Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Adapting from another medium, part of 2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson> So Jim and Tate, you both were adapting a previous book, so that brings a whole other set of concerns. So Jim, your partner and you were looking at the Hawaiian novel "The Descendents." And how did you approach making that into a movie? What were the challenges? Jim Rash> Really, it was our first stab at ever doing an adaptation, so it really was a learning experience from the beginning, because our first draft was this giant manuscript that would never get made.
We just overwrote, because I think there is so much stuff of the book you loved and you are trying to include everything and you haven't really had the experience to sort of like look into the book and really find a central story and the stuff that, while great, makes the novel great, but not necessarily are going to make the movie great, you know. So I think the challenge for us was, with the first step was that and then the writers' strike happened, so we sort of had to take a little time away from it and in that time, you know, just sort of think and read the book and think about the central part of the story and then how to take this first-person narrative of Clooney's character and get his voice out and his understanding of what's internal throughout when you read the book, and to be able to convey that to the audience, what this man is going through in this particular moment of his life.
Anne Thompson> So Alexander Payne was eager perhaps to blend comedy and pathos. This was clearly what your task was. Jim Rash> Yes, definitely and I think you get that also from Kaui Hart Hemmings' book, this sort of balance between the two and this sort improv feeling moment for all these people in the book. And then the screenplay is about being in these moments and not having the best answer, the best reaction to how this will feel, to yell at your wife while she is in a coma in front of you, to be so angry at somebody and to have those moments, where if we look back on it, and it's like "I don't know, it's just the first thing that came to my head. It's how I was feeling." You know, to find those moments and at the same time be able to have a guy say "I am going to punch you" and then punch this guy, you know, because it just happened.
Anne Thompson> So that was in the book? Jim Rash> Yes, well the punch part, you know. That he was so mad that Sid was making fun of his-- or seemingly making fun or light of his wife with dementia, and he just had this moment and I think that was the challenge but also the fun of delving into this book. That you could have this serious thing and then you have this wonderful Scottie character, his youngest daughter who is acting out on her own sense and doesn't know what's going on because she hasn't been told.
So all of her behavior sort of has this levity to it. And this moment, it sort of brings this out of that. Anne Thompson> So how was it working with Payne, what was his -- how involved was he? Jim Rash> Since he is not here I am going to throw him under the bus. No. Anne Thompson> He kind of took -- he was not going to direct it. Jim Rash> He was parked. Anne Thompson> Right, he was not going to direct it at one point. Jim Rash> No, no, he wasn't. He was busy writing with Jim Taylor, his writing partner, something that they decide to shelve for a little bit because of our economic downturn at that time.
It was like a big budgeted thing. And he had just been at that time giving us notes, you know, as we went through our several drafts. We were also writing with Stephen Frears with at one point. He was going to direct. So we had gone through at least a moment with him. And then Alexander decided to do it, around 2009 I think it was, and we sat down with him, went over everything that we had done. He sort of asked us questions about drafts and stuff from the book and then he took his pass and then sort of the collection of our work became the shooting draft, so.
Anne Thompson> Did you get to go on the set? Jim Rash> For five days, and we had to get ourselves there. (Laughter) Tate Taylor> Are you serious? Jim Rash> "Here is where we are going to be, we are going to be down there, we'll see you there," whoooooshh, you know. Hey! Anne Thompson> That's the lot of the writer. Jim Rash> That's the joy of the writing, ah the luxury. Spare no expense. No, we were like "Alright well let's take a trip." So we went down there for like five days and it was great to sort of eavesdrop on that side of Alexander, as far as the director, but also to watch, you know, sort of that process and watch this movie sort of just come to life.
Anne Thompson> When you saw the final film, what was your reaction? Jim Rash> Well I was livid, because he never asked us to audition. (Laughter) It was weird to watch it because you are sort of out of it as far as the whole shooting process, the whole editing process. So you're watching this thing and you're like "Oh why is that scene, oh okay," you know, because they shot a lot of stuff that doesn't make the cut and understandably for you're just like "Ah, it was a great scene but it sort of slowed it down, you know." So at first you watch it the first time and going like "Ah well, I missed that," you know, and then you sort of look at -- and the second time you can sort of look at it as what it is and then enjoy what it became.
So I think the first time you're judging and the second time you're hopefully loving. "Oh this is nice thing, it's not as smart but you know." (Laughter and applause) Jim Rash> You said better words but mine rhymed. Mike Mills> Yours is more accessible though. I could really feel it. Anne Thompson> We have some alpha males up here. Okay so Tate, alright. So the book was very difficult to get published but it finally it did. So talk about how difficult it was for you as the writer and the director to get to the movie made, the process you had to go through.
Tate Taylor> Well, I think the biggest gift of this whole thing was the fact that I started adapting it without any fans, without any studios, nothing. It was just me. And I had the luxury and I wasn't being paid, so there was no ticking clock and Like Jim said, I mean for those of you who've read Kathryn's book, it's long and it's delicious, I mean every page. So I gave myself the gift of writing it really long, just because I knew I would be directing it and I wanted to digest the words, every scene.
So my first draft was like 220 pages, and I knew it would be ridiculous, but what was great is then when I started to doing the surgery and cutting it down, when you have written, overwritten, you can then cheat a little bit and grab moments from scenes, whether it's a glance or just two characters being in the same location, which causes tension, and bring them to other scenes. And what happens is collectively when the movie is shot, you, the audience, thinks that's what was in the book.
And so I did that and so then when finally when the book-- even when Kathryn got her publisher, we didn't know if anybody was going to buy it, or I mean if it would be a successful book. So when it debuted in the top 20, I had already done the script, it was done. So it was finished when it hit the bookshelves. I'd done the entire thing. So that pressure was gone and then the process was tough because, you know, I have been in LA for 15 years trying to get into the rooms with powerful people and when the book became successful, they started calling me and they would say, "You have the rights to The Help?" "Yes." "Well what are your intentions?" "I have adapted it. I am directing it." "Okay really what are your intentions?" (Laughter) And for about six months, I would have to say "That's my intention and if you are not interested in that, don't call." Now I'd hang up the phone and be like "Oh my God, I just told...?" Anne Thompson> Now you had directed one film, right? Tate Taylor> I had directed a short film and a feature film, my first indie.
And this went on and this went on and this went on and the book kept climbing, climbing, I just kept sitting there, and so finally it took Stacey Snider at DreamWorks, it was September of 2009, and she called and goes, "Okay I love your script, I love the book. Would you consider making it in to a TV series or HBO film?" And I said no.
So that went away and I was like, "Oh my God what am I doing? Ugh, I look like an idiot" and then later that fall, Chris Columbus, he'd been following my work, my short film he liked it and he loved my first feature, and he came on board and said "I'm going to help you" and even with Chris, nobody wanted to finance this with me directing. I mean period, nobody. And we went and I said "No, I am directing it" and this went on and this went on and this went on and then finally, Stacey Snider at DreamWorks, she called and she was like-- "For six months, I have been mad at myself.
I can't let this go." And Spielberg read my adaptation, he was a big fan of the book, and he said "If he adapted this, this way, we got to believe he can direct it" and he green-lit it. (Applause) Anne Thompson> Did they put Chris Columbus on the set? Tate Taylor> Chris, he was there, he-- Well, it was really funny because even with Steven Spielberg blessing me, you know, I jumped through some hoops getting to the first day of filming, believe me.
Because, for those of you who've read the book, it's very, very specific to the part of the country where I grew up. I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and unless you are from there, Jim's a southerner, there is certain weird, quirky things that are in the script that are not easy to understand. So I didn't-- I wasn't defending the script but I was constantly educating Hollywood, like this is how it works, this is what ambrosia is and paprika is what goes on deviled eggs and some people don't like that.
And you wouldn't have that, they would never say that. I am not having a lynching scene and I am not having the KKK, that we are sick of that. That's what not what the story is. So, and then I decided to cast Leslie Jordan, who was Beverly Leslie in Will & Grace, as Skeeter's boss who gives her the job and they went "What?!" And I am like, "I am telling you. Every southern town has a closeted gay- man who is also the organist at church and I think that is who needs to be her boss. I am telling you!" And so Chris was there, everybody was there, to see if I was going to completely take a crap in the Mississippi Delta on my first day of filming.
And it went great and they saw Leslie Jordan and they saw what I was doing and that's when they said, "We don't understand fully the South, but this is really good and it's really funny, go." And that was after that first day dailies it was-- We were just off. It was fantastic.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists share their stories of script development, writer's block, book adaptation, and, most of all, tenacity, on the way to getting their movies to the screen. Mike Mills (Beginners) tells us about turning his own story about his father into a screenplay. Will Reiser (50/50) also turned a life experience, his personal battle with cancer, into a comedy starring his best friend Seth Rogen. Jim Rash (The Descendants) walks us through his process as he turned the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings into a film nominated for five Academy Awards®. Tate Taylor (The Help) was roommates with author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling book; he finished the screenplay (and owned the rights) before the book was even published. Writer J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) wrote about the financial markets, having grown up with his father immersed in that world.
With all of these brilliant writers, "write what you know" became their life's mantra while they worked on their screenplays. They share funny and poignant anecdotes about their experiences and processes on the way to the big screen.