Phillip Noyce’s “The Giver,” is thought-provoking sci-fi that stays true to the powerful themes of Lois Lowry’s best-selling young adult novel. Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is a young man living in a futuristic utopian society who is chosen to receive the community’s memories from The Giver (Jeff Bridges). But as he slowly learns about the society’s dark and deadly past, he decides to sacrifice everything to save his fellow citizens. Adapted for the screen by Michael Mitnick and Robert Weide, the film also stars Meryl Streep, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, Alexander Skarsgard, and Katie Holmes.
At the film’s recent press day, Bridges, Thwaites, Rush, Monaghan, Holmes, Noyce, Lowry, Mitnick, Weide, and producer Nikki Silver revealed how making the movie was a longtime passion project for producer/star Bridges, what the challenges were of adapting the unusual book to film, why it took so long to bring it to the screen, what appealed to the actors about the storyline and their characters, Noyce’s decision to start the film in black and white, Lowry’s reaction to seeing her novel become a movie, what distinguishes it from other futuristic dystopian fantasies, how Bridges’ father, Lloyd Bridges, taught him to act and have fun on the set, and what we can look forward to on the DVD.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: Jeff, from what I understand you alone have spent 20 years on this project.
JEFF BRIDGES: That’s a little exaggerated. It’s maybe about 18 or something like that. I originally wanted to direct my father, Lloyd Bridges, in the film. I wanted to make a movie with him that my kids could see. They were all young kids at the time. I was looking at a catalog of children’s books and came across this wonderful cover of this grizzled old guy with this Newbery Award stamp on there, and I thought, “Oh this is great.” Then I read it, and I was knocked out, not only on a kid book level but also as an adult, and I thought, “Oh this is a movie I want to see being made.” It turns out that Lois (Lowry) took that photograph [that’s on the cover of “The Giver”].
Q: Lois, who was the guy on the cover of the book?
LOIS LOWRY: He was a Swedish painter named Carl Gustaf Nelson. At the time, I was a photojournalist, and I’d been hired to do an article about him and to photograph him. He was dead by the time I wrote the book, but I had saved the photograph.
Q: So you were a photojournalist and now you’re a millionaire novel writer?
LOWRY: Novel writer. (Laughter)
Q: Jeff, how does it feel to actually have been working on this project long enough to play The Giver?
BRIDGES: (Laughs) Yeah, I finally qualified as the grizzled guy. It was fine. It felt just wonderful. So much of the success of film creatively, I believe, if it’s successful in theaters and with people seeing it, depends on the casting, and not only the casting of the actors, but who is going to be the director, who’s going to be our cinematographer. And all of those slots were filled in such a beautiful way that the movie transcended my high expectations for it.
Q: Bob, you were the first writer on this also 18 years ago. I want to ask the writers, you and Michael, why do you think this story was so hard to bring to the screen?
ROBERT WEIDE: I’m older, so I’ll go first. (Laughs) I wasn’t older when this started. The book is very internal. A lot of it is Jonas’ experience. I’m meeting a lot of these people for the first time today. (Laughter) They were all very difficult to work with, I have to say. But it’s a very internal sort of story. I’m trying to do this without giving away the plot for those who haven’t seen it. There is a point where Jonas decides to leave this community, and once he does, the story, the book actually just stays with him. We never go back to see how his departure affects the community. We know it’s going to affect them, but we don’t see it in the book. That was Lois’ story when she wrote it. But for the movie, when I did my drafts way back, we have to see what’s going on back in the community. It was really the creation of a whole new storyline and expanding some of the parts and the chief elder who was virtually a cameo in the book. Her role is expanded, which is great, because when you have Meryl Streep, you want to give her a little something to do. So, it was taking the book as a basis, but branching out from there and finding ways to make it visual and put some action in.
LOWRY: And still retain the spirit of it, which is what they were able to do, I think.
MICHAEL MITNICK: A lot of it was also timing and the people you see in front of you. It was the fact that Jeff (Bridges) was so enthusiastic about the project for so many years and didn’t let it go. And then, Nikki Silver, who has been through a struggle similar to Jonas, in order to get this movie made. And of course, Mr. Noyce, being the right director and finding the right cast. A lot of it was timing and luck and especially the talents of everyone else here.
Q: Phillip, what attracted you to this? Was it the script or the book that you read first?
PHILLIP NOYCE: It was the book, and it was the ideas of the book. I think we all – well, I know I do – I embrace technology, but I also fear it. In some ways, I think that we are losing contact with each other. The portrait of a future society where technology ruled completely seemed like it was something like looking in the mirror every morning and not actually speaking to my friends, but just sending them one-word texts. It felt to me like it was a cautionary tale about the future and about the present as well.
Q: I understand that embracing but fearing because part of me wanted to live in that village that you created because it seemed so nice.
NOYCE: Well, it would be good to have no pain, wouldn’t it? Every day I wake up at the moment, I keep thinking about Meryl Streep and that scene towards the end of the movie where she’s arguing with Jeff’s character, and says at the time, “Human beings have a choice to make the wrong choice.” There’s something right about that. And yet, would we ever want to give up freedom of choice? No. We wouldn’t. All of these questions are questions that ran through my mind when I first read the book and that’s what made me want to make it into a movie, because I think the fundamental question is about what makes us human. That’s what Lois has forced us to consider.
Q: Nikki, you’ve been with this project also 18 years?
NIKKI SILVER: Yes. It’s been a very long time.
Q: What is it like to finally see it on the big screen? In a way, are you glad you waited, because you wouldn’t have had this cast otherwise?
SILVER: I am thrilled about the film we have now. You can’t make something happen before its time. Evidently, this was the time of “The Giver.” And what Jeff was saying too, it’s every side of this film that we’re proud of – from this incredible cast that we put together, to the cinematographer, to Phillip, our captain, who just did such an unbelievable job. And to have the support of Lois who has really been with us the entire way and helped us with the silliest of texts that Phillip would send, probably at midnight and then again at 6:00am the next morning. It’s been a journey, but certainly one that’s well worth it, and now we’re excited to give it to all of you.
Q: Can I ask the actors what attracted you to your roles and was it intimidating at all working with legends like Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Phillip Noyce?
BRENTON THWAITES: Totally. (Laughter) Your question is a little more intimidating to be honest. Jeff was great to work with. It was like a dream at the time. When you get this gift, this opportunity, you kind of have to pinch yourself every morning before you go to work. It was like that every day, so it was great. And to work with a fellow Aussie was pretty cool, too. (Laughter)
NOYCE: We had our own special language.
SILVER: They did. Nobody understood a word they were saying. Are they saying something profound that we should know?
NOYCE: It was basically one word: mate.
THWAITES: If I was bad in a scene, he’d say, “Mate.” If I was good, he’d say, “Mate.”
KATIE HOLMES: I was very excited to be a part of this film. The book is so beloved, and to be a part of this project with Jeff and Meryl Streep and all of these amazing actors was a pure delight, and to work with Phillip was wonderful. It was interesting to play this character, because in this world, there’s no emotion. There’s no pain. For an actor, you’re always trying to emote, but you can’t, so it was interesting. Playing Jonas’ mom and have him having these experiences that were so foreign to my character and also being the guardian of the rules of this world was really interesting and quite a challenge. But mostly, it was just an honor to be a part of something that I think is a very valuable piece of work. I really enjoyed playing this character. For me, what I loved about this character is she is trying so hard to maintain this order. This is what she knows. Jonas is going through something she doesn’t know, and it’s very threatening, and it fills her with a great deal of conflict. It’s always interesting to play people that have a lot going on.
Q: Are you the kind of person who takes your work home with you? Would you tell your daughter, “Precision language”? (Laughter)
HOLMES: No, but I am now. (Laughs) No, I don’t.
ODEYA RUSH: It’s what everyone else has said. It’s such an honor to work with these greats. When you meet them, they’re very relaxed and warm and make you feel very comfortable, because it can be very intimidating. We had this warm environment on set, too. Working with Phillip, I think I’m so lucky. My character takes such a journey, too. I’m not completely like The Giver and Jonas. I’m not fully feeling things, and I’m not getting memories, but still I start off naïve and happy and thinking that I’m in a good place. Then, once I stop taking my injections, I’m in what’s like a state of confusion and I don’t really understand what I’m feeling. Jonas is trying to explain it to me. Then, towards the end, it goes to anger because I realize the cruelty behind this community. That arc was really interesting and it’s such a great story. So, I’m really fortunate.
CAMERON MONAGHAN: When I got the audition for this movie, they said that this was a book that’s acclaimed and taught in all these schools and produced by the Weinstein Company with this great director and these fantastic actors like Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. I was like, “What have they ever done? Oh, boring. I guess I have to go to this audition.” (Laughs) So, kicking and screaming, I was dragged over to go act in a Meryl Streep movie, I guess. No. Obviously, having a chance to work with Jeff and Katie and to be able to tell this amazing story – I read the book when I was auditioning – it was just a really beautiful story about humanity and what it means to be human and love and all these great things. It was something I wanted to be a part of.
Q: Katie, one of the powerful ideas in the film is that people in positions of power can be wrong. I’m wondering as a parent of a small child, how do you navigate that? How much do you encourage children of that age to question authority?
HOLMES: One of the draws of doing this project was this book, and the reason why it’s so beloved by so many and why schools have it on their reading list is because of these powerful themes and having children decipher themselves what they think is important and that free choice. I’m very happy to be a part of the film adaptation of this. What I love so much about this film and this book is that we get to see this extreme world where you have no pain. You have no emotion. Everything is routine and very safe and controlled. Then, you get to see this character have these adventures and these human moments and first love and also war. When you watch the film, you can really for yourself see both sides. Like I said before, it was a great challenge to play this character because she’s part of both worlds. She’s the mother of this person who’s going through this adventurous time.
Q: What distinguishes this film from other films that are about dystopian, repressed societies like “THX 1138,” “Pleasantville,” and “1984.” How is it different?
BRIDGES: It’s interesting that you didn’t mention “Hunger Games” or “Divergent.” Both of those movies, I think, were inspired by Lois’ book. What comes to my mind from those two films is that the tone is quite a bit different. There’s suspense and love and action in our film as well, but there are maybe more subtle and deeper themes. You mentioned “THX 1138.” I hadn’t thought about that film for quite a while. It was black and white, wasn’t it, or very washed out. That was a cool movie.
SILVER: I also think the theme of memory in this book makes it a very different thing than what has been approached and very important for the world today. There’s a line in the film that says, “Memory is not just about the past. It determines our future.” The way it explores that, and Jonas being able to go into the memories, and us looking at our history from the perspective of now makes this book very different from all the other dystopian ones. I think for kids today to answer that question for you as well, the concept of them understanding that we look at the past, and the concept of never forgetting is essential in the world, and especially for this generation today.
Q: The film has a very distinctive look which I loved. Could you speak to that, Phillip?
NOYCE: The look of the movie is inspired by Lois’ words, the way she describes the absolutely restrictive palette, and the perception that Jonas starts with, and the way in which he gradually starts to perceive color and emotion in the story. The visual style evolves as his experience becomes more complex. But it’s as if it was composed from a primer written by Lois.
Q: Were you always going to start the film in black and white?
NOYCE: Yes, just like the book does.
Q: Was there any resistance over the years from any studios about having a movie that’s black and white for at least 20 minutes or so?
NOYCE: There might have been a little resistance. When the first trailer came out, and it was all in color, and there were about a hundred thousand posts on the internet, I think the resistance faded quickly. (Laughter)
For Jeff and Nikki, you use the song, “Silent Night,” in the film, and it happens to be the version by the von Trapp children. Was this intentional in light of what the von Trapps endured in the real world?
SILVER: I will say that the specific version of “Silent Night” was not intentional, but that the importance of “Silent Night” being in the film was important to all of us. When you think of family and you think of universal moments, the playing of “Silent Night” represents that. Jonas reaches this house and there is something happening inside, and how do you very quickly tell an audience that there’s love and family and togetherness? And that’s what it represented for us. But Phillip, the specific track?
NOYCE: Well, it was just the best one that echoed through those woods. And it’s not just the von Trapps. It’s our own singers as well. In a way, it replaced one of the seminal memories of Lois’ book, but that we didn’t specifically include in the film, which was the memory of Christmas, which Jonas experiences in the book. Our adaptation of that memory was him seeing someone singing in the early sledding memory, and then finally arriving at that place which also happens in the book. We didn’t have the specific Christmas memory. We just had the sound of someone singing a song that might be sung at Christmas.
Q: This is a powerful, thought-provoking film. I truly hope that schools embrace this for the classrooms.
SILVER: I want to say about your point with kids and the classroom work, we’re very lucky that this film is also co-financed by Walden Media who has brought an amazing side to this as well. The marriage of the Weinstein Company and Walden Media represents everything that this film is about and certainly their entry into the educational market in bringing all the classic books, like the C.S. Lewis books. We have great partners here who are bringing this to a wide audience.
Q: Brenton, what kind of stories did you hear from some of the veteran actors here that informed you about your job? And how’d you get the baby to cry?
THWAITES: I think as soon as the baby saw Phillip’s face, he started crying. (Laughter) And so did I.
NOYCE: He was always with you when I saw him, not with me. I was way over there.
THWAITES: The honest truth is, at the start of the film, when I first met these two kids, James and Alex, twins, they would put the babies in my arms and they would start crying instantly. And so, it became, “Put the baby in my arms if you want to get it to cry.” And then, “Get Brenton to put them somewhere and then he can act while they’re crying.” But over the months, you develop a strong bond with these kids, and in a way, it was hard to see them go. It was hard to let go.
Q: How did your first experiences on set making this movie mirror those of your character?
THWAITES: I guess every movie has its uniqueness. The wonderful thing about being an actor is you jump into a new job. Every job is a different thing. Every movie is its own wild beast that you have to just roll with. One of the things I learned, from especially Jeff who I did most of my scenes with, was that you just have to roll with it and do the best you can and try to enjoy it along the way. That’s one of the things that I got from him.
Q: Jeff, you have been doing this for so long. When young actors work with you, do they ask you for advice? And do you offer it?
BRIDGES: No… Well, I offer. Yeah. We just jam, you know. It’s a musical expression, but it also works for making movies, too. Brenton plays guitar. We did a lot of jamming. But having fun, my dad, Lloyd Bridges, he taught me all the basic of acting. I remember when I would get a little part in “Sea Hunt,” he would set me down and say, “Make it seem like it’s happening for the first time. But listen to me. Just say your lines when my mouth stops. You’ve got to let what I’m saying inform how you say it.” It was all those things. But the main thing I learned from my dad was in observing how he worked and the joy that he had in doing what he loved doing. I got to work with him twice as an adult, in “Tucker” and a movie called “Blown Away,” and in both those movies, whenever my dad came on the set, that joyful vibe came with him. It’s contagious. It runs through the whole company and everybody goes, “Oh yeah, this is kind of fun. This is kind of advanced pretend. We’re the cool kids. We got the cool thing.” You relax when you’re feeling joyful and all the good stuff gets to come through. And that’s what we had. We had little games that we used to play. We’d play.
Q: Did you play “Pass the Pigs” on set?
BRIDGES: We did. We had some of those. Brenton and I had a game that we used to play that was kind of fun. We had all those books. You remember those?
BRIDGES: We’d arbitrarily pick out a book and open it to a page, run our finger down the page, find a sentence, and that would be our call on for the day, whatever that said. It often would be very mystical and perceptive, and that would be our guide for the day.
THWAITES: And they’re all real books, too.
BRIDGES: Oh yeah, real books.
THWAITES: There were thirty thousand books in there.
Q: Am I the only one that doesn’t know what “Pass the Pigs” is?
BRIDGES: “Pass the Pigs” is sort of like craps for kids. See, you roll these little plastic pigs. It’s a great game actually.
WEIDE: We did a movie together seven years ago that I directed Jeff in and that’s when you turned me onto “Pass the Pigs.” Apparently, this has been a tradition of yours on all the movie sets.
BRIDGES: That’s right. The guys who make those pigs, they gave me a golden set of pigs.
WEIDE: It’s basically a way to teach small kids how to gamble.
SILVER: We filmed in South Africa and it was a really magical set. Cameron and Brenton, they play guitar. And Taylor (Swift) came, and Taylor played guitar, and Odeya would sing, and Michael was playing piano. We were in an interesting part of the world doing this, doing something really special, so it was a pretty amazing time.
Q: Jeff, what was it like working with Taylor Swift?
BRIDGES: Taylor was so remarkable. She flew in. I think her first day of work was right on the heels of arriving in Cape Town. She was certainly exhausted, and I had experienced that myself. I was whipped and exhausted. But she was such a pro, and so up for being involved, and playing, and took right to it. I hope she continues the acting because she’s very talented as well as being a great songwriter and performer. She was just wonderful and I think she really adds. I believe she was Harvey’s idea. Wasn’t she? Harvey Weinstein said, “You’re being taught piano here. Who’d be somebody really great for that part?” Taylor came to his mind, and I’m so glad she stepped on board. She had read the book, I believe, and was a big fan of that. She’s terrific.
Q: Sometimes fans can be critical when it’s a movie based on their favorite book. Has the choice of cast always been well received?
BRIDGES: It was tough for me. I was willing to direct it myself. I had a certain vision of how it would go. I was really in love with the book and I wanted to put the book up on screen exactly how it was. Then, as I got closer to the movie actually going to be made, I had to make a decision as to whether I was going to come on board and play The Giver, or if I was just going to say, “Bon voyage, guys. Best of luck. But I’m not going to join you.” I thought about that. Often what I do when I come to those crossroads in my life, I try to project myself into the future and think, “How am I going to feel if I let this one go or engage?” And I felt just terrible letting this thing go. So I decided to do kind of an experiment on myself and just go for it and dance with the universe. Look at all these different people involved. You’ve got Harvey Weinstein and Walden. Look at all of the movies that have come out of their oven. I use this word again, but it comes to mind here. Jam. Have a jam session, and look at all the artists that came in, and give up your idea of control, which in a way is the theme of the movie. Just dance with this thing, and I’m so glad I did that and made that choice because it transcended all of my expectations and my ideas. One of the things I was most concerned about was the age of Brenton and Odeya’s characters, and I struggled with letting that go, but I finally did. Then, when these guys showed up, I said, “Oh I’m glad I did let that go because they’re so good.” There’s that first shot of Brenton when he was riding that bike and looking up at those trees. This is a guy who’s at the cresting of his life. It was perfect. And Brenton came up with an interesting thing. You were talking the other day about the Ceremony of Twelve in the book, and you said, “Well that could be the ceremony of the 12th grade.” He’s young and can pass for a 12th grader. So I think it worked really well.
Q: Now I had heard that you actually shot a version of this film with your dad.
BRIDGES: Yeah. It’s true.
Q: Is there any way that could be on the DVD?
BRIDGES: Beau’s son, Casey Bridges, shot this. He was our DP. I think it was actually at my parents’ house. We read the whole book. Bud Cort was the narrator. This was 18 years ago. Bud read all the narration in the book. Dylan, who now works for Universal in the publicity department, he played Jonas. We have this DVD. No, it wasn’t a DVD. It was Betamax or something. We have this in the garage. Casey’s told me he’s got it. Hopefully, that’ll be something on the DVD.
WEIDE: Speaking to how far back this goes, it occurred to me just last night that when I started to write the script, you let me come to your place in Montecito to write, to get the hell out of Dodge and have some peace and quiet, and you meanwhile went off to make a little movie that wound up being “The Big Lebowski.”
Q: Is your passion for this unusual or is this something that’s been going on throughout your career? Do you think it will always be like that until you exit planet Earth? Or would you like to retire and go fish?
BRIDGES: Those are two streams that you articulated exactly – these two streams in my soul and my life. I’m 64 now, so I’m moving along pretty good. It’s a limited time. I’ve got a lot yet to do. I’ve got a lot of ideas, a lot of things I want to realize, and that creates a certain kind of pressure. There’s that little voice. There’s that picture I remember seeing. It was Walt Disney. Was it Goofy? It was either Goofy or Pluto. I can’t remember which one. He’s got an angel on each shoulder. One’s got wings and the other guy’s got horns. These are both actually angels, but one guy is saying, “C’mon, you gotta get to work. You got a lot of stuff to do.” And the other guy is saying to me, “C’mon, Jeff. Just relax. You want your whole life to be a giant homework assignment?” So, it’s balancing those two things. It drives my wife crazy. But this movie, this is a one of a kind experience for me. I’ve never had that kind of passion or intention for a project and holding it for 18 years. It’s very gratifying to finally see it come to fruition.
Q: Lois, as the person who has sat with this the longest, what was it like for you to finally see it on the big screen?
LOWRY: Confession. I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen a version probably three weeks ago. And Phillip tells me that that was not the final version, because he’s been working night and day for the intervening weeks. Also, what I saw did not have the music. So, when somebody was talking about the music, “Silent Night,” I’m thinking, “Where was Silent Night?” I didn’t see it with the music and I’m told the music is wonderful, a wonderful addition. But, in answer to your question, I’ve been watching this project for many, many years. And for the past year and a half, of course, night and day, and it’s been wonderful. I’m accustomed to sitting alone in a room and doing what I do and controlling everything that I do. I get to write the screenplay and the dialogue. I design the costumes and the set. And I choose the camera angles when I’m writing a book. So then, to relinquish it to a collaborative effort is very different and interesting to watch, but not threatening because I knew it was in good hands all along. Over the years, I talked to Jeff from time to time. I could perceive his passion and that it was in the right hands. So I wasn’t nervous about it. Well, sometimes I was a little nervous. (Laughs) And then, when it was cast and I knew who the roles would be played by – although I hadn’t seen any of the kids – I did know the other performers, and I just felt as though it was all going together with everything going into the right slot.