BOXOFFICE caught up with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button screenwriter Eric Roth.

Writing About a Life Lived in Reverse

on January 05, 2009 by Phil Contrino
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The first and obvious question to ask screenwriter Eric Roth about his latest project, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is whether or not he read the F. Scott Fitzgerald story it’s based on prior to adapting it for the screen. His answer is short and to the point, gently giving a casual smile as he pauses for a moment. “I didn’t read it because I didn’t want it unconsciously in my mind as I was writing the screenplay. It’s not a new idea of aging backwards but it varies according to certain stories.”

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The eclectic screenwriter is best known for his Oscar-winning adaptation of Forrest Gump but he has also collaborated on the screenplays for Munich, The Good Shepherd, Ali and The Insider. Benjamin Button shares some of the whimsy of Gump but Roth is quick to point out that the projects may seem similar at first but are very different.

“I think this film compared to Forrest Gump is a more mature movie. They both have different directors and I guess they have similarities because I’m writing them and they have these flights of fancy. What I wanted to do was start when a young man came of age. Kind of a Jack London thing where he goes out to sea, I thought it’d be kind of interesting with a tugboat. It was sort of an idea I had and it became reality.”

Roth’s involvement with high-caliber directors like Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and Robert Zemeckis has helped him understand his value on a film set. He feels the best collaborations are the ones where the director can work closely with the screenwriter and not improvise as they go along. Fortunately he hasn’t had many of those experiences and feels directors have shown him a kind of respect that makes him comfortable writing exactly what he wants.

“For most of the movies I’ve worked on I’ve fortunately had good relationships with the directors and you try to be available but not too available because if they’re having problems with an actor or actress, you come on set to fix a line with a new line. Something that took you two years to write they want you to snap something new in there. I usually map out what I’d enjoy watching in a film and also relationship scenes that I think might be difficult so I can articulate to the actors later what I had in mind when I wrote it. Particularly for actors who are very demanding, they want to know why they’re coming out of a trailer and the good actors like to ask very hard questions. On The Insider Russell Crowe asked me every day, 'Why am I doing this? Why am I saying this?' If you can give them the right answers they’ll do anything but if you can’t they get panicked. My involvement was as much as I’m needed and I try to stay involved because I have an intimate relationship with the whole process. You try and stay as friendly and close as you can, sometimes there are bloody battles but most of the directors I’ve worked with have been very respectful.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Roth’s first collaboration with director David Fincher, a talented filmmaker who is also a known perfectionist, working his actors and crew hard to get exactly what he wants. With that kind of reputation one might suspect the director-screenwriter relationship might have suffered but Roth feels it was the exact opposite.

“I was pleasantly surprised that David (Fincher) translated it as closely to what I originally wrote. I can’t direct but if I could it would look much like this. In many instances I think he might have made it better. Through our collaboration I think he improved what was there from the beginning, he added some things and he questioned some things.”

One of the many things Roth is asked whenever he does interviews are tips to get into screenwriting. It’s something he doesn’t mind answering and also feels optimistic about. He loves his craft and doesn’t consider screenwriting an art form but also feels the hardest step is the first step. Too many people talk about writing but never actually do it.

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“It’s the value of an idea. Truthful screenwriting is very simple, anyone can do it. Go get yourself a screenwriting program, it will format it for you, you can print out pages. I’m not sure it’s an art form but it’s a great craft. But I really think it’s about the value or an idea, how it’s articulated. For me I was lucky enough to win the UCLA screenwriting competition and that got me an agent which got me a job. I say if you really want to do it you have to write. Most people like to talk about it but they never write anything. If you write 2 or 3 pages a day even if you have a day job you can write something in a small amount of time.”

Benjamin Button has been split into two camps by people who have seen it, those who feel it’s too long and those who aren’t bothered by the film’s length. For the record, the film is close to two hours and forty five minutes, something Roth and director David Fincher fought very hard for. According to Roth, the film’s studio obviously wanted a shorter film to create more show times and more box office revenue but the creative downside would be too much to bear. It would be a short term win for a long term loss.

“They would always want things shorter, just because it creates more show times so that’s just on the basis of bringing in revenues. But I think they usually become respectful of the artist, at some point these artists like David Fincher are in the right to get final cut," said Roth. "We could debate whether the movie is too long or not too long, I happen to love it so I’m a bad one to ask. To me it’s like a lovely novel where some parts may be slower than others but when it’s all done I think it adds up to something important.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is now playing in theatres nationwide.

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