Recollections of earlier times can often bring contentment in people’s lives, as they can think back to pleasurable relationships and joyful times with their friends and families. But memories can also bring about emotional pain and suffering that’s often difficult to overcome. The powerful debate over whether the manipulation of these agonizing memories can truly make a society more pleasant to live in is intriguingly explored in the new sci-fi drama, “The Giver,” which was directed by Phillip Noyce, and based on the acclaimed best-selling novel of the same name by Lois Lowry.
‘The Giver’ Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who lives in a community where harmony is created by created by a strictly engineered existence. Jonas and his family, friends and neighbors are deprived of the burden of memories of historical events, so they don’t have to suffer violence or pain. But the intelligent Jonas is unique in the way that he can see colors in an environment that prevents any distinctiveness that may stimulate sensation and alter the order of their structured world.
Due to his intelligence and integrity, the community’s Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) selects Jonas to inherit the position of the community’s Receiver of Memories during the Ceremony where graduating teens are assigned their vocations. In the most-honored position in the community, Jonas will become the keeper of ancient memories before the current time of Sameness. The Elders place great faith in Jonas’ ability to guard the secrets and memories of the past, but they are also worried. The last teen who was chosen to take on the position as the Receiver, Rosemary (Taylor Swift), was unable to carry through with her responsibilities of the job.
Jonas soon enters into training with the current Receiver, who is now known as the Giver (Jeff Bridges). While absorbing memories from his new mentor, he becomes secluded from his childhood friends, Fionna (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan), and family, including Mother (Katie Holmes), Father (Alexander Skarsgård), younger sister, Lilly (Emma Tremblay), as he learns about love and pleasure, as well as pain, sadness and war. The new Receiver soon discovers that the model society he lives in is actually dystopian, as the elders are depriving citizens of joy and the freedom of choice. Jonas becomes even more upset when he finds out that newborn Gabriel, who his family is taking care of until he’s strong enough to be given to another family unit, and is already exhibiting the same traits as he is, may actually not fit to the community’s standards to continue living. So Jonas and the Giver decide the young Receiver must bring on change in the community, so that everyone can truly live their lives the way they wish.
Several members of ‘The Giver’s cast, including Bridges, Streep, Thwaites, Holmes, Swift, Rush, Monaghan and Tremblay, were joined by Noyce, Lowry and the film’s screenwriters, Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, at a recent press conference for the sci-fi drama at New York City’s JW Marriott Essex House Hotel. Among other things, the director, actors, screenwriters and book author discussed how Bridges’ reps first approached Lowry with the idea to adapt the book into a film 18 years ago, as he wanted to direct his father in a project his children could see, and the novel’s story appealed to him; how the cast and crew like the fatc that the movie and the book as isn’t pressuring audiences to accept a certain idea about society, but instead makes them question the lengths people are willing to go to for their comfort and safety; and how the movie’s visual look, including the sets and color schemes, were inspired by Lowry’s visual writing, and skillfully created by production designer Ed Verreaux.
Jeff Bridges (JB): I just want to acknowledge the fullness of life, and the joy and the sadness that is in store for us all. I’m filled with both of them today, as I was last night (Monday, August 11, 2014) learning of my dear friend’s passing, Robin (Williams). The wonderful, joyous feeling of giving birth to our child here, ‘The Giver,’ and the combination (of Williams’ death) is just quite remarkable. It reminded me of what The Giver and The Receiver might’ve felt, holding all those memories. It was an amazing night.
I remember pulling up to the boathouse where we had our (premiere) party, and I was sitting there with my wife, trying to gather myself. I looked out the window and said, “Is that Robin? Is that his ghost? No, it’s Radio Man!” It brought back all of these wonderful feelings of what an amazing time together here in New York, shooting ‘The Fisher King.’
I got out of the car, embraced the Radio Man and looked in his face. I remember when we were shooting ‘Fisher King,’ Radio Man remembers where all the movies were shot. I don’t know how he magically does it. But I remember seeing Radio Man, and we could not believe that Robin’s character was there in the flesh, in reality.
So we embraced Radio Man, and I felt Robin’s spirit as I’m feeling him now in this room with us. Just before I came down, I was looking out my window to Central Park, my favorite part about New York, and I was remembering the last scene of me and Robin, out there at four o’clock in the morning, nude. Robin was just wild and free, and he said, “Let the wild pony dance!” He was rubbing his butt on the grass, saying, “You know why dogs do this? Because they can!” He was just so wild. I just had to share that with you, because that’s how much I miss him, I’m sure you guys do too.
What a gift he was to all of us, and what a gift Lois gave us with her wonderful book. It was wonderful of Phillip to put it up on the screen. (Room applauds.)
Question (Q): Ms. Lowry, this all begins with you. This book came out 20 years ago, so you may not have necessarily thought this day would come. When did it enter your mind that a film might be [on the horizon], and is it something you always welcomed with open arms?
Lois Lowry (LL): As you said, it was 20 years ago, but it was two years after that that (producer) Nikki (Silver) and Jeff came to me. That’s a lie, they didn’t come to me personally, their people to suggest that we turn it into a movie, as if it would be easy at the time, but maybe good things never come easy. So it was a very long haul. Eighteen years after that day, finally the movie’s on the screen. Most of the people who are here with us today would not have been a part of it eighteen years ago, so good things come to those who wait.
Q: Jeff, you also act as a producer on the film, so your association, as Lois said, goes way back. It’s a very personal connection for you too. Why did this resonate with you on a personal level?
JB: My association in the film goes back eighteen years. I wanted to direct my father in something, and I wanted it to be something that my kids could see. They were all young, but they’re all in their thirties now. So I got a catalogue of children’s books, and I was looking at the different covers, and I saw this photograph of an old, grizzled guy. I thought, my dad could play that part. I also noticed the Newbery Award stamp on there. I said, “Oh, this might be good!”
I read it, and of course it knocked me out. Even though it’s a kids’ book, I just loved the story and the themes in it. I was very excited about it, and I brought it in to tell my wife about it, and the kids said, “Oh, we know that book. We’re taught that book in school.” I said, “What are you talking about?” They say, “Yeah, there’s a lesson plan for it.” I said, “You’re kidding me!”
My excitement grew, and then I when find out it’s also on the list of banned books, and I then get more excited. I said, “Oh, this is going be a cinch to get made. Over 10 million copies in 21 countries, the money guys are gonna go crazy over this.” That did not prove to be true. The controversy of it being one of the banned books, and selling so many copies and being popular in school, freaked them out.
Also, when we finally got the script together, it was very challenging to put this world that Lois had created in the book up on the screen. So much of it was in your (points to Brenton) dialogue that Jonas was having with himself. Bob Weide was our first writer, and we spent a week or so up at my place, jammin’ on the story. It was challenging, but we dug it. We took it around and the financiers were too shocked, it took this long to get to the screen.
I’m really so pleased it did take this long, because this is the right team. Casting is everything, and not only with the actors, but also the crew and certainly our director, Phillip Noyce, and our director of photography, Ross Emery. If it was made earlier, Odeya wasn’t born. We would not have had Odeya with us and the whole team wouldn’t have been there. So I’m glad the gestation period was that long.
LL: I’m just glad it didn’t take any longer, because I’m 77 years old!
Q: As you mentioned, Jeff, Bob wrote the original screenplay. Was it a challenging thing to crack in the initial going?
Robert Weide (RW): It was challenging. People have asked me if I felt the pressure of how loved the book is, and all those readers it has. Of course at the time I wrote my drafts, the book was only a couple years old and it didn’t have a following, but it had won a Newbery Award. But I loved the book and a book is not a movie, so changes had to be made, but all that was done with the notion of being true to the spirit of the book.
Lois and I were in touch during that time; we had phone calls and I would run things by her, and she’s very non-territorial and not precious about her words. I’d suggest what we needed to change, and she said it all sounds good.
As Jeff said, a lot of the book is internalized, especially Jonas’s thoughts and reactions to what’s going on, so how do you put it up on the screen? The other big challenge is, without giving anything away, is in the book, once Jonas flees the community, the story stay with him on his journey, and then goes back to the community to see how his exodus has affected the people in the community. You got to see how his leaving affects the community, and that basically meant creating storylines. It all felt quite organic to me, and years later it was honed and perfected by Michael. One thing about our two scripts is that they’re 17 years apart. Michael and I hadn’t met until last week (the first week of August 2014). By the way, I suggested everybody should collaborate that way. That’s the way to do it, because there isn’t any arguing. When I read Michael’s finished script, it really felt like a true collaboration, as though we had sat down side-by-side and wrote it out together.
Q: What was the decision process of shooting the movie in black and white? Is that something that you all collaborated on together, was there any discussion of going the other way?
Phillip Noyce (PN): We just wanted Jonas’s and everyone’s limited perception, and Jonas’s gathering perception of color, and structured the color scheme around that. Of course, you don’t have to see black and white when you’re reading Lois’s book, but you can imagine you’re watching the events in color. But we had to make some pretty hard decisions and we laid out the film from first frame to last and then shot it that way, and that’s how you see it in the cinema.
Q: To our young actors here today, did any of you know this book prior to coming to the material? What struck you about it?
Odeya Rush (OR): When I read the book, it was one of those things that really changed my perspective on a lot of things. I think when I read it, I was in probably fifth grade, and I didn’t do a lot of thinking about the distant future, as far as our society goes. That really kind of switched that up for me, and it really kind of blew my mind in a way that stuck with me. When I got this script, I just immediately thought, I’m going to say yes to this. I really hope it’s a good adaptation, and I think it’s a good portrayal.
Q: For Ms. Streep, this is a different part from what we’ve ever seen you portray. What struck you when the script came in, when this material came your way?
Meryl Streep (MS): Well, I like to be boss, so… (laughs) So that was a good thing. I also always wanted to work with this gentleman (motions to Bridges) my entire career, but we never got the chance, as he somehow eluded me. So that was a big, big part of it. Also, I’m a big admirer of Phillip’s films, I think he’s a pure filmmaker with great taste. I knew to bring this to life, especially the colorless parts of it, would take a great artist like him.
Q: Ms. Streep, when an actor makes a movie, it’s all about the intensity of emotions, but in this film, your character is deprived of them. How did you build something which you were still able to deliver with that constriction because of who the character is?
MS: It’s an interesting thing to play people who have suppressed emotion, but I felt that the Chief Elder didn’t take her medication as well on certain days. (laughs) Clearly, she also had some deep history with the Giver, the receiver of wisdom. I think that that was something that intrigued me about this script. But in terms of the emotions, I think that’s the point of the book. You can’t keep things in, you know, you can’t suppress the things that make us human. It’s pointless to try.
Q: Katie, usually if a character doesn’t have a name, one would think that’s a limiting characteristic. You are just referred to as Mother in the film. What’s the challenge of portraying a full-bodied character that is muted and isn’t able to express herself in the ways that all of us express ourselves day-to-day?
Katie Holmes (KH): Well, it was challenging. Phillip was continuously reminding us not to touch each other, which I find to be something you just do naturally as a mother and as a human being. That was one of the things. But I just approached it as a mother whose child is leaving the nest. That’s what kind of made the character real to me. It was interesting to play someone who has no emotion.
Q: Brenton, Odeya and Cameron, within the first ten minutes of the film, you have a tall task, in that a lot of the rest of the film rides on what you establish in this very core relationship and the fracturing of that relationship as the film progresses. Since you shot the movie in South Africa, did that lend itself to helping establish a bond that you could portray on screen in those first few key scenes?
OR: I I think we are like family now. They’re like my brothers, and when you are somewhere far away…
Brenton Thwaites (BT): Brothers get to punch their sisters, so…(He [retends to Rush and laughs.)
OR: Anyway, as I was saying-I think when you are on location and not everybody has their family there, you do become a family with the rest of the cast and crew. We had a Thanksgiving together on the beach and we got together on weekends. Just being with the movie crew and being with the local South Africans, everybody just became really close. Aside from Brenton, everyone’s really easy to get along with…
BT: I’ve got nothing, bro! I’ve got nothing! I’ve used them all up! I’ve got none left!
Q: The idea that knowledge is power is such a prevalent idea in this film. For each of you, was there something that when you were around Jonas’s age that you learned that really affected you and helped you throughout your respective careers?
Cameron Monaghan (CM): I learned how to ride a bicycle, but it turns out that might not have been the case. We had these death traps that were built for this movie, these heavy steel bikes. I got my shoelace caught in the chain once, and I fell into a bush. I think we have a bunch of outtakes of me being completely incapable and uncoordinated. I wish I would’ve properly learned that lesson.
BT: Emma, how was the bike for you?
Emma Tremblay (ET): It was hard. I needed somebody to teach me how to ride the bicycle because they’re heavy and hard. It’s not like the bicycles we use!
PN: They were prop bicycles, meaning we made them cheaply! They fell apart and were very heavy.
Q: Taylor, a lot of attention has been given to the fact that this is a significant step for you in the acting world. What were you looking for in your first dramatic role? What about this one made it the right time and the right project?
Taylor Swift (TS): Like Meryl, it’s unbelievable to even think about having the opportunity to work with Jeff. I think for me that was just an unbelievable concept that I would get to do this dream scenario, which was a very small role but is a pivotal part in the story. But the role wasn’t about jumping into too deep water for my first time in a serious, dramatic movie. I think that the fact that it was all those things put together, and it was a story that stuck with me from my childhood and was by an author I really respect, are the things that are most important to me.
In a world where so many of my fans write to me on Instagram and Twitter and in letters, saying that they’re having such a tough time with life because they can’t imagine that we can experience such great pain, intense loss and insecurity. The thing that I just wish I could tell them over and over again is that we live for these fleeting moments of happiness. Happiness is not a constant-it’s something that we only experience a glimpse of every once in a while, but it’s worth it. I think that’s what they’ll take away from this movie.
Q: Did you ever have a conversation about the science fiction implications of this film, including the backstory that led to this culture or the post-apocalyptic scenario?
JB: I’m trying to remember what my scenario was, and I think it went along with our darker side as it surfaced, and we put a stop to that by trying to perfect ourselves. This is an example of one of the things we try to get convenient. It’s that immediate gratification that’s a part of being human beings. We tend to go that way, as that’s a part of who we are.
One of the things I like about this movie and the book as well is that it’s not really shoving a message down the audience’s throat, but it hopefully is provoking them to ask some questions. What are we willing to do for our comfort and our safety, and what is the true cost of that as a human being?
Q: What was the process of creating the visual and technical aspects of film, including the special effects?
PN: Lois had conceived a certain type of community, which was based on her experiences growing up in military bases all around the world. One of the places that she lived in was in Tokyo just after the second World War, where she, like Jonas, would leave the walls of the base and venture out into the madness that was postwar Tokyo. Another story she told us was growing up on Governor’s Island, surrounded by water. When you read the novel, you can see those two influences.
I went for holiday in Cape Town, South Africa, and took a shot of my son on top of Table Mountain. When I was coming home in the plane, I looked at it, and I looked into his eyes as he looked out into those clouds. I thought, wow, that could be Jonas dreaming about going to the benevolent version of Elsewhere.
That became one of the ideas that we explored, which combined two of Lois’s experiences, which were combined to produce this community. It was one of several communities on top of a mesa, and surrounded by a cloud bank that was a barrier to the outside.
Going to shoot the film in South Africa was a big decision because it meant that the quality of light, the vegetation and everything were just a little different than most of the rest of the world. So, the world looks a little different. While it also looks a little familiar, there’s something weird about it.
The color schemes, as I’ve said, were inspired by Lois’s wonderfully visual writing, and created by Ed Verreaux, our production designer. We discussed how those houses would look, starting with the military style houses of the 50s that Lois had imagined, and going right through to mid-21st century housing. We ended up with about twelve different designs, passed them around, including to our writer, and she chose the same one as the rest of us, which was the architectural style.
I could go on and on about the look of the film. A lot of it, of course, is CG, and many of buildings are not built when we actually filmed. They were designed by Ed Verreaux, and then built by our CG team. They were all created in the name of sameness and a supposedly egalitarian world, free of conflict. So design came from Lois’s ideas, both written and ideas that she told us.
Q: Michael, listening to Robert and Lois talk about the foundation that they put together years ago, and you coming in on the project about 17 years after the fact, what were specifically some of the things you brought to the table as a writer?
Michael Mitnick (MM): I first encountered the book in the classroom, in Mrs. Braumberg’s fifth grade English class in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it stayed with me. What I tried to do was be invisible and hopefully be a successful extension of Lois’s voice. There are added beats into the movie, which are extrapolations of waves that run throughout the book. What I tried my best to do, and I know everyone did, was to both honor the book and make a good movie.
Q: Meryl, between this movie, ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Ricki and the Flash,’ it seems recently you’re picking roles that you can have the most fun in. Was that a purposeful choice by you?
MS: As opposed to punishing myself in the rest of my career! (laughs) I certainly am having fun with the things that I’ve been offered. I’m so fortunate and really happy to have been included in this amazing group, and in the next things. God knows how they’ll turn out, but I have hope.
Watch a clip of ‘The Giver’ press conference in New York below.
Written by: Karen Benardello