Talking with Oliver Hirschbiegel of "Diana"


There's probably not a person on Earth who couldn't tell you who Princess Diana is, and yet public knowledge of her is only surface deep. Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) aims to settle that score with his biopic Diana. Known for his unblinking film biographies of historical figures, famous (Princess Diana) and infamous (Hitler) alike, Hirschbiegel hopes to unearth the humanity in these people, digging deeper than the surface snapshot we so often focus on. Set to turn an icon into a person, he tucks into Princess Diana like she's a girl next door who just so happens to live in a castle.

Together, Oliver and I spoke about how the universal love story of Diana transformed the princess's humanitarian work, why Naomi Watts was the only choice to play Diana, how he didn't even recognize Naveen Andrews as Lost's Sayid until filming was done, the Royal family and filming right at the gates of the castle.


In making a biopic of such a superstar and massive international icon, what did you think was the more important aspect: making the story as entertaining and engaging as possible or strictly adhering to the facts and nothing but the facts? 

Oliver Hirschbiegel: Well while reading it, I really was surprised because what I read was a truly universal love story. That became the main goal, whenever in doubt. I knew these characters by heart and I knew the story that I wanted to tell. At the same time, I did research for about a year, getting into these characters and finding out about all these aspects of the story and making sure that, as much as I could, that I was truthful with what I was telling. Of course, and this is in regard to certain incident like her getting into the boot of her car and aspects like that, but when it comes to the very intimate scenes when you have two people in a flat or something like that, you can just go by what you know about the character and the descriptions. There were descriptions of encounters of Hasmat and Diana and how they dealt with each other. You try to hit the spirit of that relationship. You try to hit the spirit of the characters.

You say that this is this “universal love story.” Watching the film, you definitely get the scene that that aspect is the focal point. It’s not so much about Diana’s life but this one relationship at the end of her life and how much that affected her emotionally. Why did you choose this topic as the focal point?

OH: Well the thing that happens through her finding that love is .... At the beginning we see her isolated and lonely and sort of aimless. She’s separated from Charles and not officially divorced yet but she doesn’t really know what to do with her life. In real life, she had cut off most of her friends really. She lives rather aimlessly and then finds that man. Finally, after being deprived of love from that very first years of her childhood on, she finally finds that love and opens up and through finding love and getting love, she sort of reinvents herself, which is a very important part of her biography. To me, it’s the most interesting because she becomes a new Diana. It’s not only when it comes to the whole fashion icon thing because she reinvents herself on that level as well but, for me, that is less interesting. The more interesting thing is that she becomes a stateswoman in a way.

She’s not just the head of the charity, she’s not just supporting a charity, she becomes the motor of charity work on a rather political level. To put her clothes to auction for the AIDS charity, in those days that was a very bold move and a very smart thing, it was actually William’s idea originally, and was unheard of. Also, the land mines  campaign. They fought for more than 20 years, politicians and very powerful institutions like the Red Cross and the UN. They had all fought to ban land mines on an international level and they hadn’t gotten anywhere. She takes that on and changes the world within three days. That’s astonishing and very impressive. That had been forgotten really. If you go on YouTube and look for that documentary on her going to Angola, there’s only like 15,000 people who have seen that. We’re talking about the most famous woman in the world. But what is she famous for? She’s famous for being the princess and flying around the world and hanging out with Dodi on a yacht and dying in a tunnel. That really needed correction.

For you, what was the most challenging aspect of the story to bring to the screen?

OH: Well to get it right. In all my films, my guide is this truthfulness and authenticity. I don’t want to play games with the audience. Of course, I want to entertain, I don’t want to bore them, but I don’t want to play dirty tricks on them. I try to do all the research and try to get it as right as possible. At the end of the day, it’s a piece of art and it’s my vision but it’s really based on formal research.

Why did you think that Naomi Watts was the perfect Diana for this story?

OH: As an actress, she is simply the best in her category. I wouldn’t know anybody would who pull it off. That was the first name I ever put down: Naomi Watts. And she proved me right.

What is it about her that really captures the spirit of Diana?

OH: She, more than others, makes me forget that I’m watching her impersonating a character. She becomes the character. In any film she does, regardless of genre, she becomes that and makes me forget that. She’s amazing really. Physically, if you look at her, she doesn’t really look like Diana but yet she becomes Diana and makes me believe that I’m watching Diana.

Similarly, why did you cast Naveen Andrews, who is most known for his role in Lost as this action hero, as your romantic lead. Knowing what we do about him, it is an unexpected choice.

OH: I didn’t know that Naveen did Lost. I looked at Bollywood actors and never really got The English Patient out of my head. I remember that story of that Indian soldier, I think he was a Sikh, and Juliette Binoche in The English Patient, touched me so much. It was so authentic and real. I looked them up and found out that it was Naveen Andrews. It sort of rang a bell but I didn’t put one and one together. So I looked him up on IMDB on realized he is that Iranian guy on Lost...and I loved Lost and watched Lost. I just didn’t recognize him as the same guy. We Skyped for an hour and we connected. As a director, you’re talking to an actor and you just know immediately. I knew I had my man. When I put the two together in one room, I just knew the chemistry was right. He’s not Pakistani, he’s Indian but from the North of India, which is a similar area. I think he’s the perfect match for Hasmat.

In the process of making the film, was there any pushback from the Royal Family about the story that you were telling or were they onboard?

OH:: No, they’re never onboard really. They basically stay out of it. They don’t want to have anything to do with it and they never comment either. Regardless of which story you want to tell, you’ll never be allowed to shoot within the vicinity of the palaces but they suggested for us to shoot at Kensington Gardens when there was a problem at Hyde Park, because of the Olympics games, but they allowed us to use Kensington Gardens and the palace as a backdrop. They even allowed us to shot at the actual gate where all the flowers were put down. The only thing they asked us to do was not put flowers down there because, for obvious reasons, that would have been sort of terrible for the sons. We draw in the flowers with CGI. 

So you haven’t heard anything from either of her sons in terms of a reaction? Do you know if they’ve seen the film?

OH: Well, I don’t know. They never comment really. You never hear anything. It’s their policy for hundreds and hundreds of years. They keep their mouth shut and never issue any statement. Maybe one day but I find it doubtful.

One of the most distressing elements of the film is how the paparazzi and journalists are constantly in her face, snapping photos at her most susceptible moments. How did you try and approach that from a dramatic standpoint to express just how much pressure she was constantly under and how that pressure changed the course of her life?

OH: Well I enhanced that elements quite a bit. It was not in the original script. I just wanted the paparazzi to become sort of their own character and be constantly there and a constant potential threat. It’s something Fellini did in La Dolce Vita and I’m sort of bowing my hat to Fellini with that. Her life was like that. Today, it’s more common that that happens but the paparazzi, sometimes hundreds of them, being around her was a first in those days. That had never been the case before. I tried to get that out with a maximum powerful effect.

What was the hardest part of doing this story for you emotionally?

OH: To stay objective, if you will. In this kind of story, of course you connect with the characters, and I have to admit, I quite like Diana. The more I found out about Diana, the more I liked both of these characters. As a storyteller, you want to be careful that you keep your distance. I think it rings through that I like these characters but I think that’s the most difficult thing. You’re emotional involvement doesn’t take over your artistic expression.

Follow Matt Oakes on Facebook
Follow Matt Oakes on Twitter