It wasn’t that the holocaust touched British filmmaker Mick Jackson, more that he touched it.
That’s what persuaded the former The Bodyguard and LA Story director to return to big screen filmmaking after 14 years to make Denial.
Based on Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, it dramatists her defence against David Irving’s charges of libel. He claimed she was part of a worldwide conspiracy attempting to discredit him as a historian.
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Speaking on the phone from his home in Santa Monica, the now 73-year-old director Jackson admits he knew nothing of the 2000 trial until he read Denial’s script.
“I had been looking for something as intense as Temple Grandin [his 2010 TV movie which won seven Emmys and star Claire Danes a Golden Globe]. It took me a couple of years, but then I came across this, which had, as somebody once described it to me, “some moral muscle”.
“I remembered that I had in fact visited Auschwitz with Dr [Jacob] Bronoswki as part of the BBC’s The Ascent of Man documentary series in the early 1970s. I stood in the pond at the back of the crematoria where the Nazis had thrown the Ashes because they had run out of other places to throw them – and you could see this kind of scum on the bottom of it. As part of this shot I was setting up, I had to walk into that pond and take a handful of ashes, because that’s what my presenter was about to do. So I actually touched the Holocaust with my hands.
Jackson says he has felt “the emotion of that moment” in the more than 40 years since and felt this story might be a way of getting some closure for that. “Tell this story of a man who denied that all that happened.”
However, he believes, that while the story is about one specific event from the past, it actually has a global resonance with what is happening right now.
“When David Hare [the screenwriter] and I began working on this six years ago, it felt like it was also about the lies that were being told about the theory of evolution, climate change and the birth status of Obama. About telling lies for political or ideological reasons. I don’t think either of us dreamed that it would become as relevant as it is now.
“It actually only dawned on me and the real Deborah Lipstadt when I was doing a research visit with her before we started shooting. It occurred to both of us at the same point that everything we said about David Irving was true of Donald Trump. He’s a very clever manipulator of audiences and great with crowds. – almost like a stand-up comic. But he’s also a man who presents himself as a man of the people, a patriot, a truthsayer who will tell you the things that other people daren’t say and identify who is to blame for all your worries and sorrows. Making that connection gave me an extra frisson of relevance and urgency to make this film.”
Denial’s American distributors realized that too, releasing it there just as the US Presidential Debates were taking place. “They thought the issues raised by this movie would be very resonant with people who were listening to those same things being talked about on TV by the candidates,” says Jackson.
He laments that it didn’t have more impact on the eventual result, although, he says, now that Trump is President, it feels even more relevant.
“Particularly when you see someone who is a ‘falsifier of history’, which is how the judge described Irving. He was someone who was also a fascist, an anti-semite, xenophobic and misogynistic. Seeing someone like that taken to task in courtroom where you can’t wriggle out of it, or crack a wisecrack to get the audience roaring with laughter, I think is an object lesson that maybe some of what’s happening now would be best sorted out in the courts. ”
Having both the falsehood and the rebuttal of it in the same place also might prove interesting to modern day audiences, Jackson says. “What happens at the moment is Trump goes on Twitter and says whatever he says, but those who read him never see the rebuttal by any of the fact-checking sites, or The New York Times on their Twitter feed. I have noticed CNN has started doing real-time fact checking across the bottom with his press conferences, so maybe we are moving towards that.”
But aside from its relevancy, Jackson says one of the main appeals of Denial’s story is its emotional core. “It’s the story of a woman who is plucked out from obscurity in sunny Atlanta and put into this chilly, alien world of London. And it’s not just the weather I’m talking about. The people have this coldness of spirit and her passion is answered by what she thinks is a certain cold-hearted attitude to just focusing on the facts.”
In fact, in a way, Jackson believes, Denial goes contrary to almost every thing a Hollywood drama normally does.
“Think of something like Erin Brockovich, where you pluck a heroine from obscurity who doesn’t have a voice, who is not articulate and not particularly distinguished or skilled, yet is forced by circumstance to take on this battle and, in doing so, acquires a voice. Then, in the last act, and it’s the same in many a Jimmy Stewart movie, they make this powerful speech and bring the house down.
“Well, here we’ve got this woman who goes the other way. She starts out being an empowered, feisty woman, who knows her subject and is really ace at manipulating the press and putting forward her viewpoint. Then her legal team tell her, ‘we know you want to turn up in court and confront this guy and tell him he’s a liar and a falsifier of history. Don’t do it. We’re going to take your voice and silence it, because otherwise he will make the case about you.”
Describing dramatizing that as a difficult task, Jackson has nothing but praise for his collaborator Hare. “He actually made the act of her being silent in court an act of self-denial, which is very heroic. She doesn’t get the power and the glory and the great emotional rush of confronting the guy, but there will be a reward for that if he loses the case.”
Securing Rachel Weisz to play Deborah Lipstadt was also key to the film’ success, Jackson believes.
“She is alike in personality to Deborah as you could possibly be. Rachel is feisty, passionate, smart, opinionated, head-strong and intensely talented. She is such a wonderful actress to work with – very brave. She believes in trying to be in the moment, not knowing what the outcome of the scene is going to be and allowing herself to be vulnerable. Other actors I know don’t like to do that. They like to go through a process of rehearsal and finding ‘motivation’.”
While Weisz was one of a number of actress’s keen to play Lipstadt, finding someone willing to play Irving was a far more difficult task, admits Jackson.
“The producers went to various agents for well-known actors – and you can fill in your own list for who might have played David Irving – and they almost all in unison told them ‘you must be joking. You must be out of your mind – nobody is going to play this character, I’m not even going to show this to my client’. We sent it to Timothy [Spall] and he said ‘oh, very interesting – I think I can play that’.
“I can’t tell you how wonderfully courageous he was in taking on the role. He is so brave. He’s a guy who has taken some very complex characters – like the last hangman of England Thomas Pierrepoint, the Northern Irish politician Iain Paisley and the grunting English painter Turner.”
Jackson says that Spall told him that when he was weighing up whether to play Irving, he remembered people saying that the different lobes of your brain reflect different parts of you.
“He had a picture of Irving and covered up one eye and saw ‘a dangerous psychopath and a cruel man’. The he covered up the other eye and saw ‘a frightened child, and I knew that in that gap between the two personalities there was somebody I could play. I wasn’t going to play him with empathy, because I don’t feel any for him, but I was going to play him with sympathy as a person, for the purposes of this movie, if I could get inside him and the way he saw the world’.
“I think he did a remarkable job. He did find it difficult, particularly towards the end of the shoot. There’s one scene outside the courtroom where he’s hit by an egg. We had to do that again and again because they kept missing him, or hit him in the wrong place. Everytime we had to do a retake, it seemed to pain him physically for his character to be humiliated in that way.”
The character Jackson himself most identified with though was lawyer Richard Rampton, played in the film by Tom Wilkinson. While the cinematic relationship between him and Weisz’s Lipstadt was inspired by the one between Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Jackson says Rampton’s reaction of visiting Auschwitz was based on the director’s own.
“When I was there 40 years years ago, I felt the anger that he did. As I worked on the screenplay with David, I kept nudging him in the direction of strengthening this key relationship between two people from opposite sides of the social spectrum [Lipstadt was a kind of “Bette Midler-voiced character from Queens and Rampton an Oxford-educated Scottish guy who liked fly fishing and fine wines”, Jackson says] and yet joined together for this common cause.
“I think that makes it more universal as a story. Yes, it’s about denying the Holocaust, but it’s more ecumenical than that. The fact that it didn’t just happen to the Jews – it happened to everybody. It happened to us as humanity, just as Hiroshima is not something that happened just to the Japanese – it happened for all of us and we all have to deal with it. This is a film about truth and lies – period.”
Denial (M) opens in New Zealand cinemas on April 13.