Bartlett Sher on Turning ‘Oslo’ Into an HBO Movie

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“Oslo,” the new HBO film about the back-channel negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization that led to the milestone Oslo Peace Accords, arrives as tensions are at a high in the Middle East.

It’s a moment where the hard work of peacemaking that the film dramatizes is in noticeably short supply, but Bartlett Sher, who makes his feature directing debut with “Oslo,” believes that the message of the movie is even more resonant. Religious, cultural, and political differences will never be bridged if adversaries can’t find a way to have a constructive dialogue, he argues.

Making “Oslo” required a new set of skills for Sher, an acclaimed Broadway director who has guided the stage version of the play to critical acclaim during its New York and London runs and has also overseen Tony-winning productions of “South Pacific,” “The King & I,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Teaming with film veterans like cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and producers Marc Platt and Steven Spielberg, Sher strove to turn the story JT Rogers’ play into an “intellectual thriller” instead of a history lesson. Sher spoke with Variety on the eve of “Oslo’s” premiere on HBO on May 29.

What is it like for the film to debut at a time when Israel and Hamas have been engaged in their bloodiest conflict in nearly a decade?

I would prefer it was not like this. I would prefer there were people striving to make solutions. As an artist, it’s really tricky to have a point of view immediately on what’s happening now. My point of view is the one the film expresses, which is there are two ingredients to making peace. One is to actually get in a room and have a call to dialogue and really try to work out problems. And the other is for real leaders to step forward and be willing to make brave efforts for peace. If those two ingredients are there, then you can have progress. I hope this film helps people understand the history better and understand where this situation has grown from. I would never say that the Oslo Accords are the solution to the complex problem we’re now facing. It was only the beginning of a transformation which sadly never materialized.

Why did you want to direct “Oslo”?

What draws you to material is conflict and the best conflict is not between a wrong and a right, but between two rights. Everything about this story had all the complexities and mechanics of great theater. It’s thrilling to see people with really strong principals strive to do something good. It’s hopeful in a world where that doesn’t seem so common.

You didn’t just direct “Oslo” when it was a play, you also had a critical role in its gestation. How did your friendship with Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the two Norwegian diplomats at the heart of the story, help inspire the play? 

My daughter’s best friend in second grade was the daughter of Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen. We got to know them and I would go to soccer matches and Terje would tell me these extraordinary stories about the Middle East peace process. They had the makings of great theater, so I introduced him to JT and they hit it off and JT saw the makings of a play.

Was it difficult to turn what had worked so successfully on stage into something cinematic?

I wanted to make a film. I didn’t want to make a play that was filmed. We made a lot of changes. The play opens completely differently than the film. We made a choice to create a strong point-of-view around Mona Juul. We changed the timeline entirely. In the play you start in the middle and work back to the beginning. That wasn’t the right way to do it on film, so we started in a very specific point. We wanted this to be an intellectual thriller. the play ran as long as two hours and 45 minutes and the film is only one hour and 54 minutes, so significant cutting and tightening had to happen.

Were there films that you used as inspiration for “Oslo”?

I have my cinematic touchstones, it’s everything from “All the President’s Men” to Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice.” Those are my primary influences.

Why did you decide to cast Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott as Mona and Terje?

They are a great pair, who play well together. Ruth has an exceptional intelligence and coolness and you can read absolutely every thought she has. She was the perfect person to carry us through the film. And Andrew has a subtle, but wickedly humorous take on Terje, who is a very iconoclastic figure.

I was surprised by how funny the film was despite the weighty themes it addresses. Did you lean into the humor?

In reality, there was a lot of humor that emerged from this pressurized environment. Real human interaction includes humor. From humor you build a connection with another person — you can move from a point of opposition to a point of laughter. I’m not sure we see in our current politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, enough opportunities where they view each other as human beings and laugh at the same things.

How does directing for film differ from directing for theater?

The basic thing that a director does is similar in terms of unpacking a story and finding the best way to tell it. The mediums are different. In a theater you have a wider canvas and the audience decides where to focus. Whereas on film, it’s very precise and you go in close to a person’s face or pull back in a wide shot, so the rhythm is different.

The thing about theater, if I was opening a play, I’d be going every night and watching it and experiencing it with other people. With this film, I have this thing that’s going out to millions of people this weekend, but I still have no interaction with my audience, so that part is completely bizarre.

You worked with Scott Rudin on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and you were slated to direct a revival of “Our Town” that he was going to produce. What was your reaction to reports that he verbally and physically abused his employees?

I’d rather not talk about that. It’s sort of secondary to all of this. It’s unfortunate, it was appalling and ghastly, but that’s it. It doesn’t have anything to do with the remarkable work of making “Oslo.”

What is the message of “Oslo”?

When we first produced the play in 2016, even though it was about Palestinians and Israelis, we really thought it was about Republicans and Democrats. Then we did it in London and it turned out to be all about Brexit. It’s been done all over the world in different kinds of places where division between people is so extraordinary. I feel that the main thing is we take the effort to reach people as human beings and listen to them and maybe change how we see the world based on their experience. That’s been a lesson of the pandemic. We had to transform what we believed or understood about one thing and become accountable for our own experience and connect with other people’s experiences and make change.

Broadway is reopening this September after more than a year of being closed. What does that mean to you as someone who works largely in theater?

It’s really exciting. It’s time for us to get back to the theater. People are desperate for it. I want us to do this safely so we can all be in a room together to experience something exciting again.

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