The conversations screenwriter Justine Juel Gillmer had with filmmakers of The Survivor were centered on the shared idea that confirmed/emphasized “that this isn’t a Holocaust or a boxing tale as much as it’s a love story and a character study of a man struggling to free himself from the slow-moving grip of an undiagnosed illness. He was able to escape the camp but not its memories.”
Justine Juel Gillmer’s was brought in by producer Scott Pardo to work on a screenplay based on the book
Harry Haft; Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano, written by Harry’s son, Alan Scott Haft.
Her screenplay enthralled director Barry Levinson: “I thought the story was very interesting and it caused me to experience my own flashbacks to those nights long ago when I heard the sounds of someone suffering psychologically, although I didn’t understand it at the time. It was only years later that I learned he was a Holocaust survivor. Many who made it out of those camps remained victims for the rest of their lives, suffering from what we now know as PTSD. It was not easy to rid themselves of the horror. The question this film poses is, ‘What is the cost to the survivor?”
Alan was both witness and sometimes victim to the emotional struggles Harry experienced in trying to overcome his past and adjust to American life. Through the love of an extraordinary woman, who herself had lost a loved one to the war, Harry Haft eventually learns to live with his traumatic past.
Gillmer, like many others involved in the project, had a personal connection to the events of World War II; her maternal grandmother had been active in the Danish underground resistance. Although initially drawn to the project because of its boxing storyline, her interest in Haft’s remarkable journey expanded as she continued to learn about the man.
“His story was stunning, unimaginably tragic and yet heart-wrenchingly inspiring. My goal was to try to wrangle this very complicated life and complex man into a form that would be respectful of his experience and illuminate the spirit of how and why he survived.”
The Survivor is based on the true story of Harry Haft (Ben Foster), who is driven by his love of a woman to survive the unimaginable horrors of the German concentration camps. An SS Officer forces Harry to fight to the death against fellow prisoners in gruesome gladiatorial boxing matches. Harry finally escapes and makes it to New York. Haunted by his memories and guilt over his survival, he fights boxing legends, like Rocky Marciano, in the hopes that his name will get noticed and he will find his first love again
Levinson and Gillmer discussed his ideas about the narrative
“There are three very distinct periods and aesthetics in the movie, which tells the story in a non-linear fashion to allow the audience to witness as flashbacks as Harry experiences them,” explains Levinson.
During pre-production, Levinson, and director of photography George Steel worked closely to develop the aesthetic and tone of the film. As part of his research, Steel pored over the work of photographers such as Saul Leiter, Helen Levitt, and Ernest Haas for reference.
Levinson decided to “begin with the 1940s ’black & white photojournalistic style at the camps, with lots of hand-held shots, as if we are just picking up moments that we happen to catch. Harry’s memories are jagged and rough, with no true continuity. When the story shifts to New York in 1949 we have more color entering the frames but within that period style of film noir.”
He continues, “As the story concludes in Florida in the 1960s the palette is distinctly brighter and warmer, with lots of pastel tones. But even in this sunny environment the darkness from the past manages to cast a lengthy shadow.”
They also decided to mismatch some of the footage in the final grading “to reveal that this is not a concise history but rather the traumatized, disjointed and sometimes abstract recollections of a man on a journey from survival to recovery,” adds Steel.
Ben Foster becomes the ‘Survivor’
To prepare for the physically and emotionally arduous role of Harry Haft, Ben Foster lost 58 pounds and then had to regain weight to complete the postwar portion of the story. He began the strict diet regimen of high-caloric training and deprivation for five months under the supervision of a nutritionist and trainer to, as he describes, “push the limits of this kind of physical transformation.”
Three months prior to shooting the boxing scenes, Foster began training with stunt coordinator Clayton Barber. The coaching included a strenuous schedule of calisthenics, sparring, and jumping rope, and adopting the mental state of a boxer. Barber explains, “It’s much like going through boot camp for a military film, and the first step is to establish a mindset that this is going to be extremely challenging both mentally and physically.
You’re going to have to learn not just to deliver a punch but take one. And another. And another. There’s a psychology to withstanding punishment that must be built and strengthened just like the body.”
Concurrent with his restricted diet and physical training during prep, Foster began working with dialect coach Erik Singer to craft a Yiddish accent, associated with the city of Lodz, Poland. Singer found Foster a willing and enthusiastic student.
Screenwriter JUSTINE JUEL GILLMER is an alumna of the University of Texas and holds a Masters of Screenwriting from Australia’s premier film school, AFTRS. She has spent the past 15 years working across multiple genres in television in Australia, Europe and the US. Her American credits include writing for AMC’s series “Into the Badlands” and three seasons of “The 100” for the CW. In 2018, Justine was a Co-Executive Producer and wrote two episodes for Showtime’s upcoming series adaptation of “Halo” and is
currently a writer/Co-Executive Producer on Amazon’s fantasy epic “Wheel of Time.”
Juel is currently developing three other features: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife with Automatik and Lucky Chap; Do No Harm, an adaptation of director Roseanne Liang’s award-winning short film, with Automatik and Endeavor Content; and the WWII thriller Irena Sendler for Warner Brothers, Marc Platt Productions and Pilot Wave, with Gal Gadot attached to star and produce.
BARRY LEVINSON (Director, Producer) is an Academy Award©-winning director, screenwriter and producer who was awarded the 1988 Best Director Oscar for the multiple Academy Award-winning Rain Man. In 1991 Bugsy, directed and produced by Levinson, was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best
Director. As a screenwriter, Levinson has received three Oscar nominations for And Justice for All, Diner and Avalon. More recently, Levinson executive produced and directed HBO Films ’“Paterno,” “The
Wizard of Lies,” and “You Don’t Know Jack,” which received a combined 21 Emmy® nominations, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Director. Other iconic films include The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Wag the Dog and Sleepers. In 1998 Levinson became one of Variety’s “Billion Dollar Directors,” as well as ShoWest’s “Director of the Year.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Levinson has used his hometown as the setting for four widely praised features: Diner, Tin Men, Avalon, and Liberty Heights. Levinson also returned to his home town to film the television series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” His work on this critically acclaimed drama earned him an Emmy® for Best Individual Director of a Drama Series, along with a Peabody Award.
Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, under the banner of the Levinson/Fontana Company, also executive produced the groundbreaking HBO television series “Oz,” which aired for six seasons from 1998 through 2003.
Levinson now produces films through his production company Baltimore Pictures, including critically acclaimed releases such as Quiz Show, Donnie Brasco, and Bandits. In 2010, Levinson was the recipient of the WGA’s Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement, honoring lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures.