December 19, 2008 / 11:09 AM / 10 years ago

"Benjamin Button" took decades to reach big screen

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

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

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.

“I decided to make it a story that would encompass a whole American life,” she notes. “It would concentrate more or less on what it feels like to be the outsider. I also came up with the love story that’s still at the core.”

After some to-and-fro over rights, in February 1990 Swicord turned in her first draft. Over the following decade, she would do many more drafts.

The script eventually landed at Amblin Entertainment, where Steven Spielberg expressed interest, as did his then-executives Kathleen Kennedy and her husband Frank Marshall.

“Spielberg began to develop it,” Swicord recalls, noting that the filmmaker considered Tom Cruise as the lead and even held a table reading at his home. But when Cruise dropped out and Spielberg went off to do “Hook” and “Jurassic Park” — sparking a furious memo from Stark, demanding to know if Spielberg was going to do “that dinosaur picture” instead — the project landed with Kennedy and Marshall, who never let go.

The pair took “Button” to Paramount when they made their first producing deal in 1992.

“(Kennedy) had a real passion,” says Powell. “She kept it alive even when Ray couldn’t do it any more.”

Stark died in 2004, but Kennedy stayed with the movie. Along the way, other directors came and went like some of the characters in the picture itself — from Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa”) to Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) to Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”).

Eventually, Swicord exited the movie over creative issues with Paramount. Other writers tried to tackle the story, including Oscar winners Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) and Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), but it was not until Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning writer of “Forrest Gump,” reconceived the project that “Button” once again came back to life.

“My goal was to talk about the shape of a man’s life, which has this odd distinction of going backward,” he says. “How would that affect him? The conclusion was that it is about the quality of life one leads, going forward or backward.”

It was Roth’s script that hooked director David Fincher. Fincher had read Swicord’s script in the early 1990s, but was not then at a point in his career where he could be considered for such an ambitious movie. By 2002, all that had changed. Even so, with movies like “Fight Club” to his name, Fincher seemed unlikely for a romantic love story.

“From my body of work I wasn’t the most obvious choice,” he admits.

But Fincher brought one crucially important element to the project: Where other directors had wanted to use several actors to play the lead at various ages, Fincher believed one could do it alone. The former visual effects artist showed Paramount how the story could work with one star and characters aged over decades using digital effects.

“They couldn’t understand how we would accomplish the aging, so we did a test in about five weeks and we showed them,” he remembers.

“When David Fincher came in and knew how to do this with the technology, that was really a breakthrough,” Kennedy acknowledges. “When you are dealing with a story that’s this emotional, it’s very difficult to change actors.”

Executives at Paramount still had issues — the biggest of which was the projected budget, well over $150 million.

“When we priced out the whole movie,” says Fincher, “it was too high.”

For a while, Fincher exited the project, frustrated by budget restrictions. But he agreed to return when Brad Pitt signed on and wanted to reteam with his “Fight Club” and “Seven” director. Now, however, there was another hitch: Fincher had agreed to make “Zodiac” for Warners — the very studio where “Button” was first mooted.

But when Warners and Paramount agreed to split the cost of both films — and even agreed to shoot “Zodiac” first so that Pitt could make “Babel” — it seemed as if the movie would finally get made. Paramount even stayed committed when studio chief Sherry Lansing was replaced by Brad Grey.

Both studios wanted to bring down the budget, then at $180 million. That meant considering a shoot in Louisiana, where they could benefit from a tax rebate worth just over $27 million.

“We had money issues,” says Cean Chaffin, Fincher’s longtime producing partner. “We discussed the rebate in Louisiana and, lucky for us, the location made the movie better.” Pitt, she says, “was a big advocate of the switch (to Louisiana). All of us were.”

And then disaster struck: Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in August 2005.

“When Katrina hit, we wondered if we could continue to shoot in New Orleans,” says Kennedy. “And the city officials called us two or three days after the hurricane and asked us to stay involved. They recognized they needed projects like ‘Benjamin Button’ to come into the city and create jobs.”

Katrina woes inflated the budget by about $3 million, Chaffin says, but they pushed ahead.

Another hitch delayed shooting, when a production services company doing the complicated makeup effects went bankrupt, leaving some crew members owed back pay. But on November 6, 2006, the shoot at last got under way, and 148 days later, the images had been captured on a hard drive.

“This is a movie that had a real difficult time getting off the ground because it was expensive, it’s a drama, it’s about death,” Fincher says. “It’s one of those things where if it doesn’t have a group of people behind it, and everybody down to the set decorators and Teamsters are enthusiastic about being part of it, it would not have been possible to make it.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

A scene from the film "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". REUTERS/Paramount Pictures/Handout

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