Most young directors would jump at the chance to direct The Kite Runner, the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel. Marc Forster was looking for an excuse not to.
"I was very suspicious when they first approached me," the 38-year-old director admits. "The book's readers were like addicts. I loved it, too, but I didn't think I could make a better movie."
So when the film was offered to him a little more than three years ago by producer Rebecca Yeldham, he was happy to say he was attached to another project (Stranger Than Fiction), and was therefore unavailable. "Then she sent me the script and I was blown away."
He played with the dates and struck an agreement to do the film after Stranger Than Fiction was completed. Out December 14, The Kite Runner tells the story of two young boys in Afghanistan whose friendship is torn apart when one is raped and the other fails to do anything about it. It's an understated drama about the things people don't say, the distance that grows over time and the attempt to make amends.
In retrospect, the idea Forster ever would have turned the project down seems pretty unlikely. After all, this is the guy who directed Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Everything Put Together, a film about a woman dealing with the death of her baby from sudden infant death syndrome.
"My movies are all about people who are emotionally repressed and haven't dealt with shit," he says. "They're all dealing with mortality and repression. For me, The Kite Runner became about a guy who's emotionally shut down because he hasn't confronted his past."
All of which Forster can relate to, even if his own biographical information is a little different: When the filmmaker was 17, growing up in Switzerland, his father was bankrupted and got cancer that spread from his small intestine to his liver and his lung. "The doctors told him he had three months to live," recalls Forster. "He made it 11 years."
During his father's battle with the disease, Forster's older brother, Wolfgang, woke up one day convinced he was Jesus Christ. It turned out he had schizophrenia. "He was a genius, he was a mathematician, but it became like A Beautiful Mind," says Forster. "He started having multiple personalities. He went in and out of psychiatric institutions. It was very intense." Then, Wolfgang killed himself. "Three days after my brother died, my father was in the hospital. He just did not want to live anymore. Before, he was fighting and loving life. Once it happened, there was no spirit anymore." Forster's father died three months later.
Still, the director says, "Even with my father and brother dying, I didn't quite process the grief."
To pay for film school at NYU, Forster turned to Robert Louis-Dreyfus, a family friend, former bigwig at Saatchi & Saatchi and onetime owner of Adidas, whose niece is former Seinfeld star Julia. "He said he'd pay for the first year, and if I had talent, he would pay for the rest," says Forster, who passed the test.
A few years after his first independent film failed to make it out of the gate, Forster pulled together $200,000 and made Everything Put Together. It won the director an Independent Spirit award, and an offer to direct Monster's Ball, a drama about the wife of a death row inmate who falls for her husband's prison guard. By the time Halle Berry won the Oscar for her performance in the film, Harvey Weinstein had tapped Forster for Finding Neverland.
"We had a lot of people who wanted to direct it," Weinstein says. "Johnny Depp was already attached. But Marc sold me. He said, 'If you manage it incorrectly, it'll be an overly sentimental movie.' He said, 'I want it to get you there without being schmaltzy or syrupy.' And he lived up to his word."
"There's a gentleness and an edge to Marc's movies," says Francine Maisler, his casting agent on several of them.
Finding Neverland opened to rave reviews, and received seven Oscar nominations.
Still, nothing prepared Forster for The Kite Runner, which was shot in China on the border of Afghanistan. First, the movie required months of traveling around the war-torn country looking for two boys capable of dealing with the material. After Forster found them in a prestigious grammar school, he had to communicate with them entirely through translators.
Then, before the film was to be released this fall, the family of Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada--who plays Hassan, the rape victim--claimed he'd been exploited by the production and feared for his life. An actor in the movie Kabul Express had recently been driven out of the country when his film took on similar issues to The Kite Runner.
Moreover, Ahmad and his father charged that the filmmakers hadn't told0 them about the rape scene until the last minute and later promised to cut it, which they did not. Forster denies this. "It came out of left field. When we finished the film, everything was good [between Ahmad and us]. It was a positive relationship and the father never once mentioned having an issue with the scene. He was present at rehearsal."
Though the filmmakers pushed the release date back to give Ahmad time to leave the country, some people in Hollywood have argued the situation could have been better handled. Namely, they point out that not even a rehearsal can prepare an 11-year-old for doing a rape scene, which is shot not once, but take after take--an inevitable part of filming, but a risky one, particularly for a boy in Afghanistan.
Forster's next movie seems a little less likely to incite controversy. This winter, he goes into production on Bond 22, the latest installment of the James Bond franchise. "It's definitely a relief," he says. "It's more about pop culture. It's about entertaining. You're not making an issue movie."