On Tuesday, September 27, the KCET Cinema Series screened "Denial" at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The much-anticipated film is based on the true story of Deborah Lipstadt, an author and college professor who had to fight a libel case against her to prove that the Holocaust happened. Rachel Weisz stars as Lipstadt. The film also features Timothy Spall as Holocaust denier David Irving and Tom Wilkinson as Richard Rampton, the barrister who argues on behalf of Lipstadt.
Following the film, director Mick Jackson ("The Bodyguard," "Temple Grandin") joined KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond for a lively Q&A session about the film and denial of historical facts. A portion of the interview, edited for length and clarity, appears below.
The KCET Cinema Series is generously sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. The fall season continues weekly through October 10 at the Aero Theatre.
Mick Jackson on why he directed "Denial."
The reason I did this movie — three reasons. I had just done "Temple Grandin" and that went quite well. I thought, I'll take a break for a bit and I'll only do a movie that I really want to do and not anything else. This plopped onto my map. It said, "Denial by David Hare." When anything written by David Hare comes across your doorstep, you read it immediately. I put my beer down even.
I'm sure you know all his movies: "The Reader."
Pete Hammond: "The Hours."
MJ: And it's about something important. As you'll gather from the stuff I've done, I really like to do movies that have some meat to them, some social content where there's a nuclear war or Iraq or autism or whatever. I saw this was about something that was really, really important, which was the big lie. Ninety years ago, practically, Adolf Hitler coined this term — große lüge — when he was writing "Mein Kampf." The big lie. The lie that's so outrageous, so colossal that people believe it because no one could possibly make it up... The finessing of that was repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. The internet does that now with big lies too. It becomes part of the culture very quickly. You repeat the same thing on cable news, on the internet and on talk radio.
Holocaust denial is the biggest lie of all. That was one reason. The second reason, I really thought that Deborah's story was interesting. Interesting for a paradoxical reason. She's a wonderful person. I spent a lot of time with her. She is very feisty, just like Rachel Weisz who plays her in the movie, very impassioned, very bright. When you have a movie like "Erin Brockovich," where you start with somebody who is really nobody and suddenly all kinds of stuff is visited on them, injustice or evil and they fight to achieve a voice and by the end of the movie, they do this amazing, articulate speech in act three and it brings the house down. Everybody applauds. This was the reverse of that. She started out as that. She's a very ferociously intelligent, really passionate, very self-sufficient woman with a voice. What happens to her, you see in this movie, is that she is asked to subdue that voice. The irony is that it's a movie about denial. That was the act of self-denial that was forced on her. That seems to be a really unusual structure for a movie too.
The final reason — long answer to a question you didn't even ask — I went to Auschwitz 40 years ago for the first time. I was a young documentary-maker for the BBC. It affected me profoundly. When this script 40 years later landed on my desk, I thought, I've been there. I was appalled by it, deeply moved by it and then, seeing the script, angered that somebody should deny something so fundamental and say it didn't happen.
On British libel laws and proving the Holocaust.
I think they changed now, but, at the time, you had to prove; if you were accused of libel, you had to prove that what you said was true, which is the opposite of the American system, where the presumption of innocence is required. She essentially had to prove that the Holocaust existed, which is harder to do than you might think because the Germans tried, the Nazis tried to cover as many traces as they could. They moved buildings out. They destroyed documents. Everything they could. So, there isn't a lot of forensic evidence.
If, as with her legal team, you take the decision, 'we don't want you to testify because it will make the trial about you. We don't want to bring in survival witness because it will make the trial about them and their faulty memories,' anything to keep the focus on him. 'The only thing we could do is to keep you silent' and that was an act of great torture inflicted upon her, a woman who has this powerful Queens accented voice. A Bette Midler voice.
It was taking a fish out of water, taking this woman from the safe haven of sunny, warm Atlanta, where she's a professor and has some status, and plopping her down in wet, gray, cold, unfriendly, arcane, centuries-old legal tradition where men where wigs still.
On Rachel Weisz.
Not every actor wants to do this... wants to meet the real person. Some find that it gets in the way of their imagining the person. I usually try and say to actors, "if you want to meet the real person that's still alive, please do." On "Temple Grandin," Claire Danes did the same thing that Rachel did with Deborah Lipstadt. They hung out together. They made coffee together. The went out in the evening together to try and get a bond between the too. Anyone here read the New Yorker? Next issue, it's on the stands tomorrow, there's a lovely article by Tad Friend having coffee with Rachel Weisz and Deborah Lipstadt at a cafe in New York and you get some idea of the chemistry between the two.
It's great for me. On "Temple Grandin," I used a dialect coach for Claire Danes. Used the same dialect coach to coach Rachel in this movie.
[The accent] required constant study, every day on the set. Every scene. Every shot that we did, she would be listening on headphones. The real Deborah, we couldn't keep her away from the set. She loved being there in the film of her life, so she was there on hand for any kind of advice. All the people, practically all the people, Tom Wilkinson — everybody except for Timothy Spall, who played Irving — met their counterparts — and all of them got on like a house on fire with the people they were playing. Richard Rampton and Tom Wilkinson met each other and said, "hey, let's go for a cigarette." Went outside. Drank whisky.
On Holocaust denier David Irving.
We didn't meet with David Irving. He has his own website, which you see in the movie. He started saying extremely rude things about the movie. He refused to call it "Denial." He called it "Dental." The movie. "Dental." He said very hurtful things. He said, "I can't believe they cast a beautiful Hollywood actress to play the Neanderthal Deborah Lipstadt." He used that word, Neanderthal. Better casting choices, he said, would include Ernest Borgnine to play her. Isn't that awful? He's an equal opportunity offender.
I was shooting in London and every weekend, I would walk through Mayfair to get exercise. I was worried I would bump into him. He does research. He would know what I look like. I know I would know what he looked like.
His latest thing, and I don't know if he's still doing it, but he was while we were shooting the movie, was to take tourists to concentration camps. Think about that. You would pay two thousand pounds a head and he would take you on tours of Treblinka or Majdanek. He called them the "Truth Tours" and he would show you the evidence and talk about it.
On the truth in "Denial."
It is about historical truth, so I think the obligation is to make it as true as we can. There's a caption in front of the film that says "based on a true story." It says that for legal reasons, but as David Hare says, it is a true story. All this actually happened. All the interactions between the characters, the tension between Deborah Lipstadt and the legal team, everything that happened is what actually happened. They did go to Auschwitz. They did have a row about Rampton seeming heartless and cruel by not accepting where they were and being respectful, but he was trying to gather forensic evidence. He was trying to get the professor to stand up to cross-examination in court. All that happened.
On Timothy Spall playing David Irving.
Such a courageous actor. Early on, we were trying to think who could we possibly get to play David Irving. We sent the script out to various people — I'm not going to name who they were, their agents — and it came back saying no, nobody wants to play this awful person. We went to Timothy and he said, "yeah, sure."
Because he is so brave, he has played, in his time, Ian Paisley, recently, the Irish reverend. I won't say anymore than that. He has played the last hangman of England, Albert Pierrepoint. He played J.M.W. Turner, the painter who grunts while he speaks. And, this role is just another very difficult role. He said, "I want to find the humanity in this man, wherever it is. I don't want to make him sympathetic, but this is not a monster from another planet, this is a human being and that's even scarier." He told me that as part of his preparation, he did two things: He went to a film clip, very scratched, of Hitler outside the chancellery in Berlin as the Russians approached, outside the bunker. He was revealing the troops and it was boys and old men. In that little fragment of film, Hitler was ruffling their hair and straightening their buttons and, in that moment, he was human. He was a monster, but he was human.
He also said that he took a photograph of David Irving, knowing that the left-hand half and the right-hand half of the brain are separate, different things. He said, "I put my hand over one eye and looked into the other eye and I saw a frightened abandoned child. I did it with the first eye and I saw a sociopath." He tried to bring those into his performance. It really cost him. He was really getting uncomfortable by the time we did the last scenes, being inside that shell. When we shot the scene of the egg being thrown outside of court, he was really upset because he didn't want to be this person anymore. He couldn't help being that person in that moment. It was shaming to be hit by an egg.