By Josh Rottenberg
Updated October 31, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton
Directed by: David Fincher
Release date: December 25

For two decades, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a project that seemingly everyone wanted to make but no one could quite crack. Numerous filmmakers, including Ron Howard, Spike Jonze, and Gary Ross, were drawn to the prospect of adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backward and falls in love with a beautiful woman who grows older as he grows younger. Fincher, however, didn’t initially see the appeal: ”Everybody I ever talked to about [the project] said, ‘It’s a timeless love story’ — which couldn’t have been less interesting to me,” he says. Finally, the self-described ”Dr. Sardonicus” behind grim-hued films like Seven and Zodiac honed in on his own, decidedly darker approach to the material, one centered not so much on romance as on mortality. ”It’s a movie about death,” says Fincher, who lured Pitt and Blanchett to play Button and his beloved Daisy. ”It’s a grand love story that’s steeped in death, in the things that we put so much effort into ignoring on a daily basis.” He laughs. ”And the greatest thing about it is, you don’t actually meet the serial killer until, like, an hour in!”

He’s joking, of course. Still, having found a way to hook in to the story, Fincher had to solve a central problem that had confounded other filmmakers: How do you convincingly depict the process of aging backward? ”Many of the best people in the business would say, ‘You really can’t do this,”’ says producer Kathleen Kennedy. ”You could spend a lot of money and it could still not look right.” In the end, Fincher devised a solution with the help of cutting-edge CGI, digitally grafting Pitt’s face onto the bodies of other actors of varying sizes to portray the character at different ages. The result, says Henson, who plays Button’s African-American adoptive mother, is not merely a technological tour de force; it’s an epic romantic drama that she believes packs an emotional wallop. ”It’s breathtaking,” says Henson. ”It’s like a modern-day Gone With the Wind.” Hmm, isn’t that a timeless love story? Better not tell Fincher.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • David Fincher