An Interview with Screenwriter David Benioff
Screenwriter David Benioff in many ways leads a charmed life. He's married to actress Amanda Peet, has worked with Hollywood heavyweights like Spike Lee and Wolfgang Petersen, and has been the pen behind the hit films "The 25th Hour" (adapted from his own novel), "Troy," and, soon, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."
His current film, "The Kite Runner," was directed by acclaimed director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball," "Finding Neverland") and is getting quite a bit of Oscar buzz.
I recently sat down with David to discuss parenthood, adapting novels for the big screen, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and DVD commentaries.
JS: Have you had a chance to see the city?
DB: A little bit last night I got driven around to some of the sights and was shown that old theater…that beautiful theater, I can't remember the name of it. I saw the track…the Speedway from the plane. That was pretty cool. I've never seen a track like that.
JS: It's crazy. It's like a whole other world across that street.
DB: You can have a golf course in the middle of a race track? That's pretty amazing.
JS: So how's fatherhood?
DB: Fatherhood is good. The first couple of months were tough, until…you're a dad, right? How many do you have?
JS: I have two.
DB: So you remember. Before the kid is sleeping (all night), it's rough, but now she's sleeping through the night, and that's fun. The first six weeks are just a blur, but now it's just sad when I go away because I'm going to be away from her for nine days.
JS: Do you think it's changed you much?
DB: It's funny, because she'll kind of be my research tool, especially as she gets older. I'll have an understanding of what a two-year-old is like, and a four-year-old and so on, and ultimately getting into the teen dialog. That was a great asset to me being a teacher for five years, teaching high school in Brooklyn, hearing the way kids talk. I was pretty young when I taught--like 25 or something--but just in those 10 years since I'd been in high school all of the slang had changed. You see a lot of TV shows, it doesn't sound like kids talk today, it sounds like kids talked 20 years ago, so trying to keep up to date on lingo is tough.
JS: I have one question about your wife and "Studio 60." Why in the world didn't that continue? I loved it.
DB: The funny thing is, it didn't have terrible numbers. It had almost 8 million people every week watching it, but it was such an expensive show that it had to have a certain numbers. I think it's a shame, because the best episodes of that show are amazing, and we need a show like that. But s--- happens.
JS: I'm sure she won't be hurting for work either.
DB: Yeah, she's got some good things coming out, and Aaron Sorkin is probably going to win an Oscar this year, so I think everyone involved is going to be fine on their own, but it was such a great group, it's a shame to see it go away.
JS: Okay, so let's talk about "The Kite Runner." It was another adaptation for you, though it wasn't your own, but in comparison, was it different dealing with someone else's work?
DB: Yeah. With "25th Hour" I didn't have to worry about offending anyone. It was my book and I could do whatever I wanted with it. There are scenes in that book that I love, and you just can't have them all in the movie. If you wrote a completely faithful adaptation of the book it would be like a 10-hour movie, and I don't want to make that movie. I think to his credit Khaled (Hosseini, the author) was always supportive of the progress of the adaptation and he knew it was going to be a different animal and he knew that changes were going to be made.
JS: A lot of middle-eastern films tend to be highly political, "Syriana" kind of movies. I watch them and I don't feel like I know the people of the middle east in that more personal kind of way, but in this film I do.
DB: We had a screening in LA, and Khaled told me he sees this movie as a love letter to Afghanistan. He's just so happy, and the cast is as well, that Muslims are being portrayed not as terrorists or warlords or heroin dealers or whatever, but as humans, and family people and really normal people who are trying to survive extraordinary circumstances. And the cast in this film is wonderful.
JS: One thing that a lot of Americans have is this misconception that everyone in the middle east all hate us and they all want us to die and we need to kill as many of them as we can, and it kind of seems like this movie kind of says "no, not really…"
DB: There is a love-hate, and there's no doubt there's a great amount of anger at America's foreign policy, but at the same time so many people in the middle east have family here, and the people long for the kind of jobs they can get here and the freedom they would have here to do what they want and work what they want. It's interesting, in the book the character Baba is staunchly pro-Reagan. That's not to say there's not much anger, but at the same time, today, after all that's happened there are things about this country that those people admire.
JS: Can you tell me about "25th Hour" and adapting your own work being your first project, and you kind of hit the big time right away.
DB: Yeah, I wrote the novel and before the novel was even published it was sent around to various people around Hollywood and one of the people who saw it was Tobey Maguire, and he read it and wanted to play the lead. His company that managed and produced for him hired me to adapt the novel. So I wrote one draft that wasn't any good, but I got some good notes and tried to make it a little bit better and a little better, and it eventually got to Spike Lee. Then Tobey got the job as Spider-Man, which was a pretty good career move on his part (laughs)
DB: He made the right choice, but then Spike went out and got Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman and what's her name..."
JS: Anna Paquin?
DB: Yeah, but there was someone else...
JS: Rosario Dawson?
DB: Well there was another actress who got hired to play the Anna Paquin part who got fired because she wouldn't show up on time for rehearsal or something. What was her name? She was in "8 Mile."
JS: Brittany Murphy?
DB: Yes! Brittany Murphy got canned.
JS: I watched about half of the commentary last night. It had the 9/11 angle and it came out right after 9/11, and everyone was still reeling. Just the small undertones made such a great difference to me.
DB: You don't have to watch rest of the commentary. The rest of it was pretty boring. Doing a commentary is interesting, because you show up and show you the movie and they give you the mic and you're supposed to talk but you haven't prepared anything, so it's weird. You're sitting there trying to come up with interesting stories to tell but you can never remember them in time, you always remember them an hour later.
JS: Like the Seinfeld "Jerk Store" thing.
DB: (laughs) Yeah. That was a great episode.
JS: I remember watching the "Boogie Nights" commentary and I love PT Anderson and that movie, but the commentary sucked. The whole thing was like "Oh yeah, that's the guy who was my friend in second grade."
DB: I've heard that the best DVD commentary is like for movies like "Dude, Where's My Car?" where they're just goofing around. I think a comedy is more likely to have an interesting commentary than a drama. But for "Kite Runner" it was Marc, the director, and Khaled Hosseini, and I did it together, so that was fun, but probably not very funny.