Simon Curtis is one of London’s pre-eminent directors of historical dramas. He moves between the stage and both the big and small screen. He began his career working at the Royal Court Theatre in London and eventually transitioned to directing for film and television, where he has found a niche with BBC television films and adaptations. He has been nominated for six BAFTAs for his screen work, and most recently directed Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh to Oscar nominations for his 2011 film My Week With Marilyn.
Curtis’s latest project, a personal one for him, is the drama Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. Based on true events, the film follows Maria Altmann (Mirren), a woman who escaped Vienna before the Holocaust and hopes to reclaim several Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis stole from her family. Reynolds plays Randy Schoenberg, Maria’s lawyer who escorts her to Vienna to tussle with legal authorities over the possession of one unique painting, considered to be “the Mona Lisa of Austria.”
Last week in Toronto, I spoke with Curtis about his new film. He discussed the Jewish qualities of Helen Mirren, filming in Vienna and bringing the real Randy Schoenberg onto the film.
Check it out below and enjoy!
The film was inspired by the BBC documentary Stealing Klimt. What fascinated you about the story in that film that prompted you to want to make a feature?
Simon Curtis: Randy [Schoenberg] made a point the other day that in the aftermath of the Second World War, which was just a cataclysmic human catastrophe, the art wasn’t the biggest problem. Now, as these people, the last survivors [of the Holocaust] are reaching the end of their lives, it’s become a more live topic. In the case of Maria [Altmann], I was very struck. Her sister died, meaning that she was the last survivor of that family who lived in that time, so it became a very personal campaign for her to take that on before it was too late.
Did you get a chance to meet Maria before she passed away?
Simon Curtis: Sadly not, no.
As a Jewish director, did you find yourself interested in bearing witness to this woman’s life and her family and struggle?
Simon Curtis: Yeah, I suppose down there I actually had that conscious thought. I was actually very touched by the fact that her wedding was the last big social Jewish event before the Anschluss. We tried to get that sense that it’s the end of an era and that sense that this mighty family that lived such a fulfilling and close and loving life could lose that all in an instant.
You’ve directed a lot of period pieces, whether it is film or television. Focusing here on the Second World War, how much research did you do on Vienna in the 1930s?
Simon Curtis: I love digging into the research and looking at photographs and all that. Things like when they’re forced to paint the word “Jew” on the businesses to stop people from renting it, they were actual photographs you can find on Google Images of that. We were re-creating those on the streets of Vienna so that was very powerful. What you tend to do is you seep yourself in as much history and information as you can, and then at a certain point you have to make the film.