"Reservation Road" director Terry George, with actor Mark Ruffalo (right) in Mr.
George's film, which opened this past weekend. (Photos: Macall Polay/Focus
Terry George knows real men of conscience. On the big screen the
director and screenwriter has chronicled the travails of Gerry Conlon, the
Irishman jailed for years for the bombing of a Birmingham pub in England in the
1970's -- a deadly event that the Irish Republican Army -- not Conlon --
committed. He has tracked the powerful journey of life and death swirling
around Paul Rusesabagina, who shepherded thousands to safety amidst a brutal
civil war in Rwanda that claimed a million lives in the mid-1990's. Now he
takes on the tortured souls of two men in John Burnham Schwartz's novel
"Reservation Road", which Mr. George and Mr. Schwartz adapt for the director's
big screen film of the same title.
Recently Terry George was in San Francisco to talk about the new film which
opened last Friday (October 19) across the country. The film played at
this month's Mill Valley Film Festival in Northern California and stars Jacquin
Phoenix as Ethan Learner, a man who has lost his son to the recklessness of a
hit-and-run accident, via motorist Mark Ruffalo, who as attorney Dwight Arlo is
the culprit. There are numerous exchanges between these two men, and the
women in their lives are played Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (as Grace
Learner) and Mira Sorvino (as Dwight's ex-wife Ruth Weldon) respectively.
"When I read this, I thought, 'well, okay this is like actually the most
intimate investigation I've done in terms of how the audience could actually put
themselves in the shoes of any of the four characters. Now when you're
dealing with the Rwanda genocide or the hunger strike in Ireland, not for a
second does anyone in the audience ever expect that they're going to be there.
You're educating them inside that. But this is a situation where, 'there
but for the grace of God go I,' that kind of thing," said Mr. George. Mr.
Schwartz's novel was first published in 1999, but after reading it Mr. George
felt that its themes applied today in the early 21st century. "One of the
scourges of the world at the minute is a lot of people have acted on the impulse
of revenge without looking behind the act itself and seeing what were the root
causes of this, who were the supporters and what do they want and what's it
about?" The director felt it was appropriate to examine these themes and
that an American audience would identify with them instantly.
As for the actors, Mr. George, who received the script from Jaoquin Phoenix
(whom he directed in "Hotel Rwanda") said that he and the Oscar-nominated Mr.
Phoenix actively pursued Mark Ruffalo ("You Can Count On Me", "We Don't Live
Here Anymore", "Collateral", "Zodiac") for the film. Both the director and
Mr. Phoenix believed Mr. Ruffalo was a great actor who embodied decency.
"You certainly know when you watch Mark on screen that in real life he's a good
guy as well," said George. Mark Ruffalo's Dwight character is more nuanced
and complex on screen than the book's rendering of what is a far more black and
white character. Mr. Burnham Schwartz wrote the script adapting it from
his own novel, then Mr. George adapted the author's script, tailoring the
screenplay to his visionary themes and comfort. The process of getting
"Reservation Road" to the big screen rather rapidly. From the time George
received and read the script in June 2006, the filming began within three months
in September of that year.
The subject matter of "Reservation Road" is grim, as the death of a young child
is the motivating factor from which the suspenseful events that will follow.
The director talked in detail about the way death is handled in films, but
particularly in American culture.
As he speaks, Mr. George analyzes the responses to death, employing both a
political and global perspective in his analysis of the subject.
"It struck me again in reading the book and writing the script . . . there's a
portion of it that's about the ritual of death, the funeral -- and dealing with
the immediate aftermath -- and just, the physical items, the toys . . . that are
left behind -- I mean, what do you do with these things? And it struck me
that in the United States now, that whole process has kind of been pasteurized,
or, like McDonald-ized -- if that's the word -- where, you know, the funeral
parlor and the funeral itself, and the cremation, is a rushed process and a very
structured thing, whereas where I came from (Ireland) and a lot of the world,
there's a big extended family (that) has people try to deal with this, and
afterwards there's a sense of looking after the person. And I think that
kind of nuclear family unit in America has -- that fear of dwelling on the
process of death and thinking about it has led to the point that when you see
women in Baghdad in burkhas carrying a wooden box down the street and screaming
and crying -- it doesn't -- it cannot mean anything to you. It can become
this two-dimensional image. So in creating ["Reservation Road"] I wanted
to get people woven into grief and . . . the obsession and inability to deal
with grief and to move on and to try to come to terms with it. Because I
think that's really important in understanding the rest of the world and what
the rest of the world is going through when there's enormous violence or natural
disaster -- that you've got to empathize on a personal basis. That's why I
always look for individual characters to tell the story through, because I want
the audience to be with them or against them but be there beside them, so that
it's an individual experience for each audience member." The director
added that he would avoid telling larger scale political stories because it
would be difficult to get an audience to find someone to identify with on any
As Mr. George talks, he shifts in his seat in one of the suite rooms at the Ritz
Carlton in San Francisco, and he is clearly intrigued by the way that politics
plays a role on the big screen in Hollywood. He mentions that politics and
the depth of other significant issues and themes like death (and redemption) for
that matter, fascinate him. "Reservation Road" provides a glimpse of these
two themes and several others, and at your local theater you can see how the
director captures the consternation and torment that bellows deep within the
bowels of the Phoenix and Ruffalo characters, and how their own angst sets off
ripple effects in each of their families.
"Reservation Road" is now playing in the United States and Canada.
Read The Popcorn Reel review of
Omar's interview with Terry George, director of "Reservation Road" (15