Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jeanne V. Bowerman (@JeanneVB) On Adaptations

Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Jeanne V. Bowerman co-founder of the #SCRIPTCHAT Twitter group for screenwriters. Jeanne calls herself a recovering insecureaholic, but if anyone has had the pleasure of chatting with her on Twitter, you quickly come to understand that @jeannevb is one of the most learned and helpful Tweeps you'll ever meet. Today we get to chat with her about her experience Adapting the Pulizer Prize winning Novel Slavery by Another Name - Douglas Blackmon.

GL) Adaptations are notoriously difficult to write, they’ve even made a movie about it! What drew you to this project?

JVB) First of all, I absolutely loved the film ADAPTATION. I watched it recently, just to see if there were any real-life similarities. I’m sure I laughed at all the wrong places, mostly because I’ve been to Robert McKee’s three-day seminar. I even follow author Susan Orleon on Twitter… though she doesn’t have a clue who I am. :)

As for what drew me to this particular project, I’ve given that a lot of thought. People often ask why a white girl from a small country town in Upstate New York would be interested in neoslavery. I wasn’t conscious of the answer until I was deep into writing the first draft. While writing, I realized I was more drawn to the brutal plantation scenes of the African Americans than I was the affluent world of the white Southerners. While I would never begin to compare my life to slavery, I will admit, there are times when I have felt trapped in a world or role I desperately wanted to free myself from. I related to that sense of helplessness and lack of control. More importantly, I want the truth of our nation’s history to be told. That responsibility weighs heavily on me. I want/need to do this story justice.

Beyond the personal draw, there was also a professional one. I wanted a challenge. I had written lighter romantic comedies prior to that, and in truth, I don’t even watch rom coms in theaters. I prefer foreign films, indies, dramas and subjects that move me to my core. I needed this challenge. I craved this. I knew the minute I found this book, I had to adapt it. Period. This was the one.

GL) What are some of the challenges you encountered along the way?

JVB) There were many, but the biggest was simply finding the story to tell. Yes, there was a book to work from, but this was no ordinary book. It covered 70 years of our nation’s grim history, with many examples of how African Americans were unjustly enslaved after the Civil War. We could have chosen any number of protagonists, but we had to find just the right one. I’m confident we did.

GL) Knowing that not everything can make it form page to screen. How do you make the hard decisions about what stays and what goes?

JVB) We used a combination of Doug’s expertise and my naiveté of the subject. The very first thing I did was scour the book, page by page, making a list of facts that emotionally moved me. There were so many to choose from that I literally broke the binding. Then we focused on the ones that would move the protagonist’s story forward. But, the biggest challenge was avoiding the temptation of making it a history lesson. The book will be a documentary on PBS in 2012, so that freed our minds a bit, knowing that was a platform where the history will be discussed. Our goal in this feature script was to tell the moving story of a the man who tried to stop slavery in 1903, bringing the very first white plantation owner to trial for holding slaves, forty years after the Civil War. If it didn’t fit in that spectrum, we cut it.

GL) You’re writing the screenplay for SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME with the author of the best seller, Douglas Blackmon. Novels and scripts are very different animals. How have you blended the two writing styles?

JVB) Doug was amazing. He has a background in theatre, so I could tell from reading his book, he already wrote in a visual way. He was also incredibly generous, and far more liberated than most authors in being open to changing the story. Oddly, I was the one who was more resistant to straying from the facts. Perhaps it’s because Doug had spent so many years writing it, he was ready to move on to a new way of storytelling, and I was stuck in the "oh my God, I can’t believe this happened" mode. But once I opened my mind, we went wild. Some of the best scenes in the script are ones we used creative license with.

As for blending styles, we made a decision after completing the 31-page outline that I would write the first draft. That way we had a consistent voice and a blue print to start from. When I finished it, I sent it to Doug, and he added his mark. His style is verbose, and mine, very tight. So our fit was perfect. He’d add; I’d cut. But he was never territorial about my editing his words or vice versa. We are a team, and more importantly, we are professionals. I’ve never worked so well with another writer before.

GL) What advantages are there to working with the Author? Any disadvantages?

JVB) In a story like this, Doug was my research man. He had spent 7 yrs in the basements of courthouses throughout the South, going through stacks of papers. If I had a technical question, I just called him. He is also the most humble man I’ve ever met. Here he is the senior national correspondent of The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize winner, yet he never once pulled rank with me. This was our project from day one. I’m still amazed by that.

Honestly, the only disadvantage was his insanely busy schedule. WSJ responsibilities always came first, as did his speaking engagements, and of course, his family. But just to steal an hour here and there, I’d go to any town I could to hear his speeches. I wanted to watch the audience’s reaction to his words, making certain we were capturing what people were most curious about.

GL) How is writing with a partner of any kind different from writing a solo project? What are the good the bad and the ugly...?

JVB) Writing partners is a subject for an entirely separate interview. I have a lot to say about that, having had four, one being my teen daughter.

Good: someone to brainstorm with and feed off of. Film is a collaborative process, so why not start at step one? Writing with someone certainly gets you comfortable with compromise. The trick is to compromise without feeling compromised. Often, there’s a fine line.

Bad: you never have total control of your story. Egos can get in the way.

Advice: I always make a rule that the project comes first. If there’s a disagreement, we ask, "Is this what is best for me personally, or is this what is best for the project?" Writing partners are like a spouse. There will be days you love them, and days you want to smash their face in with a baseball bat. Having said that, I’d go the writing partner route again, but I don’t ever want to write with just one person as a permanent partner. My taste varies so much that I prefer to play the writer field. I would absolutely write with Doug again though. We recently discussed an idea for another historical drama that’s very graphic and violent with a strong female lead. When we mentioned it to Joshua Stecker, West Coast Editor of Script Magazine, he laughed and said, "Just wondering, do you guys have a comedy in you?" Love that guy. Actually, Doug is very funny. We might just have to try writing a comedy together someday.

GL) What makes a good adaptation? What should a new writer look for when scouting for gems?

JVB) Story, story, story. No matter what happens in the book, you have to find the story that would bring people into the theatre and keep them in their seats, preferably glued, for two hours. To do so often requires cutting major parts of the novel. I was once advised there was no point in doing an adaptation unless you were going to put your mark on it, and make it your own. I found that interesting, because as a reader, I’m always annoyed when the movie is so different from the book. The truth is, no matter how you slice it, an adaptation often doesn’t live up to the imagination of a reader. Some stories should stay on the page.

As for what to look for, author and screenwriter Chuck Wendig wrote a post recently advising choosing short stories to adapt instead of novels. When I read that, I had an "I should have had a V8" moment. He’s right. They’re certainly more prone to adaptation, since they’re already tight and concise. I’d also look for amazing characters, ones you can evolve and put through boatloads of conflict. Make sure there’s a moment in the story when your protagonist is on the bathroom floor (figuratively, of course) and has to make a choice that will make or break him. Push that sucker to the limits.

Also, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call an author. That’s what I did with Doug. Just called him out of the blue. Sometimes it works.

GL) How do you know you’ve done the material justice? When do you know you’re done?

JVB) I’m not sure there’s ever been a moment when I didn’t question if we did the material enough justice. It’s such a powerful piece. Every single day of writing the first draft, I cried. The tears were for the people who were enslaved and for their ancestors. Our number one goal in all of this was to speak the truth. That responsibility weighed heavily on us. Not a day went by when I didn’t ask myself "are we doing the African American community justice?"

It’s been six months since we officially "finished," and I’m in the middle of the latest polish, focusing solely on dialogue. Doug would agree that whenever we step away from the script for a month or more, we read it and see things we can change. The trick is knowing when to stop and put your baby out there. We have purposely not papered the town with the script, wanting it to shine to its full potential first.

GL) What can we look for from @jeannevb in the future?

JVB) This is my official announcement that I’ve been invited by Script Magazine to be a regular contributor to their website, discussing the life of an unproduced writer. I’m totally jazzed to share not only my own projects, but also those of other screenwriters, discussing various ways to break in. I want to focus on out-of-the-box personal stories to energize writers to get creative in their quest to be produced. It fits in perfectly with my Twitter Pimp Angel style. My goal: to get an email someday that one of my posts sparked the idea that helped a writer take another step forward. If we can’t support each other, what’s the point? I realize there are a lot of selfish people in this industry, but I do not intend on being one of them. Ever.

Beyond that, I’ll be writing my fingers to the bones. My business card reads "writer of things". I don’t care what it is, a short story, novel, screenplay, short film… if it can move you, I want to write it. Currently, I’m finishing up a quirky family comedy, purposely keeping it low budget. If I can’t find a production company to make it, I’ll do it as an indie. With all the talented creatives I know, I’m confident I will make this one happen with or without a studio’s help. As for the short film, director, Mike Bekemeyer, and I are working on one, inspired by a lover’s quarrel I tweeted out from Starbuck’s one day. Beyond the film world, I’m finishing up my first novel, THE RING THAT BINDS. It’s based on the true story of my friend who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and the four women who cared for her. Don’t worry, it’s not all sappy and depressing. It’s full of humor. I have several agents waiting to read it and plan on adapting it for film as well. I have more irons in the fire I can’t speak about publicly yet, but my fingers and toes are crossed for my writing to finally bring in a steady paycheck.

GL) Any last words of advice and encouragement for new writers?

JVB) It sounds so cliché, but never give up, even if a tidal wave is drowning you. There’s no room for self-sabotage in this business. Wussies are the first to drown. So surround yourself with a writing support system that can be your life raft. For me, it’s all the writers of Scriptchat, especially the treefort: Jamie Livingston, Zac Sanford, Kim Garland and Mina Zaher. Seriously, I don’t know what I’d do without them. When any of us hit a wall, the email boxes ping back and forth until a solution is found. The support fuels me on. In truth, I’m not one who needs a lot of cheerleading. I have no problem hunkering down and doing the work. But when I hit a snag, having them to brainstorm solutions with is invaluable. Get a system like that of writers you respect and trust. Oh, and get a therapist :)

Also, don’t ever think you’re bigger than you are, and do not ever act out of desperation. Both are terribly unattractive. No matter where you are in your career, you have something to learn. If you’re feeling desperate, then that means your work isn’t good enough. Get your ass back in the chair and make it better.

Put forth positive energy, work hard, help others, and the karma will all come back to you.

GL) Thank you so much for taking part in this interview with, it was an honour and a pleasure. See you on Sunday 8pm EST for #SCRIPTCHAT!