"Benjamin Button" took decades to reach big screen

Fri Dec 19, 2008 6:04am EST
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By Alex Ben Block

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It's a pity that the best parts of life come at the beginning, the worst parts at the end.

That notion of Mark Twain's -- as related to F. Scott Fitzgerald by his editor, Maxwell Perkins -- was the genesis of Fitzgerald's 1922 short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and, in turn, the genesis of the acclaimed film that finally opens on Christmas Day after decades in development.

When Fitzgerald conceived his fantastical tale of a man who ages backward, it was a trifle, nothing that could compare to works like "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender is the Night." But the story generated interest almost immediately.

Fitzgerald was working as a screenwriter when "Button" was initially developed as a movie, but he never got to adapt it. That was left to his contemporary William Faulkner, who began a script while a contract writer at Warner Bros. in 1943. But Warners never obtained the rights, and when Faulkner asked the studio to acquire them, studio chief Jack Warner killed the project.

It would be four decades before "Button" came to life again thanks to Ray Stark, a former agent and studio executive who was one of Hollywood's most successful producers. Stark brought "Button" to Ron Howard, recalls his longtime collaborator Marykay Powell, believing that the director of "Splash" might be right for the project.

Howard agreed, and discussed such actors as John Travolta, Johnny Depp and Martin Short for the lead. He even did tests using Digital Domain for effects. But the projected budget was so high nobody wanted to make it.

"There was also the question of how many actors would be needed to play the (title) role," recalls Powell. "That was the key thing that kept it locked in development hell."

Howard left the project, but Stark kept going and convinced then-executive Josh Donen at Universal to finance a screenplay. Writer Robin Swicord ("Little Women") was hired to adapt.   Continued...

<p>Cast member Cate Blanchett poses at the premiere of the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" at the Mann's Village theatre in Westwood, California December 8, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>