This year, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is turning ten years old. Since its release in 2008, the film has become something of a “modern classic.” Educators commonly show it in schools as a teaching tool and, even though it is historical fiction, it’s often held in the same esteem as films such as Schindler’s List. The music is subtle, intimate, and humble. It’s not one of Horner’s best-known scores, and yet many Horner fans declare it as their favorite. Mark Herman, screenwriter and director of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, graciously agreed to share memories of making the film and especially of working with James Horner, along with images from the recording sessions.
Firstly, can you introduce yourself to us? How/why did you become a screenwriter and director?
I’m Mark Herman, writer and director of, among other films, Brassed Off, Little Voice and The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. I became a film-maker largely because I was basically hopeless at everything else I tried. I studied Graphic Design late, as a mature student, at Leeds, in the North of England, but failed to get into the ‘final options’ for the last two years of the course (eg Print-making, Graphics, Illustration). The only option that would have me was the Film Department, one that I had barely heard about let alone contemplated. There, having since childhood been quite handy at (my one and only string point) drawing, I took up animation. With my animated shorts I got into the National Film School, outside London. There I found myself working alongside geniuses like Nick Park (of Wallace & Gromit fame), so the immediate inclination was to just give up. Instead of giving up completely, I sort of moved sideways, into screenwriting, into live action, and graduated from there with a 30 minute comedy that I wrote and directed and which won an Academy Award. I foolishly presumed it was always going to be that easy. I’ve had a mixture of hits and misses, all of which have been a continued education.
Some films feel dated the week after they’re completed. I never know why this doesn’t apply to all films, but I’m happy that I’ve made a couple that don’t seem to suffer in that respect. I think this is one of them. Obviously it’s helped by its historical context, but I think it is more to do with the subject matter not being specific to the era portrayed. Man’s inhumanity to man sadly remains a permanently current topic. What stands out most about this film being ten years old, and what I find most troublesome, is that it’s ten years old.
Many of your screenplays have been based on novels. How did you find John Boyne's novel, and what challenges did you face in adapting it into a screenplay?
John and I shared the same agency and I was sent an early galley copy of the book, well before publication. Most novels that are going to end up being movies will normally be snapped up around that time, if not earlier, but this one hadn’t been. Despite word being very good about the book, no studio had bought the movie rights. I sensed there was a negativity in the air, merely based on the subject matter: “Who needs another Holocaust movie?” To some extent I understood that angle. There was nothing new about a Holocaust movie, nothing new, even, about a Holocaust movie seen through the eyes of a child, but seen through the eyes of a German child? That was new to me. What was also new to me was this opportunity to buy the rights myself for a while, giving me the opportunity to write a few drafts on my own first, be my own boss, before taking it anywhere. I felt that studios hadn’t quite been able to imagine the film when they had read the book, but if they read a screenplay they might more easily do that. And the only way for there to be a screenplay, at least written by me, was to buy those rights myself, which I did. A few private drafts later and that’s what happened – Miramax took it on.
Much of the film's power is in the performances. What was your approach to directing the young actors? The actors in general?
It was always going to be important, crucial even, to protect the children’s innocence regarding the subject matter. At auditions, I’d always ask these 8, 9 or 10 year olds what they knew about the holocaust, there was an interesting range of knowledge, from very cognizant, very knowledgeable, to almost complete unawareness. As it turned out, Asa and Jack, the two boys I eventually chose to play Bruno and Shmuel, had about equal grasp of the facts, very faint and occasionally distorted. We tried, throughout the shoot, to keep things that way. Obviously they read the script, and discussions on set about the Holocaust were hard to avoid, but the very general aim was to try, by not overloading them with education of the facts, to make their acting of innocence as easy as possible for them. I think, on that score, we largely succeeded. There are moments when that clearly shows on screen.
Of course, filming with children is never easy, but this was made doubly difficult by the fact that there were two of them. On a film, child actors under a certain age can only be ‘on set’ for a very limited number of hours. They have to be fed, watered, tutored etc etc., their schooling has to continue. That’s bad enough with one child actor, but when you have two, and virtually no other scenes without children that you can turn to in their absence, the schedule becomes very difficult. It meant that in the scenes by the fence, when Bruno and Shmuel meet, I think they were pretty much only both there when they were both actually in shot. When you can just see one of them, the other one probably isn’t there, he’s busy in lessons somewhere, and the remaining child is acting opposite a grown up stand-in, or maybe even just a stick with a face stuck on it. It’s something grown up actors often have to do – act opposite somebody (or something) that isn’t the actual actor in the scene, and they find it difficult, so our two main child actors did amazingly well.
One problem we had on the shoot was that Asa, playing the fit and well and supposedly bouncy Bruno, was actually fairly lethargic and tired all the time, whereas Jack, who played the supposedly starving, drained and downtrodden Shmuel was energetic as anything, bouncing off the walls. We managed this as best we could by the gifting and denying of chocolate. We’d feed Asa as many sweet things as was legal in order to get him more active, and – in a cruel mirroring of the subject matter – starve Jack of anything remotely resembling food!
When you shoot a film you very rarely shoot it in the order that the story goes. In this case, though, we made absolutely sure that the final scene we were to shoot would be the final scene in the film. When I met Asa and Jack when we were casting the film, it was clear they knew very little about the Holocaust. I was keen that they retained that innocence as much as was possible. Of course they read the script, so got a better idea, but I thought the final scene is going to be so brutal and upsetting that we should best leave it to the very last thing. Which we did. And actually, the shooting of that scene was easily the hardest on the two of them. Very upsetting for them. But their upset was soon cancelled out because the next minute they were celebrating the end of their work on the whole film.
As for the other actors, I think their own research helped them a great deal more than any direction from me. They both read an awful lot about life in actual Kommandant’s family houses, often very close by Death Camps, biographies and memoirs, so David Thewlis and Vera Farmiga, playing the Kommandant and his wife, were absolutely on the button from the moment we even met. And I hugely respected them for that, and still do, because both roles are far from easy.
How did James Horner become involved with the project? There are stories that he really lobbied to be part of the project. Can you elaborate on that?
During the final weeks of the shoot I was encouraged by the studio to listen to many, many composers’ work to at least draw up a short list to invite on board. On the one hand it isn’t easy to turn your mind away from directing, even for half an hour, to listen to various scores, but on the other hand, you are actually in the right mindset, in the right mood, especially as we were shooting some quite emotional moments, such as the atmospheric dining room scene and even the final gas chamber scene, so it actually wasn’t a bad time to start considering score, and its importance.
I had a short list of about three or four composers. I had James on that list but not with any realistic hope. We weren’t a big budget film, and I’d been advised that, on that basis, we’d never get someone like James. But, a bit like casting actors, sometimes you leave unrealistic names on short lists simply because ‘you never know’, so I left his name on the list.
When we’d got a decent rough cut of the movie together, that’s when we sent it out to the short list of composers. I was slightly embarrassed that James Horner was even grouped in a short list, but again it was that feeling that he was so unlikely to say yes that we had to go out to other, more realistic options at the same time. I was astonished, then, when he so quickly came back to say yes. Money was absolutely not an issue as far as a fee was concerned, though he was adamant he needed a specific budget to achieve the score he imagined. I’m unaware of the stories he “lobbied for the project”, I’m only aware that the second the message got through to me that he wanted to do it, I said “yes”. If that was the result of any lobbying, I don’t know, but if it was, he needn’t have bothered!
How familiar were you with his work before this project?
I would say I was as familiar as most people – I mean his filmography is enormous – but then again, I was sent a lot of his music that, actually, I wasn’t familiar with; some probably unpublished, unused, but maybe he’d chosen to put on the demo with ‘Pajamas’ specifically in mind. In the weeks that we started editing I’d listen to his music more than anyone else’s, even though – as I say – I didn’t think we’d get him in a million years.
What were your initial instructions for the music? How did James Horner follow them, and in what ways did he surprise you?
I spoke to James a few times on the phone but the first time I met him face to face was actually at the first spotting session in L.A. He surprised me by being extremely late! In all honesty he also wasn’t that easy to communicate with. It’s hard anyway to offer ‘instructions’ to somebody as experienced as he was, but that day he didn’t make it any easier for anybody. It was not a particularly smooth first meeting. After what he told me days afterwards, however, it was completely understandable. Unfortunately James was, at that moment, particularly in fact on that very day, going through some extremely tough private issues. Once he explained things to me, we got on very well indeed. I know that the emotional issues he was having at the time helped him find the emotional core of his score. I know that because he told me as much.
Did you spend any time in his studio? James Horner personally performed the piano on the score. Was that part of it being such a personal project for him that he needed to be in there helping to tell that story?
Yes, and it’s a memory that will stick with me. He was due to come down to L.A. to do further spotting and to play me a demo of his thoughts up to that early stage, but a huge rainstorm had swept away some of the road from his house. So instead, the studio told him to stay where he was and hired a special SUV (I would say almost military) to take me up to his. I was clearly the more expendable talent. I spent the day up there, in his amazing studio, discussing the film and his proposed score. Sometimes it’s difficult for non-musicians like myself to quite manage the leap of imagination that’s required to ‘hear’ the proposed eventual score just from a demo via two hands on a piano keyboard, but somehow, I don’t know how or why, the leap felt easy that day.
Again, I think the very unhappy ‘place’ he was in in his own head at that time heavily influenced his composition at that early stage. Certainly it felt like his own state of mind was helping to determine the tone, and lay the very foundations of what he was trying to achieve. While he spent much of these weeks set aside for composition in an emotional trough, by his own admission, working on that composition helped him climb out of it.
I suspect, yes, his decision to personally perform the solo piano in the final recording of the score was an indication of how emotionally attached he was to the project, not just through the subject matter, but also because of what had been going on in his life at the time. In my naivety I thought he did that regularly, but it was clear, on the days he performed, it was a very personal thing for him.
This music feels very heavy. It weighs on you, but it also has moments of great beauty and fun, moments that celebrate childhood. How do you think he managed to balance these qualities?
I suppose that’s way he was paid the big bucks (except on this project!). We certainly discussed in some detail the range of tones that were going to be required, the innocence, the naive exploration, then the confusion, each music cue getting slightly heavier, until the final hugely weighty one. Simultaneously, visually, the film’s color goes through the same subtle change, the bright colors of the early scenes in Berlin, gradually becoming more and more desaturated as the darkness of the story unfolds. James played with the same moods in parallel.
What musical colors did James Horner want to give to the opening scene, which still speaks of innocence, even carelessness, while announcing by its modulations the drama to come?
I guess I’ve just answered this one above. He obviously didn’t have the graded version to play with, so the colors as far as his composition was concerned came simply through discussion. The film itself tells an obvious story, so James didn’t need much nudging to go, musically, along the road from the child’s eye innocence, through the freedom of escape, then the doubt and the awfulness of learning, and the final despair. It was very important for the movie to begin in that cosy mood of innocence, crucial that we feel this family is nice and normal, to believe Bruno’s faith in his world, his family, his father, and James’s opening cue helps with that mood. I think we the audience know instantly that yes, we’re in a cosy place right now but it’s not going to be for long. Although it’s comfortable, pleasant, there are certain chords gently embedded in there that feel foreboding, ominous, portentous.
With its both synthetic and classical colors, James Horner’s music marks both the time of history and is universal, because human barbarism does not belong to a given period. How does this dichotomy seem important to you?
It’s an interesting area, this. Just from a film-making perspective, rather than a musical one, this was the first time I had dealt with a period story, so there was plenty of careful decision-making that needed to be done. It doesn’t always help with a story such as this that the present day movie audience watches with the benefit of historical hindsight, and because they have that retrospective knowledge, they find it incredible, for example, that the German people didn’t know what was going on in the concentration camps, let alone the wife of one of the Kommandants in charge, but this was actually the case. I felt it was important, when writing the screenplay, to use one character, the mother, to symbolize the innocence and ignorance of the German population at the time. There were several times when the dialogue felt better in 21st century-speak more than a more accurate wartime version, especially the way the children spoke. There are a lot of examples in the film, even including the way characters hold their cutlery at dinner, where we are mixing 1940’s with present day behavior. This is way off your question, but I suppose the same applied in a way to James’s choice of instrumentation in the final score, and his careful mix of synthetic and classical.
How did you discuss with James Horner the final scene, including this chilling vision of the clothes in the final shot (with the camera moving back)? How to speak with music after something that calls rather for silence and meditation? (By gathering in music, communing with yourself, engaging in private prayer?)
Even as early as that first spotting session, James already had ideas about the end. It was crucial, because in the following weeks I was having major disagreements with the studio about the end of the film. I was very married to the version we already had (which was the way, thankfully, it stayed), but the argument was helped somewhat by James being so fiercely adamant about his own musical take on it. It’s long – at ten minutes, quite a rarity – but also hugely powerful. There are moments in one’s film-making career you remember because they are just magical, and that moment when I first heard James’s score, put alongside picture, in the Eastwood Sound Stage at Warner Brothers, when all the elements came together so knock-out powerfully, was one of them. Actually the best of them.
Of that ten minutes, the final thirty second are one long, almost unbearable screech, the discomfort of what you are watching is made even more agonizing by this assault on the ears. As the film was being released I was lucky enough to see several screenings in very good cinemas, where the sound was perfect, and the effect was absolutely stunning. Audiences were shocked, often distraught, and I suppose that was the intention. But those deeply uncomfortable moments are then immediately followed by the beautiful reprisal of the main theme, in a gentle invitation for, as you say, reflection and meditation. The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a film after which audiences don’t want the lights to go up, because of the emotional state they’re in. That long track back, that final shot of the discarded pajamas, together with James’s delicate, sympathetic treatment, gives not only time, but helpful comfort, whilst at the same time still quietly wrenching the heartstrings.
James Horner was known for specifically seeking projects that moved him. What do you think it is about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas that touched him personally?
James told me that he was fearful the movie might not match the way it had been pitched to him, so it was flattering to know that, when he did see our first rough-cut, it was enough to convince him to carry on! Naturally his Jewish heritage will have played a part in that initial interest, but I think he became genuinely emotionally immersed in the project and, as mentioned, unfortunate events in his private life enhanced, rather than marred, his whole contribution.