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Recreating History: A Conversation with Simon Curtis

Woman in Gold
06 April 2015

Having fled Vienna during World War II, an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt’s famous painting ‘The Lady in Gold’.

Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way.

The Fan Carpet’s Marc Jason Ali sat down with British filmmaker Simon Curtis ahead of the release of his latest film, Woman in Gold, starring National Treasure Dame Helen Mirren. He tells us about the casting process, what the film meant to him and using colour to depict time periods…



Firstly incredible film, can talked about the casting process, because you’ve got national treasure Helen Mirren, and her onscreen chemistry with Ryan Reynolds is awesome…

Yeah well, when you’re casting a woman like this, Helen’s obviously very high on the list and I was thrilled that she like the script and wanted to do it.


Was Helen onboard straight away?

Not straight away, but she read it and really wanted to do it.

Ryan was not an actor I’d ever worked with, I knew of him, but had never met him but he has the sweetness of the real Randy and the intellect of the real Randy. 

So it worked well but then you’ve no idea if they’re going to have a dynamic that works because it was an odd couple, the film that was the whole point. They met on our first day of rehearsals and liked each other immediately.


You’ve also got some great supporting players like Jonathan Pryce towards the end…

It was great to get Jonathan, he said ‘I’ve been offered coughs and spits in my time but this is neither a cough or a spit’ so I had to really beg him to do it.


You’ve got some really up and coming talents in the film, most notably Tatiana Maslany, can you talk about working with her?

Perfect! She’s really special.  She’s got a brilliant attitude, she’s a lovely girl and very talented. I think they were lucky in Orphan Black to have found her, because not many people can pull that off and in this film she was just an utter joy.


The other the other castings like Max Irons, how important was it to get him onboard?

I’m always very ambitious with my castings, and I always say ‘let’s ask and see what happens.’ Being in London, we’re very lucky because you can ask them to come out to Twickenham for a day and they might do that. It was also very important to get German actors and we got very good actors, like Daniel Brühl.


It’s a historical film, with a subject matter that I personally didn’t know anything about, the painting that the story revolves around at least. Can you talk about the responsibility you felt as a filmmaker to bring that story to the big screen. 

Yeah, it’s a very precious story to me and a lot of people, we were creating a community in Vienna that was shattered overnight when the Nazis came in, so that was very important and I do think it’s a very significant painting; a painting that somehow epitomises the Twentieth Century, because it was created in Vienna at the beginning of the century when Vienna was this hotbed of all these great ideas; art, science, Freud and so on. It ended up in America at the end of the century when America was the dominant cultural force in the world.  



I liked the contrast between the time periods, the way the film changed from colour to black and white, can you talk about why you felt that you wanted to go that route?

Well we had three different time periods.  The golden period at the beginning, which seemed right.  And we wanted L.A or the modern world to be as bright and accessible as possible and it’s not quite black and white, it’s just desaturated in the past which just seemed right.


What research goes into tackling a subject of this of this nature?

You do all the obvious things; museums, online, talking to people, video footage of key areas like where the Jews were made to paint the walls, that was all recreated in the movie. We showed all this to the AD’s.


Would you say that the film is a passion project for you, and was it something you always wanted to put on the big screen?

Yes it was, I had watched a documentary and I thought there was a movie in it, I’d say it was a four five year journey.


What are you working on next?

I’m not really sure at the moment, once this is done, we’ll see what happens


Do you want to get into history again?



Has anyone from the from the Altmann estate actually seen the film and what do they make of it?

Yes. Well Randy was obviously very involved, so he’s seen it, I think her grandson has seen it too.


Do you have a wish list of who you want to work with?

Funnily enough, I’ve been so lucky with who I’ve worked with both here and in America, the ones I want to work with, I can’t because they are no longer with us, but there are a lot of great actors out there that I’d love to work with.

Woman in Gold is more of a Drama, are there any genres that you haven’t done yet that you’d like to?

I’d love to find a really wonderful comedy.



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