Writing 25 Hours a Day: A Talk with Screenwriter David Benioff
by Joel Cunningham
David Benioff never expected that his book, The 25th Hour, would be made into a film, and he certainly didn't think that it would fall into the hands of a filmmaker as talented as Spike Lee. Though he's fairly busy these days writing screenplays for big-budget epics like Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, Benioff took the time to talk with digitallyOBSESSED about creative control and the difficulties of taking a novel from script to screen.
dOc: I'm interested in the film's production timeline. The book was first published in January 2001. When did Spike Lee become involved, and how far along was the script when 9/11 happened?
David Benioff: Tobey Maguire actually optioned the book before it was published in the spring of 2000, and so I started working on it that summer and there was a finished script by spring of 2001, and Spike became involved December 2001, and he was reading a script that had been written well before the attacks. When he decided he wanted to adapt it, he decided to include those elements. Most of it was really— Well, there aren't really that many actual dialogue moments that refer to the attacks, though there are a few, but a lot of it is visual, and was his decision to include shots of the American flags and the credit sequence with the towers of light and so forth. When he saw the script there was nothing in it about 9/11.
dOc: Some of those changes do seem to have a special resonance, but you've said it wasn't written that way. How do you think 9/11 changed the story thematically, or were those themes there and it sort of highlighted things already in the story?
DB: I think in the book there is a sense of having a nostalgia that Monty is about to leave behind, that the city is a character in the novel and the script, and on his final day of freedom he is saying goodbye to the people and the city he loves. And I think when Spike made his decision it was based on the fact that the city had changed so irrevocably on 9/11 and he felt it was appropriate to make that link. He made a very convincing case for it. When he first told me about it I wasn't sure it was a good idea, but certain directors and certain studios have decided to show New York and kind of ignore whatever happened there, digitally removing the towers and whatnot, and Spike felt that would be a cowardly way to go. The city had changed and to pretend it hadn't would be just ignoring the reality of it. He described it, and what I think he accomplished, is that it isn't a story about 9/11, but it is a story about New York and New Yorkers in the wake of 9/11, and everyone who is from New York or were there in the year after it happened knows that that was the overwhelming topic and that's what was on everyone's mind, and whether or not anyone you knew personally was killed, everyone's life was changed by it. I think he did a really nice job of getting that in without smacking you over the head with it.
dOc: You mentioned this a bit, and though, like you say, the film doesn't deal with the 9/11 issue outright, I think the studios were worried, after the attacks, about how they portrayed New York and a lot of movies were delayed. Was there any nervousness from the studio about the themes Spike decided to inject?
DB: The one thing they were really nervous about what I call the "F*** Monologue," right in the middle of the movie. From the beginning, from the screenplay on they were nervous about it. It's interesting, because most of that rant is taken from the novel but in the first scripts that I wrote I hadn't included the monologue. And when I met with Spike Lee, he said he really liked the book, but that I'd taken out a few of his favorite scenes when I adapted it. I said, "What was your favorite scene?" and he pointed to that monologue specifically.
And when Disney saw the script they were a little agitated and they didn't want him to film it. And understandably, I mean, it's the Walt Disney Company and it's a monologue where you are cursing out every ethnic group in the city pretty much. So he asked me to write a letter explaining why it was important to the movie and why it would hurt the movie to take it out. I don't know if anyone actually read the letter, but he ended up shooting the scenes and shooting the monologue and when they saw it they changed their minds and totally agreed that it worked. In this situation and several others. it was really great to be working with a director of such experience and willpower, because he willed it into being the way he wanted it to be.
dOc: That scene reminded me of another monologue in Do the Right Thing, a very signature Spike Lee moment.
DB: I remember where I was when I first had the idea for that section of the book. I was sitting in the classroom in Irvine, Ca. where I was teaching and I was trying to do something that would be as powerful as the "Yes" monologue from James Joyce in Ulysses. I felt that at that point in the book I hadn't really gotten into Monty's mind, to see what he was thinking and to show that to the reader, and I was looking for an extended monologue, and I decided to rip off the Joyceian thing and impart a rhythm to it using a specific word, and I was trying to think of what the word might be, and knowing his character and what he was going through at the time and all the anger in him I decided that f*** would be the word and I started riffing off of it.
dOc: Spike Lee is a very strong creative voice, and you had to give your material over to him. What was your working relationship like?
DB: Spike does what he believes is the right thing for the movie always, and he doesn't compromise. When I allowed the book to be optioned for a movie, my one fear was that they'd get someone else to write it or get a director who didn't know New York and it would be a Hollywood interpretation.
dOc: Shot in Toronto...
DB: Right. So when I found out I'd be working with Spike Lee I was ecstatic, and it felt very surreal because there is no director who is more a New York director. When you think of New York directors, you think Woody Allen, Scorsese, and Spike, and certainly Woody Allen I don't think would ever make a movie like 25th Hour, that would be bizarre. And he also got Rodrigo Prieto, who is not a New Yorker, but is so good at filming urban landscapes. It was a really good experience all the way around and we never had any friction, partly probably because I was just so happy to be there.
dOc: You talked about what Spike brought to the movie thematically. I'd like to talk about the two long monologues that echo each other, the one from Monty and his dad, and Spike also echoes it visually. I was wondering how you felt those two contrasting speeches fit together thematically.
DB: In the book that last section is in Monty's mind, and I decided in the screenplay it made more sense dramatically and would be more powerful, and also once we knew it was Brian Cox, I knew we had to take advantage of that. I did like that it harkened back to that earlier monologue in that it's healing, whereas Monty's speech is very angry. The latter one is more "you are leaving the city and though you have anger towards certain things in the city, you're always going to be a New Yorker and they can't take that from you." The visual echoes, bringing back the faces we saw in Monty's monologue, that was actually Edward Norton's idea. He proposed that to Spike and they put it in and I remember writing an email to Spike saying I liked it, though the smiling basketball players seem kind of creepy to me, but in the abstract, I really liked the circularity of it.
dOc: In your commentary, it seemed like the most oft heard phrase was "in the book..." and you spent a lot of time talking about the differences between the film and the novel. Which medium do you prefer, and which do you find more fulfilling? I know you have written a movie for Wolfgang Petersen. Do you plan on continuing with films or books?
DB: Hopefully both. I finished a collection of short stories that will likely be the next thing I publish, and Wolfgang Petersen is shooting a movie called Troy right now. I think if there is a model for the career I'd like to have, it is someone like Richard Pryce, who is working very successfully in Hollywood and also writing amazing novels. If I could achieve a fraction of what he has I'd be thrilled.
In terms of what is more fulfilling, there is something about writing a novel where you are your own boss and the story is entirely your vision. As a screenwriter, you work for hire and you create a blueprint of the movie you'd like to see, and the studio has the option of hiring another writer to rewrite, and the director has the right to interpret things the way he wants, and sometimes the actors are going to come up with their own lines, because they see the characters in a different way than you intended. All that said, I still love movies and being able to be a part of the movie making process is a lot of fun, and I've enjoyed it immensely. I wouldn't want to be solely a screenwriter because I would miss the feeling of absolute control.