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Horns star Max Minghella reunites with director Alexandre Aja for another supernatural tale of mystery and tragedy. This time, however, the English actor is taking a turn behind the scenes as producer and writer of The 9th Life of Louis Drax.

Based on Liz Jensen’s 2004 novel, the film centers around Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth), a boy who has luckily survived eight near-death motorcycle accidents every year of his life, his parents went to www.smithjonessolicitors.co.uk/types-of-claim/motorcycle-accident-claims — and his ninth birthday is no exception. What starts out as a picnic with his mother (Sarah Gadon) and father (Aaron Paul), ends tragically: Louis falls off a steep cliff, remaining in a coma, while his father vanishes from sight. As an investigation, led by Detective Dalton (Molly Parker), escalates, Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), an acclaimed neurologist assigned to the case, finds himself playing a bigger role in his patient’s life than he had expected.

The film, which also stars veteran actors Oliver Platt and Barbara Hershey, was originally optioned 12 years ago by a pair of late Hollywood legends, Anthony Minghella, Max’s father, and Sydney Pollack. Max, best known for his roles in films like The Social Network and The Internship, boarded the project as a producer two years later and wrote the adaptation, marking his screenwriting debut.

And after over a decade of development, the result is a thriller grounded by the story of one father’s love for his son. Paul, best known for his role on Breaking Bad, stands out from the cast, delivering a moving performance as the paternal figure in the accident-prone boy’s life.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release on September 2, ScreenPicks spoke to Max about adapting a best-selling novel for the big screen, overcoming obstacles in the development process, and making another writer’s story his own.

ScreenPicks: I understand that your father and Sydney Pollack originally optioned Liz Jensen’s novel. What made you decide to take on that mantle not only as a producer but also as a screenwriter?

Minghella: “It happened by accident in a way. I’d been brought on as a producer on the project when it was originally set up at The Weinstein Company. I’d never read the book before, so I was feeling somewhat unqualified to produce the material. And I started to read the novel, as we were looking for a writer for the film, and it was sort of almost immediate, my sort of passion for it. I mean, I would say, I was probably three chapters in when I started writing down notes on what an adaptation might look like. I think it was probably the richness of the material and how cinematic it was. It got me excited, but also I could identify very, very quickly things that I could do to make it personal and to distance it from the source material. There were a lot of factors that made me very excited for it.”

ScreenPicks: Watching films is such a subjective experience. One person watching it might take away the theme of buried memories, whereas another person would probably resonate more with the father-son relationship. Was there a particular theme or character in the story that you connected with most?

Minghella: “Theme or character? I mean, the film, over time, became incredibly personal. I mean, I would say the first draft of the script was probably quite dogmatic to the novel and then where we ended up was something that’s almost entirely original piece of material. And over time it really became sort of personal, emotional stuff but also, you know, films and genres that I was engaged with over the course of writing the movie. The film itself is very much about film and sort of takes place in my mind, in a way, in a sort of heightened reality, a heightened movie universe. I would say that I identified with everybody; I think everybody feels like all the characters are, in some way, them. I think I sort of relate to everybody. I mean, I think Pascal is probably, in many ways, a substitute, but I certainly relate to everybody in the movie.”

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ScreenPicks: And as you just mentioned earlier, it’s important to make the story personal and your own. Since this film marks your screenwriting debut, were there any other lessons that you learned about adapting source materials that you could share?

Minghella: “Well, this is my first and only adaptation, so I feel quite unqualified to answer that question. (laughs) I can say that I don’t feel like constructing story is necessarily my strength as a writer, so I was very grateful to have a sort of template to work from. I think that’s allowed me more freedom than if I sort of divide the narrative from scratch, so I actually found it quite liberating. My father did lots of adaptations, and he’d always say, ‘You should read the book once, then you put it down, and don’t pick it up again,’ and I did adopt that same philosophy a bit. I read the book, I think, once in its entirety and made descriptive notes. That was eight years ago, and I didn’t pick it up again. It gives you the freedom to not feel like you’re bound and probably allows for the narrative to evolve into a different medium more naturally.”

ScreenPicks: Many people may not realize how long a film can take before it actually starts filming, so it could be years in the making before the director gets to yell “action” for the first time. I was wondering what was the biggest challenge or obstacle you had to overcome to make this film happen.

Minghella: “Well, it was a very unusual circumstance ‘cause I was essentially writing the screenplay without any guarantee at all that the Miramax would be receptive to even the script or the idea of making the film. Just to give you sort of a metaphor, it would be sort of like if I wrote a Batman movie and then went to Warner Bros. and said, ‘Hey, guys, I wrote a Batman movie — would you make it?’

“They own the book, the book was extremely expensive, and I had no ties to it, except that I’d been working on it for a very long time. To be on it, that was, for me, the biggest miracle, and the biggest hurdle was that I showed up with the script that I’d been working on, I think, for about four years at that point. And they were open to the idea of beginning the journey of trying to make it happen. It really was a long shot.”

ScreenPicks: What I liked about Louis was that he felt real. Most of the time I find that kids on screen are often stereotyped into roles, but I can’t really do that with Louis. At times he acts very precocious, and then there’s other times where he’s very curious and naive. He has so many layers to him that I think labelling him as a “troubled child” is not fair. Was it a challenge to bring that kind of character, with so many layers, from the novel to the screenplay?

Minghella: “Well, I have to say — that’s what I borrowed, I would say, the most heavily on Liz’s novel. I was really taken by the voice that she created for Louis, and I didn’t want to fuck with that, so I really tried to maintain the same sound. Obviously, the specifics have to change quite significantly once our narrative became so different, but I definitely wanted to retain his vernacular. I thought that was really special, but also, just as an audience member, I’ve always been drawn to stories where children are not patronized, where they’re treated with respect.

“I remember, as a child myself, being deeply resentful [towards] being talked down to, in a very childlike way. (laughs) I would have a real chip on my shoulder about being treated differently, so I didn’t want Louis to be treated differently. In general, I have a lot of respect for children, and I hope that respect will continue with all the work I do.”

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ScreenPicks: I was reading one of the interviews with Liz Jensen, and she talked about how the story was inspired by a tragedy that happened to her family long before she was even born. Despite the fact that this story has such a dark context and origin to it, there were still moments throughout the film with humour. How important was it to keep that element?

Minghella: “Yeah, it was really important to me. I would say that was my sort of my initial, my initial — I’m trying to think of the right way of putting it — the first thing I wanted to tackle, in this movie, was to figure out a way to make sure that the inherent darkness of the story didn’t affect the tone of what felt like quite a campy and playful mystery thriller. The tone of Liz Jensen’s novel was not heavy for me; in a fantastic way, it felt like a page-turner, it felt quite self-aware and entertaining. I mean, of course, at the core of it was this event that was quite sinister.

“For me, the biggest challenge, and an exciting challenge, was to find out how we could seep all of these story elements, the key story elements, and then put it in a context of a genre movie. I thought a lot about the Michael Douglas movies of the ‘90s, you know, Disclosure and Fatal Attraction, the string of erotic thrillers that he seemed to make in that period of time. They all had dark elements to them, but at the same time really felt self-aware and soap oper-y kind of way — and that was really my way into this adaptation.”

ScreenPicks: As opposed to being an actor, when you’re a producer or screenwriter of the film, I’d imagine that the reception of the film kind of weighs more heavily on you. Do you feel a different kind of pressure or responsibility because you had so much more involvement with the creative process?

Minghella: “A different kind of pressure or responsibility? I think, personally, I’m very grateful for those things, so I don’t know if I’d call it pressure. I would say it’s a wonderful reward, to be able to be included in this process, in this way. I’m a huge lover of film, and all elements of it. I’m excited by the business of film as I am by the artistry of it, so the more opportunities I have to engage in different aspects of it is really just a pure pleasure to me, and I hope to sort of keep doing that. So no, I wouldn’t say that it’s anything but exciting, to be honest.”

ScreenPicks: You’ve previously directed Christopher Owens’ music video [“Nothing More Than Everything to Me”]. Do you have any plans to direct more? And if so, what form would that take?

Minghella: “I do have more plans to direct, and I think it’s not a coincidence that I started with a music video; I’m really interested in music in film. The most seminal experiences for me, in my life, have been films that have a huge musical component. Whether it’s Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers — I would say, in my top five, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love — my favourite filmgoing experiences have been with movies that have a huge, huge musical contingent. I’m excited to explore that and see what else could be done with it.”

ScreenPicks: I’m usually the type of person who reads the book before I see the adaptation, but I didn’t get to do that in this case. So all the revelations towards the third act really took me by surprise. With films like this, where there’s twists and turns, what kind of experience would you recommend? Would you say someone should read the book first, or watch the film first?

Minghella: “Well, the twists and turns are different in the movie than in the book. I’m all for twists and turns, as you can tell from watching the film. (laughs) I can’t really get enough of them. For me, the fastest way you’d get me to seeing a film on opening weekend is you tell me there’s a twist in it, so I really went, maybe, overboard with that, in terms of trying to inject it with surprise. But I feel like, in the case of this film, and I think Liz would agree, that they are different enough that they will feel like singular experiences. I don’t think that reading the book would distract or detract from the film; I think you still get some surprises.”

(All photos are courtesy of Lionsgate’s Summit Premiere.)