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What's Up For Today?

New York Cool - Ask Miss Wendy

Film

Conversation with Evening screenwriters Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham
Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center
June 12, 2007

Written by Julia Sirmons
See Julia's Review


 

After an advance screening of Lajos Koltai’s star-studded and luminous film Evening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on June 12, an eager audience awaited for the arrival of the film’s screenwriters, novelists Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham, who were scheduled to appear and discuss their artistic collaboration on the movie.

There were a few minutes of seat shifting, but soon the pair shuffled on stage and apologized for their tardiness.

“It was Susan’s fault,” said Cunningham.

When their interviewer asked how the project began, Minot explained that the story began at a wedding in Nairobi, Kenya in 1997. There she met Jeff Sharp, the producer originally attached to the film, who expressed an interest in adapting Minot’s critically acclaimed novel for the screen.

From there, as is often the case in Hollywood development, things moved slowly. It wasn’t until 2002 that Sharp got in touch with Cunningham, and asked if he’d be interested in working with Minot on the script.

His initial response, Cunningham said, was “Nuh-uh!”

He’d been a huge admirer of Minot’s book, which he thought was “a beautiful, accomplished novel that he “didn’t want to mess” with. Nevertheless, there must have been something irresistibly seductive about the prospect, because Cunningham asked Sharp to contact Susan and ask if she would be willing to make “filmic changes” to her novel.

Cunningham had already had his share of experience with Hollywood adaptation of novels. His Pulitzer-winning novel The Hours was adapted for the screen by renowned playwright David Hare. The resulting film was universally lauded and scored Nicole Kidman an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. Later, took the reins for the film adaptation of his novel A Home at the End of the World. That film got a decidedly mixed critical reception and was a box office disappointment, even by indie film standards.

These two very different experiences had left Cunningham with a strict set or rules about adaptation for the screen. After finishing his work on the Home screenplay, he said he was determined “never to adapt any of my novels to the screen again.”

“I can think of nothing more depressing than a faithful adaptation,” he said.

Renouncing novelists who take a “don’t touch my precious baby” attitude towards adaptations of their novels, Cunningham said that a novel should not be a sacred untouchable text, like “the fingernail of a saint in a reliquary.”

Cunningham further explained that novels, no matter how beautiful or well written, are not necessarily at their artistic apex once published. There’s always room for improvement, and when it comes to adaptation for the screen, the best chance for this improvement is “a fresh pair of eyes.”

In the end, Cunningham asked Sharp to see if Minot would agree to this kind of approach. Minot’s response as a resounding “Of course!” She’d been suffering from some acute writer’s block; “serial collaborations” and work with different directors had led her to a state she wryly described as “burnout.”

So the collaboration between Minot and Cunningham began, and it proved to be an incredibly rewarding and fruitful one. Minot described Cunningham’s first significant contribution as a drill sergeant in the arena of “population control.”

Cunningham elaborated. While he had found Minot’s novel full of “dozens of beautifully drawn characters,” he knew that the “physics” of a movie wouldn’t allow a good screenplay to do them all justice. He knew that, sadly, many of them would have to be cut from the script. At this point in the conversation, Minot and Cunningham half-sardonically, half-wistfully joked about the “parallel movies” existing in parallel universes, in which all these forsaken characters get their due.

But, as Cunningham stated, change and a new perspective can often lead to brilliant discoveries. Over the course of his “population control” mission, Cunningham made the decision to enhance and amplify the role of Buddy (played by Hugh Dancy in the film), who had been a relatively minor character. “I had a feeling about him,” said Cunningham. The audience, who had just seen what a great success the final product of that decision had been, twittered and clapped approvingly at Cunningham’s astute writerly instincts.

The conversation was then opened for questions from the audience. Someone who was a fan of Minot’s novel asked why the story’s location had been changed from Maine to Newport, Rhode Island for the film.

Minot’s instantaneous answer? “Money.” Shocking as it may sound to denizens of the Eastern seaboard, Rhode Island’s generous tax breaks for in-state film shooting meant that Newport, the legendary playground of the rich, was a more economical choice than Maine. Practicality, Minot added, was also a factor in making the decision, since the Newport shoot would require less movement between shooting locations.

Cunningham added that, to his mind, the change proved to be beneficial, as the evocative old-money aura attached to Newport helped enhance the atmosphere of the “WASP-y world” central to the story line.

When asked to get down to brass tacks about the film’s budget, Minot and Cunningham concurred that the final total was approximately $13 million. Cunningham added that he was pleased that, in his opinion, the movie ended looking up “three times more expensive” than it actually was.

Then came the inevitable question about novels versus films and the differences between the two art forms. Cunningham argued that a certain amount of a character’s interiority is lost in the translation from page to screen, there’s also something gained in the transformation.

“You gain what the actors will bring…little fidgets [that have] no correlation in [literature],” Cunningham said.

Minot – a self described long-time “lover of cinema” who previously worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on the screenplay for his 1996 film Stealing Beauty – disagreed, saying that she felt “interiority can be done very well” in film. “My interiority is dominated by visual images,” she said, adding that one can produce “more of an impression of interior life in movies.”

The aspect of fiction Minot felt got lost on celluloid was the ability to “create more varied atmospheres.” When dealing with film, “you just have the world to work with,” she said.

Towards the end, of the question and answer session, one curious audience member asked about the executive producer credits that Minot and Cunningham received.

“I’m still not entirely sure what an executive producer does,” said Cunningham, adding that he was surprised when it was “announced with fanfare” that he’d be receiving the credit.

Minot explained that writers are often offered this perk at the beginning of a film’s development, when there’s “no money.” It’s an incentive to entice writers to keep working on the script until they can be paid a decent salary.

It’s a risky proposal for a writer to accept. But judging by the crowd response at the screening, it seems that, for Minot and Cunningham – in the words of one character in Evening – that “there’s no such thing as a mistake.”

 

 



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