LOS ANGELES - When British director Stephen Daldry first met his cast for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, he did not start by asking their thoughts about 9/11, the precipitating event in the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer on which the movie is based. He skipped a presentation about how he planned to depict Asperger's syndrome, the disorder affecting 11-year-old protagonist Oskar Schell, or how he intended to shoot New York City, as much a character in the film as anyone in the story.

Rather, he asked Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and newcomer Thomas Horn to cook lunch.

The request wasn't a contrivance to find out how much bossing the actors would take from the three-time Oscar nominee behind Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader. Daldry wanted to see what kind of family these performers could construct before the film's plot would tear them apart.

"We weren't rehearsing the movie," Hanks said of their impromptu cooking at the home of screenwriter Eric Roth, "but the relationships in the movie."

The making and breaking of connections are at the heart of Foer's novel, which follows an emotionally troubled boy's quest for the lock that a mysterious key might open after his father dies in the World Trade Center. And for Daldry, his producers, cast, and crew, turning the time-shifting tale into a film was a wrenching journey, with professional ties formed and severed, ideas embraced and discarded, as they struggled to bring the narratively and emotionally thorny story to the screen.

Working with producer Scott Rudin and Daldry, Roth revised the film's screenplay as many as 50 times. Composer Nico Muhly (who wrote the music for Daldry's The Hours) was replaced so late in the game by Alexandre Desplat that Desplat had only four weeks to compose and record a new score, finishing just days before the Extremely Loud prints needed to be made.

Yet along the path of production, any number of wonders helped carry the movie forward, such as Rudin finding his leading boy on a teen version of TV's Jeopardy! and the remarkable associations unearthed by the film's inclusion of an actual 9/11 victim's photograph.

Extremely Loud will open here Jan. 20, but the last-minute changes meant that the filmmakers had little time to screen the movie this month for critics, Hollywood award voters, and other tastemakers whose endorsements can persuade multiplex-goers to take a risk on a film with such difficult subject matter and an unusual protagonist.

Despite largely favorable reviews, audiences did not particularly flock to the 9/11-themed films United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass, or World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone. And while Extremely Loud focuses on the aftermath much more than the terrorist attacks themselves, make no mistake: The movie is psychologically wrenching.

"Love and grief on the most serious day of our lives - that's not an easy thing to bottle up," said Hanks. "It's like marbles on the floor - you're slipping and sliding all the time."

Daldry and his filmmaking team, though, are convinced that this tale of individual and collective grief is ultimately optimistic and life-affirming, with a hopeful coda tied to a secret message and the reconciliation of an estranged couple - two elements that are not in the book. And even if the story's family is ripped apart by the attacks, the film ultimately is focused on its reconciliation.

"The story has to be the child finding a way back to his mother as much as the mother finding a way back to the child," Daldry said. "He now knows he can live without his father. And he didn't know that was actually going to be possible."