Outside of the Angelina Jolie action film Salt, all the hits on Australian helmer Phillip Noyce’s resume are book adaptations. That ranges from his breakout hit Dead Calm to Patriot Games, Clear And Present Danger, Sliver, The Bone Collector, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and The Quiet American; he is currently adapting Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Noyce’s latest book transfer is The Weinstein Company’s The Giver, a Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weiden-scripted adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel that took 21 years to reach the screen. That glacial development pace allowed high action dystopian tomes like The Hunger Games and Divergent to score with young audiences, books that were written much later and likely were influenced by Lowry. Vets Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes are surrounded by young audience pleasing newcomers Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan and Taylor Swift, but The Giver has no super-powered teen slaying protagonists. We’ll see if that’s a disadvantage, but I believe The Giver will have staying power similar to Gary Ross’s Pleasantville. The Giver is connected to that coming of age film in its stylish metaphorical use of color. Given the chance to speak with both Noyce and Lowry, I wanted their take on the delicate dance between author and director to pull a movie from the pages of a classic novel.
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DEADLINE: Lois, when you published this book it was lauded and disruptive, even banned from some school reading lists. How frustrating was it waiting 20 years for the movie, after numerous other dystopian tales became hits?
LOWRY: Oddly, it wasn’t frustrating. I’m a writer, I sit here and write books and that’s what I did for those 20 years. Now and then I would hear from Jeff Bridges, but my life never hinged on whether that book became a movie. I fell into a patient hopeful mindset.
DEADLINE: What elements of the book were most important to you when it finally did get made, and what kind of sway did you hold?
LOWRY: Often in the past there have been authors that were deeply disappointed in their adaptation, but that’s because they haven’t accepted the fact that a movie is a different thing and it can’t possibly be the same as the book. I knew that going in. I love your use of the word ‘sway.’ I had none, no power over this movie. But I felt it was in good hands all the way, with Jeff Bridges. Phillip signed on only a couple years ago, but I saw Rabbit-Proof Fence and I felt again like this was in good hands. There’s a scene in this movie, looking down from above on a boy from the desert, that brought back to me memories of Rabbit-Proof Fence, that same vast vision. What I hoped would be retained was the spirit, the heart of the book, the innocence and potential of the boy, and the relationship of the boy to the old man. Those things are all there.
DEADLINE: Lois, as you watched movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent take The Giver’s cautionary themes into action terrain, did you ever have that nagging thought of, dammit, why didn’t I teach Jonas how to shoot a crossbow?
LOWRY: [Laughs]. Violence is just not my thing, and this movie feels different from them for that reason. There is no violence, except for the implied violence of the killing of an infant, which I thought was important to retain. I had no wish to be like those other books. They’re fine in their own right, and they made good but different movies. I always felt mine was not the same as those.
DEADLINE: We are in a digital age where patience is low and everything has to be communicated in short colorful bursts, with movies expected to pop with action. This is a throwback tale. What concessions did you grant to how movies have changed in the two decades since the book published?
LOWRY: It was important to add some action, which they’ve done. The drone swoops down and grabs the boy and the baby, and that doesn’t happen in the book. But I wrote it 21 years ago and I don’t think I adequately addressed in my mind what the planes, and bicycles, and houses of the future would look like. I was envisioning something at that time. The movie amped that up into an appropriately futuristic visual look.
DEADLINE: Phillip, a large part of the film is black and white. There has been precedent for color conversions within a movie in The Wizard Of Oz and Pleasantville; how did you see the role of color in telling this story?
NOYCE: Everyone in the novel sees the world in monochrome except two people. That’s The Giver and The Receiver, the characters played by Jeff Bridges and Brenton Thwaites. The color scheme follows the restricted and gradually expanding perception of the central character Jonas as a colorful world is opened up to him by his teacher, The Giver. He slowly starts to see all the different colors of the spectrum, and so does the audience. It really follows the storytelling scheme set up by Lois in her novel, and hopefully it allows the audience to see the world exactly as Jonas sees it.
DEADLINE: Jeff Bridges spent two decades on this. Phillip, what sparked you to commit?
NOYCE: The novel touched me in a weird way. To me, it’s a cautionary tale about how our friend technology maybe is stealing from us. That’s a feeling I’ve had increasingly over the years. I’ve embraced technology, but I also realize I am spending a lot less time in personal contact with my family and friends, replaced by the partial contact of texts, with short messaging taking the place of personal interaction. That seemed to me very much a theme of the novel. Secondly, this idea that a society might try and live without memory of the past. Societies have tried to do that, to eradicate history but we do so at our own peril because the past is what guides us towards the future. But to really answer your question, it seemed to me that the book with its fascinating locations and settings and its vivid characters, its highly charged emotions and sense of adventure, combined all of the elements that have attracted me to big budget Hollywood blockbusters. Together with ideas that intrigued me on the much smaller films I’ve made like The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, it seemed to be a perfect combination of elements for me as a filmmaker.
DEADLINE: There were a lot of challenging creative choices. I was touched by a memory flood and how Alexander Skarsgard’s character, this kind nurturer of newborns, would have to reconcile some horrible actions he was oblivious about committing. I appreciate that you didn’t confront that and other dilemmas, leaving it for an idiot like me to have to rattle it around in my brain.
LOWRY: One hopes that with a book or movie, the reader or the audience will emerge from it thinking. That’s the most you can hope for, that you’ve raised questions that will be there for the audience to think about later. I hope people leave the theater talking to each other, about the questions that were raised.
DEADLINE: You aged the 12-year-old novel characters to 16. This is a summer movie and you need to makes the film more attractive to the prime moviegoing demo. Lois, how did you feel seeing these kids older than your adolescent protagonists, who are discovering things like desire and raging hormones?
LOWRY: When I was first told they were going to do that, I was concerned. That was assuaged when I met the kids playing the roles, and then thought about it some more. I realized that within this particular community, the children are raised in a way where they are so completely unsophisticated that even by the time they are 16 or 18, they still know nothing about the world. These kids look so young onscreen; Brenton was 24, but he looked 17. He had that air of innocence, naivete and curiosity that was so important.
DEADLINE: Phillip, how much of that decision is the desire to attract a demo that gives the movie the chance to succeed?
NOYCE: We just felt maybe if the kids were older, it would increase a sense of conflict and involvement for a wider movie-going audience.
LOWRY: I did ask them not to turn this into a teenage romance, and I think they successfully avoided that. But it does make sense that a boy 16 or 17, who begins to experience emotions, he is going to have romantic feelings toward that girl who is his friend. They did that with appropriate restraint.
DEADLINE: Lois, you turned The Giver into a book series and Hollywood covets franchises. Is there more story to tell?
NOYCE: Well, there certainly are more books to mine.
LOWRY: I think there’s an element in that question that’s like asking a woman in labor if she plans to have another baby next year.
DEADLINE: In this case, asking a woman who has been in labor for two decades?
LOWRY: Yes. Give us time to rest, please. But you are speaking to a woman who had four children in four years, so it can be done. I think it’s too early to make decisions on that just yet.
DEADLINE: The relationship between author and filmmaker has evolved. Phillip, when you made those Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford, it seemed you battled with author Tom Clancy over every creative decision. What does a filmmaker owe the author who created a world and entrusts it to you?
NOYCE: While trying to expand such an introspective book to the screen, my daily primer was Lois’s novel as I shot every sequence. Lois and I had a constant dialogue, from casting to production design, costume, and even post production. We were very much partners in making of the movie. It was important we try to channel her ideas. For example; the technology, the world she created, Lois was influenced to conceive this community as a result of growing up on army bases after WWII. One of those bases was in Japan, where a young Lois would escape the regimentation and routine of the walled compound in which her family lived, by riding her bike into Tokyo. Lois really is the Jonas character. She told me that story and another where her family lived on Governors Island on New York Harbor. We combined those two stories to come up with the look of this community, shrouded in clouds, atop a mesa. The design of the buildings that Lois had in her mind were very much like a military base. We had to sit down and think, this novel was written 20 years ago. Let’s try to imagine; what kind of technology would Lois have invented if she’d written the novel in 2012. So, for example, TV screens become holograms in the film. The military style buildings she had in her mind become futuristic egalitarian housing. Throughout that process, we would consult with Lois, send her drawings, ask her which ones felt right, send her photos of costumes. Even though we were expanding and changing what was in the book, we were doing it through the filter of the author, allowing her to guide us toward making decisions that were consistent with her vision.
DEADLINE: Hard to imagine an author asking for more than that. Lois, you’ve written 45 books. Guided by this experience, what does a filmmaker owe an author?
LOWRY: There are different ways of looking at that question. By contract, the filmmaker owes the author nothing. I had two previous films made in which I never talked to the filmmakers. When I saw them on TV, I didn’t recognize my books. One changed the title so nobody else recognized it either. In this case, despite that they had no obligation to do so, they showed enormous courtesy. I probably was of some help, but it was gratifying to have my opinions sought, sometimes have my advice followed and sometimes have it ignored and rightly so. To be part of the process was fascinating. Whether they owed me that? Certainly not legally, but I was grateful to be included.
DEADLINE: An author open to collaboration and change creates opportunities for surprises. I don’t recall Meryl Streep’s chief elder being so prominent when I read the book years ago. She brings a gravity to a antagonist role. How did you establish that figure?
LOWRY: Can I go first? That might be question for the screenwriters; they were the first to enhance a character who was very minor and undeveloped in the book. There were seven screenplays altogether, and they made that character larger, layered and complex. Once they hired Meryl Streep to play that role, and she would have never taken it on if it was like I wrote it in the book, she brought her skills to make it further layered and nuanced. She did a fabulous job. It created a very interesting conflict with the Jeff Bridges character, none of which was in the book. In retrospect, I wish it were, I wish I could go back and rewrite it and put it in because it is so beautifully done.
NOYCE: Lois created a really strong character in the Chief Elder, but she only appeared in one major scene, the graduation ceremony. The expansion of the role took place quite organically. This woman was the political leader of the community and as Lois said, once Meryl Streep came on board, the role because even more central in the audience’s mind, because it’s Meryl Streep. Lois, what was your reaction to how you felt when you finally saw the movie?
LOWRY: I’d seen pieces and early cuts, but when I saw it finally all put together on the big screen, it really made a difference, and the music and the sound. I talked to the sound guy, and he told me how they redid the dialogue, which I’d found fuzzy in the early footage. It all seemed to go together very well. It seemed vast, the landscape was so beautiful. There were so many elements that went so well, it was…I’m supposed to be the wordsmith here and I’m stumbling. Overwhelming.
NOYCE: Lois, what was your feeling when it ended? Did you feel that you’d just seen your book onscreen? What did you feel?
LOWRY: It felt familiar, the characters felt true to me, and true to the book. They felt bigger, vaster, and grander and the performances were wonderful. It was appropriate for them to have been expanded that way. But it was the visual stuff that really struck me.
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