In Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close,” the author tells the story of Oskar Schell, a school-age boy who grapples with the passing of his father in the 9/11 attacks. Adapting such difficult material was never going to be easy, and with Stephen Daldry’s new film of the same title, the obstacles were twofold. One must have fidelity not only to the source material, but to the tragedies of the event itself. Gathering together to talk with the press in New York City recently, the cast and filmmaker related the importance of being true to the emotions that still linger from that fateful September day.
“The greatest challenge was to control the emotion of it,” says screenwriter Eric Roth, the veteran scribe behind “Forrest Gump,” “The Insider” and “Munich.” “Obviously, it’s a personal story, but there’s also the horror of 9/11. I think the movie captures more than the essence of what the book represents.”
Director Daldry, who previously worked on “The Reader” and “The Hours,” notes the delicacy of the subject matter and wide range of reactions it evokes. “You have a responsibility to talk about a subject that’s going to bring out a huge emotional response out people,” he says. “And a lot of people will say, they’re ready, or they’re not ready.”
Making the film meant combing through the surviving memories of 9/11 from those that were there, and those that lost someone in the attacks. “This is a made up story, but there are three thousand children walking around in the city who’s parents did die in 9/11,” he laments. “The only thing you can do is do as much research as you possibly can, talk to people, be observant. We’re talking about traumatic loss, and it’s bound to be distressing to us, who made it, and it’s bound to be distressing to those who watch it.”
It was an entirely different experience for Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, who was in New York on the day of the attacks. “There’ll never be closure, for me and for so many people,” she sighs. “I was there, I saw it, I saw the second plane, I saw people, I saw people helping people. I have so many memories and emotions of it, and they never register. They still don’t register.“ She does note that the film has the potential to allow for healing. “This is what this story is: the allowance to talk about the events in your life where you should be able to grieve. It’s cathartic.”
All of this would have gone for naught without Thomas Horn, the young star of the film, making his first film apperance. “The film couldn’t go ahead unless we found the right kid,” says Daldry, who says he had no issues from Warner Bros. execs regarding casting a non-pro like Horn. In a story bound to infuriate stage moms and dads all over, Horn auditioned completely on a whim.
“About two years ago, I was watching an episode of ‘Jeopardy,’ ” says Horn. “And an ad aired offering online tests for ‘Kids Jeopardy.’ My family thought, he knows trivia, maybe he‘d do ok there.” After his episode aired in July 2010, and it caught the eye of an exec working on the film. “They sent me material to make a tape. I knew nothing about film or the industry at all. But I thought, you know what? What do I have to lose? I might as well try it.”
Horn, who says he wants to go to school and explore many fields, looks like he won’t be acting anytime soon. “I had a really great experience so far with film acting,” he says, praising his co-stars. “And most experiences from most actors, I’ve heard, are not like this. But I want a career that has many disciplines and many options.”
Horn has to carry this difficult role on his shoulders, particularly considering the challenges of sharing screen time with Max Von Sydow, who plays a mute. Von Sydow didn’t find much difficulty inhabiting this character, thanks to Daldry. “The director is like everybody else,” says Von Sydow. “He communicates in his own way. He speaks, but he doesn’t talk. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a challenge in a way. But what do you do as an actor? You try to imagine what’s going on in this person’s mind.” It was a dream job for the screen legend, who claims, “I was taken and moved by the script, which doesn’t happen that often, sorry to say. I wanted to be a part of it immediately, especially once I was told Stephen was a part of it, who I admire.”
Bullock adds, “I’d always wanted to work with Steven, especially when I saw ‘The Reader.’ I was just completely blown away. And I didn’t necessarily want to work at that point, but Stephen came to my home, and we talked about the character and what we thought she was. In the book she’s regarded as a mother, she’s not given a life, and I loved that. It was from a child’s point of view and often children don’t necessarily appreciate their parents. The way the story was told allowed me and other people to grieve the event, and I think a lot of people haven’t been able to grieve.”
Of course, Bullock greatly depended on the solid work of Horn, in his feature film debut. “You pray you feel maternal to whatever child you’re working with,” she laughs. “I’ve played moms before, but they’d always been in a lighter context, something sparkly, she’s the perfect mom, everything‘s ok. There’s conflict, but not depth like this. As an actor and as someone who needed to love and be frustrated by him, it helped me do my job. And I just loved building a relationship and character with Thomas. You know, they say, don’t work with dogs and children. I always seem to work with dogs and children, but I love it, and I loved this experience.”
“Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” opens on Christmas Day.