Interview: Benjamin Button Screenwriter Eric Roth
Mon, 09 Feb 2009 15:51:57
It comes as no surprise that Eric Roth describes himself as a "big reader." The Academy Award-winning screenwriter possesses a literary writing style that separates him from most screen scribes. This is the man that helped bring Forrest Gump to the top and grabbed the gold at the finish line. Now, he's up for Best Adapted Screenplay again. This time it's for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Roth adapted the screenplay from an F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the same name. The original tale of aging backwards is quite the head-trip, making adaptation no easy task, so Roth has certainly earned his recent wave of attention. In this interview, Roth discusses transporting Benjamin Button to New Orleans, the differences between Ben and Forrest, and pleasing F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Why did you decide to move the story from Baltimore to New Orleans?
It was moved from Baltimore for a few reasons. It was set in Chesapeake Bay originally, and that was a big part of the story. It was really expensive because the harbor's very different now. Aside from whatever digital stuff we would've done, we would've had to do a lot of construction. The filmmakers were looking around and trying to get some money, too. Louisiana was offering this rebate for films, so it made sense [laughs].
Was the tone of the original short story especially funny?
It's sort of whimsical and farcical. I would say that it felt like Benjamin could've been born smoking a cigar when he came out of the womb. From my research with F. Scott Fitzgerald's biographies, I found that it was written as a whimsy. However, Fitzgerald took the subject, the notion of aging backwards, very seriously.
Why did this project take so long to get made from the time the script was written?
One of the reasons it took so long was technology. Even when I began, which was six or seven years ago, they were talking about having four actors play Benjamin. They had talked about Robert Redford playing him at his age, and then Brad Pitt playing the 40-year-old—that kind of thing. I think technology was a big part of it. There are a number of projects that sit and wait though. Sometimes the project will fall into the hands of someone who's passionate about it. Sherry Lansing and Kathleen Kennedy were very passionate about this. Director David Fincher had predated my involvement.
“I think this is a more mature movie [than Forrest Gump] in some ways. The themes are very different.”
Did you have a lot of freedom with the story?
They let me use my imagination and see where it would take me. The only parameters given to me explicitly were including the love story aspect and the big idea of someone who ages backwards.
What resonated with you from the original short story?
The only thing I felt strongly about, obviously, was the notion of aging backwards. That was why I was doing it. There's a sense that didn't have to be spoken in the short story about complications of aging backwards. Fitzgerald made them humorous. However, other themes come into play such as being alone. I hope Fitzgerald would like this.
Did the decision to set it New Orleans cause rewrites?
Oddly, when we reset it in New Orleans, there wasn't too much rewriting that needed to be done. As soon as I wrote "Ext. New Orleans Day," the city became another character. It was amazing. There was nothing I had to add to it. New Orleans carries such an amazing quality to it. The sounds, sights, and tastes of New Orleans are so distinctive and American. I added whatever was indigenous to New Orleans. It was self-evident. I'd written this before Katrina. Obviously we had a decision to make: Do we include or have the movie end before Katrina exists? We use it as a tension.
Is the ultimate sentiment of the film that everything in life is provisional?
That's the end image of the movie. It could all be washed away.
Do you feel like you were influenced by Forrest Gump at all?
I think there's obviously no way I couldn't be influenced by Forrest Gump because I wrote both. You bring certain good or bad baggage with you. There are certain qualities that are similar: the picturesque nature of it and the journey of a man's life to some extent. However, I think it's quite a different movie in its own way when you reach a certain point. I don't mean this in a derogatory sense; I love Forrest Gump, but I think this is a more mature movie in some ways. The themes are very different. It's a little darker. [Button director] David Fincher has a different take on things. There's a different sense of humor than Robert Zemeckis'. Bob's a little broader. That was about certain periods of time and the historical thing. I sat down to write this and it was about someone born on this day whose going to die on this day, and it gave me free reign of his life. I could add whatever I could invent.
Was it daunting or liberating to have this short material to adapt from?
I think it's liberating. It's daunting because it comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald. I've done a lot of adaptations so I'm always respectful of the original writer. My job's different. I'm a dramatist, basically. I dramatize and try to maintain the core ideas of what the story is. One of the sayings for screenwriters is that bad books, stories, or plays make good movies. You're not as beholden to the material. If you're asked to do some classic piece of literature, you would pause making some giant changes to it. This isn't Great Gatsby. I would be careful with changing that in a huge way [laughs].