Director Terry George realized that to bring John Burnham Schwartz’s novel “Reservation Road” to the bigscreen, the success of the poignant drama would rely completely on a strong cast and their heartfelt performances. At the Variety Screening Series, the helmer and scribe chatted about the cast and what it took to bring a story of a hit-and-run accident to theaters.

“When I read it, I was intrigued, not just by the drama itself, but the subtext of demonizing the enemy and creating a monster in your head,” said George.

In the film, Joaquin Phoenix is Ethan, a man who loses his son in a tragic accident caused by Dwight, played by Mark Ruffalo.

“When I first read the script, I thought Joaquin wanted to play Dwight because it conformed to that impression he gives of a dark, tormented soul,” said the helmer. “Then I met him, and he said it was Ethan he wanted to play. And that became more interesting for me because I wanted to see him take on a sense of normality, an almost boring college professor with an idyllic life. But by the end, he’s a darker character.”

“With Dwight’s character, he’s a flawed human being trying to grasp the last moments of a relationship with his son before it’s killed off,” continued George.

“They kind of flip flopped. You start with Dwight, a bad character. You can’t get much worse than knocking a child down on the road and driving away,” said the filmmaker. “And with Ethan, he is the rock of the family at the start, but it slowly eats away at him and he becomes a darker character.”

“Mark is an incredibly sympathetic actor. The gradual evolution of Dwight, both in the script and in Mark’s performance, is clearly not a simple or benevolent human being,” said Schwartz.

Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly also adds her acting chops to the cast as Grace, Ethan’s wife.

“It’s hard to find a better actress today that can go to the soul of something,” said George. “She brings passion and pain to the scene. She lights up the scene even in a tough role.”

“I’m in a small club of novelists that wrote a novel and went on to write a script that then became a movie and thinks the movie is wonderful,” remarked Schwartz. “I believe in the movie.”