Terry George's Cross "Road"

"Reservation Road" director Terry George, with actor Mark Ruffalo (right) in Mr. George's film, which opened this past weekend.  (Photos: Macall Polay/Focus Features)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

October 22, 2007

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 meaningful level. 

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 "Reservation Road".

Hear, hear!  Omar's interview with Terry George, director of "Reservation Road"  (15 minutes)

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