Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Before he became a cinematic legend in the films of Ingmar Bergman and as Father Merrin in “The Exorcist,” Max von Sydow engaged in far more intense performances for survivors of Nazi death camps in his native Lund, Sweden.
After greeting a visitor with a courtly bow in Beverly Hills recently, the regal, 82-year-old actor recalled how the Jews had been invited to Lund to heal in refugee camps. The townspeople, including von Sydow’s parents, showered the survivors with clothing and food, and the 16-year-old Max did his part by performing for the visitors with the local youth folk dance troupe.
“These poor people came and were staying at whatever was available, in the schools, and in the big bathhouse, and we spent our weekends touring and dancing for them — something I will never forget, because it was very emotional,” von Sydow said in a hushed, accented baritone. “Some were carried in on stretchers to watch the shows; for many, it was their first entertainment after the hell of the camps.”
Von Sydow and his colleagues made sure to sing the national anthems of the survivors’ countries of origin: “I’ve never had an audience like that,” he said. “These were people, many of whom were gravely ill, who came and spent perhaps a couple of weeks in our town before they died. We were just trying to do as much as was possible for them at the time. Many of them are still in Lund, in a huge graveyard with foreign names.”
Von Sydow was in high school during the war: “What can I say? I was naïve, and of course I did not understand the profundity of the tragedy,” he said. “But that spring, when these people were sent to us, to hopefully survive, made a very deep impression on me.”
Today, the thespian is up for a supporting actor Oscar for playing a survivor of a different kind, in Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. The story tells of a boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), who has lost his father (Tom Hanks) in the Sept. 11 attacks and embarks upon an unusual quest to connect with his late parent. Von Sydow plays a mysterious, mute tenant who moves in with Schell’s grandmother and eventually accompanies Oskar on his journey across New York City. Known simply as The Renter, he communicates only by writing notes or holding up a hand to signify “yes” or “no.” He has not spoken a word, we learn, since losing his entire family during the Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II.
“When that happened, he was destroyed,” von Sydow said. “He felt a profound guilt that he did not die with the others. Everyone he knew just disappeared, and so he decides he will never say anything again — not a word — and he hasn’t. I wouldn’t call it an intellectual decision; it was a profound emotional shock that leaves him mute for the rest of his life.
“The film is a great way of treating the Sept. 11 disaster, but I don’t see it as a film about 9/11,” von Sydow continued. “It’s a film about finding a way to heal yourself after a terrible loss. It’s a way of talking about survivor’s guilt across all kinds of tragedies.”
Along with villains and priests, von Sydow’s more than 120 film roles have included their share of German, Jewish or Nazi characters, a typecasting he acknowledges with an ironic laugh. “It’s because I’m a foreigner — and also because I probably look German and my name is German,” he said. “Many casting directors go for the easy thing: It’s ‘Ah, we need somebody to play a Nazi officer — von Sydow has done it, so let’s ask him.’ And it’s boring.”
The actor, nevertheless, has accepted what he has perceived as the best of these roles: He won awards for portraying the Norwegian Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun in Jan Troell’s 1996 biopic “Hamsun”; he was a psychiatrist who may or may not have been a Nazi in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” and he has played various Jewish survivors in films such as the 2001 Spanish thriller “Intacto” and the TV movie “Emotional Arithmetic,” opposite Susan Sarandon.
Von Sydow’s acting career actually began around the time the Jewish survivors came to Lund, when, despite the disapproval of his traditional Lutheran parents, he formed a theater troupe and attended performances at the municipal theater where Bergman was making a splash. “I suspect I was not very happy with myself,” he said of his being drawn to the profession. “I felt awkward and probably had inferiority complexes right and left, and it was very exciting suddenly to be very important and to say very intelligent or witty things, and resolve critical situations, which all these actors were doing on the stage.”
Von Sydow eventually made some 15 films with Bergman, becoming an international star for his turns in “Wild Strawberries,” “The Virgin Spring” and “The Seventh Seal,” in which his character famously plays chess with Death on the beach. Although Bergman’s films tend to be angst-ridden, von Sydow remembers the late director as “a very charming man with a great sense of humor, a wonderful laugh and a great imagination.”
He credits Bergman with the approach he has used to create characters during his more than six decades on stage and screen. “Even when playing famous parts in classic plays, he told us not to take the characters so seriously,” von Sydow said. “They got hungry and tired and had to go to the bathroom. They may have had special intelligences, but apart from that, they were totally human beings all of the time.”
The actor, however, is surprisingly critical of what many people consider to be his best performances. Every time he sees that sequence of himself playing chess with Death, he said, “I’m shocked by the way I am saying the lines, as if I am in the theater and trying to reach the balcony. Even though Death is right there, our conversations are like this,” he said, raising his voice to a thunderous volume. “It’s not intimate, which is the way it should be. Marlon Brando wouldn’t have done it like that, you see.”
Next comes a critique of his first Hollywood role, playing Jesus in George Stevens’ “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” “I happened to watch that not long ago and I was very, very disappointed,” he said. “I found it very stiff, just kind of cardboard characters, including mine.”
He is happier with his turn as The Renter in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” explaining that he approached the role in the same way as any other. “It’s a matter of finding out, what does this man want in life — and in a particular scene? Why does he treat other characters this way? Why does he ask the questions he asks? It’s a matter of why, why, why, and the emotions should arrive on the way,” he said.
Von Sydow’s work in the film has earned him his second Academy Award nomination — his first was for playing an immigrant farmer in “Pelle the Conqueror” in 1987 — and he responded to the news by sharing a glass of champagne with his wife, Catherine Brelet. “To me, the nomination is very moving because it’s from your colleagues, who obviously know something about your profession,” he said. “It’s wonderful, and I’m very happy about it.”
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February 16, 2012 | 12:34 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Jonah Hill is up for a supporting actor Oscar for his first dramatic turn in a major studio feature, “Moneyball,” and this whole awards season has been a heady time for the 28-year-old performer. Previously best known for his performances in the pop-culture hits of comedy mogul Judd Apatow (think “Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek”), Hill first cut his dramatic chops with the Duplass brothers’ independent film, “Cyrus,” before his co-star Catherine Keener introduced him to “Moneyball” director Bennett Miller. The results have made Hill a dramatic actor to watch.
Earlier this year, we ran a cover story on Hill’s journey into dramatic films, an odyssey he said has paralleled his own personal and professional growth. Here’s revisiting our December interview with the actor*, which took place during a break from Hill’s Chanukkah shopping at House Café on Beverly Boulevard.
*Some quotes have been edited or condensed.
February 13, 2012 | 4:55 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The underdog in the race for best actor at the 2012 Academy Awards is certainly Demian Bichir, who was nominated for his searing performance as an undocumented worker struggling to raise his troubled teenaged son in Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life.” While more expected contenders such as Michael Fassbender (“Shame”), Ryan Gosling (“Drive”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“J. Edgar”) fell by the wayside, Bichir received the Oscar nod and is only the third Latino to ever do so, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Last year, I interviewed Bichir about his turn as the struggling gardener at the heart of the film; his formidable competition for the Oscar will include Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”), Gary Oldman (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), George Clooney (“The Descendants”) and Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”).
Among those who were thrilled by Bichir’s Oscar nod was “A Better Life’s” Stacey Lubliner, who with partner Jami Gertz produced the film as the first effort of their Lime Orchard Productions. I caught up with Lubliner recently to discuss Bichir, the surprise contender:
NPM: Demian was sometimes mentioned as a possible nominee but only as a longshot. How did you get the news and what was your response?
SL: My husband was at the Sundance Film Festival and he called me and told me to turn on the TV. I was so excited to see them say Demian’s name. I called Jami at 5:30 am and woke her up! I was so happy for Demian and so proud of the movie and all that we accomplished. It was the first movie Lime Orchard produced and everyone on the cast and crew worked so hard on the movie, so it felt very rewarding for us on behalf of all of them.
NPM: Demian told me he’s felt typecast into certain roles where he is the suave, good looking, or intimidating kind of character (like Fidel Castro in “Che” or a gangster in “Weeds”). What made you consider him for “A Better Life?”
SL: Chris Weitz found Demian and knew he was the guy from the beginning. We met him and saw him read and felt his passion for the role. He was so dedicated to bringing a genuine portrayal of this character to screen.
NPM: What did he bring to the role that made the story so heartrending?
SL: Demian was so dedicated to getting every physical and emotional attribute that this father and gardener would have. His attention to detail and his passion for authenticity were amazing. It was his subtle persona and his understated, yet powerful performance that was so heartbreaking.
February 9, 2012 | 3:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the Los Angeles film noir “Rampart,” Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Dave Brown patrols the broiling-hot city hunting for bad guys. A Vietnam War veteran, Brown sees himself as a soldier and the streets as an urban jungle. He’s the cop of your worst nightmare: racist, alcoholic and prone to pummel a suspect with his baton first and ask questions later. He’s also reminiscent of the real-life Rampart scandal of the 1990s, in which dozens of LAPD officers in an anti-gang unit were accused of serious corruption, leading to convictions for such crimes as dealing drugs and planting evidence.
The drama, directed and co-written by Israeli-born filmmaker Oren Moverman, uses the Rampart scandal as a backdrop for a character study of Brown (Woody Harrelson), who refuses to mend his ways amid a changing LAPD and the disintegration of his family. Brown’s ex-wives (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), sisters who live next door to each other and mothers to his two daughters, are trying to kick him out of their garage.
And so he spirals downward into a kind of personal hell illuminated by scorching cinematography. Along the way, the camera claustrophobically frames his face in extreme close-up to spotlight his escalating turmoil and paranoia. “We wanted to get very, very close, so that the only other option is to literally get inside his brain,” Moverman, 45, said during a recent interview at a West Hollywood hotel. “You can even see the vein that is pop-pop-popping in his head.”
The tall, sturdily built Moverman came to “Rampart” when he was asked to rewrite a sprawling draft by the infamously hard-boiled Los Angeles crime novelist James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Black Dahlia”), whose gruff police characters are more often the good guys on the mean streets.
The two writers met over coffee in Ellroy’s favorite red booth at the Pacific Dining Car — a noirish spot west of downtown. Ellroy had the kind of tough persona typical of a character in his novels, Moverman recalled. He asked plenty of questions about the Israeli’s service as a paratrooper in the first Lebanon War and the First Intifadah: “James is very close to the police; he loves the stories, the capers that come out of that culture,” the filmmaker said.
“My favorite book of James’ is his memoir, ‘My Dark Places,’ in which he talks a lot about the rape and murder of his mother, when he was a 10-year-old boy,” Moverman added. “That [explains] how somebody could grow up fascinated with gruesome crime stories and siding with the police. ... I can totally understand what draws him to powerful male models of law and order and power.”
Moverman came to the script — and to its ideas about masculinity — from a very different perspective. He left his Israeli military service with a profound sense of how power can be abused, as well as how veterans can be scarred for life. His interest in how soldiers reintegrate into society was the subject of his well-received directorial debut, “The Messenger,” which won Moverman an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and also starred Harrelson.
To continue probing these issues, Moverman turned the character of Dave Brown into a veteran of the Vietnam War: “The Israeli part of it is a fascination I have with exploring masculinity as it breaks apart,” he said. “If you’re raised in a culture that expects you to be brave, strong and powerful in your expression, and you realize it’s not doable because you’re a human being, it can eat you up from the inside. It’s an invitation to a breakdown, and Dave Brown is an accident that’s waiting to happen. He thinks his war experience is no longer part of him, but everything about him really is — in his militaristic belief in law enforcement as an expression of power, domination and occupation. It’s not only in his work life, but also in his private life. It’s the chip that’s in his head.”
Moverman helped prepare Harrelson for the role through discussions about post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related trauma: “Oren went through some heavy stuff …[in] Israel, so there was always something going on,” Harrelson said. “But he’ll never talk about his own experiences, and if you do bring it up, he’ll kind of sidestep the issue.”
“Oren is interested in these solitary male characters,” said actor Ben Foster, who starred in “The Messenger” and plays a homeless Gulf War veteran in “Rampart.” “He doesn’t judge them … and that’s his humanity, his pursuit of saying we don’t know where anybody’s been or where they’re going, but they are human beings.”
Moverman’s “Rampart” revisions elaborate upon Brown’s private world: “I wanted to explore questions such as, ‘What do you look like when you’re at home alone and nobody can see you act? What do you do with your emotions, and how do you deal with your personal relationships in a job that’s dirty? When you do bad things to bad people, how does that reflect on your domestic life, on your relationship with daughters, who look at their dad as the one shining example of masculinity?’ ” Moverman said.
Ellroy was tolerant of these changes to his screenplay. “It helped that I served in the Israeli military, I’m as tall as he is, and that it doesn’t appear automatically that he can beat me up — and I’m not kidding,” the director said. “He jokes about it, but he doesn’t respect everyone, and physicality is a big part of respect for him.”
In the movie, the impact of the Rampart scandal within the LAPD proves to be Brown’s undoing. After he is caught on tape beating a suspect, Rodney King style, a police investigation and getting the boot from his ex-wives prompt his decline. “He has an almost anorexic disdain for eating,” Moverman said. “His soul is corrupted to the point where his only sustenance is power and sex.”
Toward the end of the film, the harsh sunlight appears to burn out Brown’s image as he drives around the city. “It’s as if the sun is consuming him,” the director explained. “It’s like he’s driving into purgatory, and he’s condemned himself.”
“Rampart” opens Feb. 10.
February 4, 2012 | 12:41 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Here’s the latest entry from Roseanne Barr’s blog on “RoseanneWorld.com:” “I am pleased to inform you that Roseanne Barr is officially recognized by the Green Party of the United States, Presidential Campaign Support Committee, as a Green Party Presidential Candidate—Tom Yager, co-chair of the PCSC.” To which Roseanne opines: “Cool.”
That’s right, folks, Roseanne Barr – the formidable domestic goddess from TV’s “Roseanne” (and a very Jewish domestic goddess in real life), is officially running for president of the United States of America.
According to the Associated Press:
The actress-comedian said in a statement that she’s a longtime supporter of the party and looks forward to working with people who share her values. She said the two major parties aren’t serving the American people.
“The Democrats and Republicans have proven that they are servants—bought and paid for by the 1 percent—who are not doing what’s in the best interest of the American people,” Barr said.
Barr said she has been fighting for working-class families and women for decades.
“I will barnstorm American living rooms,” she said in a candidate questionnaire submitted to the Green Party. “Mainstream media will be unable to ignore me, but more importantly they will be unable to overlook the needs of average Americans in the run-up to the 2012 election.”
When the Journal met up with Roseanne last year at her “Full Moon & High Tide” studio in El Segundo (she lives on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii), she was jokier about her presidential aspirations. “I am running for president and prime minister of Israel; it’s a two-fer,” she said on camera. “And I promise in my platform to bring peace to not just both of those nations, but to the entire world within one year, and I won’t go back on my word and I will make it happen.” How? “Just with common sense,” she said. “Everything that makes any kind of sense or has any logic has been completely upended, so all we have to do is reverse it, and that’s how. Like I would make peace pay off rather than weapon sales and WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction).” Roseanne said to read Roseanne World for her complete platform.
As for her pitch to run for Israel’s prime minister, she said, “I would actually do the things necessary to bring mashiach now.”
Apparently Roseanne has set those plans aside to focus on the U.S. of A; the Green Party will choose its nominee at its July 12-15 convention in Baltimore.
In the meantime, here’s revisiting our video interview with Barr, in which she discusses her Jewish upbringing, her book “Roseannearchy,” and more. And of course you won’t want to miss Roseanne singing “HaTikvah” for us (she’d been practicing her singing since infamously screeching out the U.S. National Anthem at a baseball game in 1990).
February 2, 2012 | 11:28 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Agnieszka Holland was sitting by a window in a Los Angeles hotel recently, bathed by sunlight streaming in through slatted Venetian blinds.
Light and dark are the prominent metaphors in her film, “In Darkness,” based on the true story of a group of Jews who escaped the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto, fled into the sewers and survived in darkness for 14 months. They’re aided by two Polish-Catholic sewer workers who are also casual anti-Semites and petty thieves.
The well-received drama opened in theaters on Feb. 10, and on Feb. 26 it will compete for the foreign-language film Oscar, alongside nominees such as Israel’s “Footnote,” and Iran’s “A Separation.”
About 80 percent of Holland’s film is shot in darkness, often with the actors’ flashlights providing the only illumination. “Darkness is the metaphor for the Jewish destiny during the Holocaust,” the soft-spoken director said, taking a break from preparing to direct an episode of AMC’s “The Killing.” The sewer worker Leopold Socha, who provides the Jews with food and other necessities, was lit brighter: “You have the impression that the light is coming out of him, that he is the flashlight in the darkness for these people, which the real Socha was. Without him they would not have survived longer than a week or two.”
But the storytelling isn’t melodramatic. It’s blunt and gritty — Holland’s antidote for what she has perceived as the “Hollywoodization” of movies about the Shoah. Images of the Holocaust have become “in some ways more sentimental and moralistic,” she said. “What was very difficult for me to accept is to try to put some meaning into the Holocaust; that in some ways it made sense; that you can make some lesson out of it. … The most terrible thing about this human experience is that it was senseless; that it wasn’t a meaningful death, or something that served us to become wiser or better people. … We have to be very non-compromising in the preservation of this reality.”
The sewers in the film appear freezing and filthy, and Socha, the head sewer worker, is crude rather than angelic. He’s a small-time crook who initially agrees to help the Jews in exchange for money. The Jews, as well, are flawed — some are adulterers, snooty intellectuals or thugs, and sex abounds against the fetid underground walls. “I believe that the audience identifies with real people and not saintly, kitschy images,” Holland said of her protagonists. “My characters have a lot of sex,” she added — just as Jews did in Nazi ghettos in real life. Holland learned this from one of the commanders of the Warsaw uprising: “He said he never had so much sex in his life as during this period,” the director said. “In some ways, it was a reaction to the horrors, and the need to feel alive.”
Holland said she tries to see every film released about the Shoah: Her interest stems in part from the experience of her own Jewish father, whose parents died in the Warsaw ghetto after they refused to flee with him. “For my father, the fact that he left his family behind and they died, was extremely painful, and he never talked about it,” she said. “He committed suicide when I was 13 and he was 41. … It was my mother who is Polish [and non-Jewish] who told me that I am Jewish and that my father was a Jew.”
As a filmmaker, the 63-year-old Holland has delved into the time period with dramas such as “Angry Harvest,” about the ordeal of a Jewish woman during World War II, and her Oscar-nominated “Europa Europa” (1990), the story of a Jewish boy who survives by posing as an Aryan, even joining the Hitler Youth.
When interviewed about these movies years ago, Holland said she had had enough of making movies on the subject, which was so emotionally harrowing. “I really didn’t want to go back,” she said. But then she read the screenplay for “In Darkness,” which tempted her despite her hesitations. At first Holland tried to discourage the producers by imposing tough conditions: She said she would not make the film in English, but in the “real languages of the story”: Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German. “Finally, they agreed to everything, so I was trapped into doing it, in a way,” Holland said.
Her film depicts the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto with a nonchalant brutality; when a woman runs to hide in her apartment, we see a body fall almost casually from a window in the background.
“It was a really difficult shoot,” Holland said of the claustrophobic sewer set. “Sometimes you can shoot in sewers and they look beautiful; for example, in ‘The Third Man,’ they look like cathedrals … but we knew that it was not beautiful; it was really scary and dark and cold.”
Holland shot the subterranean scenes both on a set and in real sewers: “It was psychologically difficult because all the actors very deeply went into the characters, into the reality, and they really tried to live in that way.”
January 31, 2012 | 2:43 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Ben Lewin’s “The Surrogate” has taken two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival: The Audience Award and the special jury prize for ensemble acting in the competition of United States dramatic films.
The awards – and the sale of the film for $6 million to Fox Searchlight – are remarkable not only because “The Surrogate” is the first movie that Lewin has made in more than a decade. Sundance is renowned as a launching pad for young directors, but Lewin is 65 and had earned a living selling high-end watches since his TV directing work (“Ally McBeal,” “Touched by an Angel”) dried up some years ago. After making films in England, France and Australia, the Melbourne-born filmmaker wondered if he still had a chance in showbusiness.
He risked everything to make “The Surrogate,” the story of a quadriplegic polio survivor (John Hawkes) who hires a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) to lose his virginity in his 30s. Lewin had his mortgage, and the challanges of supporting his young family, including three children aged 12 to 26. When I interviewed him before the festival, at his modest cottage in Santa Monica, he was only cautiously optimistic about being accepted in dramatic competition at Sundance. “I wouldn’t crow about it,” Lewin, himself a polio survivor who walks on crutches, said at the time. “But it is kind of personally gratifying to know one can pick oneself back up again, and it’s not easy in the film business; actors, particularly go through this ordeal. And I suppose it comes at a good time. I was thinking, ‘My God, I still have young kids.’ But one of the elements that really motivated me was desperation; film is the only thing I know how to do well. So there is some inner satisfaction in learning that you can reinvent yourself.”
Now with his Sundance awards and buzz that the film is Oscar-worthy, Lewin is looking forward to further projects. He told me he could see reviving plans for an irreverent sitcom called “The Gimp,” about a man who trades the use of his handicapped-parking placard for sex. “There are only two subjects,” sex and death,” he quipped.
According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Lewin has optioned the rights for a book, “Happiness through Superficiality,” and has a thriller called “Bridge of Sighs” which combines both sex and death: “It’s a story about capital punishment and the redemption of the executioner - a psycho-thriller.”
“The Sundance experience has been phenomenal,” Lewin told The Herald. “I’d never have expected all that. It’s about as warm and fuzzy as it can be. But I’m not about to get caught up with any buzz.” He added: “For many years I got sick of writing, so I’m glad I can say that I’m a competent filmmaker and a competent parent. I’m having fun at the moment, standing up for grey power. There’s nothing like having some sort of rebirth, at my age.’‘
January 26, 2012 | 2:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Several weeks before he was to receive the lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America, West, Eric Roth was in his study in Malibu conducting a breezy conversation that veered from his communist Jewish parents to his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Forrest Gump.”
“Out of this room has come about 25 movies — pretty good, huh?” he said. “But I write on a really old movie program,” he added of his screenwriting software. “I feel like if I took probably two hours, I could learn Final Draft. But I’m superstitious — it’s silly. I make things more difficult for myself. But I feel if I’m still successful on it, let’s leave it as is.”
Roth’s repertoire also includes Oscar-nominated fare such as “The Insider,” written with director Michael Mann, about the relationship between a journalist and a tobacco industry whistleblower; Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” spotlighting Israeli assassins tracking down the murderers of athletes at the 1972 Olympics; and the unlikely fable “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which the protagonist finds himself aging in the opposite direction from everyone he loves.
Now in theaters is his “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy named Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn) who loses his father (Tom Hanks) in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and embarks upon a citywide quest to heal his grief.
Roth’s four-decades-long career places him among an elite cadre of writers who pen major dramas for major studios, merging art and entertainment. At 66, Roth’s work “has traced the larger span of our history and the smaller, individual arcs of the human life,” Christopher Keyser, president of the Writers Guild of America, West, said in a statement. “He has made going to the movies both a stirring emotional education and a true joy.”
Even though some of his best-known scripts fall in the adapted screenplay category, don’t assume that Roth eschews original work. “I just argued with someone about that,” he said. “People think I just do big book adaptations, and while that’s accurate to some extent, it’s not entirely fair. If you look at the list of my films, ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ are from books, but ‘The Good Shepherd’ isn’t. ‘Benjamin Button’ is from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I used just the central conceit. ‘Munich’ came from a nonfiction book, but it became a lot of other things, and ‘The Insider’ was from a magazine article.”
When Roth does adapt material, he said, his first job is “as a dramatist.” He has to make the story work on the big screen.
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” proved a huge challenge in this regard — so difficult, in fact, that Roth did more than 50 drafts before satisfying himself, as well as director Stephen Daldry and the exacting producer Scott Rudin. It was Rudin who first sent Roth Foer’s epic novel, which resonated with the Jewish writer. “I liked the tone of Jonathan’s voice,” he said. “It felt familiar to me in its sort of ironic, Jewish quality.”
Yet the tome proved “so kinetic, so postmodern, that I needed to figure out how it could be contained and also visualized,” Roth said. Complicating matters was the fact that the novel had not one, but two parallel story lines: The second thread focuses on Oskar’s German grandfather, who survived the World War II bombing of Dresden and has been mute ever since. Roth loved the grandfather’s journey, in part “because it felt like an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, or a Marc Chagall painting, with shades of old Europe and, obviously, the Holocaust. But I knew we couldn’t tell both stories in one film.”
In the end, Roth decided to focus on the boy and his mourning process, with his mute grandfather, played by Max von Sydow, hinting of his wartime trauma through the expressions flitting across his face.
“Tom Hanks once told me, ‘You write the loneliest people I’ve ever seen,’ ” Roth said. “It’s true that all my work is somehow about loneliness and loss. I’m surrounded by all the love anyone could ever want [he has a wife, Debra, and children and grandchildren], but I think it’s the artist’s curse. Whether I’m a good or a bad artist, we can discuss. But an artist feels the burden of trying to express things that are probably inexpressible — and that can be lonely.”
If the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, is also inexpressible, Roth said, the film only sparingly shows images of the disintegrating World Trade Center. When Oskar envisions his father falling from one of the buildings, for example, the picture is grainy and vague. “My instinct was that the boy wanted to catch his father, which was the instinct we all had for people in those buildings,” Roth said.
The image proved helpful to the film’s young star: “It represents Oskar’s feeling of impending doom,” Horn, now 14, said. “It’s what he feared would happen if he doesn’t ‘find’ his father — that he would also hit the ground.”
While reviewers for NPR and The Atlantic found the tone of the film — the first to show the attacks from an orphan’s viewpoint — to be just right, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that the movie has “no reason for being other than as another pop-culture palliative for a trauma it can’t bear to face. …When tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.”
In response, Roth cites the screenings he attended for 9/11 survivors, whose tears “weren’t just false emotion.”
Critics of “Munich,” which Roth wrote with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, were perhaps even more virulent, accusing the filmmakers of equating the Arab terrorists with their Israeli avengers. “I was only interested in how the Israelis felt about the film, and they had mixed feelings, which is how I felt,” he said.
“I liked the ‘tough Jew’ quality, and one day when I would be writing the script I would think, ‘How great — the terrorists killed all these people and it’s right.’ And then the next day the Israelis had bulldozed some house with people [in it], and I felt like, ‘Well, that doesn’t accomplish anything.’ ”
These days, Roth is executive producing HBO’s horseracing series, “Luck,” which stars Dustin Hoffman and premieres Jan. 29. Roth, who himself is a racetrack aficionado, said he almost forgot about our interview because he was so immersed in writing the season finale. Is there something Jewish about gambling on horses? “It’s pretty Jewish,” he mused. “I think somehow Jews have taken to it — probably as a way to rise above their station.” There’s perhaps another reason he is drawn to Hoffman’s character of Chester “Ace” Bernstein: “He’s a landsman,” Roth said.
The Writers Guild of America, West, 2012 Laurel Award for Screen, which honors lifetime achievement, will be presented during the WGA Awards ceremony Feb. 19 at the Hollywood Palladium.