Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Jason Guerrasio interviewed The Kite Runner director Marc Forster for our Web Exclusives section of the Website. The Kite Runner is nominated for Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias).
When Khaled Hosseini sat down to write his first novel he imagined a story that would shed light on the culture, beauty and history of his home country and have people see it in a different light than its usual portrayal on the evening news. The book Hosseini wrote was The Kite Runner and the country is Afghanistan.
Since Riverhead Books published the novel in 2003 it’s become an international success, rated the third best-seller of 2003, and was published in 38 countries. With the book, Hosseini became the first best-selling Afghan-American author.
The novel’s story is spilt in two parts. The first follows the friendship of two boys in 1970s Afghanistan – Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and his father’s servant’s son Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) – as they spend their days watching The Magnificent Seven at the cinema, reading under their favorite pomegranate tree and kite fighting (a popular sport played by kids where they try to cut each other’s kites down). But when Hassan is raped by a group of boys the friendship between the two deteriorates, leaving them to go separate paths once the exodus begins due to the Soviet invasion.
The second half of the story follows an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla), now living in San Francisco with his father, who’s married and building a successful career as an author, though still living with the shame of losing his beloved friend. One day, however, he learns something about Hassan that forces him to return to Afghanistan to make things right again. Though after years of conflict (first the Soviets, now the Taliban) Amir’s homeland has transformed into rubble.
A film adaptation was inevitable, and by the time the book made its highly successful move into paperback the producers signed on Marc Forster to direct. Never the one to pigeonhole himself into any type of genre – he’s made everything from low-budget arthouse drama (Monster’s Ball) to studio Oscar-bait (Finding Neverland), as well as the upcoming 22nd installment in the James Bond franchise – the eclectic Forster focused on not only continuing Hosseini’s mission of spotlighting a forgotten Afghanistan but telling the story in a manner that didn’t spoon feed the audience. With the help of screenwriter David Benioff, Foster strays from narration and instead uses the book’s complex characters, drastically changing landscapes, Afghan traditions and a testy subject matter to tell the story. The latter has received most of the headlines leading up to the release.
The rape scene, which is hardly as graphic on screen as the book’s depiction, has caused threats to the child actors involved in the scene, and to err on the side of caution the film’s distributor, Paramount Vantage, pushed the release six weeks to December 14 so they would be able to relocate the boys after their school term ended (on Dec. 3 the New York Times reported that the boys were moved to an undisclosed city in the United Arab Emirates).
On a wet Saturday afternoon in the fall, Filmmaker met Forster at the Waldorf Astoria in New York for a brief conversation about the making of the film.
FILMMAKER: What are your thoughts on the kids in the film being threatened and having to push the film’s release date?
FORSTER: When I cast the film two years ago Afghanistan at that time was in a new democratic beginning. People supported the book and us doing the film because it felt like it finally lent a voice and a face to Afghanistan and shined a light on all this culture in a very humane way. I mean, this is the first story where you come across that part of the world which doesn’t deal with violence and terrorism. It deals with healing and forgiveness. So at that time it all seemed good. But lately the situation has become more dangerous and deteriorated so the studio, and I really applaud them for doing it, they basically took the measure to push the release until after the kid’s school year end of November. It’s just better to take these precautions.
FILMMAKER: While making the film were you and the studio aware that making a film about the Muslim culture, which includes a rape scene in it, would cause some controversy, or was this a surprise?
FORSTER: To be honest, the film was always intended to be PG-13 so the scene was always meant to be impressionistic. At the time when we were there and I met with Afghani filmmakers nobody ever put a red flag out to me that this is something that their culture will reject, especially if it was done in a impressionistic way. So it came a little bit out of left field for me.
FILMMAKER: How did you find out that the kids lives may potentially be in danger?
FORSTER: The first time I heard about it was literally when a reporter spoke to me for the London Times a while back. Because when we were in China everyone was happy, we didn’t have one bit of tension and it was just a very positive experience for everybody. Then after the London Times article the producers went out there and met with the kids but it seems they’re fine at the moment. It’s hard because many people don’t have phones or e-mail to communicate, but everything at this point seems okay.
FILMMAKER: When did you read the book and how did you get involved with the project?
FORSTER: I read the book in 2003, producer Rebecca Yeldham gave me the book. At that point it hadn’t sold eight million copies, it wasn’t in paperback yet, and I just loved it and thought, How are we going to get that financed? And I thought it was a crucial story to tell because every time you hear about this country you associate it with Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. You really don’t associate with the people and the humanity; its always a negative association. Rebecca wanted me to commit to it but there was no script or financing. Then two years later she came back to me while I was doing Stranger Than Fiction in Chicago and she sent me the first draft of the script that David Benioff did and I thought he really captured the essence of it. I thought it was really an incredible opportunity to tell such a important story and, basically, I got involved with Khalid Hassani and David to work on the screenplay and that’s how we moved forward.
FILMMAKER: How involved was Hassani in the adaptation?
FORSTER: We sent him screenplays, he sent us notes. I wanted him to be very involved because it’s his baby, it’s his story, it originated with him, so I felt it was crucial to make him part of it and work very closely. And also in regard to authenticity to really understand the culture and get the nuances and details right.
FILMMAKER: In adapting a book that’s so widely known, do you make it on the assumption that people have read it and that you don’t have to put in as much backstory as you may have with something original or lesser known?
FORSTER: I went in with the assumption that most people will have read the book but that there will be some who haven’t. For people who love the book I wanted to stay true to it and capture its spirit and essence, while at the same time for people who haven’t read the book I wanted them to understand what’s going on.
FILMMAKER: The look of the film changes drastically half way through the film as the story goes from Afghanistan before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979, to the present under the Taliban rule. How did you find the look for the film?
FORSTER: Basically when we were looking for locations we were scouting all over the world — Morocco, India, Turkey, Western China — and when Khaled saw the pictures of Xinjiang in Western China, which is right across the border of Pakistan on the other side of the mountains, he said, “Oh my God, this is the architecture, this is how Kabul looked in the ’70s,” so we decided to shoot there. My idea was to make it really colorful because at that time Afghanistan had color. It was much greener, it had trees, and as the movie moves on obviously the color fades. When I was in Kabul [to do research] I noticed a lot of trees are gone. There are some parts of Afghanistan, like up in the north, where it’s still very green and beautiful, but in and around Kabul so much has been destroyed.
FILMMAKER: Seeing you shot in China, what relationship did you have with the Chinese government?
FORSTER: We had to submit a script and they looked at it and once they felt the script was at an approval stage they gave us a permit to go and shoot. But it was a little tricky because we shot in a province called Xinjiang, which is where the Uighurs live, the Muslims in China, and it’s like Tibet — it’s occupied territory in a sense, so the Chinese occupy it. You still have the Uighurs living there and there’s a lot of tension between the Uighurs and the Chinese, and we were in the middle trying to make a movie. We were the first Western production ever to shoot there, so it was pretty tricky.
FILMMAKER: So did you have to create relationships with both so you didn’t get on the bad side of one group?
FORSTER: You have the permit from Bejing, from the central government to shoot but then there’s the local government, and you have to get their approval, so it became very difficult to shoot in certain locations.
FILMMAKER: So in a way you had to become a diplomat to make the film?
FORSTER: In a way. It was a nightmare logistically.
FILMMAKER: One major difference I found in the movie from the book is that the book is told in te first person, but there is no narrator in the film. What was your reason behind this decision?
FORSTER: I never wanted narration. I feel like it’s the cheap way out and I thought it would be much better to have it through narrative storytelling. I felt it would by my job to capture the essence of the descriptions and images in the book and have them shown in the actors faces and in landscapes.
FILMMAKER: Can you talk about how you cast the film?
FORSTER: I worked with Kate Dowd, who I used for Finding Neverland, and she did such a good job finding the kids for that movie that I felt that I should work with her for this. We searched everywhere in the West, all the Afghan refugees were settling down; Frankfurt in Germany, Freemont, London, Holland, but we didn’t find the people I felt Khaled wrote about in the book. So we went to Kabul and Kate stayed there for two months before I arrived and she saw thousands of kids and other actors. When I got there we went to two schools and I saw two kids at each school and and that’s how I found the kids. Out of the adults I found Amir first. I saw United 93 and he isn’t doing anything [in the movie], he’s just sitting in that chair and I thought his performance was so brilliant that I felt he’s really fascinating so I brought him in. But I told him, “I’m going to Kabul to see the kids and if I find the counterpart of the kid for you we can do this.” And while in Kabul I found Zekeria Ebrahimi, he was very introverted and shy but I thought because of that he was right for the part as he plays a character that has a secret he carries around.
FILMMAKER: I can’t let you leave without asking you about Bond 22. What’s the status and what interested you to get involved with the franchise?
FORSTER: Oh, that’s a whole separate interview. [laughs] We start shooting in mid-December. And I got involved because I think Daniel Craig is great and the last one paved a way to all these new options for Bond and that really excited me be a part of it.