According to Christopher McQuarrie, "Valkyrie" was supposed to be a tiny, fast-moving production. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of "The Usual Suspects" got his friend, "Suspects" and "X-Men" director Bryan Singer, interested in filming McQuarrie's tense, unapologetically old-school World War II screenplay (co-written with Nathan Alexander) -- which recounts a failed conspiracy by German officers to kill Hitler, take over the government and end the war in July 1944.
"Bryan and I were going to make this as a little movie between two giant studio movies that Bryan would make," says McQuarrie. "This was going to be $17.5 million, a little project we were gonna have fun doing, and it was going to be us getting back to our roots: 'From the creators of "The Usual Suspects" comes a different kind of lineup.'"
Fate -- or, more specifically, Tom Cruise -- had other plans.
They took the film to Cruise's studio, United Artists, which "led inevitably to a meeting with Tom, and it was expressly understood that this was not a meeting with Tom the actor -- this was a meeting with Tom the studio," says McQuarrie. "We were happy with that.... We weren't there to ask, and he wasn't there to impose. But out of that meeting emerged this partnership. And the movie took on a life of its own."
By "a life of its own," McQuarrie means Cruise decided to take the lead role of conspirator Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the budget blew up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $75-90 million, and the film found itself the subject of endless entertainment-press chatter -- fueled by Cruise's controversial celebrity antics -- about everything from a rough shoot to budget bloat to speculation about whether the accents worked.
"What do you want to know? I'll tell you anything," McQuarrie says. (He'll lay out in detail how an expensive opening battle scene was always in the script, how the "troubled" test screenings never happened, how Cruise was a thoughtful producer, and how "the accent issue" was carefully considered.) "No one called us to verify any of the stories. And in the cut-and-paste universe of bloggers as journalists, they would just forward the story with their own spin on it -- and all of it was reading tea leaves....
"What I'm most proud of in this movie is that it never stopped being that film that we set out to make," he says. "It got bigger, and we got a lot of toys to play with, but it kept the spirit of that gritty, straightforward World War II movie."
McQuarrie (who also wrote and directed the 2000 cult crime flick "The Way of the Gun," which he grossly underrates) talked for nearly an hour about the myths and facts surrounding "Valkyrie," among other things. An edited transcript follows the jump.
YACK-TRACKS, SARAH SILVERMAN'S MOUTH and VERY IMPORTANT WAR MOVIES
MIKE RUSSELL: Before we get started, if I may nerd out for a second: I think your commentary with Bryan Singer on the "Usual Suspects" DVD sort of set the bar on what could be done with those. You guys kind of elevated everyone's game with that.
CHRISTOPHER McQUARRIE: And we will try to do it again. It's been a long time; we've probably stored up too many anecdotes to fit on a two-hour movie.
Q. That bit where you point out all the editing errors with Gabriel Byrne's cigarette? A beautiful moment.
A. Well, if you're going to use [a DVD commentary] as a tool, they should be film school, not braggin' about the movie. I kind of did a warts-and-all commentary for "The Way of the Gun," as well, where I went off on all the mistakes and everything I learned. Because somebody should benefit from all this.
Q. You can almost trace the origin of Sarah Silverman's current popularity to her foul-mouthed rant in the opening scene of "Way of the Gun."
A. [laughs] Which was, I have to say, all Sarah.
Q. Did she improvise a lot of that?
A. Well, what I would do is, between every take, I would give her a specific profanity on which to riff. We were coming up with more and more disgusting ones, and she's ... well, she's a master of the art.
Q. That is a spectacular aria of vulgarity.
Saw "Valkyrie" and really enjoyed it. What struck me was that the film is a throwback to a time before "Saving Private Ryan" -- when movies about World War II didn't have to be Big Important Statements and could just be thrillers.
A. Thank you. What we've been trying to get across -- and what the criticism of the film seems to be -- is that we had the audacity to make a World War II movie that wasn't "important" -- as in, a giant statement about war. I mean, what more do you need than a bunch of Germans trying to kill Hitler? Isn't that all kind of obvious -- do they really need to be sitting around talking about their objection to war?
Q. How dare you let the audience draw their own conclusions!
A. How dare you release a movie at Christmastime that isn't begging for an Academy Award! You either have to release "Marley & Me" or "Changeling."
Q. On a film like this, how much are you as a screenwriter fighting the urge to Underline the Point, as it were?
A. Well, I suffer from a disease that actually prevents me from doing what is required of me with film -- I tend to resist those things that I find so irritating.
What we did when we set out to write the screenplay, Nathan Alexander and I, was to write a movie about the events of July 20. It was not anything more than that. And we learned very quickly that you could cover the events of July 20 in somewhere under 60 minutes. So then we realized, "Okay, the first half of the movie should be the setup -- the stakes of what happens on July 20." And that was the structural mandate, if you will, for putting this movie together. And everything that's done in the movie is in support of that.
So the only point the movie has, really, is "This thing happened. And this is how it happened, and why."
Q. I love how the movie begins with the end of a previous failed Hitler assassination plot -- Branagh's -- and also begins with the violent interruption of Stauffenberg's vocal dissent in the desert theater. It sets the tone.
A. It's really refreshing to hear you say that. Again, it seems as though people are looking for things that aren't there, and expecting them to be there when they don't really need to be.
The kind of movies I grew up with -- "The Great Escape," "The Devil's Brigade," "The Longest Day" and "Patton".... In fact, in earlier cuts of the movie, when characters walked onscreen, their names appeared on the bottom of the screen that told you who they were. We did the full-on "Midway." And a contemporary audience, watching that, would respond, "There are too many characters to keep track of. I don't know who all the people are." And by the way, the script was written with those title cards in mind -- so we didn't put in dialogue that explained who they were. We let the title cards do it. And interestingly enough, when I took out the title cards, that note went away. Because they knew less about the characters, they felt they didn't have to keep track of them.
Q. Oh, that’s interesting.
A. They couldn't keep track of all the information they were being bombarded with.
Q. You said something interesting in an earlier interview: "The closer you get to being historically accurate, the more criticism you get."
A. I think the movie I referenced in that was "Gladiator" -- which takes what I call "a passing glance" at history. There was a Rome. There was an emperor named Marcus Aurelius. His son was named Commodus. And Marcus Aurelius had a good friend and trusted general named Maximus. That's where the facts end. Commodus did not die at the hands of Maximus in the Coliseum in front of everyone in Rome.
Q. After poisoning him.
A. After poisoning him and then stabbing him. Yeah. And so a movie like that, nobody will take shots at. It’s not historically accurate because it's a confection -- it's a fantasy that's borrowing from history to tell a fictional story.
With "Valkyrie," you're making a movie that is representing itself as -- and we were careful to say -- "Based on a True Story." Not "A True Story." I would argue that we come closer to the truth than most of these.... uh, not the truth. As someone once said to me, "The truth is not meant to be believed, it's meant to be experienced." But we came pretty close to the historical record of what happened -- as close as you could come in two hours or less.
Someone will focus on, "That character wasn't in that room when that happened. This meeting did not take place in this building."
And I can say, "Well, did the meeting take place?"
"Did everything they say in the movie happen in real life?"
"Well, yes it did."
When they know that you're representing yourself as a "true story," they'll focus on the things that you didn't get right, and not all the things that you did.
And the level of detail on this movie -- and this is not to toot my own horn; this is to include Bryan, and Tom, and Nathan, and the prop department, the production designers, all the different parts -- the level of detail is so unbelievably extraordinary. It's to the point where when Mertz holds up the British time pencil that they use to detonate the bomb and says, "This is state of the art," we had a half-hour argument about whether "state of the art" was an anachronistic phrase. We went and we looked it up and we found the etymology and the history of the phrase, and agreed as a committee that it was acceptable.
That's the kind of attention we were paying -- and knowing full well that when we're done, they're going to nail us for the two or three liberties that we took. They're going to nail us for the time that we compressed. They're going to be looking at the clock in the corner of the screen and saying, "That didn't happen at 6:15 -- it happened at 6:20."
Q. It's like there's an "Uncanny Valley" of historical accuracy. It's like modern special effects: People only notice them when they're bad.
A. That's exactly right. And by the way: This movie's loaded with 'em -- and you don't seem them because they're not effects that are meant to dazzle and wow you. Tom's hand is digitally removed, but then beyond that, there are things going on in the movie that we could only do digitally, and they're very subtle. And you'll never see them.
A. Yeah -- like when they're storming downtown Berlin. We were allowed to take down the streetlights. We were not allowed to take the security cameras off the side of the Ministry of Finance, which is the former Luftwaffe.
And of course, when you're looking down the street where all the cars are coming at you, two blocks past that are skyscrapers that you had to remove and replace with period Berlin buildings. Things like that. But because it's not a pirate ship in a whirlpool, you don't notice it, because that's not where your eye is going. It's there to help tell the story -- it's not there to tell the story for you.
Q. You're really working the history-buff circuit promoting this film, God help you. I just read your interview with ArmchairGeneral.com, for example, and I was going to ask if you're fending off the nitpickers. But you already sort of answered that question.
A. Armchair General, because they're so nitpicky, they got it. "Armchair General" is actually a great term, because you've got these armchair historians. I read one person's comment saying, "The film's really good, but it takes liberties." And somebody responded to that, saying, "Well, what liberties did it take?" And the guy said, "Well, I don't know -- but I assume it does."
My favorite is when they criticize the trailer, and take shots out of context and say they're historically inaccurate -- but they don't understand what scene that they're in, or what context they'll be used in in the movie. For example, we show a bomb going off in a bunker, and they said, "Well, the bomb didn't go off in a bunker -- it went off in the conference hut!" And that’s because one of the characters -- well, you saw the movie --
Q. That shot's from the "walk-through" scene.
A. Exactly: "Here's everything that's supposed to happen, so you'll appreciate it when it goes wrong."
The other amazing thing is, this movie plays against so many assumptions of World War II, and people take their assumptions as fact. But their assumptions come from other movies, not from history books. One woman was furious with us after a screening: She said, "I can't believe you did that -- Hitler's bunker was not in the woods! It was in Berlin!" Well, yes, that's the bunker where the war ended. But you think we just made that up? Everything we did with the Wolf's Lair was done to architectural specifications. We were extremely anal with the details -- not only the bunker, but also the conference hut, right down to the lighting fixtures.
'THE HITCHCOCK THING' and THE MANY STAUFFENBERGS
Q. I was very pleased to discover that not knowing exactly when a bomb is going to explode can be much tenser than seeing a countdown clock.
A. It's the classic Hitchcock scenario brought to life. He'd been asked to describe what "suspense" was, and he said, "I'll create a scene for you in which two men are sitting in a room and there's a bomb under the table. And one of the men knows there's a bomb under the table and the other man doesn't. And I've not told you everything -- except when."
It had never occurred to us, but after one of the screenings, someone came up and said, "You did the Hitchcock thing." We finally have an example of a movie that does this fanciful scenario.
A. It's a controversial story. Very complex. On the one hand, he's highly regarded. On the other hand, he's a very controversial figure, because the conspirators have been owned by so many different groups with agendas -- from the Communists to the Socialists to the Allies. And they've also been condemned by as many people for being opportunists and for being Nazis themselves. People have accused them of being anti-Semites and getting Hitler out of the way because he wasn't doing enough.
The truth is, when you read their letters, when you read the things they said publicly and things they said as early as 1936, they were humanists. At the core, guys like Ludwig Beck and Goerdeler, why they objected to Hitler was because of what Hitler was doing -- not just in terms of the war, but because of the crimes he was committing. And when the conspiracy was really at its most crucial moment, there was a fear that "now may be too late." Tresckow was the one who said, "They're murdering 16,000 people a day. Something has to be done. We have to try."
If you go and read the history of the German resistance, if you read Stauffenberg's biography, if you read any of Peter Hoffman's books about the subject, you realize that these guys believed, as aristocrats, that their duty was to serve their fellow man -- not to be served because they were of a higher class. And that was something extraordinarily unique to Germany prior to the Third Reich. These guys were a holdover from that era.
A. And then there are two movies from the '50s that were released almost simultaneously, two German films -- one by Pabst. One's called "Jackboot Mutiny" and the other one's called "The 20th of July."
Q. Which of those is your favorite?
A. Honestly, I really like the Pabst film. I loved "Jackboot Mutiny" because it was so spare. It's extraordinarily spare and extraordinarily dry. It’s not about big speeches. And it comes the closest to capturing the stoic nature of who I believe Stauffenberg was under pressure. He was a character, a warm and extremely humorous guy, according to the testimonies we read -- but when he would enter periods of extreme pressure, he became extremely focused. The Pabst film does a really good job with that.
Q. I know you almost joined the NYPD and that you worked at a detective agency for a while. How did that inform your approach to historical research?
A. I think, more than anything, what it informs is that I thought I was writing a World War II movie, and really I was writing a crime film. It seems that what I'm drawn to are scenes of corruption and conspiracy, even when I'm trying to get away from that genre.
I think where the detective work comes into writing a historical piece is in taking a chain of events, putting them all together, looking at a specific character's involvement in those events, and trying to suss out what this person would have to be thinking in order to move from one event to the other. So without manipulating the events, I've got to take this person from scene to scene, and do it in a way where his behavior makes sense -- where his behavior jibes with who he is personally. And so I let the events form the character, instead of the other way around.
TACKLING THE CHATTER
Q. I know there's been a lot of chatter surrounding this movie. And a lot of it was happening while the movie itself had gone unseen, or wasn't even finished.
Q. In other words, almost all of the chatter has been about everything but the work itself. How frustrating has that been?
A. I'll tell you: Where it became frustrating is in the last month or so. While you're doing it [making the movie], it's strange and it's absurd, and I tried to adhere to the Harvey Milk attitude, which was, "Did they spell my name right?"
It was great because they were keeping interest in this movie alive, whether it's positive or negative, through a very lengthy, very meticulous post-production process. We really took our time. We were back from Germany in October of '07, and we were working on the movie for another year. And we could very easily have dropped off the radar. And that chatter and that gossip kept the movie in people's faces throughout.
What's interesting is that you're one of maybe four people who ever asked me. No one called to get a quote from us.... Like, "Well, the release date moved four times. The movie must be in trouble." And I can walk you through the whole process of why the release date changed, why they did it, when they did it. And when you explain it, it makes total sense: Each move was completely calculated, and had nothing to do with the movie being in trouble or trying to move the film to a place where it would be out of the way.
It's a Tom Cruise movie -- it has to come out, you know? It's like, "I don't care what your fears of labor are -- the kid is coming!" And Tom is the studio -- you can't dump the movie, and Tom can't blame anybody else.
So the movie is gonna go big or go home. To think that we were moving the movie for any other reason than trying to find the very best date to maximize our return on this movie was kind of … odd.
Q. One thing I'd heard was that the studio decided not to shoot the opening African-desert battle scene, but re-added it late in production….
A. That was a prime example of why release dates changed.
Tom has a process that he introduced Bryan and I to, which we actually really enjoyed: As we were shooting the movie, every weekend we would sit down and read everything we hadn't shot yet, in the context of what you already had.
Now, as we got deeper and deeper into the movie, knowing that we were going to shoot Africa at the end of production -- because we didn't want to be in the desert in the summertime, so we were going to shoot it in the fall of '07 -- as we're reading through the script, Tom points out, "You know, if we get Africa wrong, it's going to look like Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler because he lost an eye and a hand. We really need to get the motive right with these guys. We need to understand them on a deeper level than I think the scene is doing. So let's table Africa, and let's table these couple of scenes from the beginning of the movie. And let's cut the entire film together and ask ourselves, 'What do we need to frame these characters?'" Which is an absolute luxury that you couldn't have had anywhere else in the world.
So we finished in October, went home, and cut the entire movie together, and took our time doing it -- didn't rush to cut it together to meet some arbitrary deadline of when we had to shoot Africa. We then looked at the whole film and said, "Okay, this is what needs to be said in the beginning of the movie so it doesn't overstate and it doesn't understate."
It has to walk a very fine line in terms of introducing the motives of the conspirators -- and it all had to come out before Stauffenberg gets injured in Africa. But it couldn't be a History Channel sequence at the beginning of the movie. It couldn't be a scene where Stauffenberg witnessed things that he wasn't truly there to witness. And he had to acknowledge things of which he was aware, but which he was not a part of. It was a very fine line we had to walk, a very tight needle and thread -- and we had five minutes to do it. You have five minutes to contextualize World War II and to contextualize the experience of the conspirators.
And ironically enough, by the time we were ready to do it, we were standing in the desert in June.
Q. The reason I brought this up is because I'd heard the film was test-screened without that scene -- and I can't imagine watching the film without that scene.
A. Yeah. There were title cards. Title cards that said, "Stauffenberg in Africa, opposes Hitler, gets wounded." But these were not in test screenings. That's the other thing: There were lots of reports that test audiences were reacting very poorly to the movie -- and those test screenings never happened. Again, someone just wrote that, and people forwarded it along, and no one ever called us for comment.
If we had stepped up and said anything, we would have been defensive. So we just had to grin and bear it.
When we finally did test the movie -- the completed movie -- there was a slightly different beginning. The only scene that wasn't in the movie was the scene in the tent; there was another scene in its place -- another piece of the church scene, where Stauffenberg's in the church with Olbricht. The first test screening scored very high, higher than we ever expected, and each cut that we made after that, the tests went up 5 points -- until the final screening scored 85. And you're talking about a blind audience in Henderson, Nevada, with a World War II movie with no Americans in it that ends the way it does, and people were responding really well to it.
THE LITTLE GUYS
Q. One of the interesting things to me about "Valkyrie" was the way it explored the failure of the assassination plot. Big plans by elite players were constantly undone, throughout the script, by small screwups or split-second decisions by minor functionaries -- like the guys in the radio room who were choosing what orders to forward on.
A. Yeah. [quoting from the movie] "It's a military operation. Nothing ever goes perfectly."
It was very important to Nathan and I, on a script level, that no one in the movie be a sort of mustache-twirling Nazi from "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It was very important to us that everyone in this movie be a human being operating under extraordinary pressure. People in this movie don't do bad things just because they're "bad" -- they do it because they're human beings responding to a system of stimuli.
Those guys in that radio room…. There's one little moment where Bryan turned to Chris -- the guy playing the sergeant who keeps coming in with the orders; that's Lynn Redgrave's son -- and Bryan said to Chris, "When he says, 'Stop all the orders from Stauffenberg,' tell me how you feel about it. And I don't care if you think it's a good thing or a bad thing. Show me how your character feels." And so when the guy said, "Stop all the orders from Stauffenberg," Chris just gave this slight little smile. It's the only moment of enjoyment in the movie, and literally the only moment of this with anyone not inside the conspiracy. But still, within that, is a character who believes that his boss is just punking out on the dream. Chris' reaction is one of accomplishment for having worked on his boss all day; he made a difference in the system.
A. Yeah! He gets annoyed! He's like, "God damn it, I'm swimming, I'm getting my hair cut. This is all so fucking boring." And by the end of the day he was the hero of the Reich.
PUSHING THE SCRIPT
Q. I interviewed the fellows who wrote "Superman Returns," and they said Mr. Singer was fairly infamous for his late-night rewrite sessions. Was there much of that here?
A. Uh, no. They were early-morning rewrite sessions. They were on-set, late-afternoon, lunch….
I was in the trailer every morning with Tom, going over the scenes. I would get to work a half-hour before everybody -- because I was also working as the producer on the film -- and probably about 10 minutes after Tom arrived, I would get called into the trailer, and Tom and I would read through that day's scenes, and we would talk about every line of dialogue, and make changes right there. And we'd go and we'd present those changes to Bryan, and Bryan would think about all of them and digest them, and he'd make his own changes. And then we'd rehearse. During rehearsal, we'd change a whole bunch of other stuff, because once you heard it out loud, it got all turned around again.
And the movie because this sort of exercise in pushing the script to its very limit and bringing it all the way back to where it had started. In the end, the script work would manage to find its way back largely to what it was -- in some cases on the set, in some cases in the editing room. But at the same time, whole sections of the script were reconsidered and re-thought, and always to the betterment of the script, because of that collaboration.
Nathan was great. He was sort of the keeper of the book. He had done all the research, and he had done deeper research than anyone else. When we'd reach an impasse creatively, one of us would invariably say, "Well, what really happened?," and we'd all turn to Nathan. Here's this guy on his first film, book in his hand and always with his red pen in his mouth, saying, "Well, here's what happened on the day…." We’d be sitting down, sometimes in the location where it happened, discussing what had happened there on July 20. And then we'd all look at each other and go, "All right. We'll do that."
Q. And you guys came across a whole cache of secret Nazi-memorabilia collectors over there, right?
A. Yeah. The prop department found a lot of interesting ... I will call them "enthusiasts" ... who provided a lot of genuine stuff from that era.
Q. It's interesting that Singer's screenwriters often go on to direct themselves. What's attracting that kind of screenwriter to Mr. Singer?
A. Um, I don't know if you start as that kind of screenwriter or finish as that kind of screenwriter. [laughs] I think you might walk away saying, you know, "Now I want to do it without re-writing the script." And you do it -- and I did, in the case of "Way of the Gun" -- and realize, "Ah, I probably should have rewritten the script."
Q. [laughs] Now, see, I think you're being a little unfair to "Way of the Gun." I think "Way of the Gun" has a significant cult audience at this point. Surely you've encountered some of that.
A. It's definitely got its hard-core base. It found its audience, and we knew that those people were out there. We just didn't know how few of them there were.
Q. Is it harder to make risky movies like "Usual Suspects" and "Way of the Gun" now than it was at the turn of the century? Are the Artisan-type studios still out there?
A. Yeah, I think there are. Well, look, it comes down to this -- it's sort of my mantra:
Screenplays don't get movies made. Screenplays are an afterthought -- an afterthought to the decision to make a movie. You make a movie because a star has a specific window in his or her schedule, or because a director wants to make a certain kind of movie.
In the case of "Valkyrie," the few people that I tried to show this script to -- not studios; I never took it to a studio; I wasn't going to be bothered with what I knew that path was going to be.... But when Bryan wanted to do it, it went from being a script that no one wanted to read to being the script that no one needed to read, because suddenly you had an A-list director involved. You're talking about a very, very small list of people.
Studios are really just looking to protect themselves with a director. There are a lot of movies to go around and very few trustworthy directors to direct them. Once Bryan got involved, that wasn't an issue any more. Once you get a director at Bryan's level, it's no longer a risk; it's a matter of calculating, "What is this movie worth financially?"
We brought it to United Artists; I'd had a relationship with the studio, and I'd suggested to Bryan that these would be the people who would protect us.
THE OTHER CONSPIRACY
Q. Between your movie and "Inglourious Basterds," I'm kind of hoping we'll see a return to that sort of war movie that doesn't have to be a Statement on War.
A. And I've got a drawer full of 'em just waiting for that era to come back. Nathan and I wrote "Valkyrie" and another project simultaneously. We would trade drafts and re-write one another. The other project is called "The Last Mission," and it's about a coup that took place in Japan on the last night of the war, five days after the atomic bomb. A group of conspirators within the military tried to overthrow Hirohito before he could sign the surrender, so they could trigger the mainland invasion of Japan and force the Americans to reconsider absolute, unconditional surrender. They knew they couldn't win the war, but they thought they could get better terms if they caused the Americans to invade. And they came surprisingly close.
So we spent this one year writing about coups and conspiracies within the enemy -- one in which they were trying to stop the war, and the other kind of an interesting sister piece to "Valkyrie" in which these Japanese officers were actually trying to prolong it long after it was inevitably over.
And there's an American strain to "The Last Mission," because there are two stories happening simultaneously -- it's the Japanese who are trying to overthrow the Emperor, and there are the Americans on the last and longest bombing mission of World War II. And when they take off, they don't know if they'll have enough fuel to make it home -- and the only way that they're guaranteed to make it home with enough fuel is if the war ends before they reach their target. Not knowing that this coup is happening on the ground. And these two events, these two completely separate events, intersect at an unbelievably precise moment in history, and affect one another profoundly, and bring about the end of the war.
It's a great story. It's unbelievable. And again, done with that same, "Here are the characters. There's no star. There's Japanese. There's Americans. There's no good guys, no bad guys -- just guys who want the war to end, and these men who want the war to continue, but for what they believe in, because of their country."
It's a fascinating dilemma. And World War II, more than any other war, provides that -- because the stakes of the war were so clear. And you don't have to spend a lot of time explaining, as you say, the importance of the war. We get that. [laughs] It's heightened conflict. Let's enjoy the conflict.
Q. Okay. Now. As a fan of war melodramas, I'm personally not someone who believes you have to get the dialect just right in historical films -- because by doing it in English, you're already breaking the rules. How did you guys approach this? And did I just answer my own question?
A. The biggest issue is one of accents. It's the thing that everybody who hasn't seen the movie finds the most annoying about the movie.
A. Well, wouldn't it have been absurd? It would have been kind of like this Mel Brooks movie -- where everybody would have been walking around speaking English with this heightened German accent. It just would have been kind of ridiculous. And it's been framed as lazy, or as a choice that somebody else made other than the filmmaker.
The truth of the matter was, we all talked about it. I cited a movie called "The Inner Circle," which takes place in Russia, and everybody in the movie is speaking with this heavy Russian accent -- and they all sound like villains in a Bond movie. I'd been so distracted by the accent, and can’t we all just be human beings in this movie and not worry about that?
Now, what we did to compensate: All the writing is in German. All the background chatter that you're not supposed to hear is in German. You're in this German other-world in which you're allowed to understand what the characters are saying.
And then, as far as what they said: We had to make choices. For example, in Germany the army is not called "the army" -- it's called "the Wehrmacht." You don't say "sir"; in the German army, you say, "Herr General," which would essentially be "Mr. General." So then we, of course, said "General" and "sir" -- we sort of Americanized or Anglicanized the military formality, simply because a direct translation wouldn't work. We called it "the army" and not "the Wehrmacht" because nobody would know what that was.
The War Ministry was no longer called "the War Ministry," and hadn't been called that for many years. The term that they used at the time was " Bendlerstrasse," which is like saying "10 Downing Street" to refer to the Prime Minister's residence -- but we went with the older term, "the War Ministry," so people understood what it was.
Everything like that was considered. Everything was picked over. And in the end, Bryan Singer would ultimately say, "You know what? You gotta go with what sounds right."
David Bamber is British, and has a very distinct British tone. And Bryan said, "You know what? He's playing Hitler, and the audience is going to have a really hard time with a British-sounding Hitler. David, can you do something to adjust it ever so slightly?" So he talks in this slightly Germanized English accent. Hitler was Austrian, and had a very clipped accent, and so David was focusing on his speech mannerisms as much as his quote-unquote "accent." To hear that in English, it just didn't sound right, the way it would sound if he had a slight German accent.
Ultimately, we sort of went scene-by-scene and we would tweak things and adjust it, try it this way, try it that way -- and in the end, Bryan would just say, "You know what? This sounds right to my ears."
Q. And when you hear random German words dropped into World War II melodramas, it's ridiculous: Why only do some of the words?
A. Yeah. There's one single German word that we do use, and that's "Heil." And the direct translation would be "Hail my Fuhrer." And when we did it that way, it sounded like we were in ancient Rome. It had no point of reference in a film about World War II. And so we said "Heil." And because "Seig Heil" and "Heil Hitler" are such definitive terms, we went with that -- but again, without accents.
Q. When you show it in Germany, will it be subtitled or dubbed?
A. Both. There are two different versions. There's a subtitled version, because they often show movies in theaters there in English, because there are a lot of English-speaking people who live in Germany -- a lot of expats. And then you'll also see a dubbed version.
In the English-language version with German subtitles, Tom's voiceover at the beginning of the movie is not in German, it's in English -- because why would you have a guy speaking in German with German subtitles for a German audience who knows that this character's German?
BYE BYE BERTHOLD
Q. You wound up having to explain to Claus' descendants why his brother Berthold was left out of the script. What was that conversation like?
A. I was explaining this to his daughter-in-law. She said, "Why was my father not in this movie?" And I said the challenge there was that Berthold lived with Claus during the whole buildup to the 20th of July. And Berthold was very much the intellectual confidante of Stauffenberg, and helped him to arrive at the conclusion whereby assassination was the only acceptable way out. It was not a decision anyone came by lightly, and it took them a long, long time to get there -- because these were devout Catholics for whom murder was unacceptable.
And Berthold lived in that house. The exterior of the Stauffenberg house in the movie is where Stauffenberg actually lived in Berlin.
A. Oh yeah. And the place where the movie ends, that's where they actually died. Tom is dying on the exact spot where Stauffenberg was executed.
In the original script, Berthold was in there -- but as you began to pare it down, Berthold was in it less and less and less, and he wasn't involved in the central events of the 20th of July. He was involved in the emotional buildup to that day, and he was involved very much in the outer ring of the conspiracy, but he wasn't involved in the assassination plot itself. By the time the script had reached its most refined level, Berthold was essentially a cameo -- his role was so understated that it felt less respectful to leave him in than it did to take him out entirely.
So we merged Berthold's character with Tresckow, and Ken Branagh more or less became the older-brother figure to Tom. But the spirit of Berthold is very much alive in Tresckow.
Q. One of my disappointments with the film was that Tresckow gets sent away early on -- because I was really enjoying Branagh.
A. He's great. He plays it with such a great nervous energy. He shows a great vulnerability. It's what I like -- nobody showed up to this movie to play as a matinee idol. Because they were all guys who were really shitting themselves.