ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Jonathon Saffron Fowler's novel, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," told the story of a young boy whose father died on 9/11 in the World Trade Center. The boy is precociously smart and talkative, socially ill at ease and fearful. His imagination was encouraged by his father and he is now grief stricken, trying to solve a puzzle that might connect him to his father once again.
The novel is now a movie and the child is at the center of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE")
THOMAS HORN: (as Oskar Schell) Who's that?
VIOLA DAVIS: (as Abby Black) My husband. You must think this is very odd.
HORN: (as Oskar Schell) Well, I think a lot of things are odd. People tell me I'm very odd all the time. I got tested once to see if I had Asperger's disease. Dad said it's for people who are smarter than everybody else, but can't run straight. Tests weren't definitive. Are you sure you didn't know him? Thomas Schell. He was in the building on 9/11. I'm trying to find the lock for this key that was in the envelope that once belonged to my father.
SIEGEL: That's young Thomas Horn playing Oskar Schell. In the book, Schell was nine years old, but they aged him up in the film to 11, and he was speaking there to the character Abby Black, played by Viola Davis.
The film also stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and there are smaller roles played by John Goodman, Max von Sydow, Zoe Caldwell, but it really depends on the performance of someone who, by definition, would not be a very experienced film actor. The challenge of coaxing a good performance out of him fell to director Stephen Daldry, who also directed a young Jamie Bell in "Billy Elliot."
Daldry says, in this case, Thomas Horn was not simply an inexperienced actor. He wasn't an actor at all.
STEPHEN DALDRY: My producer, Scott Rudin, remembered seeing a young man win Kid Jeopardy the year before and that was Thomas Horn and we brought him in for an audition. And, obviously, I'm the director, so I'm bound to say this, but I think other people are responding in the same way, that I think that Thomas Horn gives probably one of the greatest screen performances by a young actor ever.
SIEGEL: He had won over $30,000 when he was...
DALDRY: He had, indeed.
SIEGEL: ...when he was 12 and Scott Rudin figured that the kid would be a natch?
DALDRY: He did and he was right. We brought him in and we went through a pretty extensive audition process. And, as you can imagine, Thomas has an extraordinary intelligence and determination, courage and tenacity, but what he also has is an extraordinary emotional range and an ability to tap into it.
And the two are very different. You know, the character of Oskar, as you said, is very fearful and has all sorts of phobias and is suffering catastrophic loss and there's no loss in Thomas' life and Thomas doesn't have those phobias, but we went on a long and extensive research program with him and he, as I say, gives one of the most astonishing performances.
SIEGEL: Apart from winning Jeopardy, is there something?
DALDRY: Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar now had never been interested in acting at all until we contacted him.
SIEGEL: So how do you do that? How do you establish a rapport with a kid about to act for the first time?
DALDRY: I think the most important thing you have to do is create a methodology, so you actually have to create a language in which you can talk about how to break a script down, what the emotions are, how we achieve that, how we go forward.
And I have a particular methodology which I've found incredibly useful over the years. In brief, it's this sort of late-Stanislavsky methodology of how you break a script down into your actions and intentions and you create a little bible, if you like, of an understanding of what the text is. And we spent many months with Thomas doing just that.
SIEGEL: It is - it's a terribly sad movie. I mean, there's - I've compared notes, one of my colleagues felt, liked it a lot but manipulative at the end. It's making me cry at the end, forcing me to share the grief of this family and the problems of this boy. What was your intent? What did you want to make me do at the end of the movie?
DALDRY: Me, personally?
DALDRY: Ring up your parents and ring up your kids and tell them that you love them.
SIEGEL: That would be a take-away message.
DALDRY: That's the take-away message.
SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Daldry, thanks a lot for talking with us about the film and about him.
SIEGEL: That's Stephen Daldry, the director of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.