David Benioff, the Coolest Writer in Hollywood


While the title of this interview might seem a bit like hyperbole, ComingSoon.net has talked to many screenwriters in our time, and true, many of them are pretty cool–Juno‘s Diablo Cody is the latest upstart contender to receive the honorary title–but none of them have quite the credentials that David Benioff has that makes him so cool.

For your consideration, we shall list some of the reasons why we think he’s cool:

* Although he may be the coolest writer in Hollywood, he’s actually a New Yorker born and raised, and he still spends a lot of time in the city that never sleeps.

* His first screenplay was an adaptation of his first novel, which turned into Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, one of the few films that epitomizes what it was like being a New Yorker right after 9/11.

* He wrote the initial draft for the upcoming prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and he’s a long-time comic book fan himself.

* He adapted Susanne Bier’s wartime drama Brothers into an English language film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire and directed by Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan (In America)

* He’s working on a screenplay for a Kurt Cobain biopic!

* He plays the Hollywood Stock Exchange, the online movie game that actually got the writer of this article interested in movies enough to write about them for a living.

* Oh, yeah, and he’s married to actress Amanda Peet, and anyone who’s ever met her knows what a fox she is. The couple recently had their first child, a lucky girl who’ll be very beautiful or very smart or both if she has her parents’ genes. (Ironically, when we interviewed Peet for The Martian Child, she told us about how David read many scripts she was considering before she took them.)

But most importantly, and the reason why ComingSoon.net was interviewing Benioff was that he scored the coveted gig of adapting Khaled Kosseini’s massive best-selling novel The Kite Runner, about an Afghan-American writer named Amir who must return to his homeland to right a wrong from his youth. Hopefully, it will be the screenplay that finally gets Benioff a bit of awards recognition among his peers as well, because that would just make him that much cooler.

After a few introductions, mostly talking about our mutual interest in HSX, we were off to the races for a quick-fire interview with Hollywood’s coolest screenwriter.

ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about how you were first offered the gig to adapt Khaled’s novel into a movie and was there a lot of pressure getting it, considering how many people had read the book?
David Benioff: The funny thing is that when I first read the book, it was way before it became a bestseller. The book kind of had a slow build where it came out on hardcover and it got good reviews and all, but it wasn’t that well known. It wasn’t because of publicity or advertising or anything like that. It was really purely word of mouth. People read the book and recommended it to their friends and it became a big book club book, but “The Kite Runner” did not become a bestseller until it was in paperback. When I got the job, it was still in hardcover. Some people had read it. Here and there I’d mention it, and people would say, “I’ve read that book, I love that book” but it wasn’t the phenomenon that it became until much later. I actually remember getting an E-mail from Khaled, probably three or four months into the project and he said, “The book’s going to be on the New York Times Bestseller List on Sunday.” It was kinda shocking and amazing, and we all thought it would be on for a couple weeks and then it will slide off, which would be great for the book and for the movie, and then it’s never left it. I think it’s been on the bestseller list for four years now.

CS: I kept seeing it in book stores and hearing about it but never got a chance to read it until after I saw the movie.
Benioff: (laughs) So the pressure with it, when I started, there wasn’t that much, and then the longer I worked on it, the more I’d find myself walking around or in the subway in New York or wherever and I’d see people reading “The Kite Runner.” I’d be in other countries and I’d see people reading “The Kite Runner” so it was a gradual increase in pressure.

CS: But Khaled was involved with the entire process while you were adapting his novel into a screenplay though, right?
Benioff: Yeah, he was incredibly supportive. As you know, it’s not always an easy relationship between the novelist and the screenwriter and sometimes it can be tense. Sometimes, the novelist just wants to walk away. Takes the check, and just says, “Good luck” and walks away, and that’s fine. Sometimes, the novelist wants to be really involved and there can be a bit of a hostile relationship, because the novelist doesn’t want anything changed. With Khaled, he’s become a friend of mine over the course of the four years that we’ve been working on the movie, but from the beginning, he was such a gentleman, but also just so savvy about the movie business and understanding that certain changes would have to be made. He could not have been more helpful. I grew up in New York City, I didn’t grow up in Kabul and I didn’t grow up Muslim, so there were many different elements of the story that I just wasn’t that familiar with. I did as much research as I could, I read as many book as I could, but at the end of the day, I’m still going to be a kid who grew up in New York. Whenever I had problems or whenever I was trying to figure out what would be the proper protocol in this situation or how would Afghans treat each other in this situation, I had this wonderful ally that I could turn to and send a late night E-mail to and say, “Khaled, help me out here. How would you enter the mosque in the situation, what would be the protocol, etc?” and he’d always write back a few hours later with the information about it. He was like my Wikipedia.

CS: Did you do any research on your own or did you just rely on Khaled’s vision of Afghanistan from the novel?
Benioff: I did research on my own, which was necessary because the politics in Afghanistan were so incredibly complicated and they have been forever, but in the ’70s in particular, there was so much going on, and the movie can’t even really go into too many of the details, because it gets so confusing. I didn’t even realize before I started researching the book that the Communists already were in power before the Soviet invasion, or the king was overthrown by his cousin. All these different things that happened over the course of four years, and it was great to read about and to learn about it, but at the same time, most of the history is from a bird’s eye view and to get the perspective of a man who actually lived through it, was, in the end, much more helpful. It’s Khaled’s story, so there’s no one who is more expert on the story than he is. It would have been a much, much more difficult experience if he had not been so supportive.

CS: At what point did Mark Forster (the director) come on board? I know he directed your script of “Stay” a few years ago. Did you already have the screenplay for “Kite Runner” in the works at that time?
Benioff: Yes, screenplay was already done. He came on, I’d say like a year and a half or two years into it.

CS: They’re two very different movies, so how did the two of you work together on this once he came on board? Was the script pretty much done or did he want to try to trim it down more?
Benioff: Yeah, he did want to make trims. One of the reasons I really like working with Mark is I share with him a kind of impatience. He really doesn’t like movies that are excessively long, and I almost never see a movie that I wish was longer, it’s almost always the opposite. He came on and I think I ended up trimming ten pages based on notes I got from him. One of the great things about doing it with Mark was that the first thing he said to the studio when he was deciding whether or not to take the job was “I think the movie should be in Dari. I think the scenes in Afghanistan, they should be speaking their native language. I think it will be ridiculous if they’re speaking English.” That had always been my distant hope but I never thought it was possible. I never thought that DreamWorks would agree to it, and they did, so I have a great deal of respect for Mark for making that happen, because watching the movie now, I can’t imagine it if they were all speaking English the whole time. I just think it would have lost so much authenticity and you would have had to cast actors from America or England and the whole thing would have been vastly inferior.

CS: I have to admit that the languages just kind of blended together for me to the point where I can’t remember what was or wasn’t in English.
Benioff: That’s great to hear ’cause it was a difficult… I mean, I remember going through the script so many times, marking which passages would be Dari, which English, and you always have this fear that right when you need the audience staring at a certain part of the screen, you’re going to force them to look down and read the subtitles. I feel like for all of who work in the movie business, it’s one thing because we’re watching foreign movies all the time, but I think even just the general American audience is getting more and more sophisticated about watching international movies, watching subtitled movies. When you see the success of something like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or even “Passion of The Christ” where that movie was this massive blockbuster and it’s all in Aramaic. Clearly, people are less resistant to the idea of seeing subtitled movies than they used to be, and hopefully in this movie, you’re not aware of the fact that you’re reading half the time, you’re just kind of taken along for the ride. So it’s good to hear you say that.

CS: Well that’s all good until they dub it to show on airplanes and cable.
Benioff: Dubbing it? Yeah, unfortunately that’s the way they do it with all or most of the foreign territories, too, because I was talking to Atossa Leoni, who plays Soraya in the movie and her native language is German, so she did the German dubbing herself and the entire movie will be in German, so for them, the whole thing I was talking about in terms of authenticity is lost.

CS: When I finally got around to reading the book, I was amazed by how faithful the movie was to it, and that’s a very rare thing for a book adaptation.
Benioff: Yeah, I think in certain adaptations, there is a necessity to get away from the book a little bit in order to make the structure work. In this case, I read the book, and I loved the book, and I thought it was a beautiful story, and it’s kind of like, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It was just trying to figure out how to make it work in a two-hour movie without damaging the existing story.

CS: Once it was translated into Dari, how did you and Mark deal with possibly having to make changes?
Benioff: Well, for Mark, in terms of directing the actors speaking a language that he doesn’t know, it didn’t bother him. I always wondered about that and wondered how are you going to know if the actor is giving a good line reading if you’re not speaking the language, and I guess if you know what the line means and you see them say it, the interesting thing is that it never was an issue for him. I’ve asked him about it, and it’s kind of amazing to learn that as a director, what’s really critical is just really what the actor is doing, how the actor is moving, what he’s doing with his face and all that. The line reading, whether or not you understand the words he’s saying, you kind of know if he’s delivering it right.. and he did obviously have the translated script with him. The fun thing from my end of it was that I got to be in the editing suite during post-production to actually write in the subtitles, so I was much more involved with the movie in post-production than I ever had been before, which was a lot of fun to me.

CS: I wondered how the translation back into English would work exactly.
Benioff: Sometimes it becomes a little bit like a game of Telephone, where you have the English script and then Khaled Hosseini’s father actually translated the script into Dari for the actors for those scenes and then I translated it back into English. Sometimes, the lines would be slightly different than the way they were originally written, and sometimes, I’d go back to the way I’d written it for the original script. Sometimes, I liked what the actor did with the line and sometimes, there would be like a third version which hadn’t been from the original and wasn’t quite exactly what the actor said, but something that just seemed more appropriate for that moment. One of the lines I keep thinking of is when Baba is in the truck and he defends the woman from the Russian soldier, and then the woman’s husband comes over and kisses his hand afterwards to thank him, and Baba says the equivalent of “You’re welcome” and the actual line he said in Dari is basically like, “You’re welcome.” It didn’t seem quite right and it sounded a little bit too American. I was sitting there with an Afghan-American translator, so she was giving me the word-for-word translation, and I said, “Well, what are other ways in Dari of saying ‘You’re welcome’?” She said one phrase which translates to “It’s not worthy of ‘thank you'” and I just loved that. I just thought it was such a great phrase and that’s what ends up being the sub-title. Even though it’s not a word-for-word translation of what he said. It’s the spirit of what he’s saying. There will be a few Iranians or Afghans in the audience who watch a few scenes and go, “That’s not exactly what he said.”

CS: This is an interesting time because there’s a highly-publicized strike going on and you have like a thousand projects in the works in various stages of being filmed. How’s that been working out? I know that “Brothers” just started filming in New Mexico…
Benioff: Yeah, “Brothers” they’re shooting in Santa Fe, and unfortunately, I can’t be there with them, because I’m not allowed to be on set, so maybe with any luck, the strike will be over before the movie finishes shooting, and I can fly over there and check it out. I’ve never not been on set for at least a part of the time for any movie that I’ve written, and it would be sad if I couldn’t see them for a little bit.

CS: Did you get a chance to spend some time with Jim Sheridan beforehand?
Benioff: I did and we were working together pretty intensively right up until the deadline, which was a great experience. I was working with Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman and that was also a lot of fun.

CS: I’ve interviewed Susanne Bier a few times and I think we’re both interested to see how it works out in an American setting.
Benioff: Yeah, I think the American setting part actually makes a lot of sense. In a weird way, it’s one of those movies where the original I thought was such a great movie, but it kind of makes more sense being about Americans, because there are like 50 Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. It’s not like a real big national issue for them. Obviously, there are thousand and thousands of Americans there, and it’s much more of present in the American psyche. As wonderful as that movie was, moving it to America didn’t frighten me as much as it would with certain remakes, where you kind of think… sometimes, they take Japanese movies and bring them here and they don’t really make that much sense in America. In this case, I thought it would make a lot of sense, being brought here. It’s just a question of whether our movie will be as good as her movie, because she did an incredible job. So that’s happening, and I have a novel coming out in May. That’s what I’ve been working on since the strike started basically.

CS: So you’re just finishing that up?
Benioff: It’s done. It’s just there’s been two rounds of copy-editing and I’m supposed to turn it in tomorrow actually–I don’t think that’s going to happen–but just basically going through one last time and making final line changes, but the galleys are already done.

CS: Do you think you might eventually want to adapt it into a film like you did with “The 25th Hour”?
Benioff: I don’t know. I think it would have to be with the right director. It’s the kind of story where I wouldn’t just want to sell it to the studio and hope for the best. I think if the right person came along and said, “I really want to do this,” then I’d definitely consider it. It’s a story that I’ve had in my head for seven years, and it’s one that I’m really close to, and I don’t want to just sell it and hope for the best.

CS: Do you have any interest in directing yourself?
Benioff: Yes, I do. I mean, I feel like sometimes you talk to writers and they basically use screenwriting to get into directing and for me, I grew up wanting to be a writer, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a director, so it’s not like it’s been like this burning anxiety to get behind the camera. I shot a 20-minute short a couple years ago, and I love the experience, and I loved working with the actors and the editing and everything else. Yes, I mean in a year or two I would definitely love to do it, but first, there’s a Kurt Cobain script I have to write and some others things that have to get done.

CS: Did you get a chance to see the recent documentary, “Kurt Cobain: About a Son”?
Benioff: Yes, I did. I saw that and I’ve been watching some home videos that I got which are pretty amazing, that’s just Kurt hanging out with Francis Bean a few months before he killed himself, and those are incredibly sad but also just incredibly revealing. You just see so much of who he was.

CS: I’ve read a couple pages of the “Wolverine” script which has to be about a year old. Have you stayed involved with that up until they started shooting?
Benioff: I haven’t been working on “Wolverine” since… I mean, it’s been a while since the last draft, but they brought on other writers starting in like September or something, so I haven’t seen whatever the shooting draft is, so I don’t know exactly what it is. I think they’re supposed to start shooting in January in Australia, but I have not been really in the loop on that one anymore.

CS: I’m a comic book fan myself, so did you spend a lot of time reading comics and trying to distill his origin, which is not exactly the easiest one to adapt. You got “Kite Runner” down to two hours but Wolverine has had so many origins over the years. There’s a lot of them out there.
Benioff: Yeah, it will be interesting, because I know that changes have been made, so I don’t know how they’re handling… I don’t know what’s exactly in the present draft of the script, so I’m curious to see it when it gets made, but yes, I grew up a huge comic book fan. Where I grew up on Yorkville and 86th on the East End, there was a comic store called Action Comics on like 84th and 2nd, and I was there every week. Wolverine was always my favorite character, because at that time at least, most of the superheroes were still these square-jawed righteous do-gooders, and then along comes this cigar-chomping, hard-drinking rowdy little Canadian guy and I just loved him from the beginning. It was the one comic book adaptation that I always wanted to do, and I really went after it. I went into Marvel and just really pursued it aggressively.

[POSSIBLE SPOILER] CS: I love the opening scene where he’s a kid being getting picked on by the bigger kids…
Benioff: Yeah, me too. That’s my scene and I don’t know if it’s in the present draft or not. That was mine, but I don’t know if that will be in the actual movie. [SPOILER ENDS]

CS: Do you have anything else you’re producing or are those also in various stages of waiting for the strike to be over?
Benioff: Yeah, everything is in various stages… some things we’re meeting with directors, some things are still working with the writers, nothing imminent, nothing about to shoot.

The Kite Runner opens in select cities on Friday, December 14, then expands nationwide shortly after that.