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BUILDING THE BRIDGE
AN INTERVIEW WITH the WRITERS of the TERABITHIA BOOK and FILM

AUTHOR KATHERINE PATERSON and HER SCREENWRITER SON DAVID

What a thrill to sit down and talk with Katherine Paterson (the author of Bridge to Terabithia) and her son David Paterson (who is both the screenwriter of the film, and the inspiration for the story). I shared the interview with Zach Diestler from justpressplay.net and the publicity folks were kind enough to let my 10 year old daughter Sierra sit in as well, and she even gets to ask a question, too! I'll admit that I only read the book a few weeks before seeing the movie, but it's already earned a place in my heart as one of the most touching and gorgeous stories I've ever read.

After watching the movie, and talking to David, it's clear that he was able to make a perfect translation of the film that elaborates without losing any of the brilliant storytelling and heart from the original book. I hope you don't mind the movie script style way I'm displaying this interview

retroCRUSH: Taking things back a bit. In 1985, there's an adaptation of Terabithia made as a TV movie...not quite the most faithful adaptation of the book, I suppose. The time between that and now, what's creatively is happening where you're thinking about a big full feature version of this movie, fleshing out the characters that are (in the book) just in their imagination. At what point did you decide that that would be an extra way to tell the story, by visualizing the characters of Terabithia?

DAVID: Well, the '85 version is sort of like the crazy cousin that nobody talks about. You know? No one on our side was either involved with it or happy with the final product, so it was just one of those things that just...

retroCRUSH: It's there!

DAVID: Yeah, it happens. But I actually tried to make "Bridge" into a movie right around 1990. It's 17 years in the making. And probably the main reason is that I didn't want another Wonderworks script version of Bridge to Terabithia. The book is so close to me and my family, and others who we lived with back when I was 8 years old that I...there was always more than just making the movie. Over those years I was offered money for the rights, just to let it go and stuff like that. But it was never about that. I know it sounds crazy but it was never about money. Maybe eventually I'll be that way, it is Hollywood.

retroCRUSH: Yeah, wise up!

KATHERINE: No, you're not allowed to do that! (laughs)

DAVID: It's always about honoring the story and honoring my best friend was I was 8, and making a tribute to her. The book is clearly a tribute to her. But here I can do it in a different medium, because there are people who haven't read the book...and it would be great to reach out to them and the audience base, and I bet a couple of them will say, "Now I gotta read the book." So I'm hoping I'm promoting books. And that's one of the wonderful things about Walden. The promote the movie, but they actually promote reading, as well. Which is very unusual. It's very non-Hollywood.

KATHERINE: They talked Harper into giving away 150,000 copies of the book to schools that couldn't afford to buy them. Which makes me very happy.

ZACH: Actually, during the day, I work in schools, and I was able to, just yesterday, see books...Bridge to Terabithia, all over the desks, so it's definitely getting out there. You mentioned about the different mediums, and I was wondering, do you see with the adaptation, sort of a different...almost like a rhapsody on the book? Or do you see it as...

KATHERINE: That's a nice way to put it. I never had anybody say it that way...That's a wonderful thing, a variation on it.

DAVID: It's a celebration of the book.

KATHERINE: Yeah.

DAVID: First of all, my mother wrote the book, so I wasn't going to change it. It's a wonderful book. It doesn't need to be improved upon. But as I said, I had an opportunity to put it into a different medium, but it was always about the book. Which is what most of my battles were with the other creative types. Is when they wanted to inflict some different changes and stuff...you gotta keep the eye on the prize. And the prize is the book. It's the prize and the gift, it's all of that. I wanted to be able to tell that story. The problem with Hollywood today is they sometimes start with good intentions and take a wonderful book, and then when they're done you have absolutely no idea what they just made (laughs) it has no similarity to the book whatsoever. That's why I have to respect Walden for that because they...I had to wait 17 years for Walden Media to be made as a company, because their number one goal is to respect the original source material, and be faithful to the story. And encourage reading, again it's just crazy in a Hollywood sense.

KATHERINE: It's wonderful.

retroCRUSH: I think I was blown away with how faithful it truly was and the extra things that were added really did compliment it. I know, if you read some of the movie message board about people anticipating the movie...

DAVID: (laughs) Oh, they're furious!

retroCRUSH: Right, but it was like (they were saying), "There's NO WAY that they're going to make this like the book because it's such an un-Hollywood type of ending. It was nice to see that. Was there some battles to change the story with Disney?

DAVID: (laughs) Oh yeah. One reason again, why it took me so long was, there were studios that were like "you just need to change the ending and change a couple other things" and mine (answer) was "No" and they were taken aback. "There's a pile of money on the table and all you have to do is let us...improve on it!" That's the thing about Hollywood, "I love your idea, here's what's wrong with it."

retroCRUSH: (laughs) Yeah...Leslie should be an alien!

DAVID: (laughs) I've heard some more (weirder) things... Now I completely lost what the question was.

retroCRUSH: No you got it, you had some struggles there.

DAVID: There was battles. Even though Walden was on our side, there were points when we didn't agree. I'm very tenacious. I know I seem very charming here, but if you tick me off I can be very mean and aggressive. And even when that failed, as we got closer to filming, I did what any smart kid does, I called my Mommy! And I said, "Mom, they're not listening to me. There's this scene I don't like, I didn't write it!" And my Mom would pick up the phone and say, "I don't think David is happy, and I'm not happy either." And believe it or not they would listen to her. Which, again, they didn't have any legal requirements to listen to her, but they went back to honoring the author of the original material.

KATHERINE: I couldn't believe it either, actually.

DAVID: Being new to Hollywood, I thought that calling my Mommy wasn't the coolest thing to do in filmmaking, but if it was actually going to get my point across, and again, protect the original material, then I'll call my Mommy... At certain points I wasn't the most popular person on this project, but that's OK, it wasn't a popularity contest...it was about making a good film. I wanted to make THE version of Bridge to Terabithia, I didn't want to make A version of it.

ZACH: I think you definitely succeeded.

KATHERINE: (After I saw it) they said, "You liked it?" and I said "I loved it!" They couldn't believe I was happy with it, because I would be the worst...

DAVID: And they'd say, "Is it everything you dreamed?" and I'd say, "No, there were certain things that I would have fixed, but...

KATHERINE: Well they would say, "Is it what you envisioned?" and I'd say, "No, it's never going to be what I envisioned." Every child who reads the book is going to have a different vision.

DAVID: Everyone who reads the book is their own interior film maker. They make the movie in their head and they're going to make their own Terabithia.

KATHERINE: That's why you want readers because they'll bring their own experience and their imagination.

DAVID: I'll bump into people who'll say, "I remember they had these giants, and these tigers, and dragons" and there's none of that in the book. But they remember that because that's the film ithey made in their head. They had these incredible visions. My mother barely brushes over that. I mean she mentions trolls and she mentions giants, but that's pretty much it. She mentions battles, but everyone else just fills it, literally 20-30 pages from their own mind, with what happens. And that's the beauty of imagination. And that's one thing that I certainly wanted to make a strong point of in the film.

ZACH: One thing I saw as a positive, and actually as a child reading it, I remember reading it and really just thanking God that there was a book that was kind of giving me another person that I could identify with that was in touch with his feelings that was not the typified male thing that I felt possibly that I needed to live up to. And I really appreciated that in the film you didn't shy away from that.

DAVID: Well the genius of my mother's writing is that she wrote the book 30 years ago, but it resonates just as much with kids today. Because she addresses some of the most basic emotions and basic feelings we all have, of insecurity. "What's my reason on this planet?" "Why does someone not like me?"...and with us as adults. There's bullies in our offices, and there's jerks...but it all centers down to the most basic emotions. And that's what I say, that she still has this little girl trapped inside of her, writing these books, and she still can associate with youths. But it still resonates with adults...The things that she touches on are the things that are so essential to coexistence on this planet: friendship, trust, sadness is a part of it. And she doesn't shy away from that, either. We have to be careful what we say, you know, not giving away anything in the movie, but there's conflict in life, and kids have to face it. They have to face some ugly concepts and ugly conflicts in life. Beause it's not a fairy world. You don't snap your fingers and any bad things go away.

retroCRUSH: It's amazing how few children's stories treat death in a realistic way. Aside from making your kid watch Old Yeller, make your kid think that dog is similar to what they're going through. I was interested, both the book and the movie, it's one of the only children's stories I've seen where the motives of God are questioned in a real philosophical way. I know that you (Katherine) had some trouble with that in the book's early days where there were some schools. Did that remain an issue during the making of the film, as well, because that's...

DAVID: Well, I like your (Katherine's) answer as to why some of that stuff is in the book-

KATHERINE: What was that answer? (laughs)

DAVID: That you put yourself into your books and that was just an aspect of yourself.

KATHERINE: And also, you know, the theology of the children is not my theology. It's how children view these things.

retroCRUSH: Sure.

KATHERINE: And one of those things, when David was going through this difficult period was that God was punishing him.

DAVID: I didn't know what I had done

KATHERINE: He knew Lisa wasn't bad so he figured it was him, and God had a list to kill off all the people that he loved, for his sins. Well that's not the theology my husband and I had taught him, but that's a child desperately trying to find meaning. And I think that's what we're always doing. We're desperately trying to find meaning. And even I, writing the book, was trying to find meaning in a tragedy that has no meaning. I could not, I mean, lightning strikes a child dead, which is what actually happened (to David's 8 year old childhood friend, Lisa). I mean try to make sense of that to an 8 year old, I couldn't make sense out of it myself. But stories make sense. You begin to shape it.

DAVID: Even in that, though, she doesn't give her characters answers.

retroCRUSH: There is no answer.

DAVID: There is no answer, and that's what...if you don't make up one, there's this empty space in your heart and you don't know how to get rid of it. It's because it's there, that's what life is. Life has pain occasionally. It's one reason it (the book) is banned a lot because they don't want children at such an early age, 8 or 9 or 10, to face these types of issues. They want to save it until Junior High or something.

KATHERINE: Books give us a rehearsal for things that we have to face. So we want to have that rehearsal before we actually have to deal with it in life, if possible.  He was 8.  So you can't protect your children from everything. But you hope that you helped them to have the strength to endure what they're going to have to face.

ZACH: I think that what's great about it is that the tragedy in the book and the tragedy in the film are not seen explicitly...I just really appreciated that. I think that does give way for a young person to see this movie and not be traumatized by it. They can identify, maybe through the death of a relative-

DAVID: Sometimes it comes through a phone call. That's how it happened to me. One day I was having probably one of my regular great days and my Mom and Dad had to sit me down on the couch and tell me that not only was my friend gone, but that I would never see her again.

KATHERINE: Which he couldn't accept at first. He kept expecting her to come back. I just read Joan Didion's "Year of Magical (Thinking)", anyhow, a year after her husband died, she won't get rid of any of his clothes because if he came back he'd need them.

DAVID: Just to let you know, "The Big D", Disney, didn't want us to use the "D" word in any of our interviews, so we're still learning. They don't want us to give away the ending.

KATHERINE: I do understand it, in a sense, because parents who aren't acquainted with the book, who don't know the story...say, "Well I'm certainly not taking my kids to see that!"

DAVID: Yeah, "they wouldn't be able to handle that!" So we hope you guys will skirt the issue.

retroCRUSH: It's such a beautiful thing to be surprised by. In fact, just reading it out loud to my children two weeks ago for the first time, it definitely hit us, we didn't see it coming. It's definitely a bit of a curve.

KATHERINE: In defense of the writer, there is foreshadowing.

(everyone laughs)

retroCRUSH: What I do like, in retrospect with the film, knowing the book, I don't think it's one of those things where if you know the secret of what's going to happen, you really learn to fall in love with that character a lot more knowing what might be to come, and I think even that final look at them when they're walking away, it's kind of emotional-

KATHERINE: Isn't that beautiful?

retroCRUSH: It's such a gorgeous shot.

DAVID: It's like "You are the coolest person in the world."

retroCRUSH: It's really...that's when I started crying, because you know this is it. It's a really beautiful scene.

DAVID: Timmy Morrison cried.

KATHERINE: (amazed) Timmy Morrison? Big Republican Timmy Morrison?

retroCRUSH: Well, you know it's good if a Republican cries.

DAVID: He came up to me and said, "I cried...I hate you!" Which is really a big compliment.

retroCRUSH: I saw it at a critics' screening yesterday and there were maybe 9 people in the audience, all professional reviewers, and everyone is walking out of there like this (makes gesture of walking out with head down and rubbing your eyes). It's almost like they felt guilty, "I wasn't expecting this!"

DAVID: (laughs) "I'm not supposed to react to it, just judge it!"

(At this point, the publicity folks tell us we have time for one more question)

ZACH: (laughs) I'm starting to cry...

DAVID: (to my daughter) Sierra, do you have a question?

KATHERINE: Yeah!

DAVID: You can ask a question if you want.

SIERRA: (very shyly) I don't have one...

DAVID: I didn't mean to put you on the spot, I apologize.

retroCRUSH: Didn't you want to ask them what it was like to write the book?

SIERRA: Well, did you think that the book would become a film when you were writing it?

KATHERINE: I wasn't even sure that my editor would publish it. It was so different from anything I had ever written before and I never remembered reading another book before like it. I thought that I'm writing the story that I have to write. I was totally unprepared after it was published when people began to tell me how much they loved it. Somebody asked me earlier, "When did you first know that you had something?" and it was when I won the Newberry (laughs). I guess that meant that people really liked the book.

DAVID: But here we are 30 years later and the book's doing just as good. It's in 25 different languages, so clearly through translations, her story still carries through.

KATHERINE: Except there was these comments from a teacher in China who was teaching it and she couldn't believe that 1 brother with 4 sisters wasn't the king of the lot (laughs) why was HE doing all the dirty work? The girls should have been doing that (laughs).

We thanked them for their interview and they took the time to write a very nice inscription in Sierra's copy of the book.

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

 

 

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