Time, love, life, and death collide at the heart of screenwriter Eric Roth‘s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which marks the third feature film collaboration between actor Brad Pitt and David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club). But the critically-acclaimed Benjamin Button is no typical Fincher film; the story, based loosely on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man “born old” who ages backwards, is alternately epic and introspective, a gentle and gorgeous meditation on human mortality and how we choose to spend the little time we have with our loved ones — themes that Roth reveals came straight from his own experiences.
The sprawling, time-jumping tale begins in a New Orleans hospital on the eve of Hurricane Katrina, where the elderly Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is spending her last hours with her estranged adult daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond). At her mother’s behest, Caroline reads aloud from the diary of the love of Daisy’s life, a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) who was born in 1918 under strange circumstances; living life backwards, Benjamin reverse-ages through the 20th century, collecting life lessons and experiences along the way while coming to terms with the knowledge that while everyone around him gets older and approaches death, he’s headed “the other way.”
Speaking with Rotten Tomatoes, Roth, whose take on Benjamin Button has drawn comparisons to Forrest Gump (for which he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay), explains how much of Benjamin Button came from losing his own parents during the writing process, making it his most personal film to date, how pleasantly surprised he was when David Fincher took the director’s chair, and more.
I was at one of the first screenings where, in the Q&A, you shared with us you lost your parents when you were writing this, which is a deeply personal thing to share with strangers. Can you talk about how much that affected your writing?
Eric Roth: Completely. Without them having passed away I couldn’t have written this. It gave me insights into me, into them…
Had you already begun writing when you lost them?
ER: My mother was diagnosed with cancer just approximately the same time I started writing [the script] and she died not long afterwards. And then my dad died a couple years after that, but I was still working on it. In other words, it probably made me – unfortunately – a better writer. You have to deal with your feelings while you’re doing things but I think you do that anyway, whether or not there are tragedies. I think good writing comes out of it even if you’re not writing about [the tragedy], per se.
Did that lead directly to the scenes between the present-day, hospitalized Daisy and her daughter, Caroline?
ER: One hundred percent, yes. Exactly, as a matter of fact. When [the dialogues] become personal – these were things my parents said to me when they were in hospitals. I remember, I asked my mom, “Are you afraid?” and she said, “I’m curious.” And I think that’s almost the first line of the movie.
Anyone who’s lost a family member in that way – to old age or illness – is bound to be incredibly moved by those scenes in particular.
ER: I think they’re pretty real. David [Fincher], who lost his father at some point, can relate. In other words, this is what people have to go through.
Because of that, do you feel that this is a more personal film than some of your other projects?
ER: I think this might be my most personal movie. It’s about as close as you can get to me.
As a writer, do you tend to identify with all of your characters within one film, or more with a single character – such as the lead character – in particular?
ER: I think you have to find one you have a relationship to. Whether you like them or not you have to give them some reality, some history, some psychological traits that would be accurate for that personality – find out where they came from in order to create a whole persona.
So do you identify more with Benjamin or with Caroline?
ER: Boy, that’s a tough question! I would probably identify more with Benjamin. Just as a kind of storyteller observing the human condition, as it were. Caroline, I don’t know if I could put myself in her situation as easily. That was a little more complicated, you’re right, even though I have a child who’s adopted so I get some sense of that from her.
Next: Roth on director David Fincher: “You know, you’re afraid to meet someone and then you find out they put their pants on one leg at a time.“
Do you feel like there’s more of you in Benjamin Button, or more of David Fincher?
ER: I can’t speak for David. I feel it’s more me but I feel he’s articulated me, so he must understand something in it he relates to. I think it’s a combination, in a nice way. We’re very close, [from going] through this process. He says, “I don’t want to disappoint you,” and I say, “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Did you share a more collaborative relationship with David than you have with other filmmakers?
ER: No, not really. Most of the other directors I’ve worked with have been pretty experienced guys who are very smart and wise in their ways making movies and good with story and character. So they’re different personalities. Obviously David is different than Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg or something; everybody has a process and each of them tries to get the best work from you and you try to get the best ideas from them. I think that’s part of the nature of this.
Had you known David before working together on Benjamin Button?.
ER: I met him when we first sat down to talk about the script. Never met the man. I liked his work.
Do you think this is a surprising departure for him?
ER: Well, when I heard he was going to do it I thought so, but the moment I met him I realized it was foolish. Me, not really thinking, I was just sort of going with the press clippings, which is stupid. Once you meet anyone there’s a whole creative world that they’re interested in. Why assume he’s limited to doing only one thing? You wouldn’t assume that I can only write one kind of screenplay, right? It was just where you get caught…it’s a legend in a way.
It’s nice to know that happens to filmmakers too…
ER: Oh, it happens to everybody! You know, you’re afraid to meet someone and then you find out they put their pants on one leg at a time.
One thing that some people have noted is that Benjamin’s a passive character. How do you feel about that?
ER: I think that’s a compliment. They’re not meaning it that way but I don’t think someone has to be a reactor in big, huge terms to have drama. I can do that too; I’ve written characters like that, but I think sometimes people are more quiet and observational and it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling something or that they then plot their courses accordingly. I think, in a way, for Brad Pitt, it’s harder acting than other roles that are so huge, because to be quiet is the hardest thing about acting. I remember Bob DeNiro telling me that the hardest thing to do as an actor is to listen. He said most actors are kind of planning what to say next, and if you watch really good actors, they’re listening.
Next: Roth on his writing process, choosing not to explain Benjamin’s aging phenomenon, and finding roots in folklore.
When you were writing Benjamin Button, were you very aware of the technology that would be used to take Benjamin through his ages, from birth as an old man-baby through his reverse-aging process?
ER: I didn’t know what technology they would use to do it. I had an inkling but I didn’t know. There was some talk for a while of having four or five actors playing Benjamin from different ages, but I had faith that David could figure it out. It’s not really my job; as a screenwriter, I just write. I didn’t have any feelings they couldn’t do it. I understand why they’d be nervous about it; if it looks dumb the movie’s ruined.
I thought it looked spectacular!
ER: I do too. The great reaction to that: we had test screenings early on and test groups only talked about Benjamin. We realized, they’re not talking about Brad Pitt, who’s obviously an iconic figure in our lives, because they got lost in the character. So it obviously worked.
In your writing process, and also when you were specifically writing Benjamin Button, what sort of things did you use as inspiration? Do you listen to music?
ER: No. I sort of sit there and dream away. I did realize today, someone asked me where the hummingbird came from and I hadn’t really thought about it, but I realized there was a hummingbird that kind of hangs out by my window and sometimes when I’m daydreaming I kind of just look at it and so I think that’s where it obviously came from.
I liked that touch. In adapting the script from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, you changed a lot of the details. One choice you seemed to make was overlooking the fantastical science that might otherwise explain how Benjamin ages…
ER: I decided we weren’t going to discuss that, rather just go on faith that people would take it as a fable. At one point we toyed with the idea of having a doctor in the beginning saying “I’ve never seen anything like it,” and then explaining it as best we could, without going too into the condition he had.
You studied folklore in college. How did that affect your writing, if at all?
ER: I think there’s a sense of Americana to it; instead of the kind of giant storytelling, like the guy who gets hit by lighting or that kind of thing. That would be like folklore. I was always interested in that. The idea came through Mark Twain – that’s appropriate.
The old man who can’t remember anything except the fact that he’s been hit by lightning seven times was a welcome blast of comedy and lightness throughout the film, but I could swear I didn’t see seven lightning strikes.
ER: Do you think so?
You see two first, then he gets hit while in a field, and he gets hit in his truck, and while walking his dog, and once again at the end…
ER: Just because we say it doesn’t mean we have to show seven, true? I’m wondering now. I’ll have to look. I’m going to see the movie tomorrow night. I’ll count.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button opens in wide release December 25, 2008. For more Oscar season interviews, news and galleries, check out our Awards Tour 2008.