Written by Dylan Callaghan
Eric Roth speaks in a soft, nearly tepid tone, like a somewhat weary man thinking out loud in an empty room. The Oscar-winning scripter of the picaresque new fantasy/romance The Curious Case of Benjamin Button occasionally even slips into an indecipherable mumble. But rather than indicate apathy, his pleasantly rumpled, modest manner seems to stem from a deeply thoughtful mind that long ago realized a distaste for loud speakers who had little to say.
So, a bit like a Zen master who never wanted to be asked, the veteran writer answers questions in a bare, just-hovering voice that makes you listen more carefully for all its quietness. Of course, what he says, with a natural lack of pretension, helps hold the listener after they lean in. There is also the matter of his impressive career, as notable for the huge success of his films as it is for their diversity. His credits leap genres from The Horse Whisperer and The Insider to Forrest Gump and Ali. Disparate as they are, these movies are all bound together by the resonant stories and compelling, emotive characters Roth seems bound to write.
In Button, he extrapolates an idea that first appeared in a Mark Twain essay and then in a same-titled trifle of a magazine short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. From his home in Malibu, Roth opened up during an in-depth conversation about subjects ranging from his unorthodox drafting technique to the profound personal losses that visited him while writing this script and informed its themes.
Was the scope and timeframe of this narrative as similar to Forrest Gump as it seems?
I guess you could say that, but you could also probably say Ali is like that. I think it’s not inaccurate, but this is really from cradle to grave and Forrest Gump isn’t. It was certainly from a boy to a man.
Let me ask it this way: to what extent was the scope reminiscent of work you’ve done before, or was it a pretty singular experience?
I tried to make it singular, let’s put it that way. What ever is reminiscent is not by design.
Right, and I don’t mean to say that...
No, no, I think it’s a fair question because obviously I created both, so I’m bringing something with me. There’s probably some similarity in style, but I think they’re very different movies. I think Benjamin deals with different subjects.
What is this story about to you?
Photo: © 2008 Paramount Pictures Corporation and Warner Bros. Entertainment
Julia Ormond [right] and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
I think it’s a look at mortality in a way, the natural qualities of life and death. There’s nothing really extraordinary about his life except for the fact that it’s extraordinary because he ages backwards. He’s sort of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
Other than being a novelty, what does the fact that he ages backwards mean? What does it do to the story?
I think it makes you think about all sorts of things. On face value, you’d think it would be great. You’d become young again, you’d have great vision again and great stamina and great love, things that sound sort of wondrous. And yet, when one would experience it, it seems to me there is a major component of loneliness. And also, you’re simply aging toward your demise in a different way.
The simple conclusion, without giving too much of the movie away, is that, whether you live your life backwards or forwards, it’s best to live it well.
How did this story strike you on a personal level?
I can talk to you about my parents’ death. They both died during the writing of this. They informed the whole writing of this.
I didn’t know that. Did they pass in the same year?
They passed about three years apart, but the [writing] process began when my mother was passing away. I’m not trying to be exploitive of either of their deaths, but it did make me a more mature writer. It’s like the Joan Didion quote about how you have to go to this land of grief that you’re not prepared to go to, but that you have to go to when a loved one dies.
When your parents die, it’s obviously a very unique brand of grief because you’re losing a person that’s beloved, but it also must bring up questions of your own mortality.
Completely. I remember one particular day, my son, who was 25 or so at the time, was having a child and my father had had a stroke so they were at the same hospital. I was going from one room to another. So my son having a child made me a grandfather and I was also a son going to visit his father. It just happened that they all fell at the same time.
That does bring up your mortality. Look, I know I’m not only on deck, I’m up to bat right now. But that’s not necessarily bad. If one believes in the natural qualities of life and death, there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s one of the things about the movie that we deal with.
That sounds so Button-esque, literally going from your newborn grandchild to your father. Was this right at the beginning of the writing process?
This was more in the middle of it.
Did you feel the Universe was messing with you?
I don’t know... I’m not sure the Universe is that interested in me. I think you just hopefully come to terms with the conditions of life -- there’s going to be all sorts of experiences good, bad and indifferent. You have to face these things.
Is it a matter of acceptance?
Yeah. I mean, I’m not telling you I’m all that accepting, but I think acceptance is key to some form of peace. But what would I know?
Well, you might know a few things.
I don’t think I know anything. I really don’t, not anymore than anyone else.
Because of your parents’ passing, your new grandchild and writing this movie, did you feel more different at the end of writing this script than most of your other films?
Yeah, I would say more than anything else I’ve written, this one is the most personal. It’s also one that has helped me find some acceptance. That’s a great question. I love that.
If you can get technical for a minute, with this particular story, what was your first step in terms of grappling with it, given its scope and its source material?
There were two, I think. One was trying to decipher what I was going to use from the short story, which became almost nothing. That was painful because obviously F. Scott Fitzgerald is 100 times the writer I could ever be, but I had to make a decision about what spoke to me in doing this.
I knew that he had written this as a whimsy. I spoke to a few of his biographers and neither felt that he thought this was one of his important works. It was something that had been dashed off.
And it was important for you to know that?
Well, to me it was. Most important was the core of it, which is the idea of a man aging backwards, which actually came from an essay Mark Twain had written about how interesting it would be if we could age the other way and avoid all the infirmities of old age. Maxwell Perkins, F. Scott’s editor, gave him the essay, and he wrote a story for a magazine. He’d also just had a baby so he probably needed some money for diapers and alcohol.
Diapers and booze: a classic combo.
Diapers and booze, what else is there? So 80 years later it’s given to me. A number of people had taken a shot at it, including the wonderful Robin Swicord, but for whatever reason it hadn’t really landed, so they gave me a little bit of free reign.
So despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story and Robin Swicord’s previous drafts, you were essentially operating with a blank slate except for the general concept?
So having dealt with the decision about the source material, what was the next step?
The next thing was finding the theme, which is something I’m always interested in. As I said earlier, I wanted to tell a story that lent itself to the idea that, whether you live your life backwards or forwards, you should live it well. That’s how I wanted to tell the story.
The next step was the technical decision of how I wanted to tell the story, which was through a framing device. It doesn’t feel like a device, I think it feels very natural being told by this old woman who’s dying.
Once I had that, I knew what the beginning and end was because I knew what was going to happen to her. I knew I was going to start it with a baby being born under unusual circumstances. I decided I was going to take the story through his life -- with jumps in time and all -- but that it would go from cradle to grave, or grave to cradle as it were.
So first off you found your sort of thematic ethos?
Which, if you want to talk about screenwriting, is true of all my work. I’m as interested in the theme as I am in what the story is. I feel like I write more toward theme than I do toward story.
So you lean more toward the overarching theme?
The thematic starts to define every scene that I write. That may seem like a subtlety. I was thinking -- I don’t know why -- about The Good Shepherd. It was always about deception and people’s own morality. I think each of my movies has some theme that’s central and important, to me anyway, and then I feel I can write it.
So once you comprehend your theme, it sort of navigates you through the narrative?
Yeah, I think it does. Then I start to populate it. Part of the storytelling is all these people that come through your life. Some make an impact and some don’t. And in the long run, these people have helped give you your point of view on life. It’s this pastiche of people that help create the fabric of who you are.
Also, with this movie, I don’t think there’s a bad person in it. There are complicated people and people who don’t live up to what we’d hoped they’d be, but nobody’s really arch, I hope.
How much was this population of characters referential to people you’ve known?
I don’t think too much except for the woman dying. There are all kinds of personal things that enter into it, but no specific people, I don’t think, except for her. And then there are several metaphorical things about destiny and chance and fate, which is an overriding thing.
And the woman telling the story is referential to your mother?
Completely. Some of it, I just used actual words she said to me. When she was dying, I asked her if she was afraid and she said, “No, I’m curious.” That’s in the movie.
And then there’s the notion, what if a person is telling you things you didn’t know about them in the last moments of their life. There was nothing startling about my mother at the end of her life that she hadn’t told me, but you still sort of learn things about people as they’re going away that makes you appreciate them even more.
So you go from theme to characters…
Then I had to think about the story. The storytelling is very picaresque. It has a structure, but it’s very episodic. I’ve done that in a couple films before, even though I can write in the classical, three-act dramatic structure.
Structure is so dominant in modern screenwriting. It’s obviously crucial to effective screenwriting, but how do you balance it against emotion, abstraction and originality in a script?
I don’t think you can avoid the classical dramatic structure. You can stand on your head and try to have four acts instead of three, but you’re still going to have a beginning that presents a problem, a second act that complicates it and a third or fourth that resolves it or doesn’t resolve it. I don’t think you can escape it.
Sure, in that macro sense, but on a more micro level, during the actual writing process, some approaches are more reliant on outlining the skeletal structure to feed the narrative, versus the narrative feeding the structure.
Yeah, with me, even though I’m well aware of structure and where the act breaks should be, the narrative is first. It’s difficult to say which is the chicken and which is the egg. You know in the back of your head that the structure is there, the act, and so forth.
Do you think you’ve gotten better at translating your creative intention to the form as a screenwriter?
I don’t know if I’ve gotten better. In some cases, I’ve probably gotten longer, and I think I’m more confident. I’ve always been somewhat self-assured, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve developed more of a confidence.
If I have any sort of strength it’s that I’m willing to fail. I’ve always been willing to try things that might not work, which probably comes from a hint of arrogance.
Is there any single thing you’ve honed in your process over the years that seems most significant to you, that if you could go back, you wish you had understood?
I think probably patience. I was more impatient before about trying to make things occur creatively. Now, I’m less frustrated by that. I just think it will come.
You’re not muscling the creative process?
I’m not forcing square pegs into round holes. It will come to you, whether it’s in a dream or some song you hear or a feeling you have or some memory. I don’t know what the reasons are, whether they’re subconscious or unconscious, but something always seems to save the day.
You just have to be and wait?
Yeah, I think waiting is really important. I mean, it’s not like I’m just waiting. I keep doing it everyday. I go back to page one and start writing again. All scripts I start, I just keep writing the first 20 pages, the first chapter until I get it right, and then I know what the rest of the script should be.
It’s amazing how every screenwriter seems to have that tipping point where the script is cracked. For some, it’s the outline, for some, the first full draft.
It is amazing. I don’t ever wonder, “How am I going to get from page 25 to page 85?” All of a sudden you’re just there [to page 25], and then it’s sort of a dream in a way. You feel completely satisfied with what you’re going to end up doing. You feel, This is great. Now I can end this, and all these things I’ve started can take off in a way.