‘Extremely Loud’ Screenwriter On Turning The Novel Into A Film
01/12/2012
Staff Writer
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The screenwriter Eric Roth isn’t in want of an Oscar. He already has one for “Forrest Gump,” and has been nominated several more times for films like “Munich” and “The Insider.” But Scott Rudin, the producer behind Roth’s latest film, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which opened in December in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscars, and gets a nationwide release on Jan. 20, has made no secret that he intends to win one. 

Roth, a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to Los Angeles, spoke by phone to The Jewish Week about writing the screenplay, which was adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel from 2005. It tells the story of a boy who loses his father in the Sept. 11 attacks. What follows is an edited and condensed version of the interview.

Jewish Week: Where were you on Sept. 11?
Eric Roth: I was in L.A. and got a call around 5 a.m., or whenever it was that day over here. I was called by a woman whose husband was in New York, in a hotel nearby.

What happened to him?
Nothing, he was safe.

Had you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book before the film opportunity came up?
No, I hadn’t. But Scott Rudin gave it to me when he approached me about making the film, and I loved it. 

The book has many more subplots than the film, and it’s written in a postmodern style, with many literary tricks. What was the hardest thing to convey in the script, and what were you most intent on keeping?
I tried to keep the tone of the novel as much as I could. But the voice of the boy in the book [named Oskar Schell] is a little more ironic than it is in the film. In the movie, the actor who plays Oskar is almost Asperger-like, and people with Asperger’s syndrome don’t generally have a sense of irony.And the hardest thing to convey in the film?
The hardest part was trying to conflate the grandfather and the renter character from the book [where they are two distinct characters]. In the book, the characters have a very surreal, magical realism-type feel — like something out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story. If we created two separate characters it would have diverged into two very divergent stories. So we combined both characters into one.

You’ve worked with many other writers before to adapt their works for the screen. What was similar, or different, about working with Jonathan?
It was probably the closest I’ve worked with another author, and he was very open to collaborate. Many novelists have a very defensive stance when their works are adapted; I usually tell writers just to avoid the whole film scene if they don’t want to see their work altered. But Jonathan was very open to working with me.

Did you ever disagree on anything?
I don’t think we ever disagreed. You can ask him, but I think he was very happy with the finished script. We did have to drop some things though. I wrote a whole segment about the sixth borough [a prominent motif in the novel], but we had to cut most of it from the film.

Jonathan’s first novel, “Everything Is Illuminated” (2002), dealt with another historic catastrophe, the Holocaust. Given that “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” deals with another tragedy, Sept. 11, and that you both are Jewish, did discussions about the Holocaust ever come up?
It definitely came up, absolutely. It came up in our conversations a number of times. He mentioned it in terms of man’s inhumanity to man.

“Extremely Loud” only lightly touches on the Holocaust, in brief mentions of how Oskar’s grandfather, a Christian German, helped hide a Jew during the Holocaust. But other tragedies from the Second World War are discussed at length, too, like the bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden. Did you consider including some Holocaust, or World War II scenes, in the film?
We thought about it, but in the end we decided to get rid of the Holocaust references. It would have overloaded the narrative. And Stephen Daldry [the director] had recently done “The Reader” [about the Holocaust] and I don’t think he wanted to work on the topic again so soon. Ultimately, we decided to make the film about grief and about loss, and coming to terms with that.

It’s interesting you say that, because some of the criticism of the film, like the book, has been that the film universalized the tragedy. It doesn’t deal enough with the specificity of the Sept. 11 attacks, critics have said. What do you make of that?
I think the criticism is really bogus. A position has been taken by many New York critics that they have a kind of special understanding of the attacks. We showed it to many 9/11 families and none of their tears seemed to be disingenuous.

The criticism is not unlike what some have made of works of art about the Holocaust. A common trope is that no one can capture the tragedy of the Holocaust in art. Do you see something similar happening with Sept. 11 works of art?
First off, I don’t like to compare anything to the Holocaust.  [Director Stanley] Kubrick, though, said that you can’t make a movie about the Holocaust; it’s too visceral to capture on film. I think he’s right. But I think you can make stories about grief, about loss, and how you deal with them. That’s what I tried to do.

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