David Benioff on The Kite Runner: The RT Interview

One of Hollywood's hottest screenwriters takes a break from Wolverine to talk with RT.

by | December 13, 2007 | Comments

David Benioff‘s
intriguing screenwriting debut (adapting his novel
25th Hour
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
here to
read our interview with lead actor Khalid Abdalla, and
here for
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. Who was responsible for the casting of the young actors?

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.

Tag Cloud

E3 Superheroe Kids & Family Cartoon Network Best and Worst Syfy theme song Fall TV Women's History Month Rock Reality RT21 diversity Watching Series video miniseries Schedule FX revenge MCU boxoffice DC streaming service CMT Elton John game of thrones Showtime Star Trek CW Seed Set visit Black Mirror Shudder ESPN Ovation SDCC Western TV renewals Mary Tyler Moore YouTube Red Warner Bros. Apple biography X-Men TCA discovery Extras Tomatazos New York Comic Con cancelled TV series Family movies Valentine's Day Film Festival Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Premiere Dates 2015 crime drama Trophy Talk VH1 witnail NYCC Pixar CBS All Access ghosts Amazon Prime cooking latino ITV Esquire Infographic social media Horror ABC dragons First Look cancelled animated The Witch Cannes toy story E! Comedy Central Sundance Vudu Music zombie Trivia 2017 CNN quibi Box Office OWN cars doctor who Podcast Character Guide Film Mystery Trailer joker war Binge Guide Martial Arts adventure Writers Guild of America Shondaland Polls and Games crossover romance YouTube Nominations spanish language Christmas sitcom TCM dceu DC Comics Tarantino travel Winners hist dramedy cults The Arrangement free movies Comic Book LGBTQ Chernobyl BBC America thriller HBO ratings Lifetime streaming USA Network canceled TV shows disaster true crime festivals Awards Ellie Kemper TNT Lionsgate batman SundanceTV Peacock Countdown Nickelodeon YA Mary Poppins Returns Reality Competition what to watch Starz MTV children's TV police drama Disney Plus science fiction San Diego Comic-Con Year in Review Action 2019 21st Century Fox harry potter WGN Emmys political drama mockumentary Musical Logo Britbox Video Games historical drama Pride Month sports halloween renewed TV shows Opinion Mudbound richard e. Grant Disney streaming service Sci-Fi composers First Reviews Rom-Com Marathons slashers Pet Sematary aliens RT History See It Skip It Ghostbusters Winter TV CBS justice league docudrama talk show elevated horror golden globes Sneak Peek YouTube Premium Mindy Kaling Epix serial killer History Emmy Nominations Universal Amazon facebook television A&E Photos Election Super Bowl crime thriller APB Oscars TruTV TLC Certified Fresh Superheroes Biopics Quiz blaxploitation Musicals TBS Lucasfilm strong female leads 007 Song of Ice and Fire Summer Captain marvel Nat Geo teaser Disney Channel PBS Mary poppins Red Carpet HBO Max technology spinoff Spectrum Originals Dark Horse Comics Disney IFC cops Amazon Prime Video LGBT MSNBC crime comiccon Holidays Walt Disney Pictures period drama 20th Century Fox tv talk Hulu Freeform Rocky National Geographic AMC casting Drama Toys Tumblr TIFF binge spain Pop natural history Creative Arts Emmys VICE cancelled television Netflix spy thriller 24 frames game show Grammys Fox News American Society of Cinematographers Paramount Comedy Anna Paquin GoT FXX Masterpiece kids singing competition cinemax space politics BBC psycho Food Network foreign zombies TV zero dark thirty GLAAD BET DC Universe canceled Animation Calendar jamie lee curtis Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt DirecTV 71st Emmy Awards comic Acorn TV GIFs Interview anime Star Wars 2018 Sony Pictures dc mutant Heroines President series Apple TV+ Bravo vampires Cosplay based on movie sequel south america transformers Marvel Stephen King anthology PaleyFest Crackle book Awards Tour Arrowverse Television Academy award winner cancelled TV shows Country Rocketman TCA 2017 cats Brie Larson ABC Family The Walking Dead unscripted USA Thanksgiving Comics on TV Pirates adaptation 2016 medical drama FOX DGA psychological thriller hispanic nature Teen El Rey Spike Spring TV TV Land supernatural IFC Films 45 stand-up comedy Columbia Pictures robots SXSW NBC Fantasy Paramount Network Adult Swim spider-man WarnerMedia green book finale Sundance Now The CW