Feature: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mon, 22 Dec 2008 11:57:15
Julia Ormond's experience making The Curious Case of Benjamin was, well, curious. In fact, it was unlike any other project that the actress has been involved in. "They isolated my stuff to a two-week shoot right at the end. I felt like I was making my own little short film with Cate Blanchett and David Fincher," she laughs.
Ormond's character, Caroline, is relegated to a hospital room watching over her dying mother, Daisy (Blanchett). During that time, she learns of her mother's affair with one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), a man who ages backwards. Caroline reads Benjamin's diary to Daisy as Hurricane Katrina prepares to engulf the world around them. Ormond's scenes are some of the film's most powerful, often unsettling. Even though the main narrative follows Benjamin's strange journey as he gets younger, Ormond's character Caroline embarks on an equally intense emotional journey in the hospital room.
Sitting in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Ormond is friendly and warm in person—quite different from the tense, stressed, and regret-plagued Caroline in the film. Given the odd circumstances she filmed under, Ormond got to immerse herself in the role. She had access to insight that few actors are granted. "David cut the movie together so I could see what my scenes were going into and coming out of. As an actor, it was such an amazing experience to see that version and then get to see the version of me in it. I watched a cut of the movie that was just the story minus the hospital scenes with Caroline and Daisy. I've never been on a movie that gets edited before I filmed my scenes. [Laughs] It was a real luxury, and it was a very unique experience to be able to get a measure of everything.
"I think it was Galgut that had been asked, 'What is style?' He said, 'Being in the same piece as everyone else.' Often, as an actor, you struggle with understanding a director's vision. You struggle with projecting forward. You think, 'What is it the director wants? What's it going to feel like and look like when it comes together?' I had the chance to see this incredible shorthand version of the movie. In juxtaposition to [Benjamin's epic journey], we go to the starkness of the modern day scenes that I'm in. It's just a room. It's claustrophobic. It's much more bare. It's about the relationship between the mother and daughter."
“Says Ormond, 'Benjamin, because he lives his life backwards, has the spirit and essence of a child.'”
Ormond believes the film's philosophical musings about life and death to be fascinating as well. "[The movie] makes me play with the notion of aging and think about how we live our lives. Even though everyone thinks about those notions, Benjamin Button is about living in the present. Be fully in the present and don't spend your life waiting to achieve a goal. Don't believe that your life is going to start once you reach something you set out to do. Don think, 'I'll be happy when I've lost those 15 pounds. I'll be happy when my exams are over.' Or, 'God I can't wait for the premiere to be over.' Just be in the present. Benjamin, because he lives his life backwards, has the spirit and essence of a child. He's this open, clean slate. So the snippets of wisdom that people share with him make more of an impression on him. That's what creates his being. It's played in such a touching, charming, and humorous way that makes him very endearing. The story builds him into becoming a wanderer who continues to go on with his life free of trappings. It's shot through with this loneliness, though."
That loneliness, however, is one of the film's most relatable elements. Despite its fantastical content, there's a very human story at the heart of this movie. Ormond explains, "For me, there's a wonderful cyclical nature to it. If you start out as a baby with a certain sleep pattern, certain physical abilities and certain mental restraints, you end up with them as well."
The movie traverses a long temporal period, but Fincher and the cast nursed an authentic vibe throughout the entire film. "I really love the way that David committed to different tones throughout the decades and how he achieved that in terms of the filming style. It wasn't done by costume only. It was done by style and the way he filmed the scenes. In the modern section, there was actually more tension in the relationship. That, to me, is more characteristic of a modern relationship."
Fincher pushed Ormond to excel. "I really loved working with David. I found it exhilarating because he is so gifted at all aspects of [filmmaking]. He was incredibly generous on this enormous movie. I was given more time to discuss character than I have been given [with] most of the directors that I've worked with on a lead. He challenges the hell out of people. It was fantastic. He's absolutely honest about what he feels, and that means you absolutely trust him when he says he's got it."
This was a character that resonated with Ormond and will likely resonate with anyone that sees her performance. "I believe Caroline has somewhat of a confused frustration she could never pinpoint. She could never put her finger on what is the thing that stops her from having real intimacy with her mother. What she learns in the last days of her mother's life has enormous fallout for her because it makes sense of so much."
Now, isn't that curious?