While director Stephen Daldry‘s adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close now playing in limited release, this Friday it’ll finally be expanding to theaters nationwide. Starring Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and John Goodman, the films based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer and tells the story of a nine-year-old boy who sets out to find the lock that fits a key left to him by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks. While some of the reviews have been mixed, I was moved to tears and think Thomas Horn’s performance was amazing (especially since he’s never acted before). While 9/11 movies are clearly hard to watch, give this one a chance. It’s definitely worth it.
Shortly before New Year’s I got to speak with Daldry. We talked about the challenge of the subject matter, finding the right tone in the editing room, test screenings, deleted scenes, his relationship with producer Scott Rudin, and casting Thomas Horn and the rest of the cast. In addition, Daldry talked about wanting to make Michael Chabon‘s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as an eight-part HBO miniseries. Hit the jump to read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is now playing in limited release and opens everywhere this weekend.
Stephen Daldry: It is a delicate subject, there are no two ways about it. You have to trust your own instincts about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate and trust your own feelings about what you can and can’t show for yourself, and it’ll be different for everybody. Everybody’s response to the movie, I imagine, will be different; some people will feel it’s okay and some people will feel it’s not okay. Some people will feel it’s time that we did actually tell more stories about 9/11 and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of stories to be told about 9/11. Personally, I think there should be more stories told and we should discuss this cataclysmic event that has changed the landscape of the world forever and continues to change; people die in its name all over the world. We should keep talking about it. This is one story but as I say, there are many other stories that need to be told.
Talk a little bit about the editing. I know that you recently finished the film, about a week or ten days ago?
Daldry: Last Monday.
Daldry: I don’t know how to even begin to answer that because I’m still too close to it, really. I’ve got a great partner in Claire Simpson, my editor, who…this is the second movie we’ve done together. She is extraordinary and a great friend and guide. The great thing about Claire is that she edits emotionally and we worked very hard on it in trying to feel it in a way that made sense to us: what was appropriate and what was not appropriate and what we could bear and what we couldn’t bear. I can’t possibly have had a better person to go through this very difficult emotional journey, I couldn’t have imagined somebody better to do that with.
Some films get overshot and there is forty minutes that get cut out; some have five minutes that get cut out. Is this one of those films that there is a lot on the editing room floor or is it a bare minimum?
Daldry: I think that my first assembly of the film was two hours, forty [minutes]. When Claire and I looked at the two hours and forty, it just felt too long, it felt too much. There’s thirty-five minutes on the edit floor of some great scenes, actually. You get to a certain point and you go, “How much more of this can you,” you know, particularly the heavy emotional scenes, “How much more can I take?” So, the conversation was always about emotional rhythms and finding a staying emotional sequence, for example, staying in that emotion…how long can we keep ourselves in that and just hoping that what we are feeling and trusting amongst ourselves is how the audience will respond. That’s why I’m so interested because we’ve only just finished it, I’m so interested in how it’s playing.
I’m not sure if you’re a fan of the “extended cut” or the deleted scenes being put back in on a home video release, but for something that you have so many scenes that never made the final cut, is it something that you don’t want to release down the road or is it something that you are a fan of releasing this kind of stuff?
Daldry: Haven’t even thought about it. Literally, haven’t had a moment to think about that. I know on The Reader, I really wanted to put in all the deleted scenes because I knew, it being on the school curriculum in Germany, that it would be a useful tool for discussing the book and a useful tool for discussing the story to have those deleted scenes. Whether we’ll do the same on this, I don’t know. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it.
I know you test screened the movie in September. How did the test screening process impact the finished film?
Daldry: I love test screenings. Some directors don’t, I know. But I love it. I think it’s because I come from the theatre and in the theatre, previews are where you really have to listen to the audience and really feel how they’re responding. I found our test screenings incredibly useful. My own preference is to run my own focus groups, as well, so I can really find out what people are understanding and what they’re not understanding and how I can help them and how, sometimes, I don’t want to help them. Which bits of the narrative are clear to them and which bits are unclear, not necessarily that I need to clear it all up, because sometimes ambiguity is good, but how hard they’re having to work in certain areas…all those questions I find absolutely fascinating. So we did, we tested. We had recruits in New York, we had recruits in L.A. and we then did our own screenings for smaller groups where, as I said, I could run them much more carefully myself, so I could find out and get help from the audience. “Okay, not only, ‘what did you see?’ but let’s talk about this and how are we feeling about this? Do we want that? Do we not want that? Should we show that, should we not show that? What do we feel?” And I found them incredibly useful.
Daldry: Yes, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. [laughs]
Every director I’ve spoken with always talks about either the beginning, the end, a certain sequence that they continually go back to and they’re just tinkering and tinkering until the very end. What was that sequence for you on this film?
Daldry: You know, it was all the way through.
The whole thing?
Daldry: All the way through.
Okay, that’s not the answer I usually get.
Daldry: Continual tinkering. Yeah, continual.
You were partnered up with Scott Rudin on this and Scott’s one of the best producers in the business. Can you talk a little bit about working with him over the years to get this made and the collaboration between you two?
Daldry: My experience is, he’s one of my best friends. He’s challenging, supportive, defensive, brilliant, kind…and “kind” is a word that, perhaps, people wouldn’t normally associate with Scott, but I do. He’s incredibly keen for me to do my best work. He’s a fantastic producer for me. He’s always been there for me. I can’t imagine working with…I can, but I can’t imagine anybody that I feel closer to in terms of having a producer.
I’m going to ask you about Thomas Horn. I think the kid did an amazing job, especially with his first feature. Talk a little bit about working with him and his incredible performance.
Daldry: He’s a kid who’s suffering catastrophic loss, a kid in trouble. I knew I didn’t want a so-called “Disney kid.” I wanted a kid who was as truthful as he could possibly be and I think, honestly, Thomas gives one of the greatest screen performances by a young actor in forever. The level of professionalism and dedication and courage that that young man engaged in on the course of this picture was genuinely phenomenal. He was phenomenal. We all felt it; we never felt we were working with a kid. We always felt we were working with a leading actor.
When you cast him, obviously you looked at him and you tested him and you thought you had it, but when was it: was it the first day on set or the first take or the second day that you realized that this kid was really delivering something special?
Daldry: We did a long audition process. Warners were absolutely fantastic about this. I said to Jeff Robinov and everybody that I didn’t really think we should go forward with the film unless we found the right kid because the film will succeed or fail on the shoulders of this performance. We’re going to spend a lot of money on casting, we’re going to spend a lot of money on pre-production before you know we’ve got it. We’ve got to accept the fact that we’re going to go into this process and we still might not make the movie. Warners were fantastic. They said, “Yes, that’s fine. That’s a deal. Go ahead.”
Then I took the final test screening that we did with Thomas after days and days of auditioning, I took that test to Jeff on the lot in Warners. I said, “Jeff, you know, here’s the kid I think can possibly do this. It’s a leap of faith, but I think this boy is astonishing. But I didn’t want to go ahead unless you buy into it, unless you agree. We’ll do this together. But if you say, ‘No, I don’t think it’s the right kid,’ then let’s pull the plug now.” And Jeff was fantastic, he just said, “You know? I think that’s the kid. Let’s go ahead. I think you’re right.” So, all power to Jeff for being a fantastic supporter all the way through; not just in pre-production, not just in casting, but in the finishing of the film as well.
You have an incredible rest of the cast; the rest of the people you have are tremendous. Did you make any of them audition or were they all offers?
Daldry: All offers. Good question, but they were all offers. Jeffrey [Wright] I knew anyway, I knew personally as well as I’d been seeing him on stage for years. Zoe Caldwell, dying to work with Zoe Caldwell. I wasn’t expecting to get Viola Davis because I was such a fan of hers and she devastated me in the Broadway production of “Fences” with Denzel [Washington] and I just sent her the script. I said, “Look, it would be such a feather in our cap to have you in this movie.” And she said, “Yes,” straight away! John Goodman! I said, “John, I know it’s ‘Stan the bloody Doorman.’ Do you fancy it?” and he read the script and said, “Yeah. I’m in.” So I was incredibly lucky in getting such a wildly enthusiastic response and I think that’s down to Eric Roth and the power of his script.
TV has become huge on HBO, FX, AMC. Is there any desire for you to do something in the TV world or are you sticking, for sure, in the feature film world?
Daldry: No, I’d love to do something for TV.
Is there something that’s been bubbling up?
That is where it deserves to be. I love that book.
Daldry: It would be so much better as a series, honestly. If you could put that in the article and ring up HBO and tell them that’s what I want to do, I’d really appreciate it.
I have no problem doing that. Do you, by any chance, have the rights or is this just the dream?
Daldry: What a good question! I spent a year working on it with Michael Chabon, so we’re pretty close. And the rights…good question. Will Paramount give them to me? I don’t know.
For the love of God, you guys need to do that. That is where it deserves to be, on HBO. It really is.
Daldry: It’ll be a really good one. We want to take over from Boardwalk Empire. It’ll be fantastic.