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Shades of Grey

Tim Blake Nelson talks about transferring The Grey Zone from stage to screen. logo
Tim Blake Nelson
It's yet another of those long, grueling movie junket days for actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), playwright (The Eye of God), and film director (O) Tim Blake Nelson. Over the past few months, he's been on three other junkets to promote films in which he was appearing -- the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise sci-fi spectacular Minority Report plus the indies Cherish and The Good Girl (opposite Jennifer Aniston). But now Nelson's focus is on his screen adaptation of his Off-Broadway play The Grey Zone and he's here at the Bryant Park Hotel as writer/director, along with cast members Harvey Keitel, Mira Sorvino, and David Arquette. Compared to the punishing 41 days they all spent filming in Bulgaria, plus a two and a half week rehearsal period (Nelson was there for a total of five months), this junket has to be a piece of cake.

Before the round-tables begin, Nelson talks one on one with TheaterMania, explaining both the moral and personal reasons he felt compelled to create The Grey Zone for the stage and then to re-create it for the screen. "In the mid-'90s, I wrote a play about my mother's escape as a child from Germany with her family just before Kristallnacht," he says. "My grandfather, a very proud German Jew, was a lawyer in Berlin and was disbarred by the Nuremberg laws -- but this isn't that play. That one didn't really add anything to the Holocaust experience, so I put it away. Then I read an essay by Primo Levi about the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners in the camps who became part of the Nazi extermination machine in order to survive a little longer. [Nelson's title comes from that essay.] Conditions in the camps...brought out shameful qualities in men, the most benign of which were mistrust, greed, xenophobia, and self-hatred. I'd never heard of any of this in synagogue or Hebrew school.

"Here was a situation as basic as it gets," Nelson continues: "The individual's will to survive at any cost. I wondered what I would have done [in that situation]. To this day, I don't know. But my grandfather always said, 'None of us should be alive; our very lives came down to luck, and to breathe was an honor to be earned.' For me, both the play and this film were a way of earning that breath." Nelson also read the memoirs of Miklos Nyiszli (played by Allan Corduner), a Hungarian Jewish doctor who had assisted the notorious Nazi camp doctor Mengele. Nyiszli took part in the only organized revolt at Auschwitz, a 1944 rebellion by the 12th Sonderkommando. That revolt formed the basic plot of the stage version, directed by Doug Hughes for the Manhattan Class Company in 1996.

In the play as well as the film, the discovery of a young girl alive under stacks of bodies in the gas chamber poses a potential threat to the revolt. "At the time, I thought that Doug's production was everything I could have hoped for and that was it," Nelson recalls. "Then in 1998, I was working [as an actor] on Terry Malick's The Thin Red Line. Terry was known for small, intimate films like Badlands and Days of Heaven and here he was taking on World War II. That's when I first thought that maybe I could make a film of my play."

No Hollywood antics:
Mira Sorvino in The Grey Zone
How did he approach the screen version? "Once I started thinking of it as a film, it was as if I'd never even written the play. In a sense, the film has been so blown open that only remnants of the play are distinguishable. Of course, I already knew that the expectations of film and theater audiences are totally different. Each wants reality, but stage reality must be theatrical while film reality -- with all the new technological mobility and digital effects -- becomes hyper-real and super specific. In the end, I want the film's audience to wonder how this could ever have been a play." (Nelson hastens to add that there are no digital effects in the movie.)

On stage, The Grey Zone was a claustrophobic masterpiece that recreated the horrors of the crematoria through dialogue, lighting effects, and an award-winning sound design by David Van Tieghen. Except for the discovery of the young girl, nothing of the actual horror was actually depicted. For the film, Nelson went to the London War Museum and made copies of the floor plans of the crematoria at Auschwitz in order to recreate a full-scale, working model. He also added a subplot based on several real-life female prisoners who smuggled gunpowder from the munitions factory where they worked. "These women were the true heroes of the rebellion," Nelson says; they're played by Mira Sorvino, Natasha Lyonne, and newcomer Lisa Benavides, who happens to be Nelson's wife.

There are also several actors from the play among the film's enormous cast, including David Chandler (who originally played the role now filled by David Arquette), Henry Stram (reprising his role as Mengele), and Michael Stuhlberg. Other stage actors in supporting roles are Lee Wilkof, Jessica Hecht, and Brian O'Byrne -- and there's even a cameo by director Mark Wing-Davey. It's probably no coincidence that MCC's Bernie Telsey was the film's casting director.

Nelson cast Arquette -- best known for such lightweight films as the Scream franchise and Ready to Rumble -- totally against type. Arquette recalls campaigning for the role for more than a month. "My manager submitted me and I came back several times," he says. "I would have done anything for this role. Finally, I just begged Tim. It actually made me giddy to be part of something so special." For Mira Sorvino, the casting process was a bit different. "When I met with Tim, he wanted to gauge my seriousness about the project," the actress relates. "So the first thing he said was, 'I have no time for Hollywood antics and I'm going to need you to lose at least 20 pounds.' When I didn't run, he said 'Okay' and handed me this stack of books. I never even had to read for my part." Adds Arquette, "The first thing we all did was homework because Tim had a mission to tell this story with respect to the participants."

Nelson knew that the film was going to be a hard sell. According to producer Pam Koffler, "The response from everyone was unanimous: 'It's fabulous, but you are crazy to think you will ever get the money.'" Enter Harvey Keitel -- who, as far as Nelson and company are concerned, is the hero of this production. "Harvey is an American treasure," says Nelson. "He has the selfless courage and ability to put his character before himself and his money where his mouth is. He got the script from his agent and called me as soon as he'd read it. Basically, he said, 'I'll produce and act and support this film in any way that I can' -- and he did. I saw him as one of the Jewish characters but he insisted on playing the camp's Nazi commandant.

Playing against type:
David Arquette stars in The Grey Zone
Keitel becomes very emotional when talking about the film and his role in it: "To play Muhsfeldt, I had to ask myself, were his actions human? No, but was he human? Yes. Tim's story asks questions about our humanity that must be explored for the sake of our children." Nelson nods, saying, "I had to find a way to match Primo Levi's courage in finding nuance and shading in an event where neither is supposed to exist. Just how do you prepare audiences for the moral ambiguity of a Jewish doctor working in the camps? It was important to me that this story be lived on screen, not witnessed." In a memo sent to the cast before production began, Nelson wrote, "We have an opportunity to make a film the likes of which no one has seen; a film which will force each of us to ask questions of ourselves and of our audience which most would say are better left unuttered. I believe they must be asked..."

In her October 13 New York Post column, Liz Smith asked a rhetorical question: "Do you think films such as Schindler's List and Playing for Time revealed all the horror a movie can convey about the Holocaust? Wrong. Coming soon [October 18] is Tim Blake Nelson's The Grey Zone. Nothing I can say about this film will prepare you. This is harrowing cinema. There's no soundtrack to dramatize or sentimentalize. The camera is cold, clinically invasive, brutal." As producer Avi Lerner says, "I hope people will be brave enough to go and watch this movie."

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