The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Posted on: 16 March 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Producer David Heyman and director Mark Herman talk to 50connect ahead of the DVD release of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, plus win one of five copies of the DVD in our competition.

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The haunting story of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a child made The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas an award-winning book and a critically-acclaimed film. 

Based on the best-selling children’s book by Irish author John Boyne, the film features gripping performances from David Thewlis (Kingdom of Heaven, Seven Years in Tibet), Rupert Friend (Pride and Prejudice, The Young Victoria) and newcomer Asa Butterfield as ‘Bruno’ – the eight-year-old who befriends a boy of his own age through the wire fence of a concentration camp.

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The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas also stars American actress Vera Farmiga (Breaking & Entering, The Departed) who was named Best Actress at the 2008 British Independent Film Awards for her moving portrayal of Bruno’s mother. 

This unique story of forbidden friendship and the devastating consequences of the Second World War begins when Bruno’s father (Thewlis), a high-powered officer in Nazi Germany, is promoted and his family are reluctantly relocated to a rural home.  Isolated from other children, Bruno discovers a nearby ‘farm’ filled with adults and children…all dressed in the same ‘striped pyjamas’.

Through the naive perceptions of Bruno, audiences get telling glimpses of the true horrors taking place directly under his nose, but when the truth finally dawns on the two young boys it’s too late.

An Interview With Mark Herman (Director)

Have you been to any of the Film Education Screenings? What did the students think of it?

"i've been to a couple. One was for 12-18-year-olds. They were quite boisterous at first but soon quietened down and really got into the film."

What did they ask afterwards in the Q & A?

"It was interesting to find out how little they knew about the Holocaust. Talking to the kids and teachers, they find the film emotionally engaging which they don’t get from a text book.

"It’s a completely fictional story but it engages them and they want to learn more. It was quite depressing to discover how little they knew."

What were the challenges of working with child actors?

"It was my first time working with children as young as this. Jack and Asa were 8 and 10-years-old. I was keen not to tell them too much about the Holocaust, it was important to protect that innocence for the film. We shot the final scenes on their last few days on the film. It was interesting watching them learn.

"The most important thing was to set an atmosphere to make them at ease. Our rehearsal time went out of the window, I found it was more useful for Asa and Amber, who plays his sister, to act as a family with David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga. A couple of weeks before the shoot they spent time together and got to know each other."

Were you worried about potentially traumatising your stars? The film is quite hard hitting…

"That was more of a concern for the adults than the children. They knew about the script but didn’t fully understand.

"The crew and actors had done a lot of research which took them to some pretty dark places so by the time we came to shoot it we were keen to put that horror behind us. Strangely, it was an enjoyable film to shoot."

What were the most difficult aspects of making the film?

"Keeping the feeling it was supposed to be a fable - not a documentary. It was criticised by some people for not being believable but it wasn’t supposed to be completely realistic.

"Working with two such young kids was a problem too as they are only allowed to be on set for a certain number of hours a day. The scenes at the fence with the two kids, a lot of the time the other kid wasn’t there, some adult actors would struggle with that but the kids just got on with it. Sometimes they were acting to sticks so for those scenes to still have that level of emotion is a credit to those young actors."

Was ensuring all the costumes and props were historically accurate difficult?

"You have to make sure all the small things are accurate, it’s important to get them right. We couldn’t find a house that was right so we had to build one ourselves and make sure the design of the house, both internally and externally, was right for the period. That was very important.

"The heads of all the different departments had to do enormous research, they found the right people to advise them on the German army uniforms and also the prison uniforms too."

What did you think of the book when you first read it?

"I was a fan, so much so that I bought the rights to make the film. I could write the script without reporting to anyone which is a rarity in this industry."

Were you worried about the ending? Was their pressure to change it?

"There was no way I’d have made the film if I had to change the ending. John Boyne the author wanted that ending, so did I, so did David Heyman the producer and so did the studio.

"That was the first agreement we made with the studio. People are very grateful for that ending. I’m glad we didn’t consider changing it."

An Interview With David Heyman (Producer)

Have you been to any of the Film Education Screenings? What did the students think of it?

"They were fantastic. It’s great to show the film to an audience who aren’t cynical and their response has been overwhelmingly positive. They engage with the story completely. They ask questions you don’t expect, like ‘why are they wearing black and white pyjamas?’"

Did you find that they were ill-informed about the Holocaust?

"Yes some of them are which is a reason why I wanted to make this film. For me it’s not just a film about the Holocaust, it’s about prejudice and hatred today as much as then.

"It’s important to keep history alive so people don’t let something like this happen again. There have been genocides since, things still going on today, so for me it was an important story to tell."

What were the biggest challenges in making the film?

"We had to find a way of recreating Berlin in Budapest. We went there because they had a solid crew base and we got a rebate from the Hungarian government that made it financially viable for us to shoot there.

"You also need to treat a story like this with sensitivity and respect which we were all keen to do. And working with young children provides challenges. You have a child on site for nine hours a day of which three hours are for education, one is for lunch and they have 15 minute breaks every hour. So that means you have your lead actor for four hours a day which is very difficult.

"Also making sure you create an environment which enables Mark to do the work he does but which is also comfortable for the kids."

The ending is very powerful, did preview audiences or the studio ask for it to be changed?

"Mark optioned the book, asked me to get involved and Miramax, the studio, supported the ending we have and the film has done well. There was no discussion about changing the end. The key to this film is that it’s very truthful. We’re not pretending  everything is 100% historically accurate, but the spirit of it is, and there is truth in every frame of the film.

"Were we to end it differently it would have compromised the film on every level. Audiences wouldn’t have responded to it in the way they have. People say it’s dark, and there’s an aspect of that, but I think it’s an optimistic film about the power of friendship. These kids have been raised in a situation that would encourage them to hate each other but they are able to establish a friendship and that friendship has none of the prejudice they’ve been expected to engage in."

The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas is now available to buy on DVD.

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