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HEYMAN, DAVID - THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

Harry Potter producer David Heyman finds the parallels between Harry’s world and the world of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (which he also produced); the latter is a dark story set in a concentration camp, told from a child’s point of view, he tells John Millar.

In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 8 year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is the sheltered son of a Nazi officer (David Thewlis) whose promotion takes the family from their comfortable home in Berlin to a desolate area where the lonely boy finds nothing to do and no-one to play with. Crushed by boredom and compelled by curiosity, Bruno ignores his mother’s (Vera Farmiga) repeated instructions not to explore the back garden and heads for the ‘farm’ he has seen in the near distance. There he meets Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a boy his own age who lives a parallel, alien existence on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Bruno's encounter with the boy in the striped pyjamas leads him from innocence to a dawning awareness of the adult world around them as his meetings with Shmuel develop into a friendship with devastating consequences.

Would you say that there are any parallels in terms of themes, motifs or messages between the Harry Potter movies that you produced and The Boy In The Striped Pajamas?
Yes I think there are. Within Harry Potter there are the Death Eaters and Voldemort who are interested in a pure blood race and are deeply opposed to anything else. They don’t like people who are ‘others’. They do not care for Muggles or Half Blood or Mud Blood, they believe in the purity of the race and I think that is clearly very much in the vein of the Nazis. Harry Potter is very much about the characters that are unable to see the other side. Harry and Ron and Hermione are all outsiders and so, in The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, is Bruno.

What was the toughest thing about bringing The Boy In The Striped Pajamas to the screen?
It was actually a fairly organic process. I know that is going to be hard to believe but I read the book and loved the book but I was a little cautious about embarking upon it, just because of the challenges involved in bringing it to the screen. Mark Herman [the director] optioned the book and then came to me with the screenplay and it all seemed very clear to me. Mark did such a great job with his adaptation in script form and Brassed Off [which Mark Herman directed] was one of my favorite British films of the last 20 years and so the challenge in The Boy In The Striped Pajamas was getting it done within the budget that we had because clearly there was only going to be a finite budget to make it.

But Miramax were incredibly supportive and did not ask us to change the ending, did not ask us to really alter much. I suppose in terms of actually getting it made it was a fairly straightforward process. I liked the book, Mark Herman liked the book, he did a screenplay, and Miramax liked the script and had always been interested in the book and decided to make it. So it was much less challenging than it might appear. I think it is just a sign of what good fortune I have had in my recent life. But I suppose one of the great challenges was looking at this from a child’s point of view and managing some of the more naive aspects of the book, which I love in the book but which when translated to film might be a little difficult and not as involving but off-putting. So trying to capture the spirit of the book, yet acknowledging the different demands of a film was a challenge.

How hard was it to find Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon who play the children Bruno and Shmuel?
It was quite hard. We had the fantastic Pippa Hall whose specialty is child actors and she found the boy who played Billy Elliott. I have known Pippa since I was a child. We had approached Leo Davis to do the casting and Leo brought on Pippa. She scoured and scoured the country. It was a fine balance because you wanted the children to possess the essence of the characters because however their imagination you are very often working with the innate essence of a child. So Pippa showed us hundreds upon hundreds of tapes of children, most of whom had very little experience. When it came down to it, our Bruno had no film experience at all. In a way part of the innocence of Asa Butterfield served us well because he was not particularly knowledgeable about the Holocaust, he wasn’t particularly experienced in film making. He became a little bit more knowledgeable of both through the process of making The Boy In The Striped Pajamas and I think that the gradual increased awareness of both the Holocaust and the film making experience fed into the journey that the character goes through in the film.

What about the reaction of audiences to The Boy In The Striped Pajamas? During filming you must have worried that audiences might think the movie was too much and not get it?
You are absolutely right. While I am a pretty positive type, I am burdened by a tremendous apprehension about anything that I am involved with and people’s response to it. So I was most certainly tredipatious, concerned in part that people might find it an odd blend of tone – the naivety within this rather dark world; that they might not engage with it in the way that I did. There are always those fears – that, as you suggest, the subject matter might be too tough for the sort of point of view that we take. But I think that what I am so happy about is that people seem to be responding to the film for the very reasons that we made it, because of that point of view. Some people had also suggested that viewers might be concerned that we were telling the story from the point of view of the son of the commandant of a concentration camp. But that is the thing that distinguishes this film from so many others – taking that point of view. For me, that is what – in spite of there being some dark elements about the story, and the context being a difficult and challenging one, there is no question of that – is the thing that I find very optimistic about The Boy In The Striped Pajamas…that an eight year-old boy, whose parents and environment encourage him to be racist, be prejudiced against Jews, makes his own choice and through contact with a boy on the other side of the fence, someone who is different to himself, is able to engage and overcome any prejudice that might have been inculcated into him and forges his own path. To me that is a wonderfully optimistic, generous spirited and wonderful message to put out into the world and I think it is both true and necessary. I think it is important thing for people to consider and to embrace.

Published September 3, 2009
 

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David Heyman

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