Eric Roth won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Forrest Gump. It would be cosmically appropriate as well as overwhelmingly deserved if he won another one a lucky 13 years later for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This movie turns everything on its head, including time, cliched notions of luck and destiny, and conventional notions of the art of adaptation. (Starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it opens nationwide on Christmas Day.)
Benjamin Button takes little from the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story beyond its hook and its title. Roth is loath to admit that his screenplay is not just an expansion, but also an improvement on Fitzgerald. All he will say is, "I love the story's lineage." Fitzgerald based his tale about a man who is born old and ages backward on a suggestion from his celebrated editor Maxwell Perkins, who took it from a notion of Mark Twain's. The finished film roams all over the globe but begins and ends in New Orleans; it has as much Twain (or Hemingway) in it as Fitzgerald.
The most Fitzgeraldian aspect of it is the hero's devotion to his true love, Daisy. Roth peppers the rest of the narrative with tall tales that could have emerged from Twain's short stories, such as an African Pygmy who makes a living in America by appearing with caged apes in zoos, or a man who says he's been struck by lightning seven times. Roth says the main reason the film evokes Twain is that the setting changed from Baltimore - the scene of the original story - to New Orleans, "and as long as you move on the Mississippi River, you're going to get some Mark Twain in there."
Watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you can't imagine the film taking place in Baltimore. The filmmakers weave in New Orleans' rococo textures; Hurricane Katrina becomes part of the framing story. Yet Roth says he and the director, David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), would have loved to root it in Baltimore, Fitzgerald's original choice. "The Chesapeake Bay was always a big part of it - quite honestly, it was a bit of a stretch for me to transfer the feeling of the bay and the ocean beyond to the Mississippi River. The story of Benjamin going on a tugboat came from research I did on the Chesapeake Bay."
Some jazzy flavorings, a strong African-American culture, and the richness and tensions of a Southern city - Roth and Fincher felt Baltimore had all that, as well as the streets and settings cited in the Fitzgerald story. "But the harbor looked nothing like it did in 1919; even with painting and construction and the use of CGI [computer-graphic imagery], it would have been expensive to restore it." Louisiana offered a more aggressive production-incentive program than Maryland; the decision was ultimately a financial one. Roth admits, "Once you write in a script - 'Exterior: New Orleans: Day' - a whole character emerges. But Baltimore would have been equally fine."
After Fincher decided on Louisiana, Roth told him they would be remiss not to include Hurricane Katrina. "But we had to make sure it wouldn't be exploitative." Button is born at the close of the First World War. The telling of his story becomes complete during the approach of Katrina. Roth wanted Button to differ from Forrest Gump, "where historical events became pivotal. I didn't want that here. I simply wanted the people to be part of whatever was happening in the era."
This project had been "knocking around for 40 or 50 years." It got to Roth, he says, "when my mother was passing away and thoughts of mortality were present in my mind. It became a way of writing about her life and her passing." Although it took him roughly a year and a half to write the script, he went through 20 drafts of varied importance after director Fincher came on board in 2002.
The emotional core was constant. The way Benjamin Button's life ripples through the lives of so many others reflects Roth's sense of family. Button comes into life, in Roth's version, as an abandoned child, placed on the steps of an old folks' home. The chief caregiver there becomes his mother (Taraji P. Henson), and her elderly charges, at different stages of Benjamin's life, become Benjamin's equally old surrogate siblings or (as he grows younger) his replacement aunts and uncles. His friends, ranging from the Pygmy to a tugboat captain, become the big brothers leading him out into the world. Roth's mother and father came from large families (eight or nine kids in each of them); Roth and his wife (a lawyer who specializes in bioethics) have six children, ages 15 to 39, and five grandchildren.
Roth muses, "I did feel rather clever when I came up with the notion that an old-age home might be a nice place to put a baby who's born old, and that it would be interesting to portray an African-American as the woman who comes to adopt him." But his process is a mixture of the analytical and the instinctive. When he thought of having the story told by Button's true love, Daisy, on her deathbed, "it was tied into my mother's dying, the way she talked to me when she was lying in her bed, what she was thinking about at the end of her life. When Daisy says 'It is what it is,' or 'I'm curious about what comes next,' or responds to the nurse going out of the room with 'Is that company leaving?' - that's straight out of our conversations."
With one of those strokes of pure imagination that echoes through the movie like a mighty gong, he thought "it would be fun to start a fable with a fable all its own." So he concocted the tale of a great railroad station clock that a blind master craftsman builds to run backward, mirroring the wishes of those mourning America's war dead to turn back time. Benjamin is born under that clock's cosmic influence.
"I guess you could say 'loneliness' is thematic in the things I write," Roth says.
Early in his career, Roth did an uncredited rewrite of the 1975 Paul Newman film The Drowning Pool, and got "quite close" to the superstar. When they ate dinner near the film's locations in New Orleans and Lafayette, La., the waiters would put a screen around the table, to protect Newman from gawkers. Roth would ask Newman, "How do you live like this?" and Newman would say of his celebrity, "Can't live with it, can't live without it." Roth thinks Brad Pitt as Benjamin "plays the burden of that. He brings his sense of the burden of being different - which comes from being a famous actor and being really good-looking - to the challenge of playing a guy who's supposed to be extraordinary."
Roth credits Fincher's "incredible" instincts for some of the film's poetic strokes, such as the rising waters of Katrina washing away New Orleans, the artifacts of the story and, seemingly, time itself.
The film depicts Benjamin drifting into senility as he ages into infancy. That derived from Roth's father, who "had some dementia, and would say interesting things out of the blue, such as 'You're in charge of the world order," or "Now I'm passing the mantle to take care of the family down to you.' "
Before that happens, Benjamin and Daisy meet when they're finally a perfect match. "My wife's very analytical; she likes some of my movies, even if she always supports me. Something kept her from embracing the film until it reached the period of the 1950s and then she finally gave it away; for her that's when reality entered into it, something beyond the fun of the CGI."