August 20, 2019

Thor Freudenthal on ‘Percy Jackson,’ grandparents on Schindler’s list

The whirling, sea-belching monster Charybdis.  A Manticore with a lion’s body and scorpion’s tail.  A man-eating Cyclops.  These are just a few of the beasts threatening the teenaged heroes in Thor Freudenthal’s adventure fantasy “Percy Jackson:  Sea of Monsters,” the second film in the Percy Jackson franchise, based on the best-selling novels by Rick Riordan – and all inspired by Greek mythology.  This time, Jackson (Logan Lerman), the half-human son of Poseidon, and his fellow demigod friends set off on a dangerous quest to find the Golden Fleece to save all their kind, not to mention the entire planet. 

Freudenthal, 40, who is Jewish and grew up in Berlin, came to the “Jackson” series after a successful career in commercials and directing 2009’s “Hotel for Dogs” as well as the box office hit “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” An artist who helps storyboard all his films, he’s had an affinity for Greek myths since reading them as a boy:  “What I loved mostly were the monsters and the adventures – these kinds of visually extravagant stories.  It wasn’t until later when I discovered that the Greek gods are very messed up; it’s interesting that a society creates those kinds of images for itself, because they’re so flawed.  The gods are jealous, angry, violent – they have every human vice, which I find fascinating.”

“I’m always interested in fantasy when it sort of butts up against reality, which makes the fantastical more fantastic,” he said of why he was drawn to the “Percy Jackson” series.  “And the novels have a great sense of humor; a sly irreverence, because they’re narrated by the protagonist who is a teenager.  It’s also very emotional; a kind of amplified coming of age story, looking at a person in his formative years but those formative years happen to be those of a demigod.”

Percy Jackson’s story is also one of a teenager who battles and then comes to embrace his unusual heritage, something with which Freudenthal can relate.  He’s the grandson of Polish Jews who survived the Shoah courtesy of Oskar Schindler, who was immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List;” Thor as well was the only Jew at his high school in post-Holocaust Berlin. 

There, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism:  “The most extreme example was anonymous phone calls, where they would say horrible, unspeakable things like, 'I hope you die in a concentration camp,’” Freudenthal recalled in a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home.  “So you can imagine why I didn’t want to put my [Judaism] in the front row of my existence.  I actually tried to push it away and hide it to an extent.  I was the odd kid out, and I didn’t want to be different from my classmates.  Even when my friends would say the word, ‘Jew,’ in German – ‘Jude’ – it sounded like an insult because it has this connotation of the yellow star and all those horrible things you associate with it.”

The change began, for Freudenthal, when he saw “Schindler’s List” in 1993:  “I have to credit Steven Spielberg, because watching a movie that so proudly displays part of my family history, and to have everyone talk about it — as well as coming to Los Angeles for college at CalArts — was when I really came to love and accept my Jewish origins,” he said.

From an early age Freudenthal knew that his maternal grandparents, Jakob Pechthold and Rosalia Kornhauser, were survivors of the Holocaust; his grandmother was interned in the infamous Plaszow concentration camp, which was depicted in detail in “Schindler’s List,” where the camp commandant, Amon Goeth, frequently shot inmates from his balcony.

After securing her place on the list of Jews Schindler employed at his factories (and thus saved from the Nazis), Rosalie was one of Schindler’s female workers who was diverted for a time on a transport to Auschwitz.  “When we went with her to the camp when I was young, she pointed out some barracks and said, ‘I was there,’ which was so hard to comprehend,” Freudenthal said.

“In our house Oskar Schindler was always talked about,” he added.  “He was like an angel to my grandparents, a source of light and hope.  He came to my grandparents’ house a couple of times, and he wrote in my mother’s scrapbook when she was a young girl, and she still has his signature.  She remembers him as a very tall, gravelly voiced guy who was very impressive to her.  And after the war, when he tried a number of other professions that never did pan out, he was supported by the people he had saved, my grandparents among them.”

Freudenthal’s grandparents married soon after the war and immigrated to Israel, where both of Freudenthal’s parents were born and met on a playground as children.  The director’s parents eventually relocated to Germany so that Freudenthal’s father, a painter and art teacher, could study at the Academy of Arts, Berlin.  They stayed on to raise their family in Germany but have since moved back to Israel.

Freudenthal remembers how in the early 1990s, his grandparents received a letter from Spielberg – by then the young Thor’s favorite director – asking them to appear in the emotional final scene of “Schindler’s List,” where the survivors and their descendants emerge over a hill at the site of Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.

“My father and I were initially scared to go see the film, because we knew that it would emotionally put us through the ringer, and then it did,” Freudenthal said.  “But it was also weirdly life-affirming, as only Spielberg can do under those circumstances.”

“I’m doing what I do now pretty much because I saw Spielberg’s films at a formative age,” he added.  “When my mother told me he’s Jewish, and he goes to synagogue, it was like, ‘My God, we’re of the same tribe, and he’s a huge hero of mine.’  And then seeing the Schindler movie actually made me feel more secure in who I was myself.”

Freudenthal followed in his father’s artistic footsteps, drawing from a young age, and later attending the Academy of Arts, Berlin for a couple of semesters before transferring to CalArts on a scholarship in his early 20s.

While at CalArts, his first animated short film, “The Tenor,” about a zoo ostrich who dreams of a career in opera, won the first prize student Emmy Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.  Eventually he made the leap into directing commercials for major corporations including Nike, Reebok and Nabisco, and went on to direct “Hotel for Dogs” as well as “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for 20th Century Fox, which called on him again to direct “Percy Jackson.”

Here are further excerpts from my interview with Freudenthal:

Q:  You’ve directed a film inspired by Greek gods, and your own name is Thor.  Are you named after the Viking god of Thunder?

A:  That’s what everyone believes and because I think it’s so cool I sometimes don’t correct them.  Actually my parents named me “Tor,” which is a Hebrew word for a bird that sings in springtime that is mentioned in one of the verses of the Bible.  But when German [officials] looked at my name spelled “Tor,” they said that’s not really a name, because “tor” in German means door, or gate, or a soccer goal.  They were like, ”In order to become a name, you’re going to have to put an ‘h’ in there.” So now as a result, I have a name with a Hebrew origin that’s spelled like a Nordic god.

Q:  There’s an old show business adage, “Never work with children or animals,” and you’ve done both.  What are the challenges of working with each?

A:  In “Hotel for Dogs” the dogs were incredible, but what you have to make sure you do is about two months of prep time.  You don’t really deal with the dogs directly, you deal with the trainer, and so the trainer is like your actor.  So if you tell the trainer, “When we shoot that scene I want the dog to look sad,” the trainer would say something like, “We can have him lower his head, put it on a paw and look up.”  You have to almost define what the emotional vocabulary of these animals would be, because we didn’t do any computer animation in the film.

The other challenging thing is that you can never shoot an entire scene all the way through; with dogs that’s not possible, because they can only do one specific action at a time.  So in making the film you have to break a scene into manageable chunks, which is challenging for you, the editors and the actors, because they can never live through one scene as a whole.

When working with kids, the trick is to really assume their point of view; to try to find a language that is not too overly complex that makes them understand the emotion they’re in at the moment.  It’s a very nebulous but exciting process of finding the right thing, and after a while you develop a language where you can say, “That was too cartoony,” or “That didn’t fell real,” or “smaller.”

Q:  As an artist, you’ve storyboarded all your films.  Did you do that for “Percy Jackson” as well?

A:  I did a lot of it, because I draw and I think visually, so I always have a sketchbook around where I’ll do quick sketches of ideas that I communicate to the cinematographer, editors and so forth.  This movie was so big, though, that we did have about two or three other storyboard artists who helped out.

Q:  How did you envision the sea monster Charybdis, who at one point swallows the protagonists?

A:  The challenge was, OK, you’re inside the stomach of this thing, and a stomach can be kind of gross.  So I was like, how can we make this a wondrous, awesome environment?  The answer was to make it bioluminescent, glowing, always moving, so the inside of it was kind of cool.

Q:  What about the design for the Kronos, the father of the Greek gods, who has a penchant for devouring his children?

A:  In Greek mythology, what’s often mentioned is that Kronos was chopped into pieces, because his sons chopped him up and banished him to the underworld.  So when he comes back in our movie, the idea is that he is almost in pieces to the degree of being a puzzle that re-forms; that connects and disconnects and comes together as a swirling kind of tornado of motion.

Q:  Why do you think the Riordan books have resonated so much with readers?

A:  It’s about young people at a very formative, vulnerable age, when we are still trying to figure out who we are and how we fit into the world.  We’re discovering what are our strengths, our limitations, and it’s just fascinating to see somebody try to figure that out under the most extreme of circumstances — in an action adventure — and to see them succeed.  Also, it’s a matter of having a clear underdog who feels himself not particularly strong, which is what I think a lot of kids can relate to.

Q:  Do you have any Jewish-themed projects in the works?

A:  I’m developing a smaller film that is set in Israel, so I’m returning to these kinds of early influences and trying to explore my origins whenever possible.  At this point in my life, very different from my early teens, I see being Jewish as such an enormous part of my identity; I truly love it.

“Percy Jackson:  Sea of Monsters” is now in theaters.