Simon Curtis turns his focus from Marilyn Monroe to another woman in history: Maria Altmann. In My Week with Marilyn, he showed the world that Monroe really was a good actress – one who wanted to be seen as a serious actor, not just as a beautiful woman. In Woman in Gold, he gives us the story of a much older woman, Maria Altmann, who decides to undo a grave injustice and, in order to do so, she must revisit her painful past.
British director Simon Curtis made a splash on the Hollywood scene with his film My Week with Marilyn (2011). That film garnered two Academy Award nominations: Best Actress, Michelle Williams, and Best Supporting Actor, Kenneth Branagh. Concurrently, The Chicago Film Critics Association awarded Curtis with Best New Promising Filmmaker and gave their Best Actress Award to Michelle Williams for the same film.
Curtis presently has a new film opening, Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, a determined survivor of the Nazi invasion into her childhood hometown of Vienna. Nazis seized her family possessions, one of which was a painting commissioned by her uncle (a beautiful portrait of her aunt, titled “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by artist Gustav Klimt). After the war, the painting was handed over to the Belvedere Art Gallery in Vienna. The painting’s name was changed to “Woman in Gold” to avoid former claims. Maria Altmann knew that she was the rightful owner of the painting and waged a personal crusade to reclaim it. Through the help of a lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, and an Austrian investigative journalist, Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl, they were able to reclaim the artwork.
The film itself is stunningly beautiful, particularly in the beginning scenes that recreate the portrait sitting of Adele with painter Gustav Klimt. They set the tone in Vienna not only for the era but also for the backdrop of lives that were lived during this time period in history, all unaware of the plight ahead. Another memorable scene is Adele’s wedding day, complete with a lavish set design, Viennese ballroom dancing, and gorgeous costuming.
My favorite scene is one in which Helen Mirren is simply looking into a mirror and brushing new hair in modern day times. The lighting and makeup are perfect. She looks amazingly natural with a demeanor of apprehension−after all, it really was not an easy choice for Maria Altmann to leave her home in Los Angeles and return to Vienna, a place she was forced to flee for her life.
Woman in Gold spans from 1907 (when the painting was completed) to 2006, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the painting should be returned to Maria Altmann along with four other Klimt paintings. All were auctioned at Christie’s Auction House in New York and, collectively, the five paintings sold for $327 million.
I caught up with Simon Curtis on March 17, 2015 when he was in Chicago promoting the film. It’s the second time I’ve interviewed him (we met in 2011 for his press tour of My Week with Marilyn). It was great to reconnect.
SKA: Woman in Gold stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, a woman who decides to reclaim her family possessions, which are seized by Nazis when she was a child in Vienna. What qualities did you feel were important to display on-screen in Maria Altmann?
SC: Well, I come from a Jewish family in the UK and have a lot of women like Maria in my background. And she should be a mixture of warmth and acerbic wit. I think Helen was very keen to do Maria justice, and it was fantastic.
SKA: What steps did Helen Mirren take in order to prepare for her role? I noticed her Viennese accent was just wonderful.
SC: Yes, that’s right. She worked very hard on that, and we studied a lot of videotapes of Maria. We took that very seriously.
SKA: What surprised you most about directing Helen Mirren?
SC: Nothing surprised me because I knew her and I admired her, and she was incredibly focused, incredibly hard working, and great to everyone on the set. She was fantastic.
SKA: Sure. I have to compliment you on one of my favorite scenes with Helen. It’s one in which she is just simply brushing her hair, and she’s looking in a mirror. And I’ll tell you, you captured her so beautifully; her whole look is so natural. Her make-up is so natural. And, honestly, Simon, I don’t think she has looked more beautiful, ever, in a film. Can you tell me about that scene and that shoot a little bit?
SC: Yeah, you know, we wanted to get some sort of private, reflective moments because we were making the point that going back to Vienna came at a cost. In some ways, it was very disturbing to her, and in some ways, it was surprisingly comforting to her. You know?
That moment, Maria had said in a tape I had seen that she had not been that impressed by her future husband when they first met until she heard him sing, and then she fell in love. So, that seemed to be the clue. You know, hearing the music, hearing his voice was what took her back, you know?
SKA: Yes. The film is so complex, and so interesting that I didn’t really think of that, that this would be difficult for her, really, to go back. I thought you displayed that quite well. Ryan Reynolds, he plays the lawyer in the film. He seems to have a really great kind of relaxed demeanor with Helen Mirren. And I enjoyed their humor so much that was sprinkled throughout. How did he prepare for his role?
SC: In contrast to Helen, who was playing Maria as she actually was, we all wanted to change. In real life, Randy is sort of a world expert in all things Viennese and Holocaust. And we wanted this Randy to be an all-American guy who goes on the journey to discovery along with us during the film, if that makes sense.
SKA: Sure, yes, it does. I think he actually did capture that. I mean, he seems like he’s, at the beginning, just kind of doing it as a favor. And then he becomes entrenched, which is quite interesting. We see him grow, even, as a person.
I see a lot of films and I know that recreating a period film … it can be really daunting. And I appreciated how you de-saturated the visuals in the history parts. I was wondering if you could tell us how you created that look. Special lenses? Was it done in the editing?
SC: Well, it’s mostly a grading thing, you know. In fact, we had three time periods, because there was sort of the “Adele” period, which is obviously very golden. There was 1938 where, poetically, it was the end of an era, and a time where this wonderful community had its last days. And then there’s sort of what we call the “contemporary story,” both in Vienna and L.A. You want to be as documentary-like as possible. So that was it, really.
SKA: Sure. So, you said there was “grading” done to achieve the look of the desaturation? Could you tell me how that works?
SC: Well, it’s a technical thing with a computer where you can tweak the colors.
SKA: Sure. Well, that was impressive to me. I liked how that all looked.
SKA: And I suppose, as a viewer, when you do go back and forth between these different actual countries and time periods, I think that somehow distinguishes them a little bit more.
SKA: I also saw that you used a technique where you would focus on a family photo of the past, and then you cut to live action of that photo. Can you explain that technique?
SC: Yes, you work backwards. When we did that scene, we started with the stillness.
SKA: Yes, exactly. But it was done so well, it seemed like it was (laughter)—you know what I’m saying? As they say in London, “Brilliant!” (laughter)
SC: Good. Thanks. (Laughing)
SKA: I take art classes myself and I have a huge appreciation for art. And I really valued the information in the film that you presented about Gustav Klimt. Was it your choice to start the movie with him?
SC: I don’t really know if it was my choice, no. I think it was something we all felt we had to do, because he’s such a big influence on the film without the film being about him. So, it seemed the right decision.
SKA: I have two questions about that. How did you feel that those scenes set the tone of the film?
SC: I don’t know. I mean, I like to think the creation of the painting, that becomes the story of the film is very important. And also to remember that there was a real artist and a real subject that started of all this.
SKA: Were there certain qualities of the artist that you hoped to capture, or that you tried to portray in those beginning scenes?
SC: Not really, no. I mean he’s a charismatic artist.
SKA: Yes. Did you know much about him before you started the project?
SC: Not more than most people.
SKA: Yeah, and I actually didn’t know anything about him other than my daughter in college had the poster of “The Kiss” in her college dorm room. And it was very interesting to learn about him. What message do you hope that people will take away from the film?
SC: Well, I hope they’ll take away that the past is important, and to remember and be aware of that past. It’s very important to us all. And I hope they’ll take away that this is a timely reminder of the perils of anti-Semitism, or the perils of picking on anybody because of their race or religion.
SKA: Yes. I was wondering: When you did film in the gallery scene? I know that the painting is gone now. How did that all work? Were you really there?
SC: We were there, although the interior was shot in London.
SKA: Well, now you’ve have raised my antenna about going to Vienna.
SC: Good. It’s a very beautiful place.
SKA: It really does look amazing. Is there anything else you would like to say about the film?
SC: I’m thrilled with the cast; it’s worth mentioning. Orphan Black with Tatiana Maslany did so well in it. And I don’t know if you’ve watched Game of Thrones with Charles Dance or Downton Abbey; there’s Elizabeth McGovern. [Incidentally, Elizabeth McGovern is Simon Curtis’s wife.]
SKA: Yes, oh yes, and Daniel Brühl. I so admire his acting.
SC: He’s an Austrian who we admire very much and, unfortunately, Hubertus Czernin passed away at age fifty, terribly young. We wanted to pay tribute to him.
SKA: That’s great. I believe you did. I want to say thank you and tell you best of luck with the film. I enjoyed it immensely.
SC: I’m really pleased. I’m really grateful for your enthusiasm. Thank you so much.
Photo Credit: Weinstein and FilmFestival.com
Sarah Knight Adamson© March 30, 2015