Sundance Screenwriters Talk: A Recap of NFS Exclusive Interviews
Late summer and early fall is the time of year when Sundance favorites find their way into select theatres, VOD channels and the occasional iTunes stream or download. Back in January, we posted a series of exclusive interviews with screenwriters from five films in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Now that you can see all of these films for yourself, we thought it would be a good time to revisit these interviews and pull out some choice words for the aspiring screenwriter in all of us. Check out interview excerpts below to learn lessons from the screenwriters of C.O.G., Mother of George, Austenland, Concussion, and The Kings of Summer.
Let's start this recap with a trailer for C.O.G., written and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, adapted from an essay by David Sedaris. C.O.G. is currently in limited release in U.S. theatres as well as VOD and streaming or download-to-own on iTunes.
C.O.G. is the first adaptation of a David Sedaris story into a film. During our interview, I asked Alvarez how he handled the challenge of adapting Sedaris, who has such a distinctive voice, both literally and on the page:
Some of the scenes are taken verbatim from the story and some of the dialogue is taken verbatim. You have this distinctive voice, both literally and on the page, like you said. My goal was to drop the literal 100% and not try to capture his physical tone in the adaptation or the casting. I didn’t deliberately try to cast someone that didn’t look like him, but I wanted to cast whoever was right for what the movie should be. And deliberately tell that actor, I don’t want an imitation here, I’m not trying to create David Sedaris.
Part of my approach to David was to say, okay, let this movie exist in its own right. Let it be something that is indebted to David Sedaris’ tone and inspired by it, that isn’t trying to go out of its way to recreate him as an individual.... What I did to translate that was not translate it at all. It was definitely one of the bigger risks with the film.
Mother of George
Next, we move to Mother of George, which screenwriter Darci Picoult describes as "a story about a woman who will do anything and risk everything for her marriage." Directed by Andrew Dosunmu, Mother of George is currently in limited release in U.S. theatres. Here's a trailer:
Picoult is an award-winning playwright, so I asked her during our interview how she decides whether to write a story as a play or a screenplay. She answered the question by talking about how she is approaching a new story that she is currently writing:
I’ve never done this before, but I decided to write it as a screenplay and also in a very different way as a theater piece. So I finished the screenplay, but I was also working on it at different moments as the theater script. Now, I am almost finished with the theater script, which I know will influence me when I go back to the screenplay because with certain scenes, I have found moments that maybe I never would have found if I didn’t write it as a theater script, too.
I think a good story being told in either medium is about the complications and the contradictions that any person goes through, be it told theatrically or cinematically. The difference with cinema is seeing it and writing it again with a more visual sense. Also, less is more in terms of the dialogue in cinema because so much will be captured within the actor’s face and how a director decides to shoot a particular scene.
Austenland, based on the novel by Shannon Hale, was adapted for the big screen by Hale along with writer/director Jerusha Hess. The film is a comedy about a woman obsessed with all things Jane Austen. She takes a vacation to immerse herself in the world of her favorite author at Austenland, where she finds herself swept up in a romance with a footman from the fantasy world.
Here's a trailer for Austenland, now playing in limited release in the U.S.:
During our email interview, I asked Hale about her process of collaboration with Hess to create the screenplay adaptation of her novel:
Jerusha did the first pass, I did a second, and soon we were working together in the same room, reading it through, tossing lines at each other. Best way to work on a comedy. You can immediately find out if what you wrote is funny by earning either a laugh or a “that’s stupid.” Most fun I’ve ever had writing. Jerusha was a dream collaborator.
The story always felt so film-friendly to me I briefly considered writing it into a screenplay instead of a novel. Then I thought, duh, you’re a novelist. I’m glad I went the novel route first but it was so fun to slip it into a screenplay. I loved revisiting it, writing new scenes, discovering what changes would really shine in a visual medium.
Concussion, written and directed by Stacie Passon, is a provocative look at a woman who suffers a head injury that leads to a mid-life emotional jarring, upending all of the rules and societal norms she had previously followed.
Below is the trailer for Concussion, which hits U.S. theatres, VOD and iTunes on Oct. 4.
***NSFW WARNING*** This red-band trailer features graphic sex and nudity.
In our email interview, I asked Passon about her writing process and the most challenging sequences to write:
I wrote this piece in six weeks. In late March of last year, I sat down and out it came. I’d written scripts before, and I’m a writer by trade so I guess you could say I’m fast at it. Then Rose Troche [Go Fish, The Safety of Objects] read it in June and gave me notes and we were shooting in October. I wouldn’t have written it any differently if I were to have handed it off, but yes, I saw myself directing. I’m just from that world. You write a film, you should make it. And certainly on this scale and in this medium. If you have the chance, do it.
I think the hardest sequences are the ones that are the hardest emotionally to reconcile. Again in this medium, which is constantly evolving, you have to try to say something new and not just be that tape of a tape of a tape – that thing that is expected or seen all the time. I think really it wasn’t about a scene or sequence, it was about finding the words to say it in the right way, and I think that takes the most work and discipline.
The Kings of Summer
The Kings of Summer (formerly Toy's House), written by Chris Galletta and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, is a comedy about three teenage boys who run off into the woods to build their own house away from family, society and rules only to make a bunch of dumb mistakes, because they have no idea what they are doing.
Released early this summer in the U.S., The Kings of Summer is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming services such as Amazon and iTunes. Here's the trailer:
In our phone interview, when we talked about Galletta's inspiration for the story, he revealed how he had to stop trying to write like screenwriters he admired and start writing like himself:
I had been struggling for years to write something that was like Charlie Kaufman, but my attempts to do it were bullsh*t. This idea of like, “I’m gonna have this story with all these rules and it’s gonna be this big puzzle and it’s a game, and it will be like The Truman Show and these Charlie Kaufman movies where you’re sticking to an idea very closely.” I guess high concept would be a way to describe it, but it’s even more than that. It’s more of a rubric of a movie, like the way Inception is. I love that stuff, I love to watch it, I just have a hard time writing it. So the second piece of the puzzle was, I need to do something simple, otherwise I’m never going to finish.
I grew up on Staten Island and spent a lot of time in the woods, and I was pretty active and met a lot of weird families and weird people because it’s a pretty weird place.... I looked back to some experiences growing up, and I remembered how much fun I used to have at my friend’s house during the summer when we were like 13, 14. His parents were divorced, and his mom, who he lived with, worked full-time. So, from 9 to 5, we had the run of this house. I thought it would be very funny to literalize the idea of a bunch of inept teenage kids being heads of the household. I thought that was a simple enough idea that people could wrap their heads around enough that it could be a movie.
You can read all of these interviews in their entirety in our collection of exclusive Sundance 2013 screenwriter interviews, then check out these films in theatres near you, VOD, iTunes or Amazon.
What lessons do you take away from these screenwriters moving their passion projects from the page to the screen? Do you see their films from a different perspective after reading about their writing processes and struggles? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.