Sunday, February 18, 2007

Interview with the Patersons

My interview with the mother-son team behind "Bridge to Terabithia" is in today's Chicago Tribune. Here's a slightly longer version:

“Bridge to Terabithia,” opening on February 16, was adapted by David Paterson from the Newberry Award-winning book written 30 years ago by his mother, Katherine Paterson. It is the story of best friends Jesse, a quiet boy who loves to draw, and Leslie, a girl who is a gifted writer, and the imaginary land they create together called Terabithia. In telephone interviews, mother and son talked about the book and the movie and the loss that inspired them both.

Where did the story come from and why has it had such enduring appeal?

KP: When David was 7 and then 8 years old his best friend was a wonderful imaginative tomboy of a girl named Lisa Hill. A great tragedy occurred, and she was killed in an accident. I wanted to write the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that didn’t make any sense. I wanted it to be fiction, so I changed the ages and setting and parents. But it did grow out of David’s friendship with Lisa.

DP: Lisa was a gift to me. The movie is about the gift of friendship and the gift of imagination. That is something all children have, sometimes as adults we try to tuck away some of that, but it is there. I set out to make a movie that honored my mother and my best friend and I’ve done that. Why this book does so well over time is my mother has incredible grasp on some of the most basic emotions and weaknesses and strengths of young kids. Even adults remember that bully, that first crush, the fight with the father. Everyone has been in one or two of those situations. My mother wrote her hopes, fears, and confusions in her characters. In the end, Jesse is still a cool guy even though he doesn’t know it.

Does the movie’s Terabithia look the way you imagined?

KP: Of course not! It’s never going to be the way I imagined it. Every reader imagines uniquely. But that enriches it for me. I love the sharing of visions. It’s enormously collaborative. It was (co-screenwriter) Jeff Stockwell’s idea to tie it so closely to other events in the story, so the fantasy life is not that removed from their real life.

DP: Everyone has an interior director, designer, filmmaker in every book you read, so we have to deal with everyone’s individual imaginary movie version. Jeff Stockwell had no guilt about adding to my mother’s work. We welcomed his introduction of Terabithia to the rest of us, especially the way he legitimized the magical creatures in some form in real life. That showed that Jesse and Leslie still have their troubles in the back of their minds, even when they create a fantasy to get away from them.

One of the book’s great strengths is the way it allows Jesse to work through many of the genuine feelings of loss, many of which are not the kind of pure and selfless feelings we’d be proud of. How do you translate this kind of internal material to screen?

DP: That is the challenge. My mother’s book is very powerful, but it’s also very dangerous material to translate because so much of it takes place in Jesse’s head. He can’t turn to the audience and say, “This is what I am thinking.” The writer and producer can only take it so far. In the end, it’s the talent of the actors. Josh (Hutcherson) and AnnaSophia (Robb) added five times more than their lines of dialogue through the quality of their performances.

KP: Earlier, I was involved in adapting the book for the stage. How do you turn a book that takes place inside a boy’s head into a play? For the play we did it with music, but the movie’s not a musical. So much depends on eloquent acting where words are not spoken but feelings are expressed. You can really see that in the scene with Jesse and his father. Not much is said, but you can see how they feel.

Any religious material is highly sensitive these days. Why was it important to include in the story the children’s conversation about whether Leslie would go to heaven even though she did not share Jesse’s family’s beliefs?

KP: Because kids have these fears. They’re often not able to express them because they think they’re not okay to have. We do that to kids -- we don’t want them to feel bad or afraid. But that closes them down and makes it harder. David did say to me, “Lisa died because I was bad.” As adults, we get so wrapped up in our own grief, we say they’ll get over it, but how many of us get over it?

DP: A lot of people today curtail some questions from children to avoid going down the rapids that might upset the boat. These are not kids judging religion; they’re just wondering what’s true. It’s just three kids talking about this issue as they would about anything else. People read a lot of things into it. It’s not a Christian story and there was no agenda. It’s a great scene, showing kids questioning authority, religion, pretty much anything. In the end, there’s Jesse with the big question: Why? My mother sometimes has more questions than answers in her work, but that’s what life’s all about. It is good for kids to know that life is tough, bad things will come your way, and even the smartest people might not have the answer. That can actually be reassuring.

This is director Gabor Csupo’s first live-action film. His background is in animation, like Rugrats. Was that a difficult adjustment?

DP: I was terrified to have a first-time director, but what I didn’t count on or think about is that Gabor has made a hefty sum of money knowing what kids want. His working with the kids was like watching a well-oiled machine. He knew what to do, what to say to them, and the kids grew up with his stuff, so really related to him.

How did you feel when you got the news about the Newberry?

KP: I decided I would never have to mix another quart of dried skim milk, and I never have. I could afford to go out and buy fresh milk.

I’ll bet you still think of that when you buy milk.

KP: Every time. It still feels good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent interview, although I must say the son seems to take his mission verrry seriously.

Is this the ending you originally had planned? It doesn't seem quit up to your usual high standards.
--- a fan