Interview: Director Simon Curtis Fashions the ‘Woman in Gold’

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CHICAGO – The painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” was created by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, and was considered Austria’s greatest artwork. The remarkable journey of the painting, stolen from its original Jewish family by the Nazis during World War II, is the basis for the new film, “Woman in Gold,” directed by Simon Curtis.

“Woman in Gold” is based on the true story of Maria Altmann (portrayed in the film by Helen Mirren), a Viennese immigrant in the United States who fought the Austrian government for rightful claim to her family’s paintings in the 1990s, including the famous gold leaf portrait of her Aunt Adele. Altmann brings in an American lawyer named Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to act as her lawyer, and their years of litigation to make this art restitution was one of the most high profile of these cases. The film includes flashbacks of the family in Vienna during those war years, and depiction of how the painting was stolen from them.

Ryan Reynolds, Simon Curtis
Director Simon Curtis (right) Consults with Ryan Reynolds on the Set of ‘Woman in Gold’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

Simon Curtis directs the film, his second major production after the success of the well-received “My Week with Marilyn.” The filmmaker began his career in the Royal Court Theatre in London, and worked as an assistant director in film and in British TV as lead director, including a adaptation of author Charles Dicken’s “David Copperfield” in 1999. He worked steadily through the next decade, and came upon the diary account of Colin Clark in 2010, which became the template for “My Week with Marilyn.” Curtis is also married to American actress Elizabeth McGovern. interviewed Simon Curtis during a recent promotional tour for “Woman in Gold,” and talked about the origin of the project and the rest of his career adventures. So your second major directorial effort is also based on a true story. What was the process that led you to ‘Woman in Gold’ after your success with ‘My Week with Marilyn’?

Simon Curtis: I’m not sure of the chronology, but before I made the ‘Marilyn’ film, I fell in love with a documentary about the circumstances of the painting. I can’t remember exactly the journey we went on, but this predates the previous film. After ‘Marilyn,’ I was able to meet with lots of producers in Los Angeles, with lots of project offers, but ironically I ended up with the very film that I was interested in doing in the first place. The main plot point is of art restitution from World War II. In your research, when did this become an issue, or has it just been present throughout the years and this happened to be the greatest privately owned masterpiece?

Curtis: Randol Schoenberg has said in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with all the death, destruction and rebuilding to do in Europe, art wasn’t that big a priority. It took awhile for that subject to bubble up, and in the case of this story the case that Maria Altmann was the last one living from the Nazi era in Vienna, so she became one of the final torchbearers for getting back her family’s painting. What was the key to the chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren as their characters. Is there a scene in the film where you think it clicks in, and was it processed to be in intentional?

Curtis: We always saw the film as a love story between an odd couple going on this journey together – an elderly refugee from Vienna living in Los Angeles, and the grandson of another refugee. We wanted to reconfigure Randol Schoenberg, away from how he is in real life. He’s the world expert in art restitution and Vienna, and we wanted our character of him to be an American who goes on the journey as a newcomer into this case. And then you hope for the best in terms of chemistry. I was really lucky, because Helen and Ryan liked each other from Day One.

As far as their characters, there is a beautiful moment when they first get to Vienna, where the meeting doesn’t go well. You can see Randol understanding what she is going through. Also when Maria is about to see the painting again in Vienna, after so many years, she looks for him for support, and Ryan provides a telling smile that gives her that support. How long was your search for the actress Antje Traue to portray the key role as Adele? What specifically were you looking for in the woman who had to represent the masterpiece?

Curtis: I was in London, just starting the process for the film, and my Los Angeles agent told me of a German actress who was interesting in portraying the young Maria. This was the first actor I met, before anyone else, and I thought to myself, ‘unless I’m going mad, this is Adele Bloch-Bauer.’ She was the first person I hired for the film. I was looking for a physical resemblance, and Antje Traue had a very mystical quality as well. Much was made about the Altmann loss in the film, but what is your opinion regarding the movement of the painting from its Austrian home to a high bidder in the U.S. What does it say about the ownership of art? Does it belong to a people who have been its guardian for a long time or an individual?

Curtis: It’s a fair question, and an open debate. But in the case of this story, and that painting, Maria’s uncle paid the artist Gustav Klimt to paint her Aunt Adele, and then it hung on the wall in the family home. This family was shattered by the Nazi invasion into their home, and I find it very easy to justify the journey of the painting. Like Maria, the painting had its origin in the beginning of the 20th Century in Vienna, and again like Maria, eventually ended up in America.

Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds with the Titular Painting in ‘Woman in Gold’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company When you saw the original, what was your reaction?

Curtis: The painting is very intricate in person, and vibrant to the point of it being almost like 3D. It’s not as big as you’d think, either, but it’s a phenomenal work of art. I was there with Helen the other day, and I was thinking about the journey of the painting, and all the walls it has hung on. The subject of the Holocaust has been tried out through many angles in cinema, including yours. What do you think we haven’t explored in film about that era’s horrors, and what do you yet need to learn about it?

Curtis: I’ll answer this in the context of the film. It was a story in which only 20% of it was set in the past during World War Two. I wanted 1938 linked to the modern setting of 1998, and the message of the film is that we shouldn’t forget – which is a timely reminder given the current mess in the world situation. It’s about the peril of anti-semitism or picking on anyone in terms of race and religion, and a timely reminded of the mistakes we’ve made in history. In re-staging Austria in the era of World War Two and the invasion of the Nazis, how did you accomplish the delicate task of reintroducing the era to the Vienna locations. Was it physical or digital?

Curtis: It was both. We recreated in Vienna when the Nazis first drove into the city, but replicated the crowds through digital manipulation. Myself, the Assistant Directors and the designers would look at old photographs, and actually recreate some of the moments depicted in those photographs, like the marking of the Jewish businesses in Vienna by the Nazis. You also direct your wife Elizabeth McGovern in a small but key role. After 22 years of marriage, did you have to guide her at all, or was it just your psychic connection that defined her part?

Curtis: It’s very complicated, actually. She is brilliant in the film, in a key role. It’s a mixed thing, because it can be so wonderful on one end and too exposing on another. Another thing is you never get a break when you’re working together, you never get to get away and slag off with the director or leading lady. [laughs] One of impressions I have of the way your wife performs, is that she really creates a strong depth of character. Since you’ve known her intimately for so long, what has impressed you the most as to what she has done on film or stage?

Curtis: She was in an American play called ‘Three Days of Rain’ with Colin Firth. They were both phenomenal, two of the finest stage performances I’ve ever seen. Do you help her with characterization when she is doing something like that?

Curtis: I’m always there to run lines. As far as offering advice, it’s a bit complicated. Sometimes it’s desired, and sometimes it isn’t. Every job and every situation is different. What did those years at the Royal Court Theater teach you about the art of directing, that you continue to use in TV and film?

Curtis: It was about learning to treat actors and technicians with respect, listening to them, and finally trusting your actors and script. You took on Charles Dickens in the late 1990s by directing a TV adaptation of David Copperfield. What did you and Adrian Hodges want to communicate in that version that was different than the previous versions of the novel?

Curtis: I don’t know, let me ring up 1998. [laughs] With many of my films, the theme was a love letter to family, not necessarily the family you’re born with, but the family you create. David Copperfield is about the search for family, as I recall. It was also Daniel Radcliffe’s first role, portraying young David Copperfield. Maggie Smith was in our movie, and recommended Daniel to audition for Harry Potter. We were born two months apart. What do you think our generation has contributed to the world in our time in the culture?

Curtis: It’s tough to say, because society and culture evolve so much. For example, who would think that television and film would be where they are now, even twenty years ago. We’ve done well as a generation to adjust to the fact that it isn’t a white man’s world anymore. I’ve had more women bosses than I can count, and I’ve been very happy about that. The adjustments we had to make were key, and done in good time.

”Woman in Gold” opens everywhere on April 1, 2015. Featuring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce and Antje Traue. Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Directed by Simon Curtis. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald,

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