Making Brad Pitt Into Benjamin: How They Did It

When filming "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" Brad Pitt and director David Fincher were already familiar with each other, having worked together making "Fight Club" and "Se7en." But there would be nothing routine about making "Benjamin Button," their most ambitious collaboration yet. CBS News producer Matt Lombardi spoke with Fincher about taking the film from first draft to the big screen.
CBS News: When did you first get this script? When the first time you hear about the project and this concept?

David Fincher: Actually I read the … first, first draft of this script, which was in '92. And I think Steven Spielberg was making it at the time with Tom Cruise. And it was mostly as like writing sample. Somebody kind of gave it to me as, "This is one of the great unmade screenplays." Either it was they were trying to get it off the ground or it was being shuttered. And then it sat on the shelf for at least 10 years, probably, well, nine years, 2001 is when I read the latest incarnation of it.

CBS News: And it sat on the shelf, why?

Fincher: I think it was too expensive. I also think that, you know, initially, the idea was to have a series of hand offs from one actor to another and probably needing as many as five or six different people just to play Benjamin.

CBS News: So the time you actually start looking at it seriously to possibly direct it, is that still the idea that we'll have a succession of actors playing this part?

Fincher: It's hard for me to remember. I think that that was … the closely held, you know, belief that that was the way that it was going to be accomplished. But when I give it to Pitt, you know … the first words out of his mouth were, you know, "If I'm gonna play this guy, I'm gonna play … the whole thing." I understood that and I actually was sort of anticipating that that's what he would say.

CBS News: So, it wasn't this, "What, are you crazy, Brad? There's no way."

(Paramount Pictures)
Fincher: No, I, you know, again, coming from visual effects, you know, you learn very early on … if that's the business that you're in that you never say no. You know, it's just how much time do we have and how much money? There's always a way to do something.

CBS News: But the idea that Brad Pitt, who is, I assume when you're having these discussions and is – what is he now, 45? And you're talking about him 80-years-old on screen.

Fincher: Yeah, but that wasn't the issue was not the age, the issue was the size. Because the script is about a guy who's five years old, looks 85 and is in a wheel chair. So … it wasn't the wrinkles as much as it was, well, I mean, the more we got into the silicone-applied prosthetic side of it.

The most discussions we had about what we would have to do to the human face in order to be able to show the loss of tissue mass and the skulling and the things that happen with age to the human face, the more that we realized that we wanted to do the face digitally. But ... the first biggest problem was he had to be four feet tall.

When Brad Pitt wasn't the right size for Benjamin, three other actors played Benjamin Button from the neck-down in the film, Fincher explains.

Fincher: Peter [Peter Donald Badalamenti II] plays Benjamin at his youngest and oldest, he's the youngest on the inside, he's a five year-old on the inside, but he's 80-years-old on his exterior. And then, at about when he's ten on the inside and 75 on the outside, Robert Towers, who is actually the first actor that we hired … way back in 2002, he plays Benjamin till Benjamin walks, 'til Benjamin discards his cane and his first drink and his first trip to the whorehouse. And then, he hands off to a guy named Tom Everett, who plays him as he goes off to seek the world.

CBS News: Okay, now ... when they're on set, they have hoods on their heads.

Fincher: Yeah, they're wearing these kind of half-assed blue Spiderman hoods.

CBS News: Why?

Fincher: Because we're filming 'em not with one camera, but there's a taking camera that's the production camera. And then there are three to, in some cases, five other cameras that are recording at the exact same time, you know, frame for frame, completely in sync, where they are in space so that we can track the heads. So that we know exactly where they're looking.

Because, it's like, when he sits, when he moves, you can't have, like … the relationship of his eyebrows … you know, to his shoulders ever wiggle, even slightly, because, you know, that's something that, you know, the human eye is very discerning about. So, it'll screw up the whole effect. So, all this high-resolution data has to be kind of harvested in that moment so that we can take that head off and put another head in it's place.

CBS News: So, for every shot, you have to place six cameras.

Fincher: No, I mean, that five … four … that was the most that we ever had to. For the most part, it was, most of the time, it was three. Most of the time it was three witness cams and the and the production camera.

CBS News: Okay. So, is Brad there for any of this?

Fincher: He's there for some of it. The first kind of month of shooting and kind of getting up to speed and figuring this stuff out, he wasn't there for. And then, eventually he came to New Orleans and eventually, yeah, he was, he was there for some of it.

CBS News: As a director, is there anything, or even, for that matter, for the other actors, is there anything strange for you about your lead actor playing your lead character is not there, present, for the first hour of the movie?

Fincher: No … because he is. I mean, because … for the most part, the story, you know, physically, in the room is about a guy who's playing with his spoon. And then he's rolling in his wheelchair. And then he's watching what's down the street. And the two things are, you know, in a way, disconnected, because one of them is, you know, he gets chastised, but … the reaction that he's gonna have to that is gonna be supplied later.

The thing that's going to make it look like a diminutive 85-year-old Brad Pitt is gonna added later. But all the physical manifestations of his malady have to be – that's what you're talking about on the set.

But all the … acting's gonna be done later. All of that: All of the performances of Benjamin, all the things that make us recognize Benjamin as a character, are going to added on top of, you know, the vessel that carries that spirit through the movie.
  • Christine Lagorio

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