Bartlett Sher interview: ‘Oslo’ director and producer
“It’s an incredibly New York kind of story,” suggests Bartlett Sher of how he helped usher “Oslo” into existence. The play-turned-movie tells the true story of the back channel negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Peace Accords. Sher’s daughter was best friends with the daughter of Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen, the Norwegian couple who orchestrated the talks in Oslo. The stories that the pair told Sher during their daughters’ soccer practices were “so incredible” that he introduced them to playwright J.T. Rogers. A thrilling drama was born. Sher directed the Broadway production of “Oslo,” which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2017. He went on to direct and produce the HBO film adaptation, which is nominated for TV Movie at this year’s Emmy Awards. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Sher is steeped in the world of theatre (he has a whopping nine Tony nominations, with a win for directing the 2008 revival of South Pacific), but “Oslo” marks his first true foray into filmmaking. Though the director had long considered projects which would take him from stage to screen, nothing felt right until this play. “In the case of ‘Oslo,’ I could see what movie could be made,” he explains.
Sher describes the film as being “deeply first person,” and cites that as the biggest difference between the mediums of film and theatre. “The first step we took was shifting the play from being a story told by this couple, to being almost exclusively Mona Juul’s story,” explains Sher. This shift was the reason for a new opening flashback sequence where Ruth Wilson’s Mona experiences the violence and heartbreak of the Gaza strip up close. The moment was important to Sher because it immediately “gave a kind of moral structure” to the movie and set Mona on her path towards justice. “It’s always interesting to me, what compels someone into public service,” he reveals.
The many Israeli and Palestinian characters in the movie are all portrayed by actors from that region, a conscious choice by the producer which paid off immensely during production. “As an artist coming from the United States, they were constantly teaching me,” he says. They all knew each other from the theatre scene in the Middle East, and would frequently share stories during rehearsals for the movie. “Their experience as artists is actually kind of the biggest hope of what ‘Oslo’ does,” suggests Sher, noting that these performers loved and challenged one another, despite the tensions between their home countries.
When asked about releasing the film during a period of renewed tension between Israel and Palestine, Sher notes that “Oslo was only meant to be the beginning” of the peace process. “When the film came out, we were sitting in the hope and idealism of Oslo against the truth of where it went over the next 25 years,” he explains. “It’s important for audiences to see it as a call to dialogue, but not as a solution.”