The movie would not obviously work if you didn’t find the right actress to play the role opposite Tom. How did Helena come your way?
I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I knew I was looking for a German girl, because the character in the novel is German. There were a lot of Germans who came to Texas at that time after the Civil War, attracted by the cheap land. And when you start a film you always have a sense of what your big problem is going to be. And if you’d asked me at the start of this film, I would have said, “Well, our big challenge is going to be to find an 11-year-old girl who can play that part opposite Tom Hanks.” It’s a big part. She’s got to be able to act and hold the screen and all the rest of it. I thought it was going to be a huge ordeal to find that girl. I thought it would take months, I thought we’d end up seeing hundreds of girls. I thought it would be an agonizing decision. It actually turned out to be the easiest decision in the film. Gail Mutrux, who is one of the producers, phoned me up and said, “Have you seen ‘System Crasher’ yet?” And I said, “No, but I really want to.” He said, “O.K, I’ve got a copy, I’ll send it to you.” And I watched it that night, and I thought, “Well.” Honestly and truly, here’s what I thought, I thought, “What are the chances…” Because she’s so good in that film. I thought, “What are the chances of there being two 11-year-old German girls that good?” I mean, statistically, possibly not. It’s got to be odds on it’s her. But anyway, she and her mum came over to see me in London, and we spent the day together and she did some screen tests, and work together. And it was obviously going to be her, she was absolutely outstanding. And then she worked ferociously hard to prepare for the thing, and we talked and got her ready. But in the end, for all her maturity, she’s still just 11-years-old.
It’s a heck of a challenge to be thousands of miles away, opposite Tom Hanks on a big film set. And I was anxious for her to be honest, the first day. The first thing they shot together was the scene where they are in the woods, and they meet for the first time. And it was obviously a big scene, and I was nervous for her. But, I mean, she was so good. After a couple of takes, Tom came and sat down next to me, he said, “Oh my word.” He said, “She’s absolutely brilliant.” And she was. And actually, from then on, I never had any nerves about her. And she nailed. I think she’s fantastic in it.
I’ve talked to a number of actors over the years who reflected on how fun it was to film a shoot out. But I feel like I never hear directors say that it was fun to shoot a shoot out? Do you enjoy it?
I did enjoy it. I can honestly say, it was just a bundle of fun from the first moment to the last, making the film, absolutely truly. Because I grew up with Westerns, you had to pinch yourself and say, “I’m out in the middle of a desert, under the big sky, shooting a Western.” I mean, how bad is that? But that said, it was a real ordeal to make the film because we were out in the desert. And you had got the heat, and it’s freezing cold at night, boiling hot by day. Yeah, you’ve got horses, and dust and mud, and cows and, a child actor. It’s like, guns, wagons, do you know what I mean? And we were all on location. That shoot out in the middle, we had to go up to those cliffs. We literally had to… The whole crew had to go up, hand over hand on ropes. Two hours up, two hours down to get up there, and then when you got up there, there were lots of safety issues. You had to be very, very, very careful to make sure it was all properly done. And then, to cap it all, there’d be a nice family of rattlesnakes up there. So, you’d be shooting and you’d get a tap on your shoulder saying, “Hold it, there’s a rattlesnake about eight feet behind you, so we’ll just take that one away.” But, the whole making of the film was an adventure, and I think that comes out in the film, and I think it bound us all together as a little group.
I know you’ve been attached to a number of projects over the past few years, but is there any chance you’d return to the “Bourne” world? Have you talked to Universal about that at all?
It hasn’t come up recently, so I actually don’t know what their plans are. I’m sure they’ll make more “Bourne” movies, I hope so. I don’t know whether I’ll be involved, but I’ve done my stint really, haven’t I? Let’s be honest. But I love a “Bourne” movie, and I love the actor, and I wish them well, you know. The truth of it. I’d be first in line, that’s for sure.
“News of the World” opens in theaters on Dec. 25