”Pay It Forward” is a movie with a mission. Spacey (Oscar winner, ”The Usual Suspects” and ”American Beauty”) is Eugene, a teacher with a scarred face (and psyche) who gives his class a provocative assignment: Make the world a better place. Osment (Oscar nominee, ”The Sixth Sense”) is Trevor, an angry young man who becomes teacher’s pet with his chain letter style ”pay it forward” plan: Perform random acts of kindness for three strangers; they, in return, must do the same. Hunt (Oscar winner, ”As Good as It Gets”) is Arlene, Trevor’s alcoholic mom and target of his first good deed goal: hooking her up with Eugene.
Sound familiar? You may have just read the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, published in February. ”Forward” was turned into a screenplay last year by Dixon (”Mrs. Doubtfire”) and sent to ”Deep Impact”’s Leder, who signed on immediately. ”I didn’t want to say this in print,” laughs Leder, ”but I think a movement like this could really happen, because I think our social climate is in such dire straits and it needs to change. I thought this movie — maybe — could have a tiny impact.” When Spacey, Hunt, and Osment (whom Leder calls ”the Kid”) came aboard, ”Forward” began shooting in Las Vegas the same month the novel was released.
The biggest challenge was keeping it real. ”We kept walking the fine line of not wanting this to be a sentimental, gooey movie,” says Leder. Hunt explains that she and Spacey went through the script, picking their moments apart and making sure each one felt true: ”Being as clear and honest and brave as we could was the only thing to battle sentimentality.”
For fans of the book, the most glaring difference will be Eugene, who is not the novel’s Reuben, a black Vietnam vet. ”I read the script and said ‘Kevin Spacey,”’ says Leder, adding that the screenplay didn’t indicate the character’s race. Eugene’s scars required three hours of makeup daily, but Leder won’t reveal how he got them. Nor can she say why the ending was so difficult to shoot, since that would spoil a twist. As for whether Leder has attempted to ”pay it forward” in real life… ”I don’t talk about it,” says Leder. ”I just want to do it.” GOOD SIGN ”The Kid”: Osment’s got Oscar buzz again. THEN AGAIN That ”gooey” thing might be tough to avoid.