Stephen Daldry is an award-winning director of both stage and screen. His films include Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader. On stage he directed Billy Elliot the Musical, An Inspector Calls and Search and Destroy.
His new movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer of the same name, spotlight the events of 9/11. The story is seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child named Oskar (Thomas Horn), who’s father Thomas (Tom Hanks) is killed on that fateful day. When the boy discovers a key in Thomas’ possessions, he goes on a quest throughout the city to discover what it unlocks.
What was it about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book that intrigued you?
I found it truly compelling that he told this story not only from the perspective of a boy enduring unimaginable heartbreak, but a boy who has his own singular view of everything. It’s a perspective that is engaging, inventive and emotionally rich.
What research did you do for the movie?
I started talking to a lot of different specialists, including therapists who work with children who have lost parents. I wanted to better understand the process kids like Oskar went through in the days, months and years after 9/11 – how they began to heal, or sometimes not.
That process of learning went hand-in-hand with the development of the script. At the same time, we also consulted with experts on the autistic spectrum and Asperger’s Syndrome which Oskar is tested for, inconclusively.
Where did you find the balance between an accurate depiction of 9/11 and backing away from aspects of that day?
To be honest, we trusted our own instincts about what we felt was appropriate and what we felt wasn’t appropriate, and what I felt I could shoot and what I didn’t want to show.
Every time we went to that day, ‘The Worst Day’ as Oskar would say, I was very conscious of the choices we were making.
We could have seen Tom Hanks on the other end of that phone call, but I just couldn’t stand seeing Tom Hanks in that context.
You’ve worked with younger actors before, noticeably Jamie Bell in Billy Elliot can you talk about the casting of Thomas Horn?
I think we were all aware that the film rests on the shoulders of whoever played Oskar, and we did audition all over North America and in Europe, We were lucky to find Thomas.
I was very aware that the film couldn’t go ahead unless we found the right kid.
Thomas is fantastic. He’s 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’s no loss in Thomas’ life, his parents are fantastic and supportive human beings.
To go on that journey of finding out what is special about the character that I did with Thomas, and a number of different experts to help us out, was fantastic.
Thomas is the brightest, the most determined, the most courageous actor I think you could possibly hope to work with, and has a huge emotional life that is astonishing.
What was it about Tom Hanks that made you feel he was right for the role of Oskar’s father?
We thought in terms of Oskar’s memories of Thomas as the perfect dad… well, who else could that be but Tom Hanks? Tom took that responsibility to heart and created a real bond with Thomas Horn that was evident to everybody on the set.
They were absolutely charming together, which was great for me as a filmmaker, because they created this dynamic relationship and all I had to do was shoot it. It was an act of real dedication by an extraordinary actor and collaborator.
Obviously New York is a strong character in this.
The New York of this film is a child’s New York. We tried to highlight the nooks and crannies of the city that a child would go through rather than the main thoroughfares.
We really tried to look at Oskar’s version of the city. It’s not about the obvious places that people associate with New York, but more of what a child might see, and what a child reacts to.
Was this an intimidating project for you?
It’s a big question that has many layers to it. You have the responsibility to Jonathan’s book, and you have responsibility to talk about a subject which is going to 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 invented, but there are 3,000 children who are alive and walking around the city now whose parents did die on 9/11.
So to take on board that responsibility, the only thing you can do is to do what we did, which was to do as much research as you possibly can, and try to represent in making up a story the experience that people really did go through.
And we’re talking about traumatic loss in an extremely traumatic situation. It’s bound to be distressing to us to make it, and it’s bound to be distressing for people to watch it, and the people that were involved directly I can only hope and pray that we are telling a story as honestly as we can.