RT Interview: Eric Roth Calls Benjamin Button His Most Personal Film To Date
The Oscar-winning scribe of Forrest Gump discusses his latest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
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."