When Benjamin August moved to Los Angeles a decade ago to try his hand at writing movies, he began to work on what he thought would sell. Years later, his first story to get its screen debut is a psychological thriller about a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor with an unreliable memory.
Of course, not the easiest story to sell to a film producer.
“When I had the idea for Remember, [my manager] said, ‘this is a super hard one to sell because no one likes movies with old people, but it’s an awesome idea, and good ideas find homes.’”
That home ended up being with Canadian producer Robert Lantos, who had never before decided to produce a screenplay with a story he hadn’t developed.
Remember premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is set to open in theatres across Canada on Oct. 23.
In the thriller, directed by Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), Christopher Plummer plays Zev, an aging Holocaust survivor. After his wife dies, Zev decides that he has little to lose and begins to search for the Nazi guard responsible for his family’s murder at Auschwitz, whom he believes is still alive.
Despite the ubiquity of news stories about war criminals coming out of hiding and receiving prosecution, August says that wasn’t an inspiration for this story.
“It started more with wanting to write a movie starring an older man,” says August, 36. “I just felt like there are so many great older actors, like Christopher Plummer, who don’t get lead roles anymore.”
While Remember has similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Memento, August adds that The Straight Story, a low-key American drama that earned actor Richard Farnsworth an Oscar nomination at age 79, was also an influence.
“There’s something about older people that we trust,” he says. “It makes us a little more sympathetic to them in their journey, so we’re rooting for them.”
The subject matter was also inspired from August’s time living in Vietnam. He moved there from Los Angeles during the writers’ strike in 2007 to teach English as a second language.
Nevertheless, the topic of war criminals evading punishment resonated with the scribe during his time there, from guilt of what some American soldiers did to the Vietnamese during that protracted war.
“These people got to live a full life,” he says of war criminals. “That thought is something that really inspired me to write. Have they changed? Do they reflect on what they did? Or are they cowering every day in fear of being recognized and being caught?”
August, a Jewish native of New Jersey, didn’t lose any direct family in the Shoah, although he says he vividly remembers the tattoos on the arms of his Hebrew school teachers.
The first draft of Remember only took August one month to write, but it wasn’t until a couple years of rewrites before the screenplay ended up in Lantos’ hands.
“I knew since it was such a hard script to get made, it had to be in really tiptop shape,” he says.
While he worked on various scripts during his time in Los Angeles, including a few comedies, the only major screen credit August received at the time was as a producer on the reality show Fear Factor.
Looking back at the hokey comedy scripts he worked on as he tried to break into the industry, August says they are embarrassing to look at.
With two other thrillers lined up for production – including one for Black Bear Pictures, the studio behind The Imitation Game – August has a good plan to remain engaged in what he writes.
“The goal… is to make people ask questions after [the film],” he says. “I think an audience is going to walk out [of Remember] and say, ‘What would you do? Did you see that twist coming?’”
“If you’re not asking questions, then we did something wrong.