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An Incredibly Close Screening

I knew all those years of sitting in darkened theaters on sunny afternoons, awash in movies new and old, stale popcorn and gallons of diet soda, would pay off some day. For one, there was the woman I met in 1975 at the late, lamented Carnegie Hall Cinema during a Mel Brooks double feature. She came and sat next to me when a guy kept bothering her during Blazing Saddles and we wound up dating –until she lit out for a career in the hinterlands, acting in summer stock.

But as lovely as she was, that’s not the payoff I mean. All that time reading about and watching movies didn’t just prepare me for romance, or Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit, if it comes to that. (Quick—the address of Charles Foster Kane’s love nest with Susan Alexander? 185 West 74th Street.)

What it did ready me for is one of my favorite things, interviewing screenwriters about their work. In my various capacities at the Writers Guild of America, East, I’ve had the opportunity over the last decade and a half to talk with many of them, in private for articles or video archives, and in public, in front of an audience, at screenings of their films. Sometimes the director and one or two of the actors come, too.

This has led to some odd experiences: like dealing with the emotionally fragile starlet who recently had gone through a very public break-up. I had to gently coax her out of her limo and into the screening because she was afraid of the paparazzi, who were covering a premiere at the theater next door. They didn’t notice.

Or the time the writer knelt next to me during his film and frantically whispered that an entire reel had been skipped, the next to last one. We let everyone see it when the movie was over but discovered that the hapless projectionist had been showing it that way — to critics — for weeks. The film opened and closed very quickly.

There was the incomprehensible interview with Jean-Luc Godard, which was not because my French was worse than his English, or vice versa, but simply because he’s Jean-Luc Godard; and the Q & A with British writer and director Mike Leigh — my first question triggered a rapid-fire, twenty-minute monologue that was impossible to interrupt. Because he covered virtually every one of my prepared questions, it wasn’t so bad. By the time he had worn himself out, we were ready for questions from the audience.

But one of the most unusual interviews took place just last month, a week or so before Christmas. I was scheduled to introduce a screening of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and talk afterwards with the author of its screenplay, Eric Roth, whose other credits include Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

When I arrived at the theater, a representative from Warner Brothers let me know that the film’s director, Stephen Daldry, would be joining us as well. I had to pretty much toss the interview I’d prepared — most of my questions were about Eric’s work and screenwriting in general — but it would be okay. Stephen and I had met several years ago when he was promoting his movie The Hours and I was interviewing its screenwriter, David Hare.

If you haven’t heard by now, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, is a tough movie to watch, especially if you’re a New Yorker who was here on 9/11. But in my opinion, it’s well worth it; the engaging, entertaining and powerful story of an emotionally troubled Asperger’s kid who seeks to reconnect with the father he lost at the World Trade Center. The boy travels across the city trying to solve the riddle of a mysterious key he finds in his father’s closet a year after the attacks.

The film ended and there was applause, which doesn’t always happen at these things; we are, after all, jaded, Manhattan media sophisticates. The lights came up, I introduced Eric and Stephen and started to ask my first question.

Stephen interrupted (he’s a director). “I’d like to know what people think about the film. We’ve only just finished it and only shown it to a handful of audiences, so I’d like to know what you think.”

Silence.

I think we’re all experiencing a bit of shellshock, I said. Most of us were here on 9/11. Ten years later, it’s still kind of raw. Stephen repeated his question – what did you think?

Slowly, people began to respond, positively for the most part but in each of us the film triggered memories. People had friends in the buildings. A man who worked as an extra in the film — you see a split-second shot of him in a Batman costume — had a job in wire transfers at Bank of America. He worked the night shift at the Trade Center and left just minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower. He’s still suffering from survivor guilt.

For me, it was a moment toward the end of the film when the boy, Oskar (an incredible performance by young, first-time actor Thomas Horn), visits an office downtown in the middle of the night. Security takes his photo and prints out a building ID. That would seem innocuous to most, but I remembered an evening about a week and a half after what Oskar calls “the worst day.” George Bush was addressing a joint session of Congress.

My then wife and I were burning candles to cover the smell from Ground Zero, which had shifted that rainy night from an odor of burning electrical cables and melted metal to something more feral and decaying. As we listened to Bush and I made dinner, she sat and sorted through a basket of odds and ends, then handed me something: a security ID with my picture — like Oskar’s — but taken the last time I had gone to the World Trade Center for a meeting.

The rest of my interview with Stephen and Eric went like that. I got a couple of my original questions in, but the evening had turned into a group therapy session, and that was fine. As Daldry recently said in the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a loss that’s very public and one that everyone has very rich stories about. One has to be responsible to the original author’s book… and you have to be aware of the truth of the reality of what happened to thousands of people who lost loved ones.

I heard a new ad for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on the radio this morning, its pitch apparently readjusted, aimed at those averse to a movie about the Trade Center calamity. It’s “not about 9/11,” the spot’s announcer declared, “but every day after.”

Nice try. The question is, as Stephen told the Times, “Is it time? Can we start to tell these stories yet or is it too early?” The film opens nationally on January 20. Spend a couple of hours in a darkened movie theater and find out what you think.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild, East, is senior writer on the new public television series Moyers & Company, premiering this month. Go to www.BillMoyers.com.

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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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