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
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
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...
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
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
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
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.
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."
(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
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
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...
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
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.
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?
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
KATHERINE: And one of those things,
when David was going through this difficult period was that God was
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
It's such a gorgeous shot.
DAVID: It's like "You are the coolest
person in the world."
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
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?
DAVID: You can ask a question if you
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
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.