“When I read the book, it just grabbed me totally as a political thriller,” veteran director Norman Jewison (“The Cincinnati Kid,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “And Justice For All,” “The Hurricane”) said of “The Statement,” Canadian novelist Brian Moore’s final work. “I was just fascinated. The book was curious and disturbing–I found myself empathizing with a racist, a despicable person.” It made him remember hitchhiking through the segregated southern United States during his teens. “I experienced apartheid in America, which I found ridiculous,” he said. “But everybody I talked to thought it was normal. I never met a racist who thought he was a racist.”

As Jewison explained in a recent interview, he immediately looked into acquiring the screen rights, but they’d already been optioned by Robert Lantos, who’d made “Black Robe” from an earlier Moore tome. Lantos and Jewison eventually decided to collaborate on the film, the story of an aging French Nazi collaborator protected by old comrades and ecclesiastical reactionaries while on the run from government investigators. The picture, which stars Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Northam, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, John Wood and the late Alan Bates in his final role, is in current release.

A third member of the off-screen creative team was British writer Ronald Harwood, who’d previously adapted “The Pianist” for the screen as well as his own play, “Taking Sides”–both of which also dealt with the moral dilemmas associated with fascism. “He was also interested in the book and contacted me,” Jewison said. “He came over from England, and we spent four or five weeks working on the screenplay.” The major difficulty, he explained, was transforming the tale which Moore had presented largely in the form of an internal monologue by the hunted man into a story told from the outside, avoiding the uncinematic means of narration. “We had to devise scenes where people actually talked,” he explained.

Still, much of the film’s impact derives from Caine’s performance as the hunted, haunted collaborator responsible for the deaths of Jews under the Vichy regime. The British star remarked during shooting that he found the part difficult to play, that he didn’t fully understand Brossard, as the character is called. Jewison remarked on the “dark streak” in Caine’s work. “I think it took great courage for him to play,” the director said. He also praised Bates’s performance as an enigmatic government official, noting the “lovely kind of quizzical look on his face at the end,” and Rampling’s brief turn as Brossard’s estranged wife. “An extraordinary actress,” Jewison said.

Jewison attributed the fact that he was able to film “The Statement,” which could well be controversial there, in France without incident partly to the fact that it came in under the radar, since it was shot in English. Still, there were difficulties. “Some locations we couldn’t get, for some we were turned down,” he remarked, “depending, I think, on the political climate.” However, he added: “We did get a lot of support,” even “from certain people in the French Church,” those who felt that the institution had to come to terms with past clerical misdeeds. “People have to be responsible for their actions,” he added.

Jewison’s film of “The Statement” differs from Moore’s original in one important respect: the ending. Did he find the novelist’s dark, depressing close troublesome? “I didn’t,” he replied. “The audience did. It was a bleak, truthful ending, more like real life. But they had too much invested in the characters of Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam [who play the government investigators]. I tried the original ending, and everybody was just devastated.” So he altered the close. “I had shot three or four endings,” he explained. “I want to make stories that hold and grip people–and that they’ll come to see.”