Incredible opportunity: Stephen Daldry guides newcomer Thomas Horn in poignant 9/11 drama

The new Thomas Horn movie, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, is also the only Thomas Horn movie—for now, maybe even forevermore. Horn just entered his teens and is the only high-school freshman to carry a multi-million-dollar motion picture—one of the best arriving on the Oscar-courting, year-end assembly line. His supporting cast includes Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as his parents, Max von Sydow and Zoe Caldwell as grandparents, John Goodman as a kibitzing doorman, and Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright as people who cross his path.

He also has Stephen Daldry shepherding him to stardom. A first-rate British theatre director, the 50-year-old Daldry has helmed only four feature films to date, but three of them earned him Oscar nominations for Best Director, and three of them are noted for extraordinary, award-worthy performances from teenage boys.

David Kross was 17 when he held his own opposite an Oscar-winning Kate Winslet in The Reader. Jamie Bell was 14 when he was a Best Actor contender for Billy Elliot, and the three teens who alternated in that title role for the Broadway musical version won—under Daldry’s Tony-winning direction—a collective Best Actor Tony.

Despite strong evidence to the contrary, Daldry insists he has no special powers. “I just treat them as adults. You find a methodology and a neat way of working with them that makes sense to them and makes sense for you, and a language that you can share so you can know what you’re talking about. And that’s sort of it. I don’t think there’s any trick to it. Honestly, I really don’t. I swear by my methodology, which is a very specific way of working, and it’s good for everybody.”

The proof is in Horn’s rich, rangy, wonderful performance as Oskar Schell, an 11-year-old New Yorker flailing about and grieving over losing his father in the World Trade Center disaster two years earlier. “The worst day,” as he calls it, continues to revisit and torment him in the present tense. Eric Roth, adapting Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, scatters telltale signs of autistism and Asperger syndrome in the boy’s often-brutish behavior. Kids don’t come more complex or kinetic than this one.

“He’s not a Disney kid, no,” Daldry concedes in dry British understatement. “He’s in a good deal of trouble, and he keeps trying to dig himself out of that trouble. He’s a kid who is profoundly suffering from the loss of his father. I couldn’t imagine doing that with a Disney kid. We wanted a kid who could go to those extraordinary emotional places. I find it interesting, those times when the kid is really difficult and fighting.”

His widowed mom gets the brunt of his bad behavior—till a distraction materializes and snaps him out of his withdrawal: a vase shatters, revealing a key he believes his father wanted him to find. It’s a way of unlocking the past—the two used to play “reconnaissance expeditions”—so he searches the five boroughs for an answer.

“I think I wanted to make a movie about 9/11,” the director says simply when asked what drew him to this material. “I wasn’t here when it happened. My wife was. I was with [producer] Scott Rudin, finishing up The Hours in London. We went through those days together, and I think that’s why Scott sent me the book and screenplay.”

Rising to the bait, Daldry let himself in for a draining ride as a director. “You have a responsibility to Jonathan’s book, and you have a responsibility to talk about a subject which is going to bring up a huge emotional response from people. A lot of people will say they are ready or they are not ready. This is a made-up story about a family. Jonathan wrote it and invented it, but there are 3,000 children who are alive and walking around in the city now whose parents did die on 9/11, so to take on board that responsibility, the only thing you can do is do what we did, which is to do as much research as you possibly can and be observant of the experiences that people really did go through. We’re talking about a traumatic loss in an extreme, traumatic situation—and it’s bound to be distressing to us to make it and it’s bound to be distressing for people to watch it and especially the people who were involved directly.

“I can only hope and pray we are telling the story as honestly as we can. The film, for me, was—just making it and watching it and editing it—a traumatic experience, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. For me personally, I gotta say there is a catharsis in it. I think grief is a subject we all need to talk about and talk about more—loss and, in this particular case, catastrophic loss in a catastrophic situation. I made the film as sensitive to my own reactions to it as I possibly could —and as truthful as I possibly could—and hope that people will share that with me.”

The Warner Bros. film is riddled with flashbacks to 9/11, painful reminders of the past impinging on the present, and Daldry labored to handle those scenes with taste and care. “We trusted our own instincts about what we felt was appropriate and what we felt was not appropriate—and things that I felt I could shoot and what I didn’t want to show. We had a whole discussion about whether we were going to see the Towers at all, and in the end that came down to a location for shooting because we found a location for Sandy’s office, and the old glass I thought just refracted the image enough that I could take it, but I didn’t want to see it without that glass.

“Every time we went to that day, I was very conscious of the choices we were making,” Daldry recalls. “There were other choices we could have made. We could have seen Tom Hanks on the other end of that phone call, and I couldn’t stand the idea of seeing Tom Hanks in that context. The choice of what to show and what not to show was a big decision-making process, but I couldn’t face the possibility of re-creating the office that Tom was in.”

He did, however, record Hanks’ voice, leaving progressively more desperate phone messages from the World Trade Center. “We listened to a lot of the messages that were left on machines that day—real people’s messages, which we got access to—and it was profoundly upsetting, and profoundly upsetting for Tom.”

Daldry doesn’t waste any frames getting to the heart-wrenching core of the matter, with Hanks in slo-mo freefall. “We filmed it on a soundstage with wires. That opening scene comes from what Oskar is imagining. He doesn’t actually know how his father died—literally, what happened to his father—so he has different imaginings of what happened. And then he has these dreams and images—haunting images that the child has of what happened. I think, at the opening, the idea was seeing his father in air and somehow floating. Is he floating or is he falling? What, actually, is the child seeing? Eventually, that becomes clear that it’s part of his fears.”

Given Daldry’s great track record with the young, child actors don’t naturally gravitate toward him like a magnet. “No,” the director sighs, “you have to find them.”

This Oskar surfaced in a surprising way. “It’s not a typical casting process,” even Horn had to admit. “About two years ago, I was watching an episode of ‘Jeopardy,’ and there was an ad during the commercial break, offering online tests for ‘Kids Jeopardy.’ My family thought, ‘You know what? Thomas knows some trivia. Maybe he could do okay there.’ So I took this online test, did a quick audition in L.A., and a few months later I was surprised to find I had been invited for a taping. It aired in July 2010.

“From what I heard, someone in production high up in the formation of the new movie saw me and thought I would be good to audition along with many, many other kids for the role, so they sent me material to make a tape. Of course, I knew nothing about film or the entertainment industry at all—I was a total newcomer—but I thought, ‘What do I have to lose by sending in this tape? I might as well try it.’

“So I did my best to make the material into a little thing, and I sent it out, and for two months I didn’t hear a thing. I thought, ‘They didn’t like me. That’s fine.’ So I went on with my life, but after that, they called me up and said, ‘We want you to come to audition in New York.’ I did a five-day audition with five or six other kids. It was really nerve-racking. Not even necessarily wouldn’t I get the part, but the atmosphere in that room was so, so charged and anxious. Then I went home after that and it was all okay. A month later, Stephen called me personally and told me I got the role.”

Risking everything on a young unknown when you’re not Steven Spielberg is an agonizing, palm-sweating ordeal, and Daldry well remembers the pressure of it.

“I think we were all aware that the film rests on the shoulders of whoever plays Oskar, and we auditioned all over North America and in Europe, and we were lucky to find Thomas. I was very aware that the film couldn’t go ahead unless we found the right kid. The reason there was a month delay was because I took Thomas’ tape to Warners and said, ‘Okay, guys, if we’re going to do this, it’s going to work or not work based on what Thomas is going to do, so here’s the tape. Let’s sit around. Are we going to buy into it? I’m not going to go ahead unless you absolutely agree this is absolutely the perfect actor for the role.’ And they said, ‘Yes. Go ahead. Thomas is fantastic.’

“And Thomas is fantastic. Thomas is very unlike the character in that story, and that’s part of his brilliance that he can portray Oskar in the way that he does. To go on that journey with Thomas of finding out what’s special about the character, with a number of experts to help us out, was fantastic. And Thomas is the brightest, most determined, most courageous actor I think you could possibly have to work with. He has a huge emotional life. There were many reasons to cast Tom and Sandy, but one of them was surrounding him with—not just an amazing cast but amazing people, supportive, brilliant, wonderful human beings so the boy can be part of the package to make sure we could go to the places where we needed to go.”

Incredibly, in spite of the acclaim and Oscar buzz prompted by his bravura work, Horn has his head screwed on alarmingly straight. “I had a really great experience,” he notes. “Most experiences for most actors, from what I’ve heard, aren’t like this, which I can definitely understand because I worked with the best of the best here and I can’t expect that all of the time.

“What I’m getting at is that I want a career that has multiple disciplines and many options in it, and that probably means having multiple skills. I want to continue my studies and go on to college and learn something practical like computer science or hydrology or something like that. I think anyone’s life would be better if they could do multiple things. You have options if one thing goes dry. I think definitely if I get another opportunity in the entertainment industry that has a good script just like this one and a good director and other great actors that I’d like to work with, then I’d seriously consider that.”

Otherwise, Hollywood will have to take a ticket and wait for Thomas Horn. It will also have to wait a while on Stephen Daldry. His next gig takes him far afield from film and theatre: He’ll executive-produce all the ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics.