The Process of Translating a Poetic Novel On Screen in Ross Partridge's 'Lamb'
"Books are very seductive to me," says actor/director Ross Partridge, "but the voice of the book has to be different than the voice of the movie."
In his directorial debut, that's exactly what Ross set out to do with the boundary-pushing Bonnie Nadzam novel about the controversial relationship of a 48-year-old man and an 11-year-old girl. Ross sat down with No Film School at SXSW 2015 to share his process of staying true to the text of a subtly poetic novel, while still finding an original voice for the film, as well as how he balanced the roles of actor and director in the making of Lamb, which comes out today on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and in select theaters.
NFS: What qualities were you looking for and what appealed to you about this book that prompted you to adapt it for the screen?
Ross Partridge: I wasn't really looking for that when I read the book. It was a staff pick at Skylight Books on Vermont in Los Angeles. I live right around the corner from there, so I stumbled in one day, and I just kind of started leafing through it. An hour later I was still reading it. I bought it, went home, finished it, and then I gave it to Jennifer LaFleur, my co-producer. I said, "I think I want to make this into a movie, it's really powerful, and it has things that I'm unsettled about, but yet there's something about it that really motivates me. And I find that really beautiful." The rights weren't available to the book. Another actor, a very well known actor, had the rights. I contacted the author on Twitter, and we started having conversation. I eventually got the rights. Ultimately, to me it's just a love story. It's an unusual love story, not romantic type of love, but a desperate pursuit of love that has no boundaries. Boundaries are often hard to define when it comes to love.
It was a staff pick at Skylight Books on Vermont in Los Angeles. I live right around the corner from there, so I stumbled in one day, and I just kind of started leafing through it.
NFS: How did you begin the process of adapting it into a screenplay?
Ross: I read through it a couple times, and then as I was reading I would highlight areas and things. I think the first time I knew that I was actually adapting it, I took a piece of paper out and just started writing things that I remembered the most, without even looking at the book. Then I went back in and I started highlighting and crinkling pages. Then I took a pen and started figuring out what was in the story, and where it needed to be in script. I would be on page 70 in the book, and I'd be like, "Okay, this is page 30 in the movie." I always felt that the later half of the book, and the ending, was a little bit more gray. The last third of the movie, the third act, was very tedious to adapt, as it was not as clear. I wasn't so sure cinematically how it was going to turn out as I was with the other two thirds.
I think I got the rights to the book in December previous year. As an actor, I was working on a movie, and then writing at night. I finished the draft in February. It was really, really quick. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and my producer, Taylor Williams, who was also an EP and was kind of in charge of financing the whole thing was like, "We'll just do this in stages." I said, "Let me get the rights, and I will get a script done." I turned it in about six weeks later, and everyone was like, "Wow, this is already an amazing script," so we just went from there.
Then I took a pen and started figuring out what was in the story, and where it needed to be in script. I would be on page 70 in the book, and I'd be like, "Okay, this is page 30 in the movie."
NFS: When you talk about the last act being a problem translating it on screen, what were the problem-solving strategies you came up with?
Ross: There’s not a lot of action in the movie, there's not a lot of movement. It's more of a psychological climax, so the question was how to capture the claustrophobic psychology of this man on screen. It’s not a huge climax in the movie, but we felt that if we could earn the depth in which this man has gone, the journey of his character, that hopefully it would be enough. The crux of this situation would finally be enough of a release. I felt like that was really important. The climax is actually a release.
I always felt that the later half of the book, and the ending, was a little bit more gray...I wasn't so sure cinematically how it was going to turn out as I was with the other two thirds.
NFS: You've had a long career acting to date, what changes when you're also the director? How were you able to maintain both roles?
Ross: There's a lot of trust, and there's a lot of good people that you have to have around you. My producers were all allowing me to have time to focus. They would take care of everything else so I could find moments when I wasn't answering 1,000 questions to literally focus for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, on my lines. Those kinds of things. I was working with a young actress who’s from Broadway, Oona Laurence, and she's so prepared. She would get on set, and she'd be ready to go, and I wasn't quite as ready, because I was dealing with so many other things. I'd be like, "Oh, shit, I've got to catch up. I'm in trouble!"
So surrounding yourself with a lot of great people. Jennifer, who I've worked with before, was kind of my eyes and ears as far as performance. She was very specific. She knew what I wanted as far as performance, Mel Eslyn also knew, as far as the overarching reach of the whole story. She paid attention to that, and was very specific about my performance. I bounced off of people I could trust. Ultimately I knew what I wanted -- I think that that's why I chose to actually act in it myself. I felt that the character himself was so intimate, as was the relationship between my character and the child, that it was an easier thing for me to take on the part. That way, I wouldn't have to translate that into the scene to an actor who has to create an intimacy to the other actor, making for this three-steps removed situation. My relationship with Oona was everything, and that's how it had to be.
Take a peak at this clip from the film featuring Oona and Ross.
My producers would take care of everything else so I could find moments when I wasn't answering 1,000 questions to literally focus for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, on my lines.
NFS: What was your relationship with your DPS, as far as deciding the shot list for example? Did you feel the need to watch each take?
Ross: No, we didn't have the affordability of time to view things, and actually, it was a good thing. You can nitpick all day long, and on a budget where you're moving fast as that, with which pages you have to accomplish in a day. Nate and I went through it very methodically, we shotlisted very specifically. Once we had our locations picked, mostly in the ranch, we weren't sure of our top half of the movie, but the other half of the movie was very specific to a location, or a couple locations, and I was able to really walk through the movie, each and every shot, and each and every scene so that once the day came there was no real talking about it. We knew how we were lighting, we were pre ready to go, and I could just walk in and think about the acting.
NFS: Were there any tools you chose to shoot on to fit this style of production?
Ross: Yes, we knew we were going to be shooting huge, wide landscapes. It was very important to the film, so we wanted to have as much dynamic range. We were shooting a wide screen format, so we chose a camera that gave us as much latitude as possible. We also were shooting in June in Colorado, and shooting in Denver for Chicago, and I was worried about the over saturation of sunlight. There was so much brightness, and the story's very dark and had a feel of this kind of like gray existence. We decided to shoot on an Arri Alexa. We shot raw files, that gave us a range in our color correction, the ability to punch in certain things and create movement in camera that we weren't able to do because of time, and the luxury of equipment or space, and all those other things. It really gave us a lot of flexibility on our post.
We knew we were going to be shooting huge, wide landscapes...so we chose a camera that gave us as much latitude as possible.
NFS: Did the author, Bonnie Nadzam, ever come to set?
Ross: She did, yeah.
NFS: What was that like?
Ross: We became fast friends, and collaborators from the start. We already know that we want to collaborate again together. We're thinking about writing something original together eventually. She’s from Boulder, Colorado, and we shot in Denver, and then we were in Laramie, which is from Boulder is like literally 45 minutes. So, she'd come up on days, and just kind of see the whole process. I think it was very cathartic for her. She said the other night [at the Premiere] that there were things about the relationship she didn't even see when she was writing it. I think it's different when you write about a 48 year old man and an 11 year old girl, and the dynamic and the psychology behind that, you can actually really thoroughly investigate with the poetry and the language, and the length of the book. But when you see these two characters on film, on screen, it becomes a whole different thing when you see the reality of it.
I think it's different when you write about a 48 year-old man and an 11 year-old girl...But when you see these two characters on film, on screen, it becomes a whole different thing when you see the reality of it.
NFS: Did you feel that you needed to stay true to the text of the novel? How restrictive or liberating was your relationship with the text?
Ross: There are only a few little moments that I came up where I incorporated some writing outside the book, that I could just feel that could use something. But overall I was very determined to keep as much of the poetry alive. The book is absolutely stunning, the poetry of David Lamb, who isn’t seemingly a poet in any way. He doesn't seem like somebody you would ever expect to have such depth with his words, and somebody who really is aspiring to have language that is actually beyond his own realm. So, yeah, as far as the script, I fought to keep a lot of the language in it, because I felt that tone was so specific to the hypersensitivity and reality of this world. The language is a little bit different than everyday life.
NFS: Were you consciously directing the dialog to have a hypersensitive, poetic rhythm to it?
Ross: Everything that [Lamb] does is in such conflict. Because there is such conflict internally, every choice he made to speak was very deliberate. And him being deliberate was a road map of him trying to accomplish something that only in words, not actions, are the person that he wants to be. So he's trying to paint a picture, and he's trying to create a reality that is anything other than his own. In the book, he felt he belonged to a different time. He felt he was born in the wrong generation. All these things lead into the fact that he basically just doesn't feel comfortable with where he's at in his life right now, and that’s what informed the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue.
I think it’s a fatal flaw to use voice over in order to create exposition to what is already in the book. That stuff doesn't hold up when you're actually on film, when you're watching.
NFS: What would you say was the greatest challenge you faced making this film?
Ross: Taking a character that is set up to for an audience to potentially not like, and making every moment about finding the humanity, and staying true to the idea that this person, the empathy was that this person is full of love. People are flawed, and human nature is that that we're very complicated. People are trying to do the right thing, but often they don't, and they can't. The ultimate goal is to show that there's pain in all of it, and we're all suffering but there's always some sense of hope on the other side. Keeping that alive in order for people to feel compassion about my main character, that was the biggest trick.
You can talk film, and we all sit around and talk about it all day, but you don't really know anything until you've actually been in the trenches making a movie. And sitting in an editing room, and knowing what that's about, because that's where it all comes alive.
NFS: What’s your advice for other filmmakers, in particular those looking to adapt a novel for the screen?
Ross: Books are very seductive to me, but the voice of the book has to be different than the voice of the movie. Sometimes I think people make the misconception that just because there's a voice in the book that “let's use that voice as part of the movie.” I think it’s a fatal flaw to use voice over in order to create exposition to what is already in the book. That stuff doesn't hold up when you're actually on film, when you're watching. There's so much that you need to learn that doesn't need to be said. Film is a different language, and it's the things that are unspoken that are the most interesting.
As far as just advice, there's no greater learning than just going out and doing it. You can talk film, and we all sit around and talk about it all day, but you don't really know anything until you've actually been in the trenches making a movie. And sitting in an editing room, and knowing what that's about, because that's where it all comes alive.
Thank you Ross!