intriguing screenwriting debut (adapting his novel
eventually directed by
Spike Lee in
2002), the New York-raised writer has been bouncing back and forth in Hollywood
between studio-event blockbusters (Troy,
the upcoming X-Men
Origins: Wolverine) and character-driven dramas (Stay).
His latest project fits mostly in the former category. It’s an adaptation of
The Kite Runner
(directed by Stay‘s Marc Forster), a multi-generational story of
Afghanistan, class conflict, and atonement.
In our final Kite Runner interview — click
read our interview with lead actor Khalid Abdalla, and
our author Khaled Hosseini interview — we speak with Benioff in San Francisco
about the challenges of adapting a 400-page book, excessively long movies, and
Amanda Peet‘s pregnancy affected his travel schedule.
How did you take on the task of taking a book that’s about 400 pages and spans over 30 years and adapting it into a screenplay that would work?
David Benioff: Ruthlessly. I don’t like extremely long movies. I tend to get a bit impatient. There are definitely exceptions, like Lawrence of Arabia, but for the most part I feel that movies should usually be shorter and not longer. I went into it knowing I wanted the movie to be about two hours. The funny thing is that people at the studio talk about it like it’s a little movie with kids speaking Dari, but it’s not a little movie. I understand it’s not going to be Spider-Man 3. It’s not going to be this massive blockbuster. But it is an epic.
The real trick was trying to figure out what to cut. The first time I read the book, I read it like anyone else and fell in love with it. The second time reading it was after I got the job and was trying to figure out what’s the skeleton that will hold this movie together, because I had to cut away so much of the fat and the muscle and I needed to find the bones that keep the story standing. So there were a lot of things that were cut, a lot of things I loved from the book.
For instance, the whole sequence with Hassan’s harelip where Baba brings in a plastic surgeon from India to repair it; that was one of my favorite sequences in the book and it was in the early drafts of the script, but we knew ultimately that things would have to be cut. Eventually, I had to choose to cut things that wouldn’t hurt the story or our knowledge of the characters.
Luckily I was working with a director and an editor who both share my impatience for things that become too long and lugubrious and we finally got the script to where it needed to be.
Part of it was also knowing that the book is always going to be there. The book is on my shelf and those scenes will always be in there. It’s not like I’m ripping pages out of the book. I knew the film had to stand on its own and work for people who have never read the book. It’s definitely a frightening one to take on because so many people love it so much, but you can’t write in fear.
How closely did you work with Khaled Hosseini?
DB: He was wonderful. I’ve been lucky, but I have friends who have adapted books and often the relationship between the screenwriter and the novelist can be tense. I’ve heard some horror stories. In this case, Khaled was very supportive from the beginning. Not only of what we were trying to do but also of understanding that the film was going to be different from the book in some respects. I think he had faith. He knew we all loved the book and wanted to tell the story properly. Once he met us and knew how passionate we were about it, I think he probably relaxed a bit. Going forward, when I was actually working on the script, he was a great resource. I’m not Muslim and I didn’t grow up in Afghanistan, so I had many questions about different aspects of the story. I could always call or email Khaled and get a detailed response back within an hour.
The best part for me, the nicest thing I heard throughout the whole process was when we were recording the DVD audio commentary at Skywalker Ranch. It was really cool just to be at Skywalker Ranch. But at one point, Marc Forster said, “That’s a really nice line, was that in the book?” Then Khaled said that at this point, he couldn’t remember who had written it. To hear that from the author was incredible.
I was relieved to see that the film wasn’t completely in English. Was it always the intent to have the film be primarily in Dari?
DB: It was always clear that it was the only way to do it properly, but I never thought it would happen, because it was a huge money-losing proposition. Movies that are subtitled don’t usually do as well in American theatres. Honestly, the hero in the whole situation was Marc Forster, who said that he wouldn’t do it unless it was in Dari.
DB: The nice thing about working with Marc is that he’s so good at casting, especially kids. If you look at Finding Neverland, Marc cast Freddie Highmore, who’s a huge child star right now. I always felt confident he would find the right kids. It’s an interesting story because they went all over the world. It was a global casting call, and finally he went to Kabul which is where they found the kids.
How did the translation process work?
DB: I just learned Dari. [Laughs.]. It was a smaller movie, it was kind of all in the family and Khaled’s father ended up being the one who translated the English screenplay into Dari for the actors. Then I translated it back during post-production for the subtitles. Most of the time, it was from the original script. Sometimes I wrote one thing and then it got translated and I was sitting there with an Afghan woman who would tell me what the literal translation was, and sometimes it was very different from what the original screenplay said. Every now and then it was a lot better, but other times I could write my line. It was nice because usually as the writer, the actors take the lines and play with them and it’s out of your hands. This was the first time I could sort of reassert control over that.
Much of the book is internal. How did you deal with that challenge?
DB: That was one of the toughest challenges of the adaptation. I love reading novels and I love going to movies, but I kind of hate going to an adaptation of a novel and it starts off with a voiceover. To me it seems like the lazy way of adapting a book and I didn’t want to do it. One of the things I loved about this book is that it’s incredibly visual in terms of the landscapes. The kites in the sky, the clothes — there are so many pictures in your head when reading the book and I wanted the story to be told with the pictures and the dialogue. I didn’t feel that it needed narration, the story Khaled created could be told without having to have someone explaining it to you. We just had to adjust scenes to tell the story.
The last few scenes of the film are very similar to the book, almost word for word.
DB: It’s always easiest for me as a writer if I know I have a great ending. It can make everything else work. If you don’t have a good ending, it’s the hardest things in the world to come up with one. I always loved the ending of The Kite Runner and the scenes that are most faithful to the book are the last few scenes. I’m so biased, but I love the movie. I feel like we didn’t screw it up.
Were you able to travel to the set?
DB: Only to China for one week. My wife [Peet] was really pregnant so I didn’t want to take more than one week because she was about to pop. I went to Beijing, because it’s easier to get to than Kashgar. To get to Kashgar is a flight to Beijing, then an eight hour flight to Kashgar, and a six hour drive to where they were filming. So I went for a week and it was incredible. This movie is based on a novel by an Afghan-American, directed by a Swiss-German, produced by an Australian and a bunch of Americans. And the cast is Afghan, Iranian, English, French and American, with a screenplay by a New Yorker. It could not have been more global. It’s like a U.N. movie — bizarre and very cool. It seems appropriate for this movie, based on a book that has captured the imagination of the world. It was a special place to watch it coming together, even for the brief time I was there, it was surreal.