Having helmed the recent Marilyn Monroe biopic, My Week with Marilyn – you would imagine that the Simon Curtis project that follows would come with considerably less pressure. However the filmmaker has once again tackled a real life story, with his sophomore endeavour Woman in Gold – steeped in cultural and academic history. When speaking to HeyUGuys in the build up to the film’s release, he explained it’s the only way he likes to work.
“Fiction is out of fashion,” he stated. “Reality TV, real stories, you think of the films that have popped in the last five years, and very many of them are real people stories. Imitation Game, Theory of Everything, King’s Speech and so on.
“The rom-com is dead as a genre, we all know the beats, and we’re very familiar with that. Hopefully someone can reinvent it, but nobody wants to see a couple struggling, and running to the airport at the end for the reunion anymore. No-one wants to see that. But that’s one of the reasons reality TV takes off, because at it’s best, it’s quite surprising. Things happen that you haven’t predicted. For me I love that sense of delving into the research and finding out as much as you can about the real story.”
Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, who teams up with rookie lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to claim back an immensely valuable – and personally significant – piece of art which was stolen from the former’s abode during the Second World War.
This incredible tale was first introduced to Curtis when he watching the telly at home. “I just saw a documentary on the BBC and thought, there’s something in that,” he said. “You can get into those rooms and there could be an emotional story behind this.
“Both films I’ve made have started with me stumbling across an idea that anybody could. With My Week with Marilyn, people often ask if I found those diaries in an attic, but I bought them in Waterstones! In this case, anyone could have seen the documentary.”
Without realising, the aforementioned painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by artist Gustav Klimt – is one that Curtis has always been fond of. “Funnily enough my sister found a postcard I’d sent her when I was a teenager and it was that painting. I love it. “
But the real joy for Curtis, came in directing this stellar cast – which he admits elevates the entire experience for him – particularly the case for Mirren.
“I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with some great actors and actresses, but Helen is phenomenal,” he said. “Not by accident is Helen one of the greatest actresses in the world. It’s not a little bit easier, a whole lot easier. On the last day of filming in LA, we were filming very close to where Maria’s real home was. Two of her family came to watch Helen as Maria was very moving actually.”
Expecting a fine performance from Mirren is standard procedure, but this still feels like something of a departure for Reynolds – but Curtis was confident from the off-set that this role was ideal for the Canadian actor.
“ Ryan is a really smart guy and a talented actor, and like the real Randy, has a sweetness to him. There is some sense that he’s trying to reinvent his career, and I felt very lucky to meet him and get him. I often see these guys on talk shows and see what they present, and he had a lovely, self-effacing quality that struck me.”
One actor who Curtis is particularly fond of, is his former lead, Eddie Redmayne – who played Colin Clark in My Week with Marilyn, before going on to win the Best Actor award at the Oscars for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
“I was very proud of him,” Curtis said. “He’s an amazing man and an amazing actor and My Week with Marilyn helped him on the trajectory, so I’m very proud of that. He’d been in a few other films, but I think they saw this before he was cast in Les Mis, and that led to playing Stephen Hawking. There’s more of an appetite for British actors worldwide than there ever has been before.”
One of Redmayne’s fellow nominees, and another hugely in demand actor is Benedict Cumberbatch – and Curtis can see why he’s decided to get involved in the Marvel Universe, though admitted it’s unlikely to be a path he takes himself.
“ Most actors, like Benedict Cumberbatch, who can do anything he wants in the whole world, is doing a superhero movie. They all want that 500 million movie on their CV’s, don’t they?”
“But I’m not a big special effects guy. I like human stories, but let’s see what happens.”