No Reservations

Author John Burnham Schwartz on adapting his novel, Reservation Road
By JENNY HALPER  |  October 18, 2007

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When John Burnham Schwartz ushers me into his suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, the first thing I pass is a shiny oak table piled with movie tie-in editions of his novel Reservation Road, somber visages of Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly, and Mark Ruffalo peering from the cover. The actors themselves are mingling with press just outside the door, a swarm of publicists are buzzing around buffets of salmon and soufflés, and Schwartz, who wrote the adaptation with director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda), has a slightly abashed air as he palms a diet coke and tells me he wasn’t looking to break into Hollywood.

The Harvard-educated author has been toiling away since his debut, Bicycle Days (Vintage), was released in 1989 to critical acclaim when he was just twenty four. His latest, The Commoner (Nan A. Talese), set for January release, traces the troubles of a Japanese empress, and his third novel, Claire Marvel (Vintage), takes place in and around Cambridge academia.

Reservation Road (Vintage) came to him two years after an aborted second novel and took six years to write. “I think it was so successful because people thought I was dead,” Schwartz says, sinking into a flower-patterned sofa. Or maybe (and this is my theory), because Schwartz turns the potentially maudlin story of a ten-year-old boy killed in a hit-and-run into a captivating, thoughtful thriller that circulates between three protagonists: the boy’s father, Ethan (played by Phoenix), the boy’s mother, Grace (Connelly), and the driver, Dwight (Ruffalo), himself a father. “It’s fantastic, because you have someone who spent a lot of time thinking about your character’s life, her inner thoughts. It’s kind of like having a diary for a character,” Connelly tells me minutes before I meet with Schwartz. “In terms of material, it doesn’t get any better.” Coincidences that propel the men towards each other unfold organically. And grief is described with remarkable clarity.

One of the things I loved about your book was the internal way you dealt with guilt and grief. I’m guessing that’s not an easy thing to translate to the screen.
When I wrote the script on spec I set aside three months. And it took me sixth months. The very first draft was just a representation of what was in the book. I very quickly came to see that things that in the book that felt alive were just dead on the page in the script. There aren’t many good movies about grief. This is a movie that’s also about how grief gets manifested in rage. One of the things that interested Terry was the idea of revenge as a kind of beast within us. Rage itself becomes a monster. How do we deal with this in a world after 9/11?

So, in a sense, the film creates a parallel between this huge disaster and something horrific that happens to one family?
Terry’s very political in the way he sees things. His feeling about it is not where I started. I can understand what he’s saying but in the end, it begins with individuals. And I still remember when I wrote the first chapter of the book, the accident, and I got to the end of it, and I realized to my horror that I wasn’t going to be able to skip six months down the road. Both stories involve staying with these people.

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