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Q&A: Writing Benjamin Button

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By Sheila Roberts

Published Jan 10, 2009 8:00 AM


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UCLA alumnus and screenwriter Eric Roth is the pen behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination. Roth discusses why it wasn't sacrilege to change F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story; his complete faith — a few years too soon — that visual-effects wizards would age his character backward from an octogenarian to a kid; and making a chart to keep Button's mismatched appearance and mental age straight.

Roth has created some of the most popular stories ever told by Hollywood, from the multi-Oscar- (and Golden Globe and BAFTA) winning Forrest Gump, (1994) to The Horse Whisperer (1998), The Insider (1999) and Munich (2005). Even for a writer operating at Roth's level of consummate skill, adapting for director David Fincher (Zodiac) F. Scott Fitzgerald's short fable about a man (Brad Pitt) who is born old and ages backward presented, at the very least, a daunting structural challenge.

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Sheila Roberts spoke with Roth about the technical difficulties of the project — and its surprising emotional resonance.

One of the things I'm sure you've heard and that you probably find frustrating is the comparison of Benjamin Button with Forrest Gump.

ERIC ROTH: I don't find it frustrating. I wrote them both and there are certain ingredients that feel similar — the picaresque nature of the piece, the journey of a man's life. But this one deals with much different subject matter. Some of it is more personal, because both my parents died while I was writing it, so there are things in it about love and life and death.

What about adapting an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story? How closely did you stick to it?

I did some research on what the story was to him, because I didn't want in any way to mess with his legacy. The best I could tell is that this was kind of a whimsical piece for him. He just needed some money. It wasn't something that he took deadly seriously. Mark Twain gave him the idea through his editor, about what it would be like to age backwards. That's the centerpiece of it, and then there's a love story, so those were the things that I left intact to some extent. Beyond that I felt free to take off with my own imagination.

Roth on his daily routine and what makes a good screenwriter.

Purely from the perspective of craft and structure, is it especially difficult to stay focused on your themes when you have such a broad swath of a man's life to present?

That's one of the reasons I framed it with the death of Daisy (Cate Blanchett), so I could use that as a place to come back and forth to, so I could have the luxury to jump time. I tried to do it in 5 to 7 year blocks. The biggest complication was making sure I kept his emotional age and physical age straight, along with what year it was. I kept a list as to where we were in time. "Well, if he appears to be 78 that means he's approximately 10 years old or 9 years old." And then we made a structural change that was more about the drama. It wasn't anything that I needed to rewrite per se, but we changed when we were going to reveal something.

What sort of leap of faith was it in the technology to be able to produce on film what you can imagine and put on paper?

Read about an early idea to have Robert Redford portray an older Benjamin Button, and about deciding whether to medically explain Button's strangeness, in the full article from UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television.

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