Screenwriter Eric Roth Exclusive Interview – THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

     December 26, 2008

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

“Forrest Gump”

“The Insider”



“The Good Shepherd”

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

These are some of the films that Eric Roth has written, and they’re some of the reasons why I’m a really big fan of his work.

So when I was offered the opportunity to speak with him for an exclusive interview about his new movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, I jumped at the chance. Also, I haven’t read too many interviews with Eric, so I thought this might be one of my only chances to sit down with the great screenwriter.

Thankfully, the interview came out better than I could’ve hoped and we had a great conversation about everything from his writing processto how he got involved with “Benjamin Button”. If you’re a fan of Eric’s or you just want to hear how an A-list screenwriter works, I promise you it’s an interview not to be missed.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here.

Collider: Can you talk a little bit about your history with the project and why you wanted to get involved with this one?

Eric Roth: The history of it is that Sherry Lansing, who was running Paramount Studios at the time, and Kathy Kennedy who’s the producer of this project, came to me and said we’ve had this…we both love this idea of this “Benjamin Button” and it’s been around for Kathy had been around for 18 years I think. But we don’t feel it’s quite where we want it. I mean, I don’t’ know what that meant. In other words, just for whatever reason it wasn’t landing which I couldn’t speak to. And they asked me if I would take it on. And I read the short story and I found it interesting. I thought the whole notion of someone aging backwards is a pretty unique idea and certainly had the pedigree of F. Scott Fitzgerald so that made it even more interesting. And I agreed to do it because I think philosophically dealt with a lot of topics that interested me about aging, about time passing, loneliness a little bit. Also, I thought it was interesting the technique we’d have to figure out how we can do this and also the span of it. I thought I could do a man’s life, a good love story. I mean, so it had a lot of ingredients that would be I think anybody would be interested in, you know? Especially where they’re saying, you know, use your imagination. So, I then called—it’s sort of a thing amongst writers—if you’re going to re-write somebody it’s common courtesy to call them and see if they have objection to you doing it and also if they really are done. In other words sometimes it’s a personality thing and I just wouldn’t want to enter into that. In other words it would be between the writer and people that are there because maybe the writer has something to say they still want to say and they aren’t finished writing, you know? It doesn’t mean someone else might not re-write them but I wouldn’t want to. And the writer Robin Swicord had been on it a long time off-and-on, I think 10-12 years, she was happy. She said, I know her fairly well—and she said she was happy that I would potentially do it but she didn’t want me to read her script. She didn’t really want that particular version of it done unless she was involved, which I understood completely. I promised her and I haven’t read her script. I then embarked on my own version of it.

You obviously got involved before David got involved.

Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense it was my material. David had preceded me by a number of years. He had been…he knew Robin Swicord’s script and he knew the project had been around and he’d always been sort of monitoring it. Where it was going, what was going to happen with it and it went through a number of people. Spielberg and Spike Jonze and you know interesting people. And I can’t tell you why they didn’t make it. I mean, you’d have to ask other people. And then when David heard I was doing it, I guess he was interested to see what I would do with it and then I guess he was hoping it would be sent to him to consider and it turned out it did.

Well, I guess my question is how involved was David in the creation….so I’m curious his collaboration with you in creating the material it sounds to me like he got involved after you already completed your draft.

Yes, yes.

So when he came to the project after reading your script and saying, “oh I want to do this”, were there any changes made based on his involvement or did it pretty much stick with what you had?

Pretty much stuck with what was the architecture of it, yeah. I mean, what the blueprint was. Things changed in kind, I guess. In other words we would emphasize some things I didn’t emphasize the same way. I can’t remember what any more to be honest with you. We talked about, you know, you go page to page like any good director will do with a writer and say what did you intend here, why did you do it this way? And sometimes you know, sometimes it’s just instinct and you try to explain it so they can understand it. He’ll say is there a way to look at it this way? And we’d argue that out in a good creative conversation and that went on for a long time. You know, in other words that’s what you do.

I’m curious, I had a conversation with a number of my writer friends after the screening last night, about Katrina and its use in the film. I wanted to know when did that come to the film? Was it a result of you guys…

Did you like it or not like it?

We were trying to analyze what the meaning of Katrina in the film was.

Oh I see. Okay.

I’m curious…

I think it has dual purpose. And it came about…the movie was originally to be shot in Baltimore which is where the short story written about. And they went to Baltimore and found the Chesapeake Bay, which was a big part of it, no longer existed at least what it looked like there in any way shape or form 100 years ago or whatever 80 odd years ago or whatever it is. It was going to be very expensive to do that, to duplicate that in any way even with CG and stuff. So, also simultaneously I think there was limitations on how much this was going to cost. It was going to be a costly movie and they had limitations on what the studio was willing to spend. So they were trying to be as cost-effective and get as much for their dollar and everything else. A number of states were giving rebates and Louisiana being one of them, so they went down to New Orleans to see how that would look and David sent me back photographs of locations and said “what do you think?” and I said “I think this will work”, you know. Then when I wrote exterior New Orleans street day there was like no doubt because all of a sudden there was a character there. You don’t have to write a description of it or anything. Everybody knows what this is. It has it’s own flavor, own taste, own smell and sights and everything and that’s so traditionally American and such a unique cross-cultural kind of place, so that it started inhabiting the whole thing without me having to do anything. And then we made the changes that would be accompanying that…like in other words what streets and what drinks people would drink. Those kinds of things, those little details. And this was before Katrina. Then Katrina hit and we had to make a decision. Did we want to make this end before Katrina was even thought of or should we do it after Katrina? We both thought it would be interesting to see how it worked if we were able to make Katrina a character of its own so to speak and what we would gather from it. So aside from the normal kind of thing you might utilize a hurricane for is just tension and light and shadows and all that. I started feeling this interesting metaphor that fits with the theme of the movie of things do they last or not last, you know? It’s like the nothing lasts things in the movie. That’s why we used the image at the end which is where things are washed away, you know?

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff like that in the film. For me, when I was analyzing or discussing it with friends with Katrina, it could, for me, represent with our generation and the people who are watching this now not in the future, we all know Katrina is coming.


And we all know death is coming.


And that kind of analogy.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

But the other thing is that in future generations, it is a way of remembering Katrina even further down because movies last for so long.

Right, right.

You know, in elements from movies in the 30’s or 40’s where we watch them now, so it’s kind of a timeless…

Completely. I have a whole…I don’t know if this is my theory or philosophy but I think Francis is the one who either said this or told me this, I don’t even remember…Coppola…that the great movies live on as if people are still living in another universe. In other words, if you think about “The Godfather”, that you sort of sense that those people are all alive right now as we speak, you know? And that’s what I think is true of great movies. “Star Wars” let’s say. In other words, they’re a whole galaxy away. They’re doing what they’re doing and the movies that don’t somehow capture our fancy in the same way sort of disappear but those that last probably like good literature or something inhabit our subconscious in some way.

Well, a lot of your previous films are very large films. They’ve made a cultural impact. When you’re writing a script, do you ever realize that some of these films are going to be so, you know…?

No clue.

So it’s sort of just you…could you talk a little bit about, your writing process and how you come to grips of getting around whatever subject matter you get around?

Well, you know just sort of…you’re not interested in the day-to-day process, I mean just the nuts and bolts of me sitting down to write or…?

I guess my first question….well whatever you’d like to talk about.

I’ll talk about anything. I’ll give you both.

Oh sure.

The nuts and bolts is a…I mean I work a normal day basically. I mean I work probably a shorter day than most people. I work from like 8:30 to 12:30 but then I work again at night, so I probably do 6 hours a day of writing. I write every day except for the weekends unless I’m on some big deadline or I’m really stimulated with something. I always start from page 1, which they’ve told me mathematically is stupid because you’ll never be able to put as much time to the ending. It takes me about a year plus to write these things.

Which could be the reason they’re so good.

I don’t know. No, I think they’re just…I think it’s the same effort as somebody else but they may do 5 drafts in that time, so my 1st draft is just as equivalent to someone else’s 5th draft probably. So they might be just as good or not as good or whatever. I’m big on what the theme is of the piece. I like to write to the theme. It’s equally as important as anything else is to me as to what the movie is about eventually. Storytelling is important obviously. I feel I’m a pretty good storyteller. I have a very good visual imagination. What else can I tell you?

I guess I’d like to ask a question of…. have you reached a point in your career where the studio people who give these pointless notes are not giving you those pointless notes?

I get the notes but they’re not done in a pointless way. In other words, I refuse to take them if they’re done as if I’m stupid. I mean, they’ll just do bullet points. You know, in other words they’ll ask like do we need, why do we… I mean and I can ignore them. I mean sometimes I resent the notes only when they’re, as I say, they assume that you’ve intended to do something that wasn’t working you know? In other words, but I think it’s the same way I like to talk to people that have seen a movie that I’ve written to see what impact it has on them. In other words, where I’ve failed, where I’ve succeeded, you know? The same thing with a screenplay, in other words, because you’re seeing someone else’s eyes. Something you think is self-evident they may not and you have to also obviously consider the source. But I think you may find in those they’re asking you questions they don’t even know they’re asking that might lead you to do other things. Or even sometimes just discard them because they’re irrelevant.

But with the case of “Benjamin Button” where there certain themes that…did you have like a note card or something as you were writing?


There’s a lot of things being dealt with in the film and I’m just curious how you came to…

I think some things just happen. I mean in other words, maybe it’s part of how I write, but I hope there’s certain layers to things that are going on that…and I don’t know if they’re just instinctive or I don’t know if they’re that well thought out. It’s like with writing, I always give an example and I’m not sure if it’s a complete analogist what we’re talking about now but I could just tell you E.L. Doctorow, a novelist, after he wrote a book called “A Book of Daniel”, found himself having like big writers block. He couldn’t write. Sitting looking at the wall of his office where he worked, I guess he lived in a house that was from the 1890’s or 1900’s and he sort of started thinking about who put this wall up and what was going on in that time and he ended up writing “Ragtime” from that. I’m short-cutting it but it’s about imagination. In other words, and it’s the same thing you now create a character and what is their life, what are the things they’re experiencing? And that’s the same thing with Benjamin Button. Then, in other words, I felt like okay, now I’m given this task and here’s a guy from birth to death and what kind of life did he lead? And who are the people he met? And I just….part of it is I’m sort of jumping a little bit, but I think you have to be sort of willing to fail, in other words so I think you have to be kind of bold in the way you try to find where your imagination takes you and sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. Then if you can get someone like David who can articulate it for you, it’s pretty great.

Two quick questions. I know I’m running out of time. Would you ever go back and write a sequel to anything that you’ve written previously?

I did write a sequel to “Forrest Gump”. And I turned it in the night before 9/11, so 9/10 and Bob and Tom and I…. Zemeckis and Hanks and I sat down with each other and says it’s not relevant anymore. And maybe it’s a great script. I don’t know. We’ll see but you never know, you know?

I could ask a million questions on that, but I will not. My other question is…what are you thinking about tackling in the future. Are you working on anything?

I am. I just finished a script for a book that was a best-seller called “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”. It was briefly a best-seller. It’s about a…it’s a complicated story but the simplicity of it is a little boy who’s 10 years old. He has Asperger’s affliction. His father died in 9/11 and it’s the boy kind of coming to grips with this but I think he’s one of the most amazing characters I’ve ever read. He has Asperger’s and he’s sort of a tough minded kid and confused about all sorts of things like he gets his sexuality off the Internet and it’s a pretty brazen kind of piece and the kid’s voice is like Holden Caulfield to me or something. And it’s a Scott Rudin project so I think it’s something that might see the light of day.

I was going to say is it moving forward?

Yeah, right now everybody’s very happy and I think we might have a director who’s going to do it. So we’ll see. And then I’m doing “Hatfield/McCoy’s”. I finished that. I’m doing a re-write. It’s for Brad and Brad’s company, which I think is pretty interesting. It’s a western of a kind.

I would love to see that.

Okay and me too. Then I was supposed to do a book called “Devil and the White City” which is a pretty interesting book about the World’s Fair in 1880 and a guy who’s a serial killer at the same time. It’s a true story; I mean it was a pretty amazing story.

Can you write multiple scripts at the same time or do you need to focus on one script at a time?

I prefer to focus on one. Just what happens is, if you’re lucky, things start piling up in a good way. In other words, you might be re-writing one that’s about to go into production and they have a deadline on something else. I mean, so you have to multi-task a little bit. I’m not as good at it so that things start waiting. Like the one I mentioned to you, the Scott Rudin project, he waited 4 years for.

With the iconic films that you’ve done in the past, I would imagine there is a tremendous amount of demand for your time, so how do you pick the project that you want to spend…as you said you spent a year, a year and a half of your life on it. How do you, you know, decide this is what I want to do?

Well, I think you said it. In other words, how do I want to spend my time for the next year? And you feel it’s worth value to your time, in other words, what would be the end result? I’m also sometimes pragmatic to some extent about I don’t like to be foolish about what I’m going to do. I want things to get made because they don’t serve much purpose if it’s just an exercise for a year and a half of my life. I mean, I had a movie for instance that the strike kind of affected called “Shantaram” that Johnny Depp was going to do and it ended up that was the end of it. I spent like 2 years on it, so you know that’s a disappointment, you know? I don’t think it probably be done now, or maybe it could but it covers not the same storytelling but it’s about Bombay and a guy who lives in the slums so there’s some Slumdog Millionaire equivalence, I guess.

I wanted to know, you mentioned these other projects—a western and the World’s Fair. The World’s Fair project sounds intriguing to me because we live in a society that doesn’t have the World Fair.


The World’s Fair is the Internet every day.

Yeah, true. True.

Back then the 1880 World Fair would be…

Everybody coming to the Internet in a way.

Yeah, exactly. How do you research something like that and how much time do you spend when you’re working the western genre or the World’s Fair and how do you get yourself prepared for that?

I read…I do sort of a more cursory kind of research…which would give me the background and provide me with enough information where I’m on solid ground as to what was going on in that period of time and then I really research as I go. In other words, except for maybe some of the characters I start providing them with a pretty full biography, at least in my head. But if I come across a scene like say in “The Devil in the White City” and the first scene is about the stockyards. I’ll do, I mean, I’ll do enough research to know that it’s fairly accurate and I’ll look at some interesting things. I won’t read for 6 months about the stockyards because I’d never write anything then. But I’ll be pretty conversant with it and obviously the Internet is a great tool for that.

I have to ask when it comes to movies being made it’s always about budget. When you’re writing your scripts with say any future project or any project in the past, has there ever been a time where you know they’re going to have about $100 million to spend and as I’m writing this I am already thinking about that? Or do you write the script you want to write and then change it, possibly, based on the budget?

Well, I think I’m conversant enough with movies now, since I’ve had a bunch of them made, to know what would be kind of ridiculous to put in a movie script where you start busting the bank in a way. So I probably just unconsciously do that. And also a part of it is just about lengthier screenplay pages and time it’s going to spend and what is the sort of…how is the money going to be well spent. They’re a little less likely to do a $60 million love story. It’s sort of that mid-range movie that’s a little more dangerous to make in the sense of getting the money back. They’d rather spend a lot more money and do something a little more adventurous in a sense. So it’s a little different world that way.

Do you ever see yourself getting in the director’s chair?

No. No. I would be a B-director.

After the interview ended we were talking and I mentioned sci-fi and would he ever want to do it….he then told me this:

The big project I’d like to do, I mean I think these other projects were big in some sense but I’m going to do a big space…I don’t want to odyssey…that’s been done, but a space movie for Warner Brothers and I want to start like in…I don’t know…sometime next year.

Is it based on original material?

It’s an original idea I have, yeah.

Really? How influenced are you by the previous…the sci-fi genre is so iconic. Are you thinking….it’s such an iconic genre that what is your…without giving anything away because I don’t want to….

No, I wouldn’t.

Yeah, exactly. What is your kind of thing? Is it like an action film? Is it a drama?

No, I want it to be—and I don’t know 100%–but I mean this is such a wide range, but I think it’s somewhere between the intelligence of “2001” and the mythology of “Star Wars”, so I don’t know where that leads you. But I don’t want to make it so intellectual that it’s confounding, but on the other hand I’m not so sure I can write the kind of wonderful fantasy that Lucas does, so maybe it would have…I don’t know…I don’t know. I can’t answer that because they’re going let me just sort of say fade in and see where I go.

I will say as a fan I’m tremendously looking forward to this.

I think it will be great. I have an idea. It’s a terrific idea, I know that. Whether I’m able to be able to do it, I don’t know.

Well, if Warner Brothers is down with it…

Yeah, they’re down with it.

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