Adapting The Kite Runner: An Interview with Marc Forster
by Rahul Hamid
Marc Forster (right) on set with Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada and Zekeria Ebrahimi (left and center) as Hassan and the young Amir.
Regardless of the genre, Marc Forster specializes in carefully crafted, character-driven films. Best known as the director of Halle Berry's Oscar-winning performance in Monster's Ball (2001) and for choreographing the strangely chaste romance between Johnny Depp's J. M. Barrie and Kate Winslet's Sylvia Davies in Finding Neverland (2004), Forster has shown a great facility for creating atmosphere, and for telling a story intelligently through pictures. In two independent productions, Everything Put Together (2000) and Stay(2005) (scripted by David Benioff, who also wrote The Kite Runner screenplay), he has experimented with nonlinear editing, subjective camera, and expressionistic lighting to create disturbing psychological thrillers. In his most recent film, Stranger than Fiction (2006), he delved into the comic-absurdist, self-reflexive terrain of Charlie Kaufman to good effect.
Born in Germany, but raised and educated in Switzerland, Forster came to NYU for film school and seems to have inherited the mindset of a much earlier generation of European émigrés to Hollywood. Rather than aiming for auteurist cinema, Forster thrives on the challenges presented by the different stories and genres he chooses, and seems to delight in finding the directorial solutions needed to meet them. As if to demonstrate the point, his current film, set in Afghanistan and the U.S., is an adaptation of The Kite Runner, a novel written by Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini, while his next movie is the twenty-second installment of the James Bond franchise.
Living up to the expectations of the millions of fans of the enormously successful bestseller was surely the biggest challenge Forster faced in making The Kite Runner. Hosseini, a practicing medical doctor and first-time writer, found a golden formula by setting a heart-tugging story of redemption, family, and friendship in the exotic, politically-charged war zone of Afghanistan. Hosseini fills the book with details of traditional Afghan culture, paints an idyllic portrait of pre-Soviet-invasion Kabul, and confronts the various religious and ethnic schisms that define his country.
The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, the son of a wealthy merchant, and his servant Hassan. The two boys grow up together, both having lost their mothers; they even share a nursemaid. Amir is Pashtun, a member of the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, and therefore a Sunni Muslim. Hassan is a Hazara, an Asiatic people who are Shia. Amir hides his friendship with Hassan when others are present, and maintains the class and ethnic boundaries that separate them, while Hassan is unendingly and publicly loyal and faithful to Amir. Assef, an older Pashtun boy and virulent racist, disapproves of their relationship and bullies them relentlessly. On the day of Amir and Hassan's greatest triumph as friends, a victory in the annual Kabul kite-flying tournament, Assef takes his ultimate revenge. The kite tournament consists of two parts: the first is a contest between pairs of kite flyers who use string infused with crushed glass to cut away opponents' kites; the second part is kite running, chasing down the unmoored kites in order to capture them as trophies. Hassan is a talented kite runner and when he and Amir cut the last kite to win the contest, he promises to bring it back. While tracking it down he is confronted by Assef and two older boys. Amir sees the confrontation, but hangs back afraid to intervene. He watches, frozen, as Assef rapes Hassan. Amir, whose only wish is to impress and earn the love of his larger than life and courageous father, Baba, feels that he has failed in every way. Torn up by guilt he turns on Hassan and contrives to get Hassan and his father, a family servant for over forty years, dismissed. Flashing forward about fifteen years, the movie finds Amir and Baba having fled Kabul and settled in California's Bay Area. Amir is still haunted by his past, which eventually returns in the form of a phone call from an old family friend. Amir is forced to return to Afghanistan and confront all the things he has long been loathe to face. He even has to deal with Assef, now a high-ranking member of the Taliban.
Hosseini's novel, though compelling, is full of coincidences and forgotten connections that would make even Dickens blush. It is also burdened by a narrator who tells viewers exactly what to think at every moment throughout the story. One of Forster's greatest achievements is to remove this overbearing narrative voice and allow the viewer to intuit the relationships and situations. He also endeavors to redeem many of the more unbelievable scenes in the novel (although he can do only so much while remaining faithful to the book). In casting the film, the actors all seem to fit their characters in the novel, with the exception of Baba. In casting Homayoun Ershadi, an Iranian actor most well known for his portrayal of the suicidal man in Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry, Forster takes a chance. Ershadi is a slight man with haunted eyes and not a natural choice for the masculine edifice described by Hosseini. Ershadi's amazing performance—bittersweet, noble, and world-weary—redeems Forster's choice, allowing him to place his own stamp on the story.
Forster's commitment to smooth visual storytelling actually allows the film to become one of the more politically nuanced treatments of this subject matter. Overtly political films can often feel like bludgeons, oversimplifying the issues that they seek to tackle. In The Kite Runner, story and character come before ideology; but nonetheless, in the interest of creating fully formed characters Forster allows even the ostensibly villainous Assef to say his piece and justify his position. A range of Muslim religiosity is depicted. While we see the abuses of the Taliban and even witness the stoning of adulterers, we also see a trip to the mosque as a healing and cleansing experience for Hassan, a notable exception to the rule in American movies, where it's rare to see a Muslim man praying without a belt full of C-4 strapped to his waist. Even the contradictions and disappointments that mark the lives of new immigrants to the U.S. are given a voice in the film. Sometimes the most old-fashioned filmmaking values prove to be the most rewarding. Cineastecaught up with Forster in New York, busily promoting The Kite Runner's release.—Rahul Hamid
Cineaste:I was very impressed with your adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel. You seemed to favor showing over telling. Can you tell me about that process?
Marc Forster It was really imperative for me and David Benioff to work without using a voice-over, to take out as much as possible and to tell the story visually. It was kind of scary, because so many people worship the book. I wanted to try to capture the book's essence and have the film be a companion piece to it.
Cineaste:What is the status of the controversy surrounding the child actors' safety, which caused you to delay the release of the film.
Forster When I began casting the film two years ago, Afghanistan was a much safer place. It was the beginning of democracy, a new beginning for the country. Everyone was excited; people there were very supportive of the project. There was a feeling in the air. But recently the situation has deteriorated and it has become much more dangerous again. There were no actual threats directed at the kids; this was all done as a precaution. The school year ends in November and we changed the date so that way, when the movie comes out there will be no backlash in Afghanistan. Even if the movie doesn't come out there, there will be pirated copies on the street and we wanted to make sure that the kids were out of the country, and then we can assess the situation and determine what to do next.
Cineaste:The children did a great job in the film. I was also particularly struck by the casting of Homayoun Ershadi, whom I know from Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry. You and he chose an interesting take on the father character, Baba, who was so macho and gruff in the book. You seemed to emphasize the father's world-weariness.
Forster I first met him in Kabul—I had also seen him in A Taste of Cherry and that's how I fell in love with him. He was an architect before; he had never acted in a film before that. It's interesting, he came having read the book in Farsi after its publication in Iran, and said, "You know I really don't think I'm the character. He's six-foot-six and has huge hands, but I have all of these friends who can play the part." He kept telling me about his actor friends and was sure that he wasn't right for the part. I told him, "You're here already, why don't you at least read for me." He sat down and started reading, and he really captured me emotionally and I thought, oh my God, he's perfect for the older Baba. He'll be able to play him in a heartbeat and you'll be so emotionally attached to him. And I thought when he plays the earlier Baba, this big overpowering man, it's not only about physical stature. It's about his worldliness and his stature among those around him. You don't need to play that physically. It can be done in other ways.
It's funny, the other day we had a Q&A, and Homayoun spoke about this. He said, "Marc realized I wasn't six-foot-six, but he realized I'm six-foot-six here [points to his chest], and that's what he gave me, his heart.
Cineaste:It really was a great performance. I felt that he and the film in general showed a great deal of restraint. In particular the rape scene and the stoning scene have a lot of power, but they are quite restrained. I was wondering about your approach to these scenes and others like it in the film.
Forster There were different motivations in terms of the way violence is handled in the film. One thing is that I always intended that the film be PG-13. I had to restrain myself, because it was important to me that the film reach a younger audience. It was the first time I read a story that dealt with that part of the world that was about forgiveness, healing, and atonement and not about violence and terrorism. Often in the West when we hear the word Afghanistan, we think about bin Laden and the Taliban we don't think about the people who live there. It was the first time I read a story from there, which starts out with the people and not violence and terror. It was important to me to keep the violence restrained, because it's only a part of the story. Those scenes are story points that move the film forward, but they're not the main focus. That's not what the movie is about; it's about something else.
Cineaste:That's interesting. Since you brought the subject up, how did you come to feel comfortable as a non-Afghani, telling this story?
Forster I sometimes prefer telling a story from a culture that's not my own. I have to really be on my toes and I know that I will be judged more harshly. I have to make sure that the characters aren't stereotypes. I have to avoid falling into clichés. I have to watch myself and try to be really authentic and real. You also have to listen to people and gather lots of different perspectives. When you do a story about a culture that you think you know, you become much less open and more judgmental. You slack off on the details, because you think you know it all, so your focus shifts. This film was a similar experience to Monster's Ball, because I didn't know anything about the South. So when you are out of your own culture you are much more aware.
Cineaste:You have a really interesting take on the confrontation scene between Assef and Amir. A lot of Assef's mania from the book is taken out and while you portray the brutality and hypocrisy of his character and the Taliban, you also allow him to make his case. The film connects the invasions of Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban.
Forster It was important to understand Assef as well. He felt that he brought justice and order back to a country that had been raped. It was interesting, when I first spoke with Khaled Hosseini, it was about the symbolism of the rape scene. He felt that Hassan's rape parallels the rape of Afghanistan for the last thirty years. Amir is like the rest of the world. He just sits back and watches and doesn't do anything. Or maybe is unable to do anything. You can look at it in two different ways. It's important to not just villainize anyone, in general. In any movie when you have a villain and you just use them that way, they become two-dimensional and just a caricature. I don't think anybody in their right mind thinks that what they are doing is bad, however horrific their actions may be. At least according to their belief system, they think they are doing the right thing. Assef really believes that this is the way Afghanistan should be and that's really how he feels. Obviously you can see that he's not very humane, but it's important to understand the psychological motivation of all the characters.
Cineaste:You seemed to have a real understanding for the immigrant portion of the story, when Baba and Amir come to America.
Forster Yes. It fascinates me, because, ultimately, I am an immigrant myself and I think immigrant stories are always interesting. I loved that part of the book. Sometimes, especially in California, you can be talking to a valet—I love talking to people—and you find out he's from Russia and he has three Ph.Ds and he's a valet here. And another one is a nuclear scientist and he's washing your car. You have these very distinguished people with these strange jobs you'd never imagine someone like them doing. It's just fascinating.
Cineaste:Finally, I have to mention the kite sequences. They were really exhilarating! Can you tell me about how they were achieved?
Forster I had some different kite advisors and one kite master who really showed me how to fly the kites. He showed me all the tricks of kite fighting and how to choreograph it. We designed and choreographed the entire kite tournament on a computer screen. Then we had a chopper where we shot kites in the air and we shot kites from the ground and used this footage to create CG [computer generated] kites. The majority of the shots are CG, but I wanted to mix in real footage as well, so you're not sure of what's real and what isn't. But obviously you grasp that some of it is impossible, so you realize that it must be CG.