DATE February 11, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Alain de Botton discusses his new book "The Art of
Travel" and the anticipation and realities of travel
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's been a cold winter in much of the United States, and there's been plenty
of ads trying to seduce us into taking a winter getaway to a warm climate.
After getting a brochure titled `Winter Sun' with pictures of palm trees,
beaches and turquoise sea, Alain de Botton decided to take a break from his
cold, damp London home and travel to the Caribbean, but the reality didn't
measure up to the anticipation. That distance between travel expectations and
reality is the territory of de Botton's new funny and reflective book "The Art
of Travel." He points out that vacations are supposed to provide us with a
small taste of what life could be like, if not for work and the struggle for
survival. Yet there's often something interfering with our ability to
experience the unambiguous pleasure we expected to have. Of course,
unambiguous pleasure is a lot to ask for in the age of terrorism. De Botton
is also the author of the best-selling book, "How Proust Can Change Your
Life." Let's start with a reading from "The Art of Travel" in which he
describes the reality of being on his winter getaway to the Caribbean.
Mr. ALAIN DE BOTTON (Author, "The Art of Travel"): `Before me was a view that
I recognized from the brochure: the beach stretching away in a gentle curve
towards the tip of the bay, with jungle-covered hills behind and the first row
of coconut trees inclining irregularly towards the turquoise sea, as though
some of them were craning their necks to catch a better angle of the sun. And
yet, this description only imperfectly reflects what actually occurred within
me that morning, for my attention was, in truth, far more fractured and
confused than the foregoing paragraph suggests. I may have noticed a few
birds careering through the air in matinal excitement, but my awareness of
them was weakened by a number of other incongruous and unrelated elements.
Among them, a sore throat that I'd developed during the flight, worry over not
having informed a colleague that I'd be away, a pressure across both temples
and a rising need to visit the bathroom. A momentous but until then
overlooked fact was making itself apparent that I'd inadvertently brought
myself with me to the island.'
GROSS: That's Alain de Botton reading from his book "The Art of Travel."
You really get to something in your book that I think is so true. You know,
we somehow expect that a beautiful landscape will transform, like, our inner
chemistry into something beautiful and make us un-depressed and make us happy.
And, in fact, sometimes it does, but it doesn't necessarily.
Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. And I think it's also a question of time. You
know, when we go to a museum and look at a beautiful landscape, we often do
have a sense that the landscape is affecting us and is, you know, changing our
mood, etc. But, you know, most of us only look at a painting in a museum for
one, two, three, 10 minutes, you know, certainly not really longer. And I
think captures the way that after a certain amount of time, the power of
landscape does decrease--the power of landscape to affect our moods definitely
decreases, and so I think what happens when we go abroad, when we go on
vacation, we're confronted by beautiful scenes, and we're very much affected
by them, but not for that long. And so soon enough, the old familiar worries,
the old things that, you know, bug us at home come back into the picture.
GROSS: You quote Baudelaire. You quote him as--you can tell me where this is
from after I read it: "We saw stars and waves. We saw sands, too, and
despite many crises and unforeseen disaster, we were often bored, just as we
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, that's a poem from Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal,"
and it's a wonderful example of the way that Baudelaire was really sensitive
to the fact that we both want to go abroad, and yet when we get there, there's
a kind of disappointment, so we're permanently kind of yo-yoing between the
desire to travel and the disappointment with travel. At another point,
Baudelaire says that life is like a hospital, in which every patient thinks
that if only he or she could move bed, they would be healthy, and, you know,
that's a wonderfully kind of dark aphorism but very true.
GROSS: I have that quote in front of me, so let me just read it exactly:
"Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds.
This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and that one thinks he'd
get better if he was by the window." That's really wonderful.
Mr. DE BOTTON: Exactly. I mean, it's really hilarious. No sooner does one
come back from a disappointing vacation than one's planning the next one.
GROSS: How often do you travel?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, like everyone, I travel quite a lot. I mean, I think
it's important to bear in mind just how much we travel compared to any other
generation. And sort of--I was reading while writing the book a lot of
travelers from the 18th and 19th century. Travelers in past times might have
left their homes and their countries maybe once in a lifetime, and that's
really an extraordinarily low number compared to what we do today. I mean,
you know, the fact I take maybe two or three vacations a year as an
extraordinarily high number. It might just be for a few days, but it's a very
GROSS: Now in your book "The Art of Travel," you describe a trip you took to
the Bahamas, and you say one of the things that got you there was this
brochure you got in the mail. What was so enticing about the brochure?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I don't know if you've ever spent a winter in England,
but if you have, you'll know that it gets dark at about 2:30 in the afternoon
and that it's mostly raining from September through to March or even later.
And that's an incredibly distressing and depressing state of affairs. And in
my book, I relate how in mid-February, suddenly a brochure came through my
door saying `Winter Sun.' And if you were in the middle of one of these
British winters and suddenly you see a brochure called `Winter Sun,' you're
going to be pretty helpless, and indeed I was. I just had to leave. And so I
booked my vacation.
And I think what's often, you know, tragicomic about our desire to travel is
that the desire is prompted by such small things. You know, my whole desire
to go to the Caribbean was inspired by just one picture of a palm tree and a
beach and an azure sky, the most basic, almost simplistic image of a beach.
And you know, I think all of us, when we travel, we're often motivated by
very, very simple images. You know, why do you want to go to France? I
don't know. You know, you see a picture of Paris and you think, `That's what
I want to see.' You know, why do you want to go to India? Just because
you've seen maybe one interior of a palace in Rajasthan or whatever it happens
GROSS: So what was some of the stuff that wasn't in the brochure that you
encountered when you went to the Bahamas?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I think, you know, a very basic distinction is that when
we read brochures, we're essentially looking at--I mean, it's such a basic
point, but we're essentially looking at still images, whereas traveling
somewhere is much more like a film. I mean, there's activity; there's motion.
You can't just focus on one little scene. Photography is very, very
selective. That doesn't mean to say that, you know, the Caribbean turned out
to be absolutely awful in every way. But it just turned out that there were a
whole lot more things to the experience than just a sandy beach. So I guess
one could say, you know, the experience was immediately a lot more
What else wasn't in the brochure? Well, what wasn't there was, of course,
oneself, the fact that I would be in the experience, another very, very basic
but absolutely essential point.
Another thing that wasn't there was: What am I actually going to do on a
beach? You know, when you look at a brochure, you only have to look at it for
a few minutes. But once you're actually in the place, you've got whole days
to fill, and that's a real challenge. You know, what are you actually going
to do? And because most of us--you know, we spend all of our lives, most of
our working lives, at least, stressed, you know, working to deadlines, you
know, facing challenges, and then suddenly a few weeks a year we're on
vacation and we're asked to do absolutely nothing. No wonder we're terrified
and sometimes depressed.
GROSS: Well, I always think it's bizarre. I know in my life, either every
single second of the day is accounted for or I'm on vacation and there's like
no responsibilities for a few days. And I thought sometime it would be nice
to have a happy medium.
Mr. DE BOTTON: That's right. That's right. And I mean, I think, you know, a
lot of sort of cultural critics have pointed out the way that modern vacations
are really based on the idea that work isn't enjoyable and that people who
really enjoy their work don't really take vacations. The whole concept of a
vacation is a kind of escape from unpleasant work. And you know, if you read
the lives of, let's say, I don't know, a great artist like Picasso or Matisse,
these people never went on holiday; they never took a vacation because, in a
way, their whole life was devoted to doing something that they enjoyed.
So, you know, there is a slightly tragic aspect to the whole idea of, you
know, two weeks in which you're supposed to just have fun. I think, you know,
as human beings, we're structured so that our real enjoyment comes from, you
know, long-term projects, putting ourselves into something that really
matters, etc., whereas most kind of vacation activities are slightly trivial.
They're, you know, let's go and ride on a donkey or in a cart and horse or on
a camel, you know, around a little circuit or something. You know, that can't
really engage the deepest faculties, and so it can't often bring us the
GROSS: What gave you the most pleasure on your trip to the Bahamas?
Mr. DE BOTTON: What gave me most pleasure? I don't know. I mean, to some
extent, the anticipation. That could sound paradoxical, but it's a weird fact
that sometimes what we do most enjoy is the idea that we will be somewhere
else rather than the reality. In my book, I talk about one of the odder
figures in 19th-century French literature, the hero of Huysmans' novel
"Against Nature," a rather strange character called the Duke Des Esseintes.
And I tell an anecdote there about his desire to go to London; this character
lives in Paris. One day he decides he'd love to go to London because he's
read a guidebook about how beautiful London is. And he spends about two weeks
just dreaming about how great it would be to travel to London.
And then eventually he goes to the station and he's got his ticket and he's
about to go, and suddenly he thinks, `You know, I've already enjoyed the best
bit of my trip. There's no point actually going.' So he returns home and he
dedicates in his house a room where he'll go and think about destinations and
about travel. And in this room, he puts a large sail which he flaps around so
as to evoke the sound of a ship crossing the seas. He gets a jar of seawater
and occasionally smells it so as to evoke the smell of the sea, etc. So a
kind of virtual travel there going on.
GROSS: So here he is reconfiguring his house in anticipation of this trip,
but he never takes the trip. Why not?
Mr. DE BOTTON: He never takes the trip, I think, because he feels that, you
know, you can enjoy some of the purest elements of travel just from your own
bedroom. There's a way in which--I don't know whether this will ring any
bells for you, but there are ways in which, you know, you can sit in bed with
a guidebook to a foreign destination, maybe pictures as well, a train
timetable, and you can read these things and you can just feel such a sense of
joy and anticipation of traveling. And it's almost better than the actual
journey because it's such, you know, pure and undiluted pleasure and it
doesn't involve such things as, you know, bringing yourself along, bringing
your body along, all of these things. And you know, I myself continue to
travel, but I do think that there is a way in which sometimes the anticipation
of travel can be considered one of the great pleasures of the whole process of
GROSS: My guest is Alain de Botton, author of the book "The Art of Travel."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Alain de Botton, and we're talking about his book "The Art
of Travel." He's also the author of the best seller "How Proust Can Change
When you're in a place that you love and a place that is physically beautiful,
either, I guess, the architecture or the natural landscape, is there anything
you do to try to fix that image in your mind in the hopes that when you return
to your neighborhood, which might seem comparatively quite dull, you can
revive this image and somehow hang on to it?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I definitely have the impulse to hang on to it. You
know, when you've traveled very far, you don't want just the whole experience
to disappear off into smoke. And most of the time, what I do is pick up my
camera, pick up the video or the stills camera, and start taking pictures.
But since writing my book, I've adopted a slightly different approach because,
while writing the book, I discovered the work of the 19th-century English
critic John Ruskin, who was writing at just about the time when people started
to take pictures. And he pointed out that while taking pictures is, in a way,
quite a good technique of trying to capture an experience, very often what
people do is they use photography as a replacement for properly looking at
things. Instead of looking, they just take the picture. And I think this is,
you know, something that we're all slightly guilty of.
And so Ruskin recommended that rather than just taking pictures, what we
should also do is draw the places that we see. In his day, drawing was just
going out of fashion as something that most people had learned to do at
school. And nowadays, very few of us know how to draw; very few of us go
around with a sketchpad drawing. But Ruskin said, you know, this is the best
way to learn to look at something. He pointed out that most of us think we
know what trees look like, but that's just because, you know, we haven't--most
of us--drawn trees ever. And he says if you try and draw a tree, you'll
quickly go from a very general, vague sense of what a tree looks like to a
really proper, accurate and lasting sense of how a tree is really made.
GROSS: Does it work for you if you substitute words and you keep a journal
while you're traveling and try to describe in language the landscape?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think either drawing or
writing are really good ways of just fixing an impression and moving away from
that very sort of quick and casual apprehension of places that we're sometimes
guilty of when we travel.
GROSS: When you travel, do you like to travel by yourself or with somebody?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, I think it's, in a way, cozier and safer--it feels safer
to travel with someone else. But I do think that my most rewarding journeys
have been those that I've made on my own. One of the advantages of traveling
on your own is that you can be as strange and weird as you want to be. Part
of the problem of being with another person is that you always have to justify
your tastes and you have to compromise and go along with someone else's view
and almost be a respectable tourist. But when I've traveled on my own, I've
often been quite a sort of eccentric traveler. I followed up on some pretty
odd tastes. I've maybe gone to a local supermarket. I've maybe spent some
time looking, you know, in a car showroom. Or I remember once in Amsterdam, I
went to an estate agent and tried to inquire about certain apartments that
might be for rent. But kind of a slightly odd thing, things that are off the
beaten track, I think you can do that when you're on your own. When you're
with someone else, you tend to follow more the standard tourist itinerary.
GROSS: Do you get more depressed if you're by yourself, and do you ever feel
self-conscious traveling alone, even, like, eating alone in a restaurant?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, I am someone who finds traveling alone a very
sort of self-conscious experience. It's very awkward when you know that
simply by asking for directions or going into a restaurant or something,
suddenly you're going to signal that you're strange, you're a foreigner,
you're the outsider. And I find eating on my own a very sort of difficult
thing. You know, if you're in a restaurant, everyone else is with friends,
everyone else seems happy and convivial, and you're just there on your own in
a language you don't really speak. I mean, you want to hang a sign around
your neck saying, `I do have friends; they're just not around at the moment.'
You know, `I am not a leper.'
GROSS: In talking about travel now, I think you have to acknowledge that
we're living in the age of terrorism and travel has become more complicated,
more uncomfortable and often more dangerous. And there are whole parts of the
globe now that really are not safe for a Western tourist. And I'm wondering
if you thought about how just the idea of travel has been changed since
Mr. DE BOTTON: Yeah. I mean, I guess if you stretch back the historical
canvas on this one, we're still living, in a way, in a very, very safe world
compared to, you know, what's been going on in the last 400 years, say.
There's always been a danger in travel. And if you think of the obstacles
that were confronted by, let's say, British people who went around continental
Europe in the 18th century--a lot of people wrote journeys about that--they're
constantly coming across brigands and highwaymen and, you know, there's
deception and thieves and all sorts of dangers that are going on. It may not
be a bomb, but it's certainly, you know, a pirate or a brigand or something.
So traveling has always--has long been associated with danger. And it's
perhaps really only just in the postwar period, the immediate postwar period,
that there was an age of great safety and many parts of the world were really
very, very safe for prosperous Western tourists. So I think maybe what we're
seeing now is a return to that more traditional kind of association between
traveling and danger.
To look at it on the upside, and maybe there is an upside to this, that the
danger gives us a sense of the momentousness of what we're doing. There's a
way in which if everything is very safe and very easy, we lose sight of the
fact that it is quite extraordinary to go to another country, to travel to
other parts of the world. Terrorism in however, you know, a dark way reminds
us of the significance of our journeys.
GROSS: When you come home after traveling, what's the equation usually
between your sense of relief to be home and your sense of depression that your
trip is over and you're home?
Mr. DE BOTTON: Well, often I am quite sad returning home. I am someone who
feels, `Oh, no, you know, it's the end of the vacation, it's the end of
pleasure.' And so I do need cheering up often at the end of my journeys,
which is why, actually, when I was writing the book, I was cheered to come
across a very little-known French writer called Xavier de Maistre. And he
wrote a book at the end of the 18th century called "Journey Around My
Bedroom." And this is a very odd little book, and basically its point is that
we don't need to necessarily go very far in order to enjoy ourselves. What's
really important is the way we look at things. And he suggests in a kind of
polemical way that your own bedroom could be as thrilling as, you know, lots
and lots of faraway places.
This book in its day was a huge best seller, and the author, Xavier de
Maistre, followed it up with a book called "Nocturnal Journey to My
Windowsill"--I'm not making this up; he really did--in which he describes
going to the windowsill. He was pushing a very good point to an absurd limit
but, nevertheless, in the process, really showing up something important,
which is that home doesn't have to be a depressing thing.
And you know, I think a really good traveler--and this may sound trite, but I
think it's true--a really good traveler is also a traveler in his or her own
location. There shouldn't be that stark division between abroad, you know,
vacation, which is fun and interesting, and home life, which is dull and
terrible. Many of the things that are interesting abroad and on vacation
exist in our day-to-day life.
GROSS: Alain de Botton. His latest book is called "The Art of Travel." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, writer David Benioff talks about adapting his novel "25th
Hour" into a film directed by Spike Lee, starring Edward Norton. And Kevin
Whitehead reviews "Extended Family," the new CD by tenor saxophonist Fred
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: David Benioff, author of "25th Hour," discusses how
his book was turned into a movie
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Many first novelists pray for the luck that David Benioff had. The movie
rights to his first novel, "25th Hour," were purchased by Tobey Maguire before
the novel was even published. Benioff got to write the screenplay. Spike Lee
directed it. Edward Norton stars in it. And it's playing in theaters around
the country. Benioff is now working on projects with the directors of "8
Mile," "Monster's Ball" and "Boys Don't Cry." "25th Hour" is about a young
drug dealer in Manhattan named Monty who has one day left before beginning his
seven-year prison sentence at Otisville Federal Penitentiary in New York. In
those 24 hours, he wants to tie up the loose ends of his life and find out who
betrayed him to the police. In this scene from the film, Monty, played by
Edward Norton, is having dinner with his father, who owns a neighborhood bar.
The father is played by Brian Cox.
(Soundbite of "25th Hour")
Mr. EDWARD NORTON: (As Monty) I don't want you to get involved. OK? I mean
it. I'm going to be all right.
Mr. BRIAN COX: You know, you'll still be a young man when you get out. I
know you don't think about it, but don't start any trouble in there. Keep
your head down.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't worry about me. Please.
Mr. COX: It should never have happened. You could have been--if you wanted
money, you could have done anything, anything you wanted--doctor, lawyer.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't lay that on me.
Mr. COX: That's all I'm saying.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Don't lay that on me. I mean, when Sal and his crew
were squeezing you for the payments, I didn't hear you wishing I was a law
school student then; not one word from you back then. Where'd you think that
money was coming from, Donald Trump?
Mr. COX: That was a mistake.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Well, let's just forget it then.
Mr. COX: There were lots of mistakes. I should have stopped drinking when
your mother passed.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Pop, please, please, don't do this.
Mr. COX: And 11-year-old boy with a dead mother and a drunk father. I ain't
got no one to blame but myself.
Mr. NORTON: (As Monty) Pop, stop, stop. It wasn't you, Pop.
GROSS: A scene from the film "25th Hour." Here's writer David Benioff
reading a passage from the same scene as it appears in the novel.
Mr. DAVID BENIOFF (Author, "25th Hour"): `"This should never have happened,"
says Mr. Brogan, staring at his glass of soda water. "All right. Let's not
start now. It's a little late in the game." "I know," says Mr. Brogan. "I
know it and I'm sorry, Monty. I should never have let you get involved."
Monty raps the tabletop with his knuckles. "Hey, let it go. You had nothing
to do with it, OK? Don't start with this now." "I just wish we could have
talked about it. You could have made so much money in a real business. You
didn't need that. You should never have got involved with that." But money
was never the sole draw for Monty. He hadn't grown up poor. And he wasn't
greedy. He liked fast cars and Italian shoes, but he didn't need them, didn't
hunger for them. It was more about sway. Sway helps make your money and
money helps make your sway, but sway is not money. Sway is walking into a
clothes shop and knowing you can buy anything on the shelves. True. But sway
is also the clerk opening the shop after hours so you can walk through the
aisles alone with your girlfriend. Sway is the clerk unlocking the back room
to show you the latest deliveries still sheathed in plastic bags. Sway is the
clerk standing silent in the corner while you browse and the clerk won't
complain if you paw the merchandise and kiss your girl for an hour because he
knows about you, and the trouble's not worth it.'
GROSS: That's David Benioff reading from his novel, "25th Hour," which he
adapted into a screenplay for the movie of the same name. David, how'd you
first get the idea for this story, you know, the guy who has 24 hours before
he goes to prison for seven years?
Mr. BENIOFF: I went to a party for a guy who was going to prison the next
day and not someone I knew particularly well, but it was a very unusual scene,
and at that time, I had always kind of assumed that once you got convicted of
a crime, you're led off from the courtroom in shackles and all. And so I
didn't realize there was for so many convicts this kind of limbo period
between sentencing and actual beginning of incarceration. And this party was
such a surreal atmosphere. There was, you know, a printout banner on the wall
saying, `Do not drop the soap,' and people were drinking and, you know, seemed
to be having fun and all, but I couldn't help but stare at this guy who was
going in the next day, and thinking, you know, `What's going through his mind
right now? I mean, how can he even be pretending to have a good time?' And
that just stuck in my head for years and eventually--I'd written two novels
before and both had been rejected, and I was looking for a new idea for a
story and this is what I came up with.
GROSS: So what are the main things that you have put in your character's mind
as he faces that last day of freedom?
Mr. BENIOFF: A whole bunch of things. I mean, anything from, you know,
self-loathing and self-pity to this kind of sense of--it's an immediate
nostalgia. I mean, he's wandering through New York on his last night out, and
this is a kid who's grown up in New York City, who's never really left it for
any length of time, and, you know, he's saying his goodbyes to all his friends
and his father and the woman he loves, but one of the main characters he's
saying goodbye to is New York. And he's trying to retain as many images of
the city as possible because he knows he's going to be trapped in a cell for
seven years. And he wants those mental snapshots to hold onto.
GROSS: Now in the movie version of "25th Hour," the New York that the
character is saying goodbye to is the post-September 11th New York.
Mr. BENIOFF: Right.
GROSS: It's the Manhattan that still has the shrines to the people who died
on September 11th. The opening credits, actually, has that double-beamed
sculpture that briefly commemorated those people who lost their lives on
September 11th and...
Mr. BENIOFF: Right.
GROSS ...commemorated the World Trade Center towers. Was that a difficult
decision whether to like find a way to work that in since you were shooting
after September 11th or whether you should kind of pretend it didn't happen
and just do it as written?
Mr. BENIOFF: It wasn't that difficult, actually. And in speaking to Spike
Lee about it, he's extremely passionate about the idea that if you're going to
film a movie in New York in the year after 9/11, after the attack, it would be
dishonest to pretend that it hadn't happened, and he speaks, you know, I
think, very eloquently about his--you know, so many directors have chosen to
digitally remove the twin towers from shots of New York and so on, and Spike
didn't want to do that. I mean, it's very much a New York story and, I mean,
oddly enough, there are elements in the book, you know, which was written well
before the attack--you know, for instance, Monty's obsessed with firemen. And
so it made sense that there would be some reference to it and it's clearly not
a story about 9/11, but it is a story about New York in the year after, and we
thought that it would be dishonest to not confront that issue and the way it's
GROSS: One of the things I really like about your novel and the screenplay is
that I think you write terrific dialogue. Did you have to make a lot of
changes in adapting the dialogue from the novel into dialogue for the film
knowing that people actually had to speak the dialogue in the movie?
Mr. BENIOFF: A lot of the dialogue I was able to take pretty closely from
the book. I mean, there are certain places that ended up getting cut. For
example, there's a long monologue where Monty asks Jakob, played by Philip
Seymour Hoffman in the movie--he asks Jakob to take his dog, and it's
probably the longest speech that Monty has in the book, and it was certainly
the longest speech in the screenplay, and a very important speech for me. And
we ended up having to cut it because we didn't really have time for it, and,
you know, something that--a page in the book can work fine, but listening to a
character speak for a minute and a half on screen can sometimes be dull, so,
you know, there are times where we had to make alterations like that. I mean,
one thing that made the adaptation easier, I think, is it's a very short book.
So I have a lot of respect for, you know, the screenwriter who wrote "Nicholas
Nickleby," for instance, where he'd taken such a huge work...
Mr. BENIOFF: ...and trying to condense it into around a hundred and
GROSS: Did Spike Lee or the actors give you any feedback on the dialogue and,
you know, were there any lines that looked great on the page and that looked
really colloquial on the page but you realized once an actor was going to be
speaking it, that it was a little too writerly?
Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, the first time I went to visit the set
actually--it's kind of an odd thing for the writer to go to set because
there's not much for you to do on set. And everyone's very nice to you and
all, but you kind of feel like you're just in the way because you can't even
move equipment or anything. You're just sort of off to the side. And they
gave me some headphones so I was listening to the actors speaking, and in one
of the scenes, 30 seconds after I put on the headphones, I heard one of the
actors saying, `I can't read this line. It's stiff. This dialogue is stiff.'
So I think I threw off the headphones and kind of slunk away.
There are definitely some places where it works in my head, you know, when I
hear the characters saying it and it works in my head, but then when you hear
the actual actor speaking the lines, it doesn't quite work, and, you know, we
were lucky enough that we had very, very talented actors and, you know, there
are certain places where they were just ad-libbing, and there are certain
places where Spike Lee came up with a line that he thought would work better,
you know, which can be painful sometimes for the writer, but it's also just
recognizing that this is a collaborative process and, you know, having faith
in other people on set to do their jobs.
GROSS: So when whichever actor it was complained that the line was too stiff,
I mean, you were there, you were hearing this--did you offer to change it?
Mr. BENIOFF: Nope. They ended up, I think, just cutting the line and just
GROSS: In retrospect, should you have offered to change it?
Mr. BENIOFF: You know, it was kind of just a knife to the gut when I heard
that, so I don't know if I could have that quickly. I mean, there were times
when I was working in Los Angeles, and they were filming in New York. And one
day, Spike Lee called up, and they were filming the final sequence, which
contains a voiceover from Brian Cox, and they had filmed all this great
footage in Texas, but there was way too much footage and not enough language
for the voiceover, so Spike asked me to write another page of this monologue
for Brian Cox. And it was kind of exciting, actually, having to write with
that kind of time pressure and, you know, literally writing something in about
45 minutes and faxing it back to Spike who gave it to Brian Cox, who then read
it, you know, in the studio where they were mixing the voiceover. So that was
fun. You know, that was nerve-wracking, but fun. And then, just to hear
those words spoken by Brian Cox, I mean, he's got one of the great voices, I
think, in acting right now.
GROSS: My guest is David Benioff. He wrote the novel "25th Hour" and wrote
the screen adaptation for the current film of the same name. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Benioff, and he's the
author of the novel "25th Hour" and wrote the screen adaptation for the new
movie that Spike Lee directed that Edward Norton stars in.
In "25th Hour," there's a couple of key scenes that take place in a club, a
club that's owned by drug dealers, and, you know, some of the people inside
the club are part of that scene, and other people inside the club are just
trying to make the scene and be in the right place, and they're clueless to
what else is happening in the club. You were once a bouncer for a club? Is
Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah, in San Francisco.
GROSS: So was it the kind of club that was backed by drug money?
Mr. BENIOFF: Well, the owner of the club had spent time in prison for drug
offenses, and, yeah, you know, I never really asked too many questions about
where the money was coming from, but...
GROSS: That was probably smart.
Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of this unknown world for a lot of
people outside the business, but, I mean, the whole idea of a one-way door,
where the bouncers know exactly who the dealers are, and they're letting in
certain people. They're letting in certain dealers and keeping others out to
keep the competition away from the dealers, and then the dealers give them a
cutback of whatever they make that night.
GROSS: Is that the position you were in?
Mr. BENIOFF: No. I was a very junior bouncer, so I was, you know, maybe
like the sixth man down the totem pole, and never actually--luckily, I guess,
never was getting money from the dealers. Although, you know, I would get
money from other bouncers at the end of the night, and I'm sure they were
getting it from them, so indirectly, I probably was, but was, you know, never
actually getting paid off by the local dealer.
GROSS: So were you the kind of bouncer who decided who had a good enough
leather jacket to get in or who had a nice enough hairdo, cool enough clothes
to get in?
Mr. BENIOFF: No. See, I wasn't even that senior. I was more the bouncer,
you know, in the back, near the dance floor, who's watching, you know, and
seeing when the drunks started getting too rowdy and, you know, trying to
break up fights whenever possible. And I was also probably the most peaceful
bouncer in the history of bouncing, and I would always try to--yeah, I found
that giving someone a free cocktail, which is probably, you know, thinking
back on it, not the best thing to give to a rowdy drunk person, but would
almost always break up a fight before it happened, and so, you know...
GROSS: How would you do that? Two people are fighting, and you go, `Hey,
want a free drink'?
Mr. BENIOFF: Well, once actual fisticuffs have started, it's impossible.
Then you just have to get them out of there. But when, I mean, you hang out
in these clubs long enough, and plus, you know, the fact that you're sober as
the bouncer, and everyone else in there is not, you can kind of see things
starting to happen, and you can feel the tension level rising, and so just
trying to step in before blows have actually been exchanged and, you know,
take someone aside and try to make it, you know, a question of--you know, try
to just deflate the person's temper as much as possible.
And I remember when this absolutely enormous bodybuilder and his brother, two
enormous guys, were about to murder this guy, and I walked in, and I knew that
if something happens, I mean, I didn't have any, you know, backup there, and I
wasn't going to be able to really defend myself from these guys, and just kind
of in desperation, I said, `You know, listen, you guys. I wouldn't walk into
your house and disrespect your house. You guys are in my house right now, and
I think you should respect that and let me buy you a drink.' And it was kind
of just, you know, a `Hail Mary,' and for some reason, they responded to it.
And they said, you know, `OK,' and I got them drinks and got the other guy out
of there, and nothing happened.
GROSS: You're in a studio in LA, and I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. How
big are you?
Mr. BENIOFF: I am 6'2", and at the time when I was bouncing, I was 210, and
now, I've lost all of the weight. I'm probably about 190 now. That was back
when I was playing rugby and wrestling and was much thicker.
GROSS: Does it help you command respect at story meetings?
Mr. BENIOFF: It's definitely--you don't get as intimidated in story meetings
once you've faced down two angry Samoans.
GROSS: Being a bouncer is, in a way, a good occupation for a fledgling
novelist, because what you're doing is observing people and making judgments
about their character.
Mr. BENIOFF: That's a good point. That's a good point. I think being a
bouncer, and then later being a high school teacher were both very helpful
jobs in terms of observing characters and, you know, observing characters in
GROSS: Who challenged you more, your students or the guys in the club?
Mr. BENIOFF: Definitely the students. I mean, I taught in Brooklyn, which
was a lot of fun, also, you know, sometimes frustrating. It's interesting,
because I also taught college at Irvine, where everyone was very well-behaved
and disciplined. And while I was teaching in Brooklyn, I think I would have
thought that was, you know, my dream, to have a well-behaved class. And it
turned out it was actually much less interesting, because the kids in
Brooklyn, as rowdy as they were, you know, first of all, just getting great
dialogue from them. I mean, I think it's one of the great things about being
a teacher, as a writer, is that you just hear the way kids speak, and you hear
the new jargon, and so phrases that I used in the book that I never would have
heard, I think, if I hadn't been hanging around with 16-year-olds and...
GROSS: Can you think of a particular phrase that stuck in your mind that you
Mr. BENIOFF: You know, I remember one of the first classes I taught, this kid
named Angel wrote a poem about getting lifted, and he was finished reading,
and it was a really good poem, and I said, `Just tell me, what does it mean to
get lifted?' And everyone's kind of laughing, and I said, `No, tell me, what
does it mean?' And he said, `Oh, it means getting high.' And I thought,
lifted, to get lifted, that's a nice way of saying it. And since then, I've
heard it in, you know, rap songs and all, but at that time, I hadn't been
exposed to it.
GROSS: Do you miss, in a way, having a connection to that? One of the things
I think that--I think one of the frustrations that scriptwriters, successful
screenwriters have is that they can sometimes be cut off from real life.
Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah. I mean, there's definitely that danger. I work at home,
and it's kind of isolated. I mean, one of the nice things is that out here in
Los Angeles, I have--one of my best writing students when I was teaching in
Brooklyn went on--he's now actually at the graduate school at USC masters
program writing screenplays and I see him a lot, and he's writing and doing
wonderful stuff and a very talented young writer, so that's been one very
gratifying moment as an ex-teacher, to see that. But yeah, I try to, you
know, get out when I can, but there's also, I think, you know, a lot of
writers have a monastic side where you just like to shut the door and it's
just you and your dog in there, and try and get as much work done as possible.
GROSS: In the opening scene of the movie and the novel "25th Hour," the main
character, the drug dealer, finds an abandoned dog in a deserted part of town.
And the dog is lying there all kind of bleeding and cut open, and the main
character picks him up and puts him in the trunk of his car to take him to a
vet, and the dog is really angry and acting kind of vicious and even bites the
main character in his neck. But then, you know, he survives. The dog
survives and becomes the dog of this character, and they're really close.
Mr. BENIOFF: Right.
GROSS: And I thought, this writer, here is a man who likes animals.
Mr. BENIOFF: Well, people have asked me, actually, which characters in the
book--you know, are they based on real people? And really, the answer is no,
with exception of the dog. And my old roommate here in Los Angeles was
driving in a pretty bad neighborhood one time and saw this black pit bull
lying on the side of the road. And she pulled over and, like the dog in the
book, this dog had been beaten by its old masters, and cigarettes had been put
out on its hide, and so forth, which I've always thought was an incredibly
courageous act--she got the dog into her car somehow, despite the fact that
this dog did not want any help and was biting at her. And she brought it to
the vet and got it patched up, and then she brought it home. And I ended up
living with that dog for two years, and so, you know, there are times where
you get inspiration for ideas from different places, and sometimes, you don't
know exactly where it comes from. And I think sometimes, you know, that
inspiration just wakes you up with its barking in the middle of the night.
And I remember thinking, hearing Olive barking, that's an interesting story.
That would be an interesting way to get access to a character and to open up a
GROSS: What do you think it says about your character, that he takes the dog?
Mr. BENIOFF: About Monty's character?
Mr. BENIOFF: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, later, in the long speech
where he's talking to--which is not in the movie, but in the book, where he's
talking to Jakob and asking Jakob to take the dog, he says it's the best thing
he ever did, you know. And the best thing he ever did was save that dog,
because every time he hears the dog barking, every time the dog is chasing a
ball or chewing a bone, he knows it's because of him. It's because Monty
saved the dog's life, and so, you know, if nothing else, Monty has loyalty,
you know, and it's a very important part of his code, that you have loyalty to
those that have done you right. And Doyle, the dog in the book and the movie,
you know, definitely exemplifies that attribute. You know, he's been rescued,
and he had a new life given to him, and he will never abandon them, the man
who gave him that new life.
GROSS: Well, David Benioff, I wish you good luck with all those new
screenplays that you're writing.
Mr. BENIOFF: Thank you, Terry. It's been a lot of fun.
GROSS: David Benioff is the author of the novel "25th Hour." He also wrote
the screenplay for the current film of the same name.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new CD by tenor saxophonist
Fred Hess. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Fred Hess releases "Extended Family" on the Tapestry label
TERRY GROSS, host:
Not all jazz musicians gravitate to hubs like New York. Many are scattered
around the heartland, too, living and teaching and sometimes hitting the road
in search of like-minded players. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new
quartet CD by Colorado tenor saxophonist Fred Hess, who has recorded with
trumpeter Ron Miles, drummer Ginger Baker and his own Boulder Creative Music
Ensemble. On his new CD, he's joined by trumpeter from Rochester, New York, a
Brooklyn bassist and Chicago drummer. Kevin says they speak with the same
(Soundbite of "Cathy's Taffy")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
That's "Cathy's Taffy" by Fred Hess. Like a good bebop tune from the 1940s,
it sounds abstract on first hearing, but when it starts to repeat, you realize
it's kind of catchy. As he often does, Hess keeps bringing the melody back
over the course of the piece in one form or another. Paul Smoker on trumpet
and Hess on tenor sax phrase the tune with an offhand raggedy quality, but
they stay focused on the material which shapes their improvisations. Here's
Hess on his "Good Question" with Ken Filiano on bass.
(Soundbite of "Good Question")
WHITEHEAD: That's from Fred Hess' new quartet CD "Extended Family" on the
Tapestry label. From hearing it, you might not guess the leader is a jazz
educator who's written books analyzing tenor solos by giants like Lester
Young, Don Byas and Stan Getz. He loves those players, but doesn't try to
imitate them. Hess minds his jazz history in other ways, nodding to the
improvise counterpoint in old New Orleans bands, the rough textures and
flexible forms of free jazz and the pleasures of swinging rhythm. Sometimes,
he serves up all that stuff at once.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: That's Damon Short on drums. The two horn players sound
especially good playing over one another like that, and they have the sense to
do it often. Given the quartet's tight interplay, it's amazing they'd hardly
played together as a unit strewn around the country as they are. A record
producer had suggested Paul Smoker to Hess, and Smoker picked the rest of the
band from among his far-flung contacts. That was good matchmaking all around.
The trumpeter has also studied the masters, but doesn't let that hold him
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Many jazz fans who'd love or not love this music might tag it
avant-garde, but it's as steeped in tradition as any Wynton Marsalis record.
It's just that these players have a different and broader conception of what
tradition is. If such musicians are still working through ideas brought to
jazz 30 or 40 years ago, by now, they really know how to use them. That's why
this band works. Everyone has learned the language and speaks it fluently.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed "Extended Family" by saxophonist Fred Hess on the
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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