don’t go together.
It’s hard to make the left and right brain work but yes, now more than ever,
you can’t just have some creative genius doing marketing for your movie. It has
to be so calibrated around the world. You have
giant machines that are moving through every territory in this globe, and it’s

Look at Australia,
Brazil, Mexico. If you’re talking about a family film, the Latin American
countries are a goldmine. That’s where a giant portion of the audience is, so
you have to look at what that is. France and Germany are massive. It’s maybe not as big as us, but there are pieces coming in that are as big, you have to pay attention to that. If you make a movie here that works
really strongly here, that’s great. It may not work in other places, but there’s room for those films. Obviously you have to make films that people care about in other places, but they
have to work here and not worry about what happens there.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox