At present, up to the imminent release of “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close,” Stephen Daldry is three-for-three in terms of films to Best Director Oscar nominations; there’s clearly something about the stories he tells hitting a nerve among Academy voters, no matter how challenging (“The Hours”) or even controversial (“The Reader”) his subject matter. 'Extremely Loud' suggests that he’s as interested as ever in posing hard questions and finding powerful answers, as he brings to life Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a child with Asperger’s who takes an extraordinary journey to come to terms with the death of his father during 9/11. The Playlist spoke to Daldry in New York last week, where the acclaimed filmmaker shrewdly posed a few queries of his own as he revealed the personal and professional motivations for taking on tough stories.
To get started, talk about your approach to this adaptation, since it’s material that’s weighted with a lot of emotional substance, in order to make sure that it isn’t maudlin or exploitative?
Well, the first question is, when did you see the movie?
I saw it Friday.
How was it?
Um, I liked it. Many of my questions for this interview are based on viewing the film, especially about the kid, but I really liked Max Von Sydow, and the scene with Jeffrey Wright in his office is just phenomenal.
Do you think we made any mistakes in our portrayal of 9/11?
I was a little skeptical about the imagery of [REDACTED], but it obviously feeds into what this child’s nightmare is about what happened to his father. It made perfect sense, but I wasn’t sure how I personally felt about seeing that.
I’m with you on it. I think that’s right. And there was a whole discussion in my own head about what was appropriate to show and what was not appropriate to show, and that particular image that you’re talking about was one that caused me the greatest discussion – should we show this, should we not show it, and I just thought that the reason it’s in is because I thought it was in the entry for what the kid was imagining how his father might have died. And that’s why I left it in, but it was a big debate.
This child seems to be a representation of people’s understandably mixed reactions to 9/11 – confusion, anger, and a search for answers and resolution. How much did having a child who has Asperger’s, who may not have focused reactions to things, enable you to articulate a lot of feelings that are maybe less politically correct, and at the same time explore them honestly?
What a complicated question. I mean the first thing, the honest answer to that is, telling the story through the eyes of a boy was not my choice, it was the choice of Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the book. That comes as a given, so the question should really go to Jonathan: why did Jonathan want to tell it [that way]? I mean, that is a great question for Jonathan, and I’m sure he would be the right person to answer it. But my responsibility is to Jonathan, to tell the story that Jonathan wrote, and to make that into a movie, knowing that the two mediums are entirely different. And I have a responsibility to my own emotional responses to 9/11 to make sure that I’m doing what I think is truthful and what I think is appropriate – and to steer it away from things that I don’t think is appropriate. For example, I had to make the choice about whether I wanted to see Tom Hanks in the North Tower, and I just felt I really couldn’t go there; it was just really a step too far for me. And even images, like, do I really want to see the Twin Towers? Do I really want to look at the Twin Towers burning, and in the end, the only reason you do see the Twin Towers burning is because the office, the location we were looking for Sandy [Bullock] to work in had a direct view downtown of the Twin Towers, but through this really sort of refracted old New York glass, and I thought, I can possibly bear looking at it if it’s through this refracted glass. And it was a real view from that office. So I thought, well, I’ll do it – not just that she’ll take the phone call, but walk up to the windows so that she can actually see where her husband is, even though it’s through this refracted glass. So all of those choices were made in getting ready for the movie. But it’s a movie about catastrophic loss, and a special child who is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, trying to find his own logic – trying to make sense of something that literally doesn’t make sense to him. And then, I think the story is about a family in catastrophic grief who start to re-form -- and I don’t think I’m talking about healing, I’m talking about a family that’s beginning to come together after that terrible loss. I think everyone will have their reaction to what is true to this story, and that is entirely appropriate – everybody’s got their own 9/11 stories. And everybody has their own way of looking at it, as you quite rightly said. It will be too much for some people, and other people might find it difficult, but it has to be a personal response.
How much research did you do or feel was necessary to portray someone with Asperger’s accurately, without testing the audience’s sympathies when he’s saying some hurtful things to the people around him?
We did a lot of research. I mean, as the kid says in the movie, the diagnosis was inconclusive whether he has Asperger’s or not, but I spent a lot of time with different experts of Asperger’s and talked to them. Every child is different on the autistic spectrum, so we created our own version of a child that was in some way – not heavily, but somewhere on that spectrum in terms of the fears and the phobias. And that’s even down to color and fabric and touch and smell and noise and focus, where the depth of field and focus was, and where it could be, and all of those things. We spent a long time getting into them, and that’s why in the film sound and focus is so important, not just to the movie but in the creation of the character and how he moves and exists in the world – I viewed it as an emotional landscape. And obviously, the last thing I wanted to do was portray a Disney kid; this is a kid who’s in trouble, and the last thing I wanted to do with that kid was have a cutesy kid that’s demanding of the audience’s sympathy. He may earn the audience’s sympathy, but not demand it – I think that would have been terrible.
Having directed three other films which were nominated for Academy Awards, do you think consciously about the fact that the material you choose may attract that kind of attention?
I don’t. I don’t think about it.
This is a film which, because of its performances and how powerful the material is, may earn that kind of attention. How does it feel to be catapulted into that context, with or without trying to?
We’re not in that context. You know, I think we’re all a way off from that, and the Academy will have to make up their minds about what they deem [worthy], or how they want to hand out their medals. And I think that’s absolutely fine. Right now, I finished the movie less than a week ago, so it’s not really on my radar at all at the moment.
“The Reader” and “The Hours” have a tableau-like storytelling that’s similar to this one, even though the subject matter is very different. Is there anything that consciously draws you to these sorts of projects, as opposed to something like an action movie or a romantic comedy?
I never know. That’s the honest truth, and you never know what material speaks to you, and what material doesn’t speak to you until it lands. And this one landed and I read it straightaway, and straightaway, I rang back to my old friend Scott [Rudin] and said, count me in. I can’t say there’s any pattern or logic or any thought into a career in that sense, although obviously I would really like to make the next “Batman,” after Chris Nolan.
What’s the general nature of your collaboration with Rudin, in terms of him bringing you material or vice versa?
Scott is one of the greatest people in cinema today to find material that speaks to him, and I’m glad that he sends it to me. And, he’s one of my best friends, so we work very closely together, and he’s a great person and a great friend.
How much thought have you given to that Richard Curtis project, “Trash,” as a follow-up to this? And how much can you think about what’s next while you’re finishing the project you’re on?
None. My next project is the 2012 Olympic Games in London, so I’ll be doing the Olympics for the next year.
Is “Trash” something you’ll definitely be doing in the future?
You know, who knows? That’s the honest answer to that. But I’d love to work with Richard, because he’s a great guy.
Is there any book or property that you do have a strong emotional connection to?
I’m competing with Chris Nolan to make the next “Batman.” I want to make “Batman.”
Why is that?
Because it’s a great story! And you get lots of toys.
If you made a “Batman” movie, is the machinery of that kind of film something you think you would be comfortable with?
I was joking. I wouldn’t know where to begin, and there’s lots of people that do that really well, and they should get on with it and I can enjoy it when I see it in the cinemas. But no, I don’t think I would very good at it.