Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Interview with Director Stephen Daldry

In 2005, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, already renowned for his blend of incisive comedy and tragedy in his debut novel “Everything Is Illuminated,” published his follow-up “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” His second novel was, on the one hand, the playful story of an unusually precocious and sensitive boy who invents fantastical devices, dreams about astrophysics, collects a vast assortment of random facts – and is compelled into a quixotic odyssey through the fabric of New York.  At the same time, the novel was the first major literary exploration into the grief of 9/11 families, and a study of how a child’s imagination helps him navigate overwhelming fear and unfathomable loss in the wake of events that no logic could possibly reconcile.



When director Stephen Daldry, a three-time Oscar-nominee for “The Reader,” “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot,” read the book, he was struck most of all by Oskar’s subjective point of view.  An unusual child with arrestingly high intelligence yet eccentric and obsessive behaviors that might put him on the autistic spectrum, Oskar describes the world around him with his own particular mix of naiveté and insight, nervousness and boldness, incomprehension and a need to understand.



Most of all, Daldry was intrigued by how this POV, just like a child’s imagination, combined random thoughts, flashes of memory, lists of ideas and impromptu fantasies with pure emotion – all at a moment when life has irrevocably changed for Oskar’s family and the world around him.



“I found it truly compelling that Jonathan Safran Foer 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,” says Daldry.  “It’s a perspective that is engaging, inventive and emotionally rich.”



Daldry was also compelled to learn more about the very specific trauma experienced by the 3000 children who lost parents on 9/11, and their struggle for resilience.  He sought the counsel of a number of experts, as well as the organization Tuesday’s Children, a non-profit founded by families and friends of 9/11 victims to address the unique and on-going challenges of those whose loved ones died in the terrorist attacks.  He learned that for many kids like Oskar, the suddennes, enormity and public nature of the event left a sense of helplessness over their already profound grief.



“I started talking to a lot of different specialists, including therapists who work with children who have lost parents,” says Daldry.  “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.”



Oskar’s very personal experience of September 11, and what came after, was brought to the fore in a screenplay adaptation by Eric Roth, who wanted to be true to the distinctive immediacy of Foer’s novel.  “It’s a very emotional book and I hope it is a very emotional movie,” says Roth.  “There’s also a real kinetic energy to the book – and the challenge was to translate that into visual imagery.”



The book wove many themes–of individual and national trauma, of childhood’s strangeness, of the nature of tragedy and the endurance of love through family hardship–into its tapestry.  Each of those themes was key to the story-telling, but Roth found his way in through one particular element:  the relationship between Oskar and his father Thomas who is seen in the film entirely through Oskar’s subjective memories, which are in turn fueled by a confusing mixture of love, loss and lingering questions.



Oskar deeply misses his father’s so-called “reconnaissance expeditions,” clever puzzles that Thomas created for Oskar to solve, not only as inspired father-son games but also to help him engage with the world despite his social awkwardness.  So when he finds the mysterious key in the bottom of a vase hidden in the dark recesses of his father’s closet, Oskar propels himself into a new mission to ferret out the key’s meaning.



His only clue to the key’s potential origins is the name “Black,” written on the envelope in which he found it, so Oskar dutifully makes an ambitious plan to visit all 472 people named Black in the New York City phone books, even though, according to the math, it will take him three years to do so. He meticulously charts his course, turning a map of the city into a perfectly plotted grid, set his ground rules and starts out on foot because there could still be a risk of attack on a bus or subway.



Like many kids with gifted intelligence, high sensory sensitivity and impaired social skills, Oskar thrives on schedules, rules and facts yet his search takes him far from the predictable and the comfortable. But no matter what obstacles stand in his way, Oskar is determined to complete his task.



“Oskar is a kid who is different, but in a wonderful way,” notes Roth.  “He might have a form of Asperger’s but he also has a great imagination and a real sense of curiosity along with his many fears. For a long time, he was kept afloat very much by his father who enjoyed so many similar things.  So now, when Oskar finds his father’s key a year after his death, he believes it has to unlock something – a piece of advice, an object, some wisdom that his father left for him.  And it leads him on an adventure that is his way of coming to terms with grief and all sorts of other things.”



As Roth began compacting Foer’s wide-ranging plot and finding the cinematic structure, he found Foer to be a supportive resource.  “Jonathan is a wonderful novelist but my ability is to be a good dramatist and bring the work alive on the screen.  He really trusted me in that process and we developed a very close and collaborative relationship.”



Adds Stephen Daldry:  “Jonathan really understands the difference between a book and a script, and was very helpful.  He never once uttered the phrase, ‘Well, in the book…’ He was always open to interpretation and reinvention.”