Interview: Benjamin Button Writer Eric Roth

On Fincher, Oscars and Forrest Gump similarities

 

Eric Roth is best known for his award-winning Forrest Gump screenplay, but he's also spent the last two decades mixing it up with some of Hollywood's hardest players.

From Steven Speilberg to Michael Mann, Roth is used to demanding directors. His latest project, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, was no different...

How does it feel now that Benjamin Button is out there and getting attention from the Academy?

It feels great. We’re obviously in a competition with Slumdog, but it’s great that people have seen and appreciated the movie, and we’re getting some notices about our work.

Does it measure up to how you saw the picture as you were developing it?

I guess you have certain aspirations. Mine always starts with hoping the audience is really happy with it. That the audience responds to it. Has an emotional involvement with it.

David Fincher wasn’t the first director attached when you came on board…

He was the first director attached with me. We had one other director briefly, but for about a week I think.

Were you a fan of Fincher before?

Very much so. I found that some of his movies I liked, some of them I didn’t like. But I found him really interesting as a film-maker. I didn’t know much about him, but he seemed like a personality.

It’s an interesting combination if you look at both your histories…

Very different… very different. I have worked with probably the most - how do I put it - aggressive film makers, you know. I’ve worked with Zemeckis, Michael Mann, Steven Speilberg. So at least the most self-assured kind of guys. David sits in that.

There’s been a lot of debate online about the similarities between Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button...

I think people are reading a little more into that. I know they've made some things out of certain things that have unconsciously gone in, but they’re quite different movies.

The biggest thing that is similar is probably the picturesque, incidental things. In its own way, Benjamin is a much more mature movie. It deals with a man’s life. Forrest Gump deals with his times.

One of the obvious comparisons is the way the movie's framed - with Cate Blanchett in the hospital, telling the story just as Gump does on the bench…

That was just a way of telling the story. My mother was dying at the time, and I had a personal involvement in that and a passion about that, but I thought it might be interesting to see how a woman looks at her life in her last days.[page-break]



It was rumoured that Fincher had discussions with the studio regarding the length…

Yeah. There always are, because there are certain parameters that say a movie can be more successful if it plays more times.

That’s not to say you don't get a very good movie. Certain stories take a certain time to tell, and this is a man’s whole life story.

One can debate whether a film is too long or too short; there are those who love Benjamin Button and feel it could go on for another two hours, as if absorbing themselves in a great novel. And there are others who feel that it's indulgence.

Was anything lost between your screenplay and the final cut?

Not really. There were little vignettes’ that are somewhat like the man who got struck by lightning. I had a couple more where we would meet characters and find out a bit more about their lives and dramatise that. They became unnecessary, I think.

It does feel like you wanted to focus on Benjamin solely all the way through…

One of the big things that David did was that I always had these incendiary characters that helped inform the main character, but David thought that each of the characters he meets has to have something to offer him.

You do only get a finite amount of time with the characters...

Isn’t that true of life? You get your hellos and goodbyes…

But it doesn’t happen to the central characters. They have their time, then go away, and then come back again...

They're more about missed opportunities. You do find – and not everybody does – but I do find that most people find one person in their life. A partner or a friend or a lover or whatever that kind of weaves in and out of their life. Some people find two or three of those people!

Sometimes they work and they don’t. And the years’ progress. You’re happy and you’re not happy. That’s these two people. Put aside the fact that he has this extraordinary ability to age backwards - if they were having a normal relationship it would be the same thing.

It becomes a different kind of tragic thing that they can’t be together, but that’s all great love stories – people can’t be together.

In Button you have both though – the pair have a tragic romance, but manage to have a happy ending…

Yeah, that was a little bit of a trick! I don’t know how I did it, but I think I pulled it off!

Would you say that was down to the screenwriter or the director?

I’d say that’s the screenwriting! David had to translate that and make that more poignant or whatever, but I think if you read the script you’d feel the same thing.

People said that when they read the last twenty pages of the script they’d start crying and not stop.

My wife and I talk about that all the time. She said she was a little arms' length with it at first because of the CGI, but all of a sudden things accumulate and you start feeling you’re watching a real story.

And you begin to consider your own life, about where does loneliness kick in and what makes people stay together.

Fincher is renowned for putting his own stamp on his movies. Were you concerned when he first signed on board?

When I first met him I didn’t know where he wanted to take this, because it was unlikely material if you just judge the other movies he’s made.

But you quickly realise that he has all sorts of varied interests and is a well-rounded human being, and this was not far from the thoughts and feelings he had about his father’s passing.

Do you think this is Fincher’s ‘Oscar’ movie?

I told him that he’s gotta’ grab hold of my coat-tails! In fact, I just called him up the other day and told him, ‘Look at the ride I’ve given you here, buddy!’

So it’s all down to you then, if he wins?

Basically, yeah! It’s not about him!

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