Saturday 3 December 2016

Picture perfect

Things are often lost, but sometimes gained, in translation from screen to page, says author Douglas Kennedy

Published 06/08/2011 | 05:00

The guy talked like he'd been mainlining Dexedrine for three days. Words cascaded out of his mouth like a flash-flood. And he had this truly unnerving habit of poking me with his finger whenever he made a point.

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His repartee -- punctuated by his index finger landing on my shoulder (poke!) -- went like this: "Loved the novel. F***ing loved the novel (poke!). F***ing made me cry, And trust me (poke!) very little makes me cry. But your novel. Your f***ing novel (poke!) ... had me in-f***ing-consolable ..."

The year was 1996. The scene was a restaurant in Manhattan. And the "f***ing novel" in question was The Big Picture. My fifth book -- my second novel -- had just been the subject of one of those ferocious publishing auctions that were not uncommon in those heady, long-since vanished days when publishers paid crazy money for virtually unknown writers.

What's more, 20th Century Fox had optioned it. And here I was being schmoozed by someone in Fox's New York office. His boss was supposed to have joined us, but had dropped out. So here I was with his clearly young, inexperienced but voluble assistant and his Tommy-gun index finger.

"Gotta talk to you about something in the novel that kinda f***ing worries me (poke!). You know that scene where Ben [the novel's central character and its narrator] has to walk out on his wife and kids and takes his son out for what the kid doesn't know is the last time he'll ever see Dad? We throw that up on the screen and people are gonna hate the guy.

"But I got this idea (poke!). The guy turns to his son and tells him he's gotta go away for a very long time and may never see him again. And the kid turns to him and says: 'That's okay, Dad! Follow your dream!'"

Now I know a lot of hugely bright and gifted people who work in Hollywood. This chap wasn't one of them. But I nonetheless admired his off-the-scale chutzpah. Especially when I told him that the kid in question might not tell his father to "follow his dream", as he's just four years old.

"Hey, we'll make him f***ing older (poke!)"

This was my only meeting with the assistant of 20th Century Fox's New York guy. Little did I know at the time that this was the first of many meetings -- and many false stops and starts over the next decade and a half -- before my novel finally made it to the big screen.

Fifteen years. As a screenwriter friend once told me: if you hold your breath in the film business you will inevitably turn blue. Then again, novelists have always had a peculiar relationship with the movies.

Saul Bellow once noted that he had the perfect relationship with Hollywood -- they optioned everything he wrote, then never made a movie of any of his books (though Seize the Day was eventually filmed). But Bellow's high Chicago irony still points up a secondary truth: novelists are very happy to take the money, even if they know that they are entering into a Faustian pact with the filmmakers.

Certainly I already had experience of the vagaries of the business. My first novel, The Dead Heart -- a noir-ish nightmare story set in the Australian Outback -- had metamorphosed into a movie entitled Welcome to Woop Woop, directed by Stephan Elliot, who had achieved fame with that campy classic, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Prior to his arrival on the scene I had written two screenplay drafts for the London-based producers. Back then -- 1994 -- I was a largely unknown writer, so they thought nothing of firing me off my own novel. When they brought in Stephan, my unsettling tale of self-entrapment was transformed into a campy musical comedy, replete with 22 Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

I met the director for the first time only on the night of its premiere in Cannes. He couldn't have been more charming: "G'day! Hope you like the movie! And y'know, one of these days I've got to get around to reading your novel!"

If this incident taught me anything, it was that once you have sold the rights of a novel to a producer, they can do absolutely anything they want with it. As the same grizzled screenwriter (the late Fred Haines) who wrote the screenplay for Joseph Strick's film version of Joyce's Ulysses told me: "Listen, if they want to find a way of putting a dinosaur in the film of your novel, or an exploding spaceship driven by green aliens, trust me, they will.

"So take their money, shut up and also keep one thing in mind: whether the movie is great or a piece of sh*t, you'll always have your novel."

Smart advice. Then again, even if the filmmakers are deeply respectful of the original material, a film of a novel is always going to be vastly different from the book itself, for one blindingly obvious reason: it's a movie. The screenplay is a structure upon which a director imposes his vision of the story. Cinema is a director's medium; he will inevitably take over the script and make it his own. The director is the Pope; the screenwriter a mid-level prelate, easily defrocked if he displeases the Holy Father.

Despite several drafts by a hugely intelligent actor-writer named Clark Gregg, enthusiasm for The Big Picture at 20th Century Fox began to wane. The option expired after 18 months. And though there were two producers in Germany who made a low-ball offer, and I met a French director in Paris who outlined a quasi-Marxist cinematic interpretation of the novel (I passed), it eventually ended up with Renaissance Films in London. A screenwriter was hired and let go after two drafts. I was brought in to write two drafts. Then Renaissance went belly-up.

Time passed. The rights were optioned again. A director who'd made a commercially successful comic book action film was attached to the project for a while. He was fired, others came and went, another four years elapsed. Then Éric Lartigau came aboard.

Éric had already made several well-regarded films (including Prête-Moi Ta Main with Charlotte Gainsbourg). I liked him immediately, and very much approved of the screenplay he wrote with his co-scenarist, Laurent de Bartillat, which transposed the action of my very American novel to Paris, Brittany and Montenegro. Romain Duris signed up to play the central role. Catherine Deveuve agreed to a small but crucial part as his legal partner. Éric and I had one meeting in Paris before the filming was to begin in the summer of 2009. I simply told him: "Do what you want to do with the book. But if you can keep the spirit of the novel I'll be happy."

At a screening room in Paris in June of 2010, Éric was nervous. I was nervous. We hugged. The lights went down. And when they came up two hours later I approached the director and simply said: "What a great movie."

What so pleased me about Éric's movie is that it is, at heart, such compelling cinema. So yes, what my late screenwriting friend said is true: I will always have my novel. But now I also have splendid film from that same novel. I think this is called: unusual.

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