Behind the Scenes of The Kite Runner
DEK: Diablo meets the creators of the year’s most anticipated movie.
The highly anticipated film version of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner hits theaters on December 14. After an early screening of the film, Diablo had a chance to sit down with the author, screenwriter, and lead actor to discuss the production of The Kite Runner, and the controversy surrounding its crucial scene. Warning to readers who have not read the book—we’ve marked passages SPOILER ALERT before questions and answers that reveal critical plot points in the story’s climax.
AUTHOR KHALED HOSSEINI
Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, became a runaway best-seller after its 2003 publication. The 42-year-old author sat down with Diablo to discuss the book’s success, cultural impact, and the cultural controversy that has arisen from the film adaptation.
Like Amir, the protagonist in The Kite Runner, you came from Afghanistan to live in the Bay Area, correct?
Yes, we came to San Jose after living in Paris for a few years. My parents still live within a mile of where we moved 27 years ago. I live in the South Bay, in San Jose. I have friends and relatives in Hayward and Fremont and Union City. So San Jose has always been my home within the Bay Area, but we have close friends, relatives, and family members in the East Bay.
There are so many East Bay locations in the book, and in the film we see some of those places. The park at the very end of the story is in Fremont in the book, but that looks like a park near the Berkeley Marina in the film.
The scene was shot in Berkeley, in Cesar Chavez Park, but it’s a stand-in for Lake Elizabeth Park from the book.
Also, the film has one of the most beautiful shots of a BART train that I’ve seen in any movie, when the story transitions from Amir and his father escaping inside the tank of a gas truck into Pakistan, then to the East Bay.
The scene was shot in Hayward. It’s a really nice transition.
The main character, Amir, grows up in mid–1970s Kabul with the dream of becoming a great storyteller. He’s aware of traditional Afghan stories but also goes to a lot of American movies. I’m curious how similar that is to your experiences growing up in Kabul.
In many ways, those are some of the more autobiographical elements of the book. Like Amir, I grew up with a love of stories and I grew up around amazing storytellers—my grandmother was a great, great storyteller. It seems to be that people had more of an attention span to listen to those stories in those days, though that may be my imagination.
So, I grew up around that traditional, old-fashioned oral storytelling, but also I grew up in Afghanistan at a time when there was this influence of Western culture in the form of music and food and movies. Especially film. It was one of my great passions as a child; I loved film and saw everything that came through town. Many were just B movies shown at the local theater but occasionally some very good films as well.
So those passages in The Kite Runner from the 1970s, that milieu, that environment was very reminiscent of my own childhood, and I couldn’t write about it without putting in lots of autobiographical touches.
When did you start writing the novel?
I began it in mid-March 2001 and finished it in June 2002.
It’s very effective to read about Afghanistan through a child’s perspective, someone who grew up there when life was good, then lived in America for decades, then goes back to see how much has changed. When did you first go back to Kabul?
I went back shortly before The Kite Runner was published in June of 2003. I spent two weeks in Kabul. And then I went there again last month, and we drove up through Northern Afghanistan and visited several villages and cities. This time, I went in my capacity as a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, and the purpose of the visit was to meet with refugees who had come back to Iran and Pakistan, and to learn about their challenges and conditions.
SPOILER ALERT: So the climactic sequence where Amir goes back to Kabul to rescue Hassan’s son, and the Taliban is in power—you wrote that part of the story by researching and reporting?
Yes. I mean, I had spoken to so many people who had lived in Afghanistan in so many eras, be it the Soviet era, the civil war, or the Taliban years. It seemed to me that on the basis of all those conversations and observations about stories and anecdotes and details, I could create a convincing environment for Amir to go back and rescue this boy.
When I actually went to Kabul, after I had written the novel, and I spoke to people there and I was able to see it for myself, it was very quickly clear to me that not only was my novel accurate in its depiction, but the reality is so much worse.
This is one of those rare book-to-film adaptations that I felt, in some ways, improved the story, which is so difficult to do. Particularly the kite-flying competition in Kabul—that felt so cinematic up on a big screen.
I think the director, Mark Forster, had a tremendous amount of respect for what this story means to so many readers, and he did all he could to not upset those readers. Obviously, you can’t put everything in the novel on the screen; it’s not good from a cinematic standpoint to do that. But he wanted to make a film that would be faithful to the spirit of the book. The end is a little bit different, but everything said, people who loved the book, I think, will enjoy the film.
Yours is the ultimate first novel success story. Your first book winds up as a best-seller, discussed by every book club. Then it’s adapted into a movie that’s actually faithful to the book, despite requiring the studio to cast unknown actors and translate the dialogue into Dari.
(Laughs) I know. And, to be honest, I never even intended to publish this story. It wasn’t until 9/11 that my wife pretty much talked me into submitting it to publishers. I had just written it for myself. I had never written a novel before, and I thought there was enough meat here for a story. So, I never even intended it to be published, and not only was it published, but it became this word-of-mouth phenomenon, and now this film, which is creating its own word of mouth. It’s just been a dizzying, amazing journey.
This film is also coming out amid some controversy because of the scene where young Hassan is raped by a bully. In film history, the rape is not particularly graphic—certainly less graphic than the rape in The Accused—but there hasn’t been a film that crossed cultural boundaries like The Kite Runner before. I’m curious about your thoughts about this controversy.
I recognize those things. If there are concerns on the part of the family of those children, we have to take those concerns very seriously. So the studio is delaying the release of the film so there is time for the kids to finish school.
If you look at the rape scene, it is essential to the story because that is the moment when Amir’s mind is seared, that’s the moment of his greatest failing. If you take away that card, the whole tower of cards falls apart.
On the other hand, the film is not about that scene at all. It’s not about sexual predators; it’s not about child abuse; it’s not about rape. It’s a film about people who commit terrible mistakes and are affected by those decisions for the rest of their lives, and eventually try to right some wrongs. It’s about brotherhood and honor and cowardice. And it’s a film about love, whether it’s between father and son, between brothers and people and their country. It denounces bigotry and hatred.
So I understand that there is controversy about the scene, but you have to take a step back and look at the bigger message—the overall message of the book and the film. Is it a positive one or a negative one? Is it exploitative? Or is the context in which this scene is used, does it lead to a greater message about people and the world we live in.
I think there is an element of myopia in just focusing on the act itself and refusing to look at it in the greater context.
The East Bay comes off really well in the film. I grew up in this area but was largely unaware of the size of the Afghan community that exists here. This story is very inviting, letting the reader into this culture. How has the story been received by the Afghan community?
I can only answer that by the letters and e-mails I get from fellow Afghans in this community and from other Afghan communities around the world and from Afghanistan. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People see themselves in these characters; they see their own stories, their own troubles. And there are some people who are critical. My books talks about issues that are real and, in some ways, unpleasant.
What was your involvement during the production of the film?
I can’t really describe to you what it is that I did. I didn’t have a job per se, but I would speak to Mark and the producers frequently. They would consult me on cultural issues, ranging from what food people eat, how the clothes differ from what Hassan would wear and what Amir would wear, what the house looks like, what kind of books would be on the shelves. Also, issues of language and religion—things like that.
Your second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, has also been optioned for a film. Will you be as involved in that production?
Steve Zaillain (Schindler’s List, American Gangster) is crafting the screenplay as we speak. That’s in the very early stages, so I don’t know. He’s wonderful; I’m a big fan, and I could not believe it when I heard he was going to be involved.
What was it like to see the neighborhoods from your childhood rebuilt in China?
It was in western China, a couple hours drive from the Afghan border. It’s an area where no film has ever been shot before. There’s kind of an untouched quality to it. It’s very old world. Ethnically, culturally, architecturally, there’s a lot of overlap with that area and Afghanistan. It was a stroke of genius to find that location. My father went with me there, and he was stunned at how reminiscent of Kabul it was. All the Afghans I’ve spoken to who have seen the film are really impressed by it.
When you saw the final cut of this movie, with actors cast in the rolls that you created, how did you feel?
It’s an act of faith to allow your novel to be adapted. You hope they honor it with a faithful adaptation. Having seen the film, and seen these characters, I’m able to understand the wisdom of some of the decisions Mark Forster made. For instance, Homayon Ershadi, who plays Baba, does not necessarily look the way Baba is described in the novel—he’s described as a huge, six-foot-five-inch man—but Homayon has that physical presence; he conveys it. He has this gravitas, this sense of authority, and he completely sells it. So, I think he was a very inspired choice as Baba.
And what about the decision to use Dari, the Farsi dialect, for such large portions of the film?
Well, it would have been a completely different movie [otherwise]. You want to be transported back to that time and place, and it’s impossible to do that if you have these kids in 1970s Afghanistan speaking California English. It would have been very jarring.
The Afghan children hired to play the roles of young Amir and Hassan are wonderful.
They’re fantastic. I’m so proud of them every time I see the movie.
I was hoping you might recommend three films from, or about, Afghanistan for our readers to put in their Netflix queue.
I think Osama is wonderful. It won a Golden Globe a few years ago. It’s about the stifling of ordinary people by the Taliban regime; it’s about this little girl who wants to provide for her family and dresses up as a boy to do that. It’s very moving, a very simple narrative, but really well done. It was shot in Afghanistan by an Afghan director. Really lovely.
I also like In This World, which is the story of two Afghan refugees who decide to get from Pakistan to London—the story of their journey. It was directed by Michael Winterbottom, who did A Mighty Heart.
And, this one is kind of from left field, but it’s by a French writer named Joseph Kessel, and it’s called The Horsemen, about the sport of Buzkashi. It stars Omar Sharif and Jack Palance, and it’s kind of an old Hollywood production. I have not seen it in a long time, but I remember it making quite an impression on me.
LEAD ACTOR KHALID ABDALLA
Khalid Abdalla has just two film credits on his résumé, both of them stunners. In 2006, Abdalla played 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah in Paul Greengrass’s United 93, and this year, the 27-year-old actor scored his first leading role, playing the adult version of Amir in The Kite Runner. Born in Scotland to parents of Egyptian descent, Abdalla now lives in London, Paris, and Cairo—and says he has very fond feelings for the East Bay after filming parts of The Kite Runner here.
The book and film show us the Afghan community here in the East Bay, and it’s nice to see that all these cultural traditions are alive and well. How long did you film in the East Bay?
We were here for about two weeks. We did a lot of the studio stuff in Beijing. But all the exterior stuff was obviously done here. The opening scene and the final kite scene, and a few of the driving around scenes, were here. We finished shooting here. It’s really special to be here again, and it was really special to be at the Mill Valley Film Festival screening. You presume that wherever you screen a film, the audience will react the same, because you’re screening the same film. But actually, the audience is very different and everyone shares something different. It was really nice to be able to share it with people who see this area as home and relate to the story in that way.
After all, this is the community that essentially welcomed Khaled Hosseini and his family. It’s really nice to be able to be back here.
As an East Bay resident, I was proud to see this area have a kind of supernatural beauty in the film—that this area welcomes various cultures and that those cultures can thrive, traditions are kept alive, people fall in love, and all those corny Hollywood clichés.
Absolutely. I know what you mean about that sequence. The funny thing is, for all the talk about Afghanistan, the story is a quintessentially American story. It’s a story about leaving home and making a life for yourself in America, which is what so many people who have come here have done.
The young actors deliver some of the strongest natural performances by children that I’ve ever seen. As good as the boy in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which is especially impressive because they were picked out of Afghanistan casting calls; they had no training as actors.
I agree; they are extraordinary. I met them when I was in Kabul; I learned to fly a kite with them. I was there the whole time watching them film scenes and developed quite a bond with them. They are absolutely extraordinary children.
There’s an ambiguous controversy about how this film is going to be received in Afghanistan because there’s a male-on-male rape scene. How do you expect the reaction to be?
I think there will be two issues. There will be the reaction of people who have seen the film and the reaction of people who hear about the film, or who hear about the controversy. Those are two different things.
In different ways, what the film is contending with is the expectation that’s been built by Hollywood. The expectation, in that sense, is that it will be about negative portrayals. And this film is about going against that trend. It’s very positive.
The position that the studio has taken, to get the children out of the country, is the right thing to do because we don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s really important that they are safe.
But my own feelings, from the Afghans who live here and from Afghans who have read the book, is that it’s overwhelmingly positive. It’s as pro-Hazara as possible, yet, the Hazara are concerned it will show them in a bad light. It’s a book and a story that celebrates Afghanistan. But, if all you hear is that there’s a rape scene and the rape scene is about a Pashtu person molesting a Hazara person, then it starts to stoke a fire about something that does not really exist.
There’s something else about the rape scene that’s really important. Khaled intended an allegorical reading, which I find really touching. It’s about the moment where Amir stands by and does nothing while his great friend is raped. For Khaled, this is the position that many Afghans have had having to leave their country and stand by and do nothing as it’s raped. To stand by and do nothing as it has gone through about 30 years of war. So hopefully, with this book and movie, [fewer] people will forget Afghanistan.
Someone told me that they felt like they traveled with the movie, and I found that very interesting. You don’t travel with stories of war; you travel with these human stories.
Your character, Amir as an adult, seems like a classic antihero to me. He lives with these demons and does not want to have to step up to the plate, but in the end, he does.
[There are] a fair number of people who read the book who feel that he’s a weak person. I think that it’s incredibly unfair. People forget that he was 12. People forget that he grew up in a house where he thought his father blamed him for his mother’s death. I have a great love for him, frankly.
I was looking over your biography, and one project that popped off the list was that you directed a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in college. That play and Kite Runner have some similar themes about deep, dark secrets. When you were creating the Amir character, was it an entirely unique journey or do other characters filter in and out?
Yes, you can’t help but let your experiences filter into it. For me, more so. It was having a bicultural upbringing: the experiences I have with that and the relationship I have with Egypt. And what informed me the most was the time I spent in Afghanistan.
How long were you there, and where did you go in Afghanistan?
I was in Afghanistan for a month. I was mainly in Kabul, but I also went up to Mazar-e Sharif in the North and also Bamyan, where the Buddhas used to be.
I was having four or five hours of Dari lessons a day; I completely banished English. I went to weddings. I ate everything. I went to every place that’s mentioned in the book and everywhere else. I even went to watch a Bollywood film in Cinema Park in Kabul. And then I traveled up to Mazar-e Sharif along the Salang Pass, which is just extraordinarily beautiful. Lush isn’t a word that’s associated with Afghanistan so much, but you get these valleys that are lush green and arid, snowcapped mountainscapes. It was total immersion. And for my pains, it was something that I wasn’t expecting. I imagined I’d be able to imitate the language, hopefully, to speak it is accurately as possible, but I did not imagine I would be able to learn it as well. I managed to do that as well.
The decision to have so much of the film in the authentic Dari dialogue makes a real difference in watching the movie.
It’s so important, I think. I’ve always felt that there’s an embedded safety mechanism in the book because you have two different countries and you have characters who don’t speak both languages. I don’t know how you would do it, aside from having a bad accent and a good accent.
But another reason that it is so important to be authentic is that I know what it feels like to be misrepresented. It hurts. I think I’m right in saying that this is the first time in the history of Hollywood that a film about this part of the world has the first point of human contact as a family story. Not political violence and not the Taliban, and not bombs and not the people who do the brutalizing, but the people who are brutalized.
Afghanistan at one point had over 6 million refugees, the largest refugee population in the world. When you think about the traumas that means for an entire country, the stories for those people. When I was there, I would hear stories like, “If I had stood up at that moment, I would have been killed along with the rest of my family.”
A story like The Kite Runner is a drop in the ocean compared to what Afghanistan has been through over 30 years of war. The fact is that it’s generally associated with beards and the Taliban. That’s a real shame because the truth is that it’s the majority who suffer and the minority who make everyone else’s life hell.
***SPOILER ALERT!*** How many times did you have to shoot that last shot in the film, where you run down the hill after the kite?
Only about three times. The grass was wet and the shoes I was wearing were a little slippery, so I was quite worried that I would take a tumble.
It was funny how the weather came into question, because you would expect this to be a kind of blue sky ending. Some people were asking why it wasn’t the park in Fremont. The reason the park was chosen was the view you could get of the Bay. Of course, we arrived and San Francisco’s famous fog took its position, and you couldn’t see anything. In a way it was perfect.
SCREENWRITER DAVID BENIOFF
David Benioff’s first screenplay was another book-to-film adaptation, for his own novel, The 25th Hour, directed by Spike Lee. After writing original screenplays for Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy and Marc Forster’s Stay (and having a baby with his wife, actress Amanda Peet), Benioff enjoyed the unique experience of having large sections of his adaptation for The Kite Runner translated into the Farsi dialect of Dari—a first for a Hollywood film.
Had you read The Kite Runner before you became involved with the film project?
No, not really. The film project was under way, but I was told that I should read it because it’s a really good book and there’s going to be a movie. But before I had a chance to read it, they told me, “Never mind, we already have someone to write the screenplay.”’ But the guy they hired never wrote a script. I don’t know what happened; maybe he got drunk. It didn’t work out, and a year later, I get another phone call where they said, “This is still available.”
So I read the book, and I loved the book, and I knew Rebecca Yeldham, one of the producers, and I called her and said, “I would love to do this.” It somehow fell into my lap.
In a cinematic sense, this film feels like an epic. I felt like this could have been directed by David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai). And the suspenseful section with the Taliban reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. Yet, there aren’t any well-known actors, or any Hollywood-ish components to the production. Is this a unique project?
Yes, it feels more pure as a movie, especially in the story sense. I was just watching Children of Men, and when Michael Caine comes in to the film, he’s wearing this long wig. So for the next 20 seconds or so, I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s Michael Caine wearing a wig,” and it takes you out of the story. There’s something kind of wonderful about seeing a movie where you don’t recognize any of these people. It feels more authentic—you get to concentrate on watching the story. You don’t worry about watching Tom Cruise and thinking, “I wonder what he’s really like.”
There was talk in the beginning that we would get Ben Kingsley to play the father, but even though he’s a great actor, I don’t think the film would have been better with a well-known actor in the cast.
Because extended sequences were filmed in Dari, and the audience reads subtitles, there is really quite a lot of prose from the book that appears on screen. What was it like to have your English-language script translated into Dari?
It was totally new. The whole process was interesting. I wrote the script in English and [author Khaled Hosseini’s] father translated the script to Dari for the actors. And then I translated it back for the subtitles. As a screenwriter, I’m usually not involved in the postproduction, so it was nice to be able to contribute at that stage of the production as well.
The best thing I’ve heard through the whole process was when we were recording the DVD commentary, and I was sitting there with [director] Mark Forster and Khaled Hosseini, and there was a line that made Mark ask, “Is that from the book or the screenplay?” and Khaled said, “At this point, I don’t know which is which.” That’s a great thing to hear as the adapter.
The book and film have significant sections set in the East Bay—when you were writing this screenplay, did you come visit the swap meets and city parks described in the book?
I’ve spent a lot of time here—I used to live up here—so I’ve been through the area. I never did go to the swap meets. And I’ve never been to Kabul, which I regret. The studio sent Mark and the casting director and director of photography—I didn’t get one of those tickets, which is too bad. I was in China for part of the time they were filming there.
The description I put in the screenplay of the swap meets and such were pretty much straight from the book. One of the easy things about being a screenwriter is that you can just write EXTERIOR-FLEA MARKET-DAY and maybe a one line description, and if you have a really good production director, as we did on this movie, [he/she is] going to do all the work for you.
SPOILER ALERT!!! Your screenplay managed to get most of the book into the film, but a few areas have been tightened. I’m especially curious why you left out the young boy’s suicide attempt at the end of the book. Was that ever in a draft of the screenplay?
Yes, but not in the earliest drafts because I never really thought it would work in the movie. I put it in later because people asked me to. Everyone agreed that it wasn’t working because it feels like you’re working toward a climax with the fight between Amir and Assef in the Taliban compound, and to make the suicide work, it would be a second climax, and to get all that in would take another 40 minutes of screen time, and that wouldn’t work. The suicide attempt works in the book, but it just didn’t in the screenplay. Maybe there was some brilliant way of working it in, but I could not figure it out. So it never made it to the final drafts.
The book’s first reference to Amir’s love of Hollywood movies is when he describes a John Wayne film translated to Farsi, but in the movie it’s a reference to Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven. The Amir character seemed like a classic antihero—he doesn’t want to have to go Kabul—much like the characters McQueen was known to play. Did you try to make that distinction in the film, or is this just me being a giant film geek?
Was there a decision to go away from the classic hero toward the antihero? No, I didn’t think it through that far, but I wish I did. I love that theory, and I think I’ll use it from now on.
Do you read novels for pleasure? Or are you thinking, “How do we make the movie?” every time you read something?
It’s hard. It’s tough to divorce yourself from your instincts as a screenwriter because this is what you do for a living. But I’m proud to say that I finished reading War and Peace this year after years of trying to get into it and failing. That story could maybe be filmed as a 20-hour miniseries, but no one is going to make a two-hour movie out of War and Peace. But most times that I’m reading something, it’s tough not to think about it in terms of what I would do. Which is not a good thing, I think.
What’s your next film project?
There’s a movie called Brothers that Jim Sheridan is directing, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman. And then Wolverine starts shooting in early November. And hopefully, an adaptation of a George Pelecanos novel called Right as Rain will start early next year. Beyond that, what I’m most excited about is my own novel, which I finally finished, which should come out in May.
Does writing a novel require a different writing process than a screenplay?
It’s harder to write a novel because there’s no deadline. With a screenplay assignment, there’s always a ticking clock. But this novel I’ve finished. I came up with the story for it seven years ago and just finished it. With the novel, you don’t have the hard deadline. It’s also much harder to write a novel. With a screenplay, you get so used to writing INTERIOR-HOTEL ROOM and a production designer decides what it looks like. With a novel, you have to put it all on the page. It’s easy to lose those muscles for description and to access what’s going on in your character’s mind.
The Kite Runner opens in theaters on December 14.