Interview: Oliver Hirschbiegel Talks Bad Press, and Why He Stands Behind 'Diana'

Oliver Hirschbiegel directed 'Diana'
Oliver Hirschbiegel directed Diana. (From Getty Images | EOne)Ever since news of the production first broke, director Oliver Hirschbiegel's movie about the late beloved Princess Di has been controversial. Now that it's finished, there's almost no controversy. Nearly everyone agrees it's terrible. But Hirschbiegel is doggedly defending Diana, and by the time he spoke to us on the phone on Wednesday, preparing for its New York premiere, he was ready to take on his critics.

The new biopic paints a sometimes unflattering picture of the princess, whose life has, in many ways, been whitewashed since her death in 1997. Diana focuses on the last two years of her life, and her romance with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. It posits that her relationship with Dodi Fayed, who died alongside her in the same Paris car crash, was part of a complicated scheme to make Khan jealous. Critics have blasted the movie for characterizing Diana as a sort of unhinged rom-com stereotype and borderline stalker obsessed with Khan, whom she supposedly liked to call "Mr. Wonderful" in real life. But after checking each of the movie's scenes with at least two sources close to either Diana or Khan, Hirschbiegel says he "absolutely" stands behind his film.

We asked Hirschbiegel about the bad press around Diana, his fact-checking process on the movie, and casting Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews in the lead roles. Here's what he had to say.

ZIMBIO: Hi, good morning. How's everything going? You're very busy with the premiere right now.

OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL: Yes and I'm a little jet-lagged too because I got in yesterday night, so forgive me if I'm a little slow maybe.

First off I wanted to talk about Diana, and constructing this romance around Princess Di and Hasnat Khan, and how you came to cast Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews in those roles.

Well you know I didn't create the story.

No, no. Poor choice of words.

That's what happened really, which was my reason for wanting to make the film. To my surprise I found this universal moving, tender love story that, in the end, is like Greek tragedy. I was fascinated by that, and on top of that, Diana being the main character made it more fascinating.

The first name ever I put down was Naomi Watts because she has that rare ability to make you forget that you're watching her. She's like a chameleon. She becomes the character she's playing, and I knew I needed her for this. She would pull it off.

Naomi Watts and Princess DiWhat was it like for people to see her become Diana? Was there any emotion on set?

It was eerie sometimes because it was really like watching her. The amazing thing, if you look at Naomi as Naomi, she doesn't resemble Diana that much really. It's something she creates. It's something that came from within. In combination with her brilliantly being able to come up with these movements, the way she talks, these mannerisms that Diana had. Sometimes it was really eerie. Like watching her do the Panorama interview was really like watching a ghost.

And what did Naveen Andrews bring to Hasnat Khan that you wanted to show?

I was looking for a true gentleman. I needed a man, like in the old-fashioned way, a man who stood for something, with gravitas, and that accomplishment. That's a hard part to cast. And I kept thinking about The English Patient, and the side story with Juliette Binoche, who falls in love with the Indian soldier, who's dealing with the bombs. That touched me so much, and it was so convincing that I thought, "I need somebody like that." So I looked him up, and found out that was Naveen Andrews, and it rang a bell, and I realized he was that character on Lost, which I watched all through the series because I loved Lost. I had just not recognized him. He played a very different character in Lost obviously. I got in touch with him, and we talked, and he had read the script, and I knew I had my man because in real-life Naveen is that. Naveen is exactly what I was looking for.

You have a history now of casting real-life characters, with [Hitler biopic] Downfall, and now with Princess Di. These are two very high profile real-life characters you've cast that people have a previous connection with. What do you look for when you're trying to bring that alive through an actor onscreen?

Well in all my films I'm striving to get it right, to get it as truthful and authentic as possible, even if it means there are certain aspects that people find irritating. I always try to stay honest with the source, with the real person as much as I know about them.

So I have to ask, how are you holding up with the bad reviews? Because there's a lot of bad press about the movie, especially with the British press, and I just wanted to ask how you're dealing with it.

Well I think they can't really deal with the fact that we've come out with a very intimate, touching movie — a moving depiction of her character. It seems they just didn't want that. They didn't want it this way. They didn't want that kind of dialogue. Even though it is very authentic to what she would be talking like, but what can you do? Especially in England, of course, they claim ownership. As a filmmaker, you want the review, right? You want the proper review. And even if it's a bad one, even if you put the film down, and often those are very helpful, but most it has been polemic. So as a filmmaker I can't do much with that.

It's not very constructive.

The same thing happened to me on Downfall in my own country. They said, "It can't be done like this." And, "This is ridiculous, and it's awful." But at the end of the day, the audience decides. And it's really interesting with this film that from territory to territory it does very different. Like in Denmark it's been number one for four weeks, and the neighboring country, Norway, they didn't really want to see it. So it's interesting, and the response of the audience is either they love it, or they don't like it at all. It's interesting.

I think one of the main criticisms leveled against it, is that you have Princess Di characterized as a little bit of a stalker, coming off almost unhinged in her relationship with Hasnat Khan. Can you talk about that a little bit? Are there elements — like going into his apartment and leaving her lipstick on his mirror, or wandering around London at 3am — is some of that reading between the lines?

I didn't invent all that. She did that. Before she met Hasnat Khan, she had this ongoing thing with Oliver Hoare that came to a halt, and she behaved way more unsteady than what you see in the film. She would stalk him day and night and call his number up to the point where his wife would complain about it. Then Paul Burrell, her butler, had this report about her walking around the middle of the city in tears one night. He finds her alone in Hyde Park in the middle of the night. She did these things, so I didn't invent that.

Is this mostly from Kate Snell's book?

It's not in the Snell book. It's something I found with Paul Burrell talking to Simone Simmons, who was one of her closest friends until the very end. Whenever I'm using an element in the biography about real events, I need at least two or three different accounts stating that that was true, or that most likely really happened. It's a bit like being an historian really. What do you include in the description, and what not?

Naomi Watts and Naveen Andrews in 'Diana'So there was a lot of leg work you were doing to try and verify the veracity of some of these stories.

Yes. I'd say the leg work, as you call it, was nearly a year actually. It was the same with Downfall for instance. You have to double check the sources, and often you come across a very interesting incident, a situation that would make a brilliant scene, and then you ask around. Like one thing I found in a book about her was that one night she wore a fur coat with nothing underneath to meet Hasnat for a rendezvous. And I thought, "Wow, that's a brilliant scene, right?" But then in doing the research, asking around, everyone said, "No, she would have never ever done that." And then of course you can't use it.

You did find these stories, then. And you're showing audiences what you found.

Yes, exactly.

Now that you have this history of working with people in the public eye, I wonder is there anyone that's currently in the public eye that you watch and you say, "That would be a fascinating person to make a movie about"?

It always depends on the approach, and it always depends on the story. I think Napoleon was a highly fascinating character, so if there was a way, that is probably the one that would fascinate me most at the moment.

There are all these private moments that a good romance movie is based around. And there aren't really going to be records to draw from on those. So is some of that drawn from Hasnat Khan? What he's said?

Well of course there's nobody present when two people are alone in a living room or a bedroom, so you have to go by accounts, yeah? So in that case Simone Simmons came over with descriptions of what Diana had told her. And one of the very good sources was the Scotland Yard inquest [detailed in part here] because Hasnat himself talks at length about their relationship, how they met, and the quality of their relationship, and how much they enjoyed each other, how they fooled around and had fun together, how they shared a deep humanity.

After doing all the research on top of that, you get a good sense of what's right and what's wrong, and going from there you're just trying to recreate the situation in the spirit of the characters, in the spirit of that relationship. But of course, to a certain extent, that's artistic interpretation. Yes.

What about the idea that Diana maybe had a pact with the paparazzi, that she had plans in place to use them to make Hasnat Khan jealous? That's one of the things that happens in the movie that people might find — and I'm not trying to be aggressive — but they might find that insulting to the memory of Diana.

Well it wasn't just that, but it certainly was one of the aspects. There's various accounts, well nearly all accounts point in that direction. She even spoke with an uncle of Hasnat's about the situation, with the uncle telling her, in case she was planning to make him jealous, that that wouldn't work. And she deliberately called up Jason Fraser, between-the-lines mentioning where she was, because at the time nobody knew where she was. She had sort of disappeared. And she gave the hint that she would be somewhere in the Mediterranean, which is when he sent out [photographer Mario] Brenna to take these pictures.

There's no denying that that happened. Fraser states that Brenna took the pictures, and got the information by Fraser. Then for the next trip after, she was constantly on the phone with Fraser. Now the only one who can really prove that is Fraser, but in fact whenever they showed up at a place, like in the south of France, Fraser was the first one to get there to get the most interesting pictures, before the others arrived. So it's very clear that she tried to plan it.

But then on the other end, she had to be hiding for two years, and she was suffering from that, and somehow she enjoyed being out in the open. And she had a great time with Dodi. They got along very well. And he provided all these things that you need when you're lonely, when you can't see your children, when you're the most famous woman in the world: the bodyguards, the yacht, the helicopters, and all that. So that was definitely part of her being out there with Dodi as well. She wanted the world to see that she was an independent, strong woman, who did what she pleased. And of course, it was showing the Palace as well.

Who she always had a little bit of a contentious relationship with.

Yeah actually not with the Queen so much. It seems the Queen and her had a very very good secret understanding. But the whole side of the Palace that was behind Charles, that includes Philip of course, they had a rather difficult relationship, yes.

Do you have any message for American audiences who haven't had a chance to see the movie and are approaching it for the first time?

Make up your own minds, and keep in mind that I didn't invent here. Most of what you see is really what happened that way. Like what's going on in the bedroom, I explained that to you. But the key message is: Make up your own minds. And try to leave a little bit of the baggage you might be coming with behind. And watch a love story — a moving, tender love story about the most famous woman in the world falling in love with a common man who wants to be private.

It sounds like you really stand behind the movie.

Oh yes, absolutely.

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