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'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close' Child Actor Discovered on Teen 'Jeopardy!'
Three-time Oscar directing nominee Stephen Daldry makes a high-risk bet on the 9/11 drama.
This article appeared in the January 2012 Awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
From the start, Stephen Daldry knew he would have to confront one unavoidable image in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, his adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about the aftermath of 9/11.
He would have to deal with those incredibly familiar images of the twin towers and falling bodies. "I wasn't sure I wanted to see the burning towers at all, to be honest," says Daldry. "The images are etched in our retinas. You have to be very careful about using them so you're not just using them."
His solution? When audiences do see the towers, they appear distant. Sandra Bullock, in her first role since her 2010 Oscar for The Blind Side, is watching from her own office uptown as they burn while she speaks, by phone, with her husband, played by Tom Hanks, who is trapped inside one of the doomed buildings.
His voice and background noises can be heard, but his surroundings are left to the audience's imagination. "You could have had Tom Hanks under a desk with flames all around him," says cinematographer Chris Menges. "It would've been pyrotechnic and exciting, but that would've betrayed the script."
Instead, Daldry opted for a character-based approach: A long tracking shot of Bullock as she walks to the window, pleading with her husband to flee the fire, takes viewers into her mind. Her face expresses a horror the famous news footage can no longer evoke.
And when Hanks' character is seen plunging through the air, it's only a fantasy in the hyper-logical head of his son, Oskar (Thomas Horn). "He never knows precisely how his father dies," says Daldry. "He imagines all the things that could've happened. How long does it take? What exactly does it feel like? What is the nature of the airborne experience? Do you lose consciousness? At which point? All those questions I thought would come into the kid's mind. We shot it a whole variety of ways."
The film's dramatic high point is a not a fireball but an emotional explosion, when Oskar plays tapes of his father's last messages from the tower. "The scene is charged with a tingling kind of tension," says Menges.
In fact, Loud -- which, with a Dec. 25 opening, was the last major, and in some ways the most daring, entry in the Oscar race -- doesn't confront 9/11 head-on. It filters it through the sensitive mind of the boy, who is afflicted with an Asperger's-like condition somewhere on the autism spectrum. It bears witness to how the world looks and feels to him after his father dies in the attack.
Finding the right young actor to play Oskar was critical. "We had scouts going out to schools and auditioned 3,000 kids in America and in Europe as well, for the better part of a year," says Daldry. "Then we found Thomas."
"I was on an episode of kids' Jeopardy!" says Horn, now 14, who won $31,800 on the quiz show, "and someone high up in the production of the upcoming movie saw me."
It was producer Scott Rudin, who requested that Horn send in a tape.
"My whole family was a bit confused, but we were curious. We didn't know what a casting agency was, or anything about the entertainment industry." Horn had no acting experience. "I'm not a huge movie fan," he says.
"Thomas is super-bright," says Daldry. "He's not autistic, he's had no loss in his life, but what he does have, combined with his extraordinary intelligence and courage and determination, is an access to his emotional life which I find quite unique."
Says Max von Sydow, the great Swedish actor who plays a mysterious, mute stranger who befriends Oskar: "When I first met him, it was before production, and we went through a couple of scenes. He read them as if it was totally cold and totally uninteresting, and I wondered how this was going to go. Then I went back to France for a month and a half, came back, and he was perfect -- very precise, wonderful, very sensitive. I never had reason to say, 'Come here, young man, I'm going to tell you how to do it.' He didn't need any advice from me."
Says Horn of von Sydow: "He would never strain himself by doing something to the character that wasn't authentic. I thought I could learn from that not to try to think outside the moment, you know what I mean?"
Horn discovered his acting process on the set. To get inside the moment, he would step outside the film. "I would go into a little room off the set that the director built for me and think about what my character was feeling in his situation. When I felt that the character had entered my body and that I was fully being the character, then I could leave and do a good job."
Daldry helped him refine his gestures in a big rant scene, pruning back a bit where he did obsessive push-ups against a table, retaining gestures for counting and emphasis. "He gave me a lot of space for creative input. Who says I deserve that? I don't. But I admire that he's willing to let people have their creative try."
For a movie with a vivid digital look and complex editing, the entire film really is built around the kind of real, raw emotion that is more typical of the best stage productions. But then Daldry is a veteran of London's Royal Court Theatre. In supporting roles, he cast actors -- von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright -- who come from the stage. Even before filming began, there were about two months of rehearsal.
"The biggest difference between coming from the movies and coming from the theater is you want the actors to be in charge," says Daldry. "You don't really want an over-reliance on editing. You want the scene to play as you see it in rehearsals rather than hoping against hope you can get some little magic on one take. Make the scene work, then film it."
But to film those scenes took years of preparation, particularly on the part of Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth. He had to figure out how to turn Foer's 2005 novel into a screenplay. The book is so complicated, with twin plots about 9/11 and an older character's trauma in the World War II bombing of Dresden, that it took Rudin, one of the few film producers who regularly tackles challenging literary material, to see a movie in it.
"Scott had a deal with Paramount, and I have a long-term situation with Warner Bros.," says Roth. "He asked if I was interested. I said: 'Yes, this is quite a challenge. If you could get Warner Bros. to be partners with Paramount, I'd love to do this.' "
Warner wound up taking the whole movie, whose budget a production source puts at about $40 million.
"As Scott is wont to do, we worked together on a number of drafts," says Roth. "I wrote it for maybe three years, then Daldry came on [in 2010]. Scott is a great taskmaster and kept making versions better by asking me this and that. The biggest challenge was that a third to half the book is about Oskar's grandfather, done in a Marc Chagall magical-realism style. He lives in a house made of books -- there's an Isaac Bashevis Singer kind of feel to it. I felt, and so did Scott, that we'd have to make two movies to include that story."
Depictions of that as well as a mythological missing sixth borough of New York full of fantasy and fireflies came out. Roth felt the magical elements "took away from the tragedy of 9/11 in some way."
The trickiest problem then became the sheer profusion of Oskar's adventures after he finds a key left by his father. In an attempt to reconnect with his deceased parent, he tries to track down its owner, one of several hundred people named Black in the New York City phone book.
"I asked Eric Roth how he made such a good but kind of unfocused book with many divergent plots into a storyline that could actually be filmed," says the precocious and articulate Horn. It wasn't easy, says Roth. "It was always evolving, the tales of whatever people the boy visited on his journey. I don't know how many of those I wrote -- some original, some from the book."
Bullock's character underwent big changes, too. "She seems like she might be an absent, neglectful mother, and that's not gonna sit too well with an audience for Sandra Bullock," says Roth. "That was a challenge." So Bullock became a mom "who turns out to have some good instincts," says Roth, purposely vague so as not to spoil the plot.
Bullock had a hand in shaping her role as well. "There were moments when I or other actors and the director had differences about how we should work or what we should do," says Horn. "The director was very, very nice in preserving his important points but letting us judge for ourselves some of the time.
"One scene not in the film had a very interesting process. If you notice, Oskar is not dressed in a normal fashion for his father's funeral. He's in a martial-arts uniform with a pea coat. That was explained in the scene before, at breakfast, when his mother is wrapped up in her emotions; Oskar is making her life difficult by refusing to put on his suit, so they have a bit of an argument."
Bullock and Daldry talked for 30 minutes or so, then shot the scene. "It was very good; it's unfortunate that it was cut," says Horn.
Change was constant on the seven-month shoot. "In the middle, we stopped for four weeks," says Menges. "That was to do with rewrites."
Says Horn: "The original script in rehearsal was white. The revised pages were yellow and green and pink and blue. By the end the script was a rainbow that had no original white pages left. And by the very end there was no script at all, and we were just in a way making it up day by day. The crew could put up a large set in a single day or rig the lights in five minutes."
The tension increased during the 16-hour days of postproduction after shooting wrapped in July. "Four months to finish a movie -- it's not a lot," says Daldry. "And I love to test, don't forget. There were three recruited screenings, and I did my own focus screenings once a week."
He showed it to survivors groups, Asperger's kids, experts, New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers, and acted on their suggestions. "It was a constant process of how we were all feeling about this," says Daldry.
He retained Hanks' imaginary free fall but discarded a filmed subplot about Bullock's character's relationship with a man (James Gandolfini) she meets in a 9/11 victims group. He replaced the original soundtrack by The Hours composer Nico Muhly with a new one by Alexandre Desplat at the last possible moment and did a reshoot the week before the film's first industry screening on Dec. 4.
Why the rush to release the film in the 10th-anniversary year of 9/11? "I wanted to have it out this year," says Daldry. "For me it felt like ... time." Says Menges: "It seemed a very odd choice, that. I don't understand that at all. Is it because everybody's so into being nominated? I suppose if they were trying to get Oscars and nominations, it had to be this year. You know more about this than I do -- I'm on top of a mountain in Wales."
Says the director: "You don't make films for an Oscar race. Whatever happens, happens, and you have to take it all with a delightful pinch of salt, really."
Daldry, who received best-director nominations for each of his three previous films, makes films for the ages, not the awards season.
And what pleases him deeply are the reactions of the people who actually know what Oskar is going through. "The people I kept close to me who were directly involved were incredibly supportive and incredibly helpful."