WATERVILLE — Robert Benton was already a fan of Richard Russo’s novels when Scott Rudin, a producer at Paramount Pictures, asked him if he was interested in writing a screenplay based on “Nobody’s Fool.”

Ten pages into the novel by the Maine writer, Benton called Rudin and said yes.

Benton wrote a “terrific” first draft, and Rudin only had a few corrections to make. And 41 drafts later, they were set to start filming, he said.

The film, set in the upstate New York town of North Bath, was shown during the Maine International Film Festival on Sunday in the Opera House. After the showing, which Russo also attended, the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award was bestowed on Benton. An after-party for Benton, open to all, was held at Holy Cannoli on Main Street.

A thin man with white hair and a white beard framing his kind face and twinkling blue eyes, Benton, 83, is quick to make a joke. He said receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award felt like “a near-death experience” before giving his real answer.

“It feels lovely,” he said. “To be here, in a place so connected with my friend Richard Russo, it’s especially an honor for me.”

Benton is dyslexic, and while he has improved with time, he had considerable trouble when he was a child, he said during an interview Sunday. He couldn’t read, but he could draw, so he would get by in school by drawing. He grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town, which proved to be an advantage.

“All my teachers would play bridge with my mother, so they couldn’t fail me,” he said.

When his father would get home from work, instead of asking Benton if he’d done his homework, he’d ask him if he wanted to go see a movie. Benton welcomed the distraction from his school troubles.

He began to learn narrative from films instead of books, which is a very different kind of narrative, he said. He would watch the same movie dozens of times, and eventually he’d be able to see its “architecture.”

“I learned screenwriting from watching so many movies,” he said.

This distraction from school led to Oscar-winning films such as “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”

His goal in making a film is to “live through it,” he joked.

“It’s an exhausting way to make a living,” Benton said, “but it’s also incredibly rewarding.”

Benton has been to Maine once before to visit Russo, who lives in Camden, and said he enjoyed getting to see the Colby College Art Museum this time around before introducing his movies at MIFF on Sunday.

While introducing “The Late Show,” which he directed and wrote, he talked about what he learned from the experience with that movie.

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m a hell of a re-writer,” he said to a full crowd at the Railroad Square Theater.

Robert Altman, who produced the film, gave him a few lessons on directing as well.

“You have to leave the script behind and find the movie buried in the screenplay,” Benton said.

Benton remained close with many of the people he worked with in Hollywood, and he now lives in New York City with his wife, Sallie.

Four of Benton’s award-winning films were shown at the MIFF Festival: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Late Show” and “Nobody’s Fool.”

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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