The Curious Case of Benjamin Button finally hits the screen after two decades of development. What was the genesis of the project?
“This was 18 years ago,” says producer Kathleen Kennedy, “it was initially bought by Ray Stark. There was an early incarnation when Steven [Spielberg] and Frank [Marshall] and I had Amblin, they brought it to us and Steven toyed with it for a bit, and several years after that Frank and I formed our own company. This was near and dear to our heart and no one was doing anything with it, so we acquired the rights at that point for ourselves and continued the development process for 18 years.”
“We had taken it to Paramount,” adds producer Frank Marshall. “Sherry Lansing really believed in this story.” “Ironically, David Fincher – on his own – had read an early draft of the script about 12 or 13 years ago,” mentions Kennedy. “It really wasn’t until Eric Roth came on board and did a draft that David said I want to do this.” “There were people, department heads, who actually sat and turned down work for three or four years to do this movie,” says Kennedy. “We were going forward,” Marshall explains, “and then Zodiac came along, and they wanted to do that first, and then getting all the schedules right, so we postponed, and these people who were ready to go on Benjamin waited. Then Hurricane Katrina happened.”
How does Hurricane Katrina affect a story set on the East Coast? “Originally, they looked at filming it where [F. Scott] Fitzgerald originally set it,” says actress Julia Ormond, “Baltimore. That proved to be too expensive, but then they went to look at New Orleans and decided to film it there. Then Katrina hit, so they thought, well now what do we do? How do we incorporate it into the story? To what extent do we work it into the story? I think it adds an extra poignancy to it.” Some extra poignancy may have been just what Fitzgerald’s original story needed, according to screenwriter Eric Roth. “I read the short story. I really wasn’t wild about it to be honest with you,” Roth admits. “It’s a great conceit,” says Roth, adding, “not that I disliked it, but I just said, ‘What do I do with this?’ It’s a little farcical for my taste. But the core idea is so magnificent. What are the implications of somebody who ages backwards?”
So when the actors first read the script, what was their initial impression? “I’ll never get this part,” actor Jared Harris deadpans. “It’s true, mate,” says Jason Flemyng. “You just read it and went, ‘This is an amazing film that I’m not going to be in.’” Beyond the moving storyline, did the actors think this complex film would be technically possible? “Well, Finch says, you know, how do you eat a whale? One bite at a time,” Flemyng says, very matter of fact. “I remember reading the script and going, ‘This is just enormously so ambitious.’ How do you – I don’t know how you do it, but you’re not suppose to,” reasons Harris. “You don’t need to.” Actress Taraji P. Henson plays Benjamin’s adoptive mother. Her character ages considerably, and Henson spent many hours in prosthetic makeup. “I have a newfound respect for Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy and Tyler Perry, these guys who do this all the time,” Henson says.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button releases in theaters Dec. 25.