Commentary: Fitzgerald story short on story for 'Benjamin' script


Roth report: With 13 nominations, including best picture, Paramount and Warner Bros.' "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is heading down the Academy homestretch with support from more voting branches than any other best picture nominee.

That kind of broad support has translated into Oscar success in the past. In fact, the most nominated movie has won best picture in 15 of the last 20 years. "Benjamin" could also benefit from being the only traditional studio film competing. And it's the only nominee that's the kind of large scale Hollywood film that Academy members typically work, which also puts self-interest in its favor.

"Benjamin's" the kind of epic romance that Oscar voters have embraced many times in the past, and its domestic gross of about $117 million reflects the kind of boxoffice success Academy members seem to insist on. Its competitors for best picture are all smaller independent films whose grosses don't approach "Benjamin's."

Despite all that, "Benjamin" is really the underdog in this year's best picture race, while Fox Searchlight's "Slumdog Millionaire" with 10 noms is top dog. It's emerged as the frontrunner after sweeping the Directors Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globes, National Board of Review and Critics Choice awards. "Slumdog's" boxoffice gross is a very healthy and still growing $67 million-plus. Of course, Academy members are known for last-minute surprises like "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby," so it remains to be seen just what will happen Oscar night.

Directed by David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club"), "Benjamin" is produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Cean Chaffin. Its screenplay is by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump," "Munich") and its screen story is by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord ("Little Women," "Memoirs of a Geisha"). Starring are Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton.

"Benjamin's" screenplay is based on the 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's the first Academy nod for Swicord, who preceded Roth on the project. For Roth it's the fourth time he's been Oscar nominated for best adapted screenplay. After winning in 1995 for "Forrest Gump," Roth was nominated in 2000 for "The Insider" (shared with Michael Mann) and in 2006 for "Munich" (shared with Tony Kushner).

For "Benjamin's" adapted screenplay Roth and Swicord were nominated for Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Critics Choice, USC Scripter and Writers Guild of America awards. They won the National Board of Review's best adapted screenplay award (and Fincher won best director).

Having greatly enjoyed "Benjamin," I was happy to be able to focus recently with Roth on what went into writing it. "I was asked to take a look at (Fitzgerald's) short story by Sherry Lansing, who was running Paramount at the time, and the producer of record who was Kathy Kennedy. She'd been on it for like 18 years," Roth told me, looking back to 2001. "A long history. The project for whatever reasons just hadn't quite gotten to the finish line. The main screenwriter who had worked on it, although there had been some others, was Robin Swicord, who had worked on it, I understand, for like 12, 13 or 14 years off and on and who had really diligently done a lot of work on it."

When he read Fitzgerald's short story, Roth said, "I found (it) to my taste a little farcical, but the core of it being someone aging backwards I found very moving. I thought maybe this is something I could get involved in. The first step was to talk to Robin Swicord. It's an unwritten rule amongst writers that out of respect you don't just rewrite somebody without finding out what the circumstances are so you don't feel like they've been let go by fiat or something.

"I asked her how she felt if I was to embark on this and she said she felt fine about that. She respected my work. She preferred that they would have gotten more of her own version, but that wasn't happening. She was glad that they might be putting somebody on that she liked. She asked me to please not read her version, which I have (not done) to this day. She just wanted her own creative work to be left as it was."

From there, Roth went on to do what he calls "my homework about F. Scott Fitzgerald. In no way did I want to besmirch his memory. So I checked with A. Scott Berg, who's an expert and a Pulitzer winning biographer. He knew a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald and (had written a biography of) Maxwell Perkins, his editor. He said he felt the story was not inviolate in the sense that it wasn't what F. Scott Fitzgerald felt was his highest creative moment and that he probably would even actually appreciate somebody taking a swipe at it. He'd written it somewhat to make some money and also he just liked the caprice of the idea of a guy who ages backwards and what would that be like."

That was permission enough for Roth to move forward with adapting the story. "I then felt, 'OK, I have sort of this empty playing field and what am I going to write?' " he recalled. "Part of what was going on in my life at that point was that my mother was passing away and it helped to inform what I decided to write about, which fit in with the theme of aging backwards and the loss and loneliness that could bring and also what is thing of our given years and mortality and all that. With my mother passing, it obviously was very paramount in my life. I also have a number of children and am maturing and getting older, myself. So I said I'm going to set out and start on page one and start inventing the story about a man's life. And that's what I did."

There are many differences between Fitzgerald's story and the story Roth tells in his screenplay. For instance, in the original Benjamin's born a full grown adult, as unlikely or impossible as that may be. "I felt the story was humorous and it was very broad, very bigger than life," Roth said. "It was not particularly what I wanted to write. I'm sure somebody else could have done a great job with that, but I felt I wanted to do something slightly more real that might end up having some more dramatic effect to it."

Asked how he works when he's writing, Roth told me, "I don't do the traditional thing with note cards or anything else (posted on bulletin boards). What's most important to me is the theme of the piece and I try to write so that most scenes even in subtext have some relationship to the theme. I always seem to know what the beginning and the end is going to be. In the beginning I spend a lot of time figuring out what that is -- What's the opening of the movie? What are we saying? And then the end -- Where do we go? The middle is kind of a blank to me, but I like that. It's kind of exciting to let the characters in something that's somewhat original like this take me places I might not be aware of and see who comes along on this journey."

As for the mechanics of writing, he explained, "I go back to page one every day, which they tell me mathematically is rather silly because I don't put the same (amount of) time, I guess, on the end of the movie. I write pretty disciplined. I start about 8 or 8:30 every day and knock off about noon or one o'clock and then hang out with my children or go to the racetrack or something. And then I work again at nighttime. I used to work a little later than now because I'm older. So I may put in six to eight creative hours a day and, as I say, I always start from the beginning. It's just a process (where) I keep rewriting, keep rewriting, fixing, inventing and then at the end of the day you have yourself a screenplay that you hope has a beginning, middle and end to it that makes some sense. It usually takes me about a year or so."

Roth writes on a computer, but he doesn't work with Final Draft, the program most screenwriters seem to use today. "I have an old program called Movie Master, which is out of business," he noted. "It's about 15 years old, I guess, maybe more. It's a little finicky. I've got to be careful with it (because) it runs out of memory after like 40-odd pages. So it sort of forces me to make sure that I have an act finished. I think (my still using it) is half superstitious and half just what I'm used to. It's a little bit burdensome when I get movies made because you have to switch over to Final Draft, which I don't have on my computer. But it ends up being in the computer of the production office and then we just sort of swap things back and forth. It's probably just me being stubborn, to be honest with you."

In writing "Benjamin" Roth didn't have the problem writers typically have if they're adapting a 600 or 700 page novel and have to cut all sorts of subplots and characters in order to fit the story into a movie. Fitzgerald's short story was actually short on story that was usable for the film and that turned out to be an advantage in terms of the latitude it gave Roth to be creative.

In Fitzgerald's story the woman Benjamin's in love with is named Hildegarde Moncrief while in the movie the character's called Daisy. "That was one of those strange things," Roth noted, "because actually Robin had also changed the name to Daisy and I did, too. That was totally independent. As I said, I hadn't read her work. It's not that odd when you start to (think about it). It's just a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald because of his famous character Daisy from 'The Great Gatsby.' It's just such a classic piece of literature name and character that it was a nice thing to just say thank you for that (to Fitzgerald). The main difference and one thing I know Robin did add to it -- I was told this by the producers -- was that she said they met when they were children. That was a change from the F. Scott Fitzgerald story. And that's what we did. I thought that was nice and you see both their lives unfold."

Reflecting on the awards season and the best picture race, Roth observed, "It's kind of a grind this whole awards thing. On the one hand, it's nice for the movies to all have their day in the sun. On the other hand, it's a shame that there has to be this kind of odd competitive quality to it because everybody does such really great hard work. I think all the movies should be recognized. It's hard to get these things made and then to be good on top of it."

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