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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Roth interview

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ERIC Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump, tells us what it was like – and why patience played such a big part – in getting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made. He also reveals why the role was so personal for its star, Brad Pitt, and who he thinks will beat him to Bafta and Oscar awards glory this time around!

Q. You’ve been circling this project for almost 10 years, so how does it feel to have it realised in such spectacular fashion?
Eric Roth: It’s nice. I don’t think it’s been 10 years. I started it in 2001, so it’s eight years I guess. But a lot of my movies seem to take a long time to get made. Forrest Gump, for instance, took nine years and Munich took three. You just don’t know with films. You write them and hopefully they’ll finally see the light of day.

Q. Had David Fincher always been on board?
Eric Roth: David had actually been on board before I’d been on board. He had been interested in the notion of someone ageing backwards. A writer named Robin Swicord had worked on it before me and had been close to doing it with Steven Spielberg. But then things went in a different direction and I was asked to write it.

Q. How difficult was it to put together?
Eric Roth: It was very difficult to put together. Even when David came on board, it still needed a movie star. It was also going to be an expensive movie and there were two studios involved – Paramount and Warner Bros, and there was some internal stuff at one point and we needed more money. We’d also originally intended to shoot it in Baltimore but weren’t able to. So, they then decided to move the shoot to New Orelans and started sending me pictures of the city pre-Katrina. I thought it could work. In fact, it was a revelation and it changed the whole tenure of the piece. It gave it a whole different feeling. But then Katrina happened and we were unable to film there, so we had to make another decision – whether to find a new location or wait until it was possible. So, we decided to wait.

Q. The themes of the movie resonated with you in particular because of the death of both of your parents during the conceptual period and early writing…
Eric Roth: Yeah, it’s a very personal project for me. Firstly, my mum passed and I took a lot from that experience. In fact, some of the lines of dialogue are in there… I asked her whether she was afraid of dying and she said: “No, curious.” So, I included that and then, following my father’s death, I drew on experiences I had with him.

Q. But it’s not a morbid film…
Eric Roth: No, it’s about the natural quality of life and death. It’s about life and death. It follows a man’s life from 1918 to 2000 and something and shows that he lived a full, rich life for a man. It also shows, however, that death is a natural occurrence.

Q. And it turns certain notions on its head – we may think it’s ideal to get younger but it’s not without cost…
Eric Roth: It emphasises that. What seems like a happy experience – in terms of virility, strength, looks and getting your youth back as opposed to losing it… there’s a price you pay. I guess the underlying message of the movie is that whether you live your life forward, backwards, upside down or whatever, you’ve got to live it well. That may be simplistic but it’s true.

Q. You’ve been quoted as saying that for Brad Pitt, too, this was a very personal performance…
Eric Roth: Absolutely. Brad got the quietness of the man, and made him a little more reflective, and a little bit more of a listener and an observer. Another thing that David pointed out, which I hadn’t thought of initially, was that we get to watch the movie from Benjamin’s birth to his death, which means there’s no back story as with a lot of films. So, we get to follow that story develop.

Q. Are you amazed by the special effects?
Eric Roth: Definitely, because they are amazing. As a writer, I just write a scene involving World War One and they do it. So, that’s amazing too. In fact, one of the reasons for the delay was because they couldn’t figure out how to do the special effects. At one point, they considered using five or six different actors. But David always had the belief that he could do it… as well as being a creative, well-rounded person, he’s also technologically gifted. So, he always had faith in his own ability to find a way to achieve what you see on-screen.

Q. Did you work closely with him throughout the process?
Eric Roth: Very closely… We respect each other very much.

Q. Would you like to work with him again?
Eric Roth: I’d work with him all the time if I could!

Q. And yet you’ve worked with some of the greats…
Eric Roth: Yes, I’ve had the likes of Bob Zemeckis, Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg, so you could say I’ve been extremely lucky and had a good run.

Q. Are they all as formidable as their reputations suggest?
Eric Roth: Yes. But they’re all very creative people. They always ask the right questions and they push you to your limits. But they also respect the collaboration process and the fact that good ideas are hard to come by. It’s not a contest. Once you’re on a movie, you’ve got to make the best project possible. And there’s a lot of trust involved. In fact, one of the nice things about working with David is that, from the start, we both didn’t want to disappoint each other. So, when you get into that film mindset it can only be a positive thing. Problems only come on movies when a writer and director don’t know what the movie is.

Q. You mentioned Forrest Gump, your Oscar winner, earlier and the comparison has been made between that and Benjamin Button. Do you see it as a companion piece?
Eric Roth: It’s not really a companion piece. There are some things that are similar, I guess, but it’s also a very different movie. Part of that’s because I’ve grown more mature as a person and as a writer. I’m older now. The things that are similar have do to with some of the style and the episodic nature of things. It does take place over a long period of time. There’s also some obvious things I bring to it just through being who I am. But on the whole, Benjamin Button deals with a lot of different things.

Q. Do you still remember the night you won the Oscar?
Eric Roth: I remember it distinctly. I got up there and said to myself: “Well, they can’t take this away from me!” It was such an adrenaline rush. I’ve been nominated since, of course, and some of the other times were a little more discouraging [laughs]… I thought we should have won for The Insider… and Munich was a tough one.

Q. Well, you’re almost certain to be nominated again – and you’ve recently received a Bafta nomination…
Eric Roth: Yeah, that was nice. But Slumdog Millionaire‘s going to win, I’m sure!

Read our review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button