“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” tells the story of a highly intelligent but socially awkward and neurotic 11-year-old boy in New York City named Oskar Schell (played by Thomas Horn, in his first professional acting role) who finds a mysterious key left behind by his father, Thomas Schell (played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks), who died in the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Oskar, who is an only child and who was very close to his father, then goes on a mission to find out where his father got the key and what the key will open — all while keeping his quest a secret from his grieving mother, Linda Schell (played by Oscar winner Sandra Bullock).
Eventually, Oskar confides in a mute, elderly man (played by Max von Sydow) who is renting a room from Oskar’s paternal grandmother (played by Zoe Caldwell). It isn’t long before Oskar and the silent old man (known in the movie only as The Renter) become unlikely travel companions as they go all over the city to try to solve the mystery of the key. The movie, however, is less a mystery story than it is a heart-tugging drama about how a family copes with the aftermath and tragedy of the 9/11 terrorists attacks one year after the attacks. Bullock, von Sydow, Horn, director Stephen Daldry and Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth sat down together at an “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” press conference in New York City to talk about what they wanted to accomplish with this movie and how this story deeply affected them.
Eric, when you read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” what did you feel was going to be your greatest challenge in adapting it into a movie screenplay? What was your solution?
Roth: I think the greatest challenge was somehow to control the emotion of it. Obviously, it’s a personal story, and it’s the horribleness of 9/11. One was to tame it, in a sense, but I just want to say that it didn’t start with me, this particular project. It started with the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, who had the idea, obviously. All credit goes to him.
And I think the movie captured more than essence of the reflection of what the book was, so my job was just to stay in harness of what was there, because it’s kind of a post-modern, very sprawling in imagery … I think it was to make this a personal story and hope to reflect on everybody’s sense of loss or whatever it is in their life and the grief they have to go through.
How intimidated were you to take on this project?
Daldry: Thomas, where you intimidated?
Horn: No. Everybody was really nice to me, and everybody really made me feel at home on set and during rehearsals. Stephen [Daldry] was really sensitive and great and would always give me tips on what I could do better, would always give me suggestions whenever I was doing something wrong. All of my fellow co-actors were really, really amazing, both as actors and personally, they were really nice.
They made me feel really comfortable on set. I mean, they could have looked down on me, considering what wonderful, wonderful actors they are. They’re so much better than I am in every way, but they didn’t [look down on me]. They were really nice, and they always made me feel comfortable. So I never felt intimidated at all.
Daldry: It’s a big question, and you have many layers to it. You have a responsibility — as Eric said — to Jonathan’s book and you have a responsibility to talk about a subject that is going to be, whether it’s contentious or not, it’s going t bring up a huge, emotional response from people. A lot of people will say they are ready or they’re not ready.
This is a made-up story about a family that Jonathan wrote. He invented it, but there are 3,000 children who are alive and walking around the city now whose parents did die in 9/11. So to take on all that responsibility, the only thing you can do is do what we did: do as much research as you possibly can, talk to be people and try to represent. In making up a story, be observant of the people who did go through [it].
We’re talking about traumatic loss, an extreme traumatic situation. And it’s bound to be distressing to us to make it. And it’s bound to be distressing for people to watch it. And for the people who were involved directly, I can only hope and pray that we are telling a story as honestly as we can.
A recent screening of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” in New York City turned into a therapy session, with people weeping, etc. What did you think about that kind of reaction?
Roth: It was certainly different from anything I ever experienced. You wouldn’t have had it happen like that in Los Angeles. And they embraced the movie. I’m as happy it can be that way. Stephen asked [the audience at the New York City screening] what they thought of the movie, and people just started talking about … their 9/11 experiences.
For an hour, people talked about things. Some people said they had never said [these] things in public] before. Particularly moving was a man — he worked the night shift, I guess — and he got off work at 8:30 [a.m.], and he left that floor [of the World Trade Center], fortunately. It was pretty shattering, but it was very cathartic. And I think it was not the reason we made the movie, per se, but it’s certainly a wonderful by-product if people can use it that way for themselves.
Sandra, you were the first artist to bring a movie to New York City after 9/11. Did it take a lot of convincing for you to do “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”? Did doing this movie bring you any closure about 9/11?
Bullock: Yes, “Two Weeks Notice,” we came here after 9/11. And it was brilliant. Brilliant. I’m so glad we did. Second, it was a no-brainer [to do “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”], in the sense that I’d always wanted to work with Stephen, especially after I saw “The Reader.” I was just completely blown away.
And I didn’t necessarily want to work at that time that I was approached, but once Stephen came to me home and wouldn’t leave … [She laughs] No, he came to my home, and we talked about the [Linda Schell] character and what we thought she was and what she wasn’t, because in the book, I loved how she was basically just regarded as “mother.” She was not given a life, and I love that, because it was through the child’s point of view, and quite often we as children don’t appreciate our parents the way we should.
The way that the story was told through the eyes of Oskar — and Thomas [Horn], subsequently — allowed me and I think so many people to grieve the event. I don’t think that we, as adults, allow people to grieve. I think it’s so important. When they were explaining what it sounded like at [that New York City screening], people needed to talk about it. They should be allowed to talk about it.
Thomas has this great scene where he just talks and talks and talks about these events. And Mr. von Sydow [as the Renter] listens. There will never be closure for me and so many people. I was there. I saw it. I saw the second plane.
I saw people helping people. And that, to me, is what resonates about the city of New York. I saw within a second the entire city come together and help each other in a way that they hadn’t the day before. Hadn’t thought about it, but they didn’t question it when it happens. So I have so many memories and emotions of it. Some, they still don’t register, because your mind doesn’t let you register why someone would do that [commit a terrorist attack].
So in a good way, I hope that vibrancy of what happened doesn’t ever leave me, because it made me aware of so many things I wasn’t aware of before. So no closure, but in a good way. And as long as everyone can talk about it and grieve, I think that’s what this story is: the allowance to talk about the events that have happened in your life that you should be able to grieve.
Where were you when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened?
Bullock: I’m not going to advertise the hotel, but I had a full view of both towers.
Sandra, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” is your first movie since you won an Oscar for “The Blind Side.” Were you really thinking of quitting acting and focusing more on producing movies?
Bullock: I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just so happy being a mom. I’m still happy being a mom. That just shifted and became my full priority. I was so good there, and still am very good there, but whatever next opportunity I was given had to be an amazing opportunity for myself and my son. So we had a great time. It was no longer “selfish actress having a moment.” I wanted to have an amazing time with him and myself. Fortunately, Mr. Daldry presented it. In every possible way, it was the best.
Did you discover any favorite parts of New York as a result of doing “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”?
Daldry: I know the city quite well, but making the film became another journey around the city, around the different five boroughs. I am now, I can say, a total expert. I can actually do tours of Central Park.
But the area that I didn’t know was the Rockaways. And since we filmed there, I keep going back. I think the beaches are fantastic. The people are fantastic. I think it’s a whole community out there that is so welcoming.
I love New York. It’s so diverse. It’s a city that you can rediscover a million different times, but the discovery of the Rockaways is a place I would like to buy a house in. It was just great.
Horn: Before I filmed this movie, I hadn’t been to New York — at least not within my conscious memory, but when I arrived here, I was really struck by how fascinating it was. I really didn’t expect to love it so much, but I really did grow to like it over the course of rehearsal and production. I didn’t know it before, but I basically got to see every part, from lower Manhattan (I lived there) to midtown, uptown Manhattan.
We did a lot of scenes in Brooklyn, especially in the neighborhood of Bushwick, which I found very interesting. They had lots of interesting Hispanic foods and culture and little streets that you would never think of. “Oh, here’s a factory, but behind it is a nice little row of townhouses with green trees.” And, as Stephen said, I thought the Rockaways were pretty quirky and very interesting. We did a lot of filming there.
Daldry: What’s your favorite bit of New York?
Horn: I think it’s really hard to say, because it all fits together so well. There’s a neighborhood for everyone, a neighborhood of every type. And I really like that.
Sandra, what are memories of the first time you explored New York?
Bullock: My father was a teacher here. We’d go back and forth to D.C., and my mother sang opera here. So we were always on the trains coming to New York.
My first memory was my mom took me to see “All That Jazz” on Broadway. And at that moment, I knew I wanted to be a dancer. Did I become a dancer? No. I’m a big girl. But one of my greatest passions when I saw “All That Jazz” and I saw the live performances, because all I had seen was opera. It’s always where we went.
We had a tiny little studio apartment with a kitchen in the closet. You slept on floors in fold-out beds and couches. As Thomas said, there’s something for everybody. You never feel out-of-place in New York City. That’s a fact, unless you’re a really poorly dressed tourist, with the black socks and the sandals. I think for anyone, no one should wear polyester black socks and sandals. That should be outlawed, nor just in New York City, but everywhere.
Mr. von Sydow how difficult was it for you to play a character that doesn’t speak in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”?
von Sydow: The Renter is like everybody else. He communicates, but he communicates in his own way. He speaks but he doesn’t talk. It’s an interesting variety. It’s not that different from any normal parts that speak. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a challenge, in a way. But what do you do as an actor? You try to imagine what is going on in this person’s mind, and you react to what is going on around you.
I didn’t feel that it was very much different. I was very taken by the script when I read it — extremely moved, which doesn’t happen that often, I’m sorry to say. I wanted immediately to be a part of it — particularly when I was told that Stephen was going to direct it, whom I had admired.
Was doing this role easier because you didn’t have to learn any lines?
von Sydow: [He laughs.] Well, it’s not a matter of learning lines. It’s a matter of getting into the ideas and the will of the person. It’s a matter of, “What does he want to do? What does he want to achieve?” And all that is inside The Renter, even though he doesn’t talk very much. I enjoyed it very much. It was a very enjoyable experience. And I’m happy to be a part of this.
Thomas, do you think kids you know should see “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”?
Horn: I don’t think they would see it if I wasn’t in it, because it’s not that sort of film that people my age would really enjoy, partly because we’re on the West Coast and we’re young. We don’t really remember 9/11 that much.
But I think they will, just because I think they will be very, very interested. And of course, even though we don’t remember 9/11 personally, we still know that it’s had a major effect on our country and the world, especially the way people in other countries see the U.S. and vice versa.
Daldry: Are you taught it in school?
Horn: 9/11? We’ve had discussions on it. It’s not in textbooks.
Daldry: It’s not in the curriculum. I think it should be.
Stephen, where did you find the balance between an accurate depiction of the 9/11 aftermath and being too heavy-handed with the drama?
Daldry: In the end, to be honest, we trusted our own instincts about what we felt was appropriate and what was not appropriate and things like what I want and what I could shoot and what I didn’t want to show. We actually had a whole discussion about whether we wanted to see the [Twin] Towers at all.
And then, in the end, that came down to a location issue, because we found the location for Sandy’s office. And the old glass just refracted the image enough that I could take it. But I didn’t want to see it without that glass.
So every time we went to that day, “the Worst Day,” as Oskar would say, I was very conscious of the choices we were making. I mean, there was a lot of choices we could have made. We could have seen Tom Hanks on the other end of that phone call. I just couldn’t stand the idea. I love Tom Hanks, but not on that context.
How much of a challenge was it for you to recreate the burning Twin Towers?
Daldry: In terms of the CGI? The view from that office is the view from that office. It’s exactly correct. In other words, that office, one of the reasons we chose it was because all we had to do was recreate what was there on the day. We didn’t have to imagine something else.
It was just actually what you would see outside the window on that day, and there were lots of photographic images from that office of that day. So in that sense … I didn’t want to make it up. I wanted to have a view that was real.
There is a memorable scene in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” when Thomas and Oskar Schell recite oxymorons to each other. Did Thomas have any special help on shooting that scene?
Roth: The oxymorons are from the book and whatever I chose.
Horn: Acting with Tom Hanks was an experience in itself. He’s such an amazing actor and really a kind, nice person, but our characters have a really special relationship because Oskar’s dad is 95 percent of his focus in the world. He doesn’t really have any friends at school (unlike myself) and he’s afraid of many things. He’s afraid of machinery or things that could be loud or dangerous, like bridges or trains or tunnels.
But he’s also afraid of people — everyone except his dad, before his dad dies is not able to be trusted, is scary. The only person he can trust is his dad, so most of the energy in his whole life is directed at his dad. So it’s a very, very special, very meaningful, very deep relationship.
But that specific oxymoron scene was a lot of fun to film. The oxymorons weren’t bad. I just thought of how Oskar might do it if he were playing a little game with his dad. And the oxymorons were all prepared for us. And we did it the best we could.
Daldry: But we put the Taekwondo in [the movie], because you do Taekwondo [in real life], don’t you?
Horn: I actually I do Shaolin Ch’uan Fa. And the scene there has nothing to do with the actual martial art I do or any moves from it. We just decided that it would look kind of cool.
Daldry: We did.
Sandra, can you talk about allowing men to grieve in the story of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”?
Bullock: I don’t think we allow that in life or on film. And I think, again, it goes back to what this story is about: honoring people’s grief and allowing them to have it. “Honoring it,” is I think a good way to say it, because it’s something that is part of who we are as human beings. Even animals get it, but we get on such a profound, vocal, articulate level. We’re given that gift, and yet it’s completely squelched, especially for men, and I think it’s so unfair.
We women are expected to drop and grieve, but I loved what it showed: the two generations in pain and showed that and how they healed each other by listening and talking. Like he said, he communicated, and through that there was healing. And it’s such a beautiful part of this story the way Eric wrote it and the way Jonathan wrote the book and the way Stephen [directed it]. It’s cathartic, I think.
Stephen, can you talk about how you cast Thomas Horn in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”?
Daldry: Let’s ask Thomas first. How did this all come about for you? How come you’re in this movie?
Horn: Well, it’s not a typical casting process. What happened to me was about two years ago, I was watching an episode of “Jeopardy!” And during the commercial break, they were offering online tests for “Kids Jeopardy!” And my family thought, “You know what? Thomas knows some trivia. Maybe he’d do OK there.” So I took this online test, and they called me back a few months later for a quick audition in L.A.
And a few months after that, I was surprised to find that I had been invited for a taping. And an episode aired in July 2010. And from what I heard, someone in production high up in the formation of the new movie, they saw me and thought I would be good to audition along with many, many other kids for the role.
So they sent me material to make a tape. And of course, I knew nothing about the film and entertainment industry at all. I was just a total newcomer. But I thought, “You know what? What do I have to lose by sending in this tape? I might as well try it.”
So I did my best to make the material into a little tape, and I sent it out. And for two months, I didn’t hear a thing. I thought, “OK, they didn’t like me. That’s fine.” And so I went on with my life.
But after that, they called me up and said, “Oh, would you like to come to an audition in New York?” I was surprised. I didn’t think I would even get that far. So they paid our plane ticket, we flew to New York, and I did a five- or six-day audition with five or six other kids.
It was really nerve-racking — not even necessarily [because] I wouldn’t get the part, but the atmosphere in that room was just so charged and anxious. It was a bit stressful. But I went home after that, and it was all OK. And a month after that, Stephen called me up personally and told me I got the role.
Thomas, do you want to continue to be an actor?
Horn: Here’s what I think: I think I had a really great experience so far in the film acting. I understand that not all experiences — in fact, most experiences for most actors — I’ve heard aren’t like this, which I can understand, because I’m working with the best of the best here. And I can’t expect that.
But what I’m going at is that I want a career that has multiple disciplines and many options in it. And that means probably having multiple skills. I want to continue with my studies and go on to a good college and learn something practical, like computer science or hydrology or something like that — the study of the water cycle and how we can manage that, because I think water is a big issue.
And I think anyone’s life could be better if they could do multiple things, because you have options to do if one thing goes dry, and you have opportunities in many areas. But I think definitely, if I get another opportunity in the entertainment industry, that has a good script just like this one and a good director and other great actors that I’d like to work with, then I’d seriously consider that.
Stephen, it might be obvious, but why did you cast Thomas Horn?
Daldry: I already told Thomas this. It’s probably a little bit embarrassing for you, Thomas, but I’ll say it anyway. I think we were all aware that the film rests on the shoulders of whoever plays Oskar. And we did auditions all over North America and in Europe. We wee lucky to find Thomas. But I think I was very aware that the film couldn’t go ahead unless we found the right kid … We were all very aware of that.
And we did have that very long five-day audition. And the reason why there was a month delay was I took Thomas’ tape, and I went to Warner Bros., and I sat down with [Warner Bros. Pictures Group president] Jeff Robinov and everybody at Warners. And I said, “OK, guys, if we’re going to do this, it’s going to work or not work based on what Thomas is going to do. Here’s the tape, let’s all sit ‘round, and are we going to buy into this? I’m not going to go ahead unless you absolutely all agree that this is absolutely the perfect actor for the role.” Warners has been fantastic all the way through, but they were particularly fantastic at that point in saying, “Yes, we agree. Go ahead. Thomas is fantastic.”
And Thomas is fantastic. Thomas is very unlike the character in the story. And that’s part of Thomas’ brilliance that he can portray Oskar in the way that he does. There is no loss in Thomas’ life. [He says to Horn] Your parents are fantastic, wonderful and supportive human beings.
And to go on that journey of finding what’s special about the character that I did with Thomas (and had a number of different experts to help us out) was fantastic. And Thomas is the brightest, most determined, most courageous actor that you could possibly hope to work with. And [he] has a huge emotional life that is astonishing. It was astonishing to me …
Who knew? I didn’t until we started that audition process. And so we were blessed. We were blessed with Thomas. And there were many reasons to cast Tom and Sandy. One of them was to surround Thomas with not just an amazing cast but amazing people, supportive, brilliant, wonderful human beings. [It] was always going to be part of the package to me to make sure we could go to the places that we needed to go to. And we did.
Sandra and Max, could you comment on Thomas Horn?
von Sydow: I didn’t know anything when I got the offer. And my first thought was, “Oh, I hope they have a good boy for this, because it is certainly his movie. It is his story.” And we came over to do some tests, and met Thomas, and was very impressed by what he showed. [He says to Horn] It’s been a great pleasure to work with you, as I have told you before and as you know. It’s remarkable what you have been doing.
Horn: Thank you.
Bullock: I mirror that sentiment 100 percent. You feel maternal to whatever child you’re working with. I’ve played moms before, but they’d always been in a lighter context, something that was very sparkly and “she’s the perfect mom” and “everything’s OK.” There’s conflict, but not depth like this. As an actor and as someone who needed to love him in that way and be frustrated by him was so easy. It helped me do my job.
And it helped me be frustrated and angry and hurt. And I just loved building a relationship and character with Thomas. And I said, “Wow, I’m doing this with someone who’s not even a teenager yet.” And his depth and his level and his commitment [were] just exciting— because you worry.
They say don’t work with dogs and children. I always seem to work with dogs and children. But I love it. And I loved this experience with him. And it made me a better actor playing opposite him. Truly.
For more info: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” website
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