Film & Media Productions
THE NEW DAUGHTER
Now available on DVD
Behind the Scenes with Checco Varese
Some photos from the movie (courtesy Gold Circle Films):
Check out John's columns on the film...
(Originally published in Something Wicked Magazine)
I think the question I get asked most frequently as a writer (apart from: "Where do you get your ideas from?" which most writers, if polled, would agree is the most irritating question they get asked) is "What about movies?", as in: "What about your books being made into movies?"
Hold on a minute. Before we go on to the movie question, let's slip back to "Where do you get your ideas from?" There are a number of answers to that question.
- There is the Terry Pratchett Answer: "From a small shop off the Marlyebone High Street", which may not be entirely true.
- There is the Oscar Wilde Answer: "I steal them from other writers, because I am a genius and, while talent borrows, genius steals", which may not be entirely true either, although it has more truth to it than some writers might like to admit, but it will also generally get you labelled as a bit of a jerk, and possibly a secret homosexualist.
- There is the Confrontational Answer: "Why should I tell you?", which at least has the benefit of a certain degree of honesty, albeit only due to the fact that it reveals the tension, defensiveness, and thinly veiled self-loathing that lurk beneath the carefully nurtured veneer of sophistication to which most writers like to pretend. Except me.
- There is the Lunatic Answer: "I channel them", which is more common than one might think. A very well-known literary writer, who had produced a huge bestseller told in the voice of a young girl, was asked at a festival how she came up with that voice, to which she answered: "I channelled her". Now, take it from me, people who say things like that are either one step away from tying their coats with string and walking down the street muttering about vegetables, or they're so far up themselves they can nearly see light again. No, you didn't channel her. You made her up. That's what fiction writers do. They make stuff up. Don't make it more complicated than it already is. If you really believe that you're channelling voices and ideas from Somewhere Up Above, then you need professional help; that, or you should consider setting up a church in your name.
- And there is the Honest Answer: "I don't know." Most writers don't know where their ideas come from. They're just grateful that they come at all. They're not even sure if an idea is a good one or not until they start writing. Then again, perhaps there are no good and bad ideas, just good and bad ways of executing them.
There are, though, as many ways to write a book as there are writers, although all writers fit somewhere between two poles when it comes to the planning and execution of a book. I still interview writers occasionally for The Irish Times, as I'm curious about how other writers conduct themselves and how they manage to produce their work.
Mind you, the whole interview thing hasn't always worked out well. I travelled to Montana to interview the great crime writer James Lee Burke, one of the novelists who made me want to try crime writing for myself, and managed to get lost in the Great Rattlesnake Wilderness while out walking with Burke, his friend, and his friend's dogs. The trauma of getting lost in a place with the words "rattlesnake" and "wilderness" in its name was further exacerbated by the knowledge that, a week earlier, a hiker on the path that we had followed into the Wilderness had encountered a mountain lion, and had been forced to keep it at bay with a pointed stick for a mile and a half while he retreated to civilisation.
Let me tell you something: I looked and looked for a pointed stick, but I couldn't find one. Had a mountain lion come along, I could only hope that it might have choked on my Donna Karan sweater.
I also interviewed Stephen King in New York a couple of years ago. I've been reading King books since I was about ten or eleven, and still think he's an underrated writer. I can recall swapping my copy of Salem's Lot (still my favourite of King's books, I think) for a battered edition of The Shining owned by Eamonn Sweeney, who sat beside me in school at that point. My love for King's work outlived my general love affair with horror fiction by a number of years, until we had a tiff over It. It, I thought, was too long, and was the first of King's books that I felt was less than the sum of its parts, although the image of Pennywise the clown with razor blades for teeth, chomping bloodily on his own gums, has stayed with me ever since. Still, I've continued to read and enjoy King, although I haven't finished the Dark Tower series. I struggle a bit with fantasy, and only made it through the first two volumes before giving up. I know, I know: I should go back and try again, but I suspect that it's defeated me for good . . .
It's interesting that, until the recent advent of books written by women about vampires and werewolves and interspecies sexual relations (who knew that there were so many women out there who dream about being bitten by men in kilts?), King was really the only author who had managed to make supernatural fiction commercially acceptable to such a degree. Even poor old Dean Koontz never quite had King's impact, a fact acknowledged in an episode of Fox's superbly vicious animation series Family Guy, in which Brian the dog, driving through the woods, runs over a man with facial hair.
"Are you Stephen King?" Brian asks, horrified.
"No, I'm Dean Koontz," the man replies, whereupon Brian climbs back into the truck and drives over him again.
Anyway, after many years of failed attempts to secure a meeting with King, I was finally asked to conduct a public interview with him in a New York theatre. Figuring that the chance might never come again, I packed a bag with about twenty first editions, including four copies of Lisey's Story, the novel that he had just published, to give as Christmas presents to friends. King, generous to a fault, consented to sign them all. I piled them high on the coffee table in front of him.
And the whole pile fell on his legs, the legs of a man who had barely survived being hit by a redneck in a truck, the legs of a man who is still held together with bits of metal, the legs of a man who endures pretty much constant pain every day.
He was very nice about it, all things considered, but part of me still winces at the memory of it. Never meet your idols. Or, if you're one of my idols, never meet me.
We've wandered a little off the beaten track here, albeit without encountering the mountain lion of editorial intervention, but let's not antagonise the sleeping beast. We were talking about the planning, or non-planning, of books. At one extreme, among the writers to whom I've spoken, lies the aforementioned James Lee Burke. Burke will finish a book on Thursday night, then on Friday morning will sit down, type 'Chapter One', and begin writing a new one. There is no plan. He just trusts in the fact that the book is in there somewhere, waiting to come out.
When that kind of writing works the result is a marvellously organic novel, one in which the story develops in an unforced way, each action bringing with it a certain consequence that, if the writer is true to his characters, will not jar with the reader. When it doesn't work, the result can be a little confusing for all concerned. I love Burke's novel Burning Angel, but I'm not sure that I could tell you what it is about, or even explain the plot cogently. I asked Burke what it was about when I interviewed him, but I'm not certain that he knew either. It didn't really matter, I suppose. It's a book of moods, haunted by the ghosts of America's involvement in Central America.
At the other extreme is Jeff Deaver. Before he begins writing, Jeff will produce an outline that is sixty or seventy thousand words long. An outline. If most writers produce something that's seventy thousand words long, they'll put a cover on it and sell it. That's a book, or as good as. Jeff's outline will contain plot points, character elements even the location of crucial paragraph breaks to increase tension. That doesn't mean that Jeff isn't willing to change stuff when it comes to the act of writing the book itself, but there is a structure in place that he can follow, if and when he chooses.
When this type of writing works, it's like being in the hands of a master rollercoaster designer. Every twist and turn has been anticipated with the aim of shocking and surprising the customer, over and over. When it doesn't work, it can feel a little mechanical or contrived.
I probably fall into the Burke category when it comes to writing books. Usually, I know what will happen in the opening chapter, and I might know one or two incidents that will occur later in the book. As I don't tend to write whodunits, the question of knowing how it ends doesn't bother me too much. Sometimes I'll have an idea of where the climax might take place, or who might be involved, but often I'll have no idea at all.
Part of the pleasure of writing lies in discovering the book as it's being written, so my experience of writing the first draft can often be similar to the reader's experience of encountering the finished book, as things crop up that surprise me, or characters follow a path that, even in my loose approach to planning, I might not have intended for them.
Hang on. I've just seen the phrase 'the pleasure of writing' in that last paragraph. Writing is hard. It's not as hard as working in a mine, or digging ditches in the pouring rain, but it's still hard. The Irish Times, at one point, ran a series of columns in which writers spoke about their writing day. One Irish writer, known for producing rather self-consciously poetic novels in which people spent a lot of time staring into space and pondering stuff (and not stuff like 'Where did I leave the car keys?' or 'I'm sure we used to have a dog' but deep stuff about love and life and, er, flowers and things . . .) talked of how each day he immersed himself in a river of words and allowed himself to be carried by the flow.
Now I don't know where this guy lives, but there ain't no rivers of words near me. It's raining hard as I type this, and the drains are clogged, so there is, technically, a kind of torrent of leaves, crisp packets, and sodden handkerchiefs running past my garden gate, but I'm not sure that qualifies as anything into which I might want to immerse myself. As far as rivers of words are concerned, I live in a drought area.
I sometimes think that I like having written more than writing itself. I enjoy the sense of satisfaction that I feel having typed up the day's thousand words, or having revised the chapter that I sat down to rewrite, but there are many days when I force out those thousand words, and doubt the value of at least half of them.
In fact, I suspect that doubt is a constant companion to most writers. Writers are performers, even if their performances are more private than public. Nevertheless, they are presenting something to an audience that they have created, and most performers will find their eyes drawn to the one person in the audience who isn't clapping or laughing, because that's the guy who's figured out that you're a fraud. You've got the other ones fooled, but not him. He knows. He's the voice of your conscience made flesh, the little whisper that comes in the middle of a draft warning you that what you're working on isn't very good and, by extension, all of the other stuff that you've written wasn't very good either.
If I were to conduct a survey of would-be writers who've abandoned novels, I bet I'd find that most of them gave up somewhere between twenty thousand and forty thousand words. That's the point at which the initial rush of enthusiasm and energy begins to dissipate, when you begin to doubt the value of what you're writing and when, most disastrously, a little voice tells you that the new idea that you have is much better than this one, so why not give up and start all over again, because this blazing, spectacular new idea is just so fresh, so interesting, so shiny that it can't fail.
And then it does.
As I said earlier, I'm not sure that there are very many really bad ideas. Don't get me wrong: they're out there. Walnut Men of Mars, illustrated by your dad who can barely paint a shed roof, or The Adventures of Leprosy Boy (with photos!) may not be the books that are going to get you that apartment in Hout Bay but, for the most part, ideas for novels fail in the execution. The mystery writer Michael Connelly told me that he got about two thirds of the way into the book that would eventually become Void Moon and realised that he'd gone off in the wrong direction entirely. He had to go back to the start and find the right path, which was time-consuming and frustrating but didn't make him want to ditch the whole book as a dead loss. He'd made a mistake, he recognised it, and then took steps to rectify it.
With every book that I write, there comes a point when I will consider giving up on it. I'll feel that the idea is flawed, or the book isn't moving fast enough, or it's too improbable, or the characters aren't strong, or one of a hundred other things that may cause me to doubt what I do. But I've learned that, for me, and probably for a lot of other writers, such doubts are part of the process. They come with the territory. It may even be the case that if I didn't have any doubts then the book would turn out to be terrible, even more terrible than some of the ones that I've written already. That doubt is something you have to work through as a writer, like a marathon runner hitting the wall. Nobody said that it was going to be easy. If it was easy, then everyone would be doing it, but everyone isn't.
So I write a little most days. I set a target of a thousand words when I'm working on a first draft, and then I'll usually stop, often even if I'm going great guns, because I'd rather sit down again the next day knowing that I'm going to be enthusiastic about what I'm doing, that there is some momentum I can pick up again, than struggle with an unloved or difficult section, because there will be plenty of them later. I think it was Hemingway who suggested that writers should leave a sentence unfinished, so they'll have something easy with which to start the next writing day, although as I get older I'm becoming forgetful and I'm worried that I'll forget what it was I meant to say, so maybe I should just keep writing while I can.
Hemingway was full of bits of advice like that. When you finish your first draft, put it in a box and leave it under your bed for a year: I think that was another one of his. He also said that there are no great writers, just great rewriters, which is both useful and true. I'm a great believer in the value of a new draft. My first book, Every Dead Thing, went through about forty drafts from start to finish, although it did take me five years to complete it. Like most people who write a first novel, I was working in a proper job at the time, insofar as journalism can be said to be a 'proper' job, so I snatched time to write whenever I could. While journalism was useful training in certain ways - it taught me the discipline of writing, of sitting down to type even when you don't feel like it; and it taught me that anything can be researched, so don't write what you know necessarily, but know what you're writing about - it meant that, having spent a day writing, it wasn't much of a break from routine to come home and start writing again.
(Some advice: if you want to write, get into the habit of doing so regularly. I don't write every day, but I write most days. If you have a job, or a family, or any of the normal demands of life, you need to figure out a way to fit writing into the routine. Start slowly. Do a hundred words a day. That's not much. It won't take long. Do it every day, and by the following week you'll be doing two hundred words in the same time. That's how books are written: slowly. Don't imagine that you're going to take a week off and write a novel. You won't. Equally, don't be tempted to take a six month sabbatical from your job to write your masterpiece. You'll spend the time on the couch in your vest watching children's television. If you're serious about writing, then it should be the rule, not the exception.)
But even when I was working on that first book, I did understand that a first draft is really just a sketch, at least for me. I've met writers who, if they have to do more than two drafts, feel as though something has gone disastrously wrong. (I also know of writers, most of them wealthy and rather cynical American ones, who barely write a first draft, and then leave it for their editors to clean up and complete. I could give you names, and you'd probably recognise them . . .) Their books don't read any worse than mine, so I guess I just make things difficult for myself, or I'm simply not very good at what I do and have to try harder than the rest. Whatever the reason, I enjoy that process of fleshing out characters, of elaborating on description and dialogue, of taking that sketch and turning it into a finished work. I suspect I may enjoy it even more than the act of writing the draft itself.
You know, I really meant to get around to talking movie adaptations of books, including the first film of my work that's due to appear early next year, but that will now have to wait until next issue when I shall reveal a) why I think short stories, and not novels, make better movies; b) how I inadvertently offended Kevin Costner by appearing to criticise his acting; and c) how I got bitten just below the testicles while visiting the film set.
An enticing prospect, I like to think.
The story, that is, not my testicles. Although . . .
Column 2: Where were we?
Oh yes: movies and, more particularly, movie adaptations of books.
(Sorry. For those of you who missed my last column, I had set out to talk about movies but got side-tracked and suddenly, well, I ran out of space. Where does the day go, eh?)
Anyway, this time I plan to stay strictly on-message. Honest.
Novelists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the prospect of movies being made of their work. The thriller writer Harlan Coben once suggested that the producers should stand at one side of a fence, the writer at the other, and the writer should then lob his book over the fence at the same time that the producers toss over a suitcase full of money. Both parties should then walk away and never see each other again.
Meanwhile, Tom Clancy, that poet of right-wing propaganda and rampant US militarism, put it more bluntly: "If you sell your daughter to a whorehouse, don't be surprised if she becomes a whore." Nice. Thanks for that, Tom. Ever considered writing verses for Hallmark? I'm sure there must be a gap in the market for "Sorry Your Daughter is a Whore" cards.
Actually, Coben fared better than most with the recent French film adaptation of his book Tell No One even if, like the novel, it did require a big chunk of exposition about two-thirds of the way through in order to let us know exactly what had been happening up to that point, and why. This is a process known in the business as "introducing Professor Explain-It-All" (the Austin Powers movies nodded to it by naming Austin's boss Basil Exposition, one of the best gags in the series) and one that points out the underlying problem with every high concept novel or film with a mystery at its heart: the explanation rarely lives up to the concept. Thus, what most readers and viewers remember about Tell No One is the fact that the lead character's dead wife begins contacting him via e-mail, while they struggle to recall why she was supposed to be dead in the first place and, worse, why she then appeared not to be dead at all.
Still, one of the issues for novelists faced with the prospect of an adaptation of their work is that, despite any promises to the contrary from movie companies and producers, they will generally have no input into the making of the film of their books. Even if they do offer suggestions, they will probably be ignored or, in the case of Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends And Alienate People, they will be banned from the set of for sticking their noses in where it doesn't concern them.
There are some exceptions: J.K. Rowling had enormous say in how the early Harry Potter books were adapted, but the consequences were not good. Writers dislike seeing their books being cut, their deathless prose savaged, in order to fit into two or three hours of screen time.
The first two Harry Potter movies (and I speak as someone who doesn't care for any of them, which will have to pass for objectivity in this case) are hopelessly badly paced. They are attempts to directly film their source material, and are fatally undermined by the refusal of all concerned to recognise that such a thing is simply impossible. You can't film a book because it's a book. A book and a film are just not the same thing. They use different language, different pacing, and make different demands upon those who consume them. You have to adapt a book, which means, by any standard, cutting and reshaping it.
Inevitably, something is lost in that process. Call it the interiority of the book, perhaps, or even its bookness. Call if, if you wish, intentionality. After all, it didn't become a book by accident, or by magic. It is the thing that made it a literary work to begin with, as opposed to merely a script with some added exposition. (Mind you, I've read books like that too, books that are merely pitches for movies. They deserve a section of their own in bookstores, probably in or near the toilets.) Someone - one would hope it was the author - thought that a book was the best medium through which to explore these ideas, and this story, in the first place. If that is the case, then a film is, by its nature, unlikely to be able to do the same thing in quite the same way. It can't. It's like asking a frog to be a fish. It can do some of the same things that a fish can do, but it can't do all of them and, in the end, it will still be a frog.
I'm not sure why so many readers are anxious to see novels that they have loved turned into movies. In fact, I'm not sure that most real readers actually want to see their favourite books made into films at all, not really, and perhaps the question "Are any of your books going to be made into films?" is often asked of a writer in the hope that he will announce that he has no intention of ever allowing his creation to be corrupted by the moving image, and he never really fancied owning a yacht anyway.
Most writers, though, don't think that way. Even if they're not really yacht guys, they like to try the whole yachting thing just to see if it appeals. The simple fact of the matter is that writers, by and large, don't earn a great deal of money from writing. In the UK, it's estimated that 90 per cent of writers have a second job, and that job is writing. Their first job - teaching, being a civil servant, killing rats - pays the bills and keeps the wolf from the door. Therefore, when Hollywood comes along waving a big cheque - or, rather, as we shall see, a small cheque with the vague promise of a larger cheque at some future date - the temptation to cast aside their principles is very strong indeed.
I'm very fortunate. My books sell in sufficient quantities that I can support myself through writing alone. Those sales have also enabled me to be reasonably protective of my work, and the Charlie Parker novels in particular. (For those of you who began reading this article for no good reason that they can recall, and who don't know me from Adam, I've written ten books, seven of which have featured a private detective named Charlie Parker. No, make that eight, as he makes a cameo in Bad Men, my fifth book. Actually, it should be nine, because the short story collection, Nocturnes, contains a Parker novella. Crikey, this is starting to resemble the Spanish Inquisition in Monty Python's Flying Circus . . .)
Anyway, I haven't optioned the Charlie Parker books, in large part because nobody entirely convincing has made an offer on them, but also because crime novels - even ones with a supernatural tinge, as my books have - are actually a lot more difficult to adapt than might at first seem to be the case. Producers look at crime novels and see a plot, a strong central character, and some action. Bingo, they think, we're quids in here. But it's actually quite difficult to come up with more than a handful of really good adaptations of crime novels over the last two decades.
Take Thomas Harris, for example. He started out being reasonably well served by the movies: Black Sunday, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1977, wasn't bad, and then there was Manhunter, Michael Mann's 1986 adaptation of Harris's first Hannibal novel, Red Dragon, which was very good indeed, and one can't really argue with Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991). After that, though, it all goes a bit pear-shaped for Harris. Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001) missed the dark humour of the novel and then fluffed the ending entirely (and I know that the ending of the novel was controversial to begin with, but it makes perfect sense in the overall context of Harris's work. Clarice Starling's pursuit of Hannibal is a lover's pursuit. She has no purpose in life other than finding him. She has no family, no friends, no relationships of any consequence. In essence, he defines her. She can no more kill him than she can kill herself, and ultimately he recognises this before she does. End of lecture.)
Let's skate over Brett "Will This Do?" Ratner's version of Red Dragon (2002), and avoid like the plague-ridden dog that it is Peter Webber's 2007 film of Hannibal Rising, about which the best that can be said is that it was no worse than the book upon which it was based, and the book was very bad indeed. Actually, here's an interesting adjunct to our discussion: Harris wrote the screenplay for Hannibal Rising before he wrote the novel, so the book is in effect a novelisation of the film, rather than the film being an adaptation of the book. Whatever. Both are still terrible. So Harris, in movie terms, is running a return rate of about 40 to 50 per cent which, given that all of his books have now been filmed, is probably better than most writers could hope for.
But great movie adaptations of good mystery novels (as opposed to, say, Coppolla's film of The Godfather, which is a great adaptation of a not-very-good book)? Leaving aside the two Hannibal adaptations mentioned above, what are we left with from the past twenty-five years? L.A. Confidential, certainly, although Ellroy's novel had to be streamlined considerably for the screen; No Country for Old Men, although it's debatable if McCarthy's source novel is actually a crime novel or another bleak exercise in literary existentialism wearing a crime novel's borrowed suit; two Dennis Lehane adaptations, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, although I'd argue that the latter is both a superior movie, and a better book; Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, adapted by Scott Smith from his own novel, and sensibly so as he ditches a later chapter of grand guignol that rather marred the ending of the book; and . . . Well, you see my point. I know I've missed a few, but I wasn't trying to be exhaustive. I like Raimi's movie, but it's a good, not a great, film. Anyway, by the end of that paragraph, I was struggling a bit.
One of the difficulties with adapting any novel is that, inevitably, as I said earlier, something of the literary aspect of the source material is lost in translation. The first task with which a screenwriter is faced when adapting a novel is to cut away the flesh of the book in order to expose the bones of the plot. Yet that material is often what made the original book so appealing to begin with. Take crime novels, for example. Most modern mysteries are often narrated by a single central character, or the action is filtered through the consciousness of that character. The action in novels of that kind is often internalised, and much of the book may be taken up with reflection, with attempts to understand motivations and clues. It's hard to translate that sense of a character's internal life to the screen, so most adaptations don't bother. (There is always that last recourse of the desperate, the voiceover, but what did that do for Blade Runner, which is a piece of future noir, a crime movie with the trappings of sci-fi? Absolutely nothing, which was why Ridley Scott dumped it at the first opportunity.) That's why adaptations of mystery novels - adaptations of most novels, in fact - can often feel kind of thin, or little more than a series of incidents stitched together into something resembling a plot.
The novelist, meanwhile, faced with someone from Hollywood waving a chequebook, has two choices: to adapt his or her own work, and become involved in the process in the hope of maintaining some control over the finished product; or to walk away and not look back.
Michael Caine, commenting on 1987's Jaws: The Revenge, in which, unfortunately, he had starred, remarked: "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." It's easier for an actor to disregard his involvement in a bad film than it is for a writer to shrug off the impact of a bad adaptation of one of his books. The writer can argue that his book still exists independently of the movie, its own reputation unaffected, but that is to underestimate the power of film. Carl Hiaasen, a very good and funny writer, watched his sales go down after the terrible 1996 movie of his novel Striptease was released (or escaped from confinement, depending upon how one looks at these things). Quite simply, the quality of his work was unfairly equated with the quality of the film made from it, and both were found wanting.
But writers who choose to involve themselves in the process of adaptation may also end up unhappy and hurt. Writing novels is a solitary exercise, and most writers don't play well with other children. Films, by contrast, are made by committee. I made the mistake of agreeing to adapt one of my short stories, The Erlking, for the screen, but had to admit defeat on the second draft. Everybody - and I mean everybody - seemed to have an opinion on it, even before it had been written. I decided to leave it in the hands of the director and the producers, who knew what they wanted and how to go about achieving it. I suspected that I was simply getting in their way.
Similarly, look for Robert Crais's name on the Bruce Willis-starring 2005 adaptation of his novel Hostage, and you will look in vain, despite the fact that Crais, a man of some experience where Hollywood is concerned, had been involved in the film from an early stage. Speak of it to Crais, a gentleman of the highest order, and his face will crease slightly in pain. It was a bad experience, by all accounts. Producers may offer novelists the illusion of control over their work, but it is just that: an illusion. Ultimately, control rests with the people holding the purse strings.
The adaptation of Lawrence Block's 'Burglar' novels is a cautionary tale of how greatly Hollywood's vision of a book may differ from that of the author. In the Burglar novels, the titular thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a white, fifty-something Jewish guy. In the film, Bernie was played by Whoopi Goldberg. End of story.
And these, by and large, represent good Hollywood experiences for the authors concerned, even though they might not have seen them that way at the time. At least they were high-profile films, with stars, that actually got made and distributed. Writers may dream of a call from Spielberg or Scorsese, offering them the prospect of Cruise or DiCaprio in the films of their books. Instead, writers more frequently hear from a group of guys who run a production company above a kebab shop, and are offering them one of the Baldwin brothers. And not Alec, either, but one of the others: the fat one, or the one who's found Jesus. Then the film never appears: the new owners just sit on the rights in the hope that they may be able to sell them on later, or take a cut when someone wealthier and more influential eventually tries to make the film. I know of one leading American crime writer whose most famous character remains tied up in litigation due to an unwise sale of rights early in his career. Movies, quite frankly, are a minefield.
Having said all that, at the moment there are five films of my work at varying stages of development. Hypocrite, I hear you cry! Well, not really, and anyway I can't hear you; that's just a turn of phrase. Interestingly, only two of these are adaptations of novels, and both of those are stand-alone books: Bad Men, a kind of supernatural modern-day western set on a small Maine island; and The Book of Lost Things, which is concerned with folk tales and the power of books and stories to transform our imaginations and, by extension, the way we choose to view the world in which we live.
They both came about in quite different ways. Bad Men was optioned shortly after publication, which means that a producer bought, for a set period, the exclusive rights to the book. A screenplay was written, sold to a film company, and then the whole process slowed down for a year or so while a director was found. Earlier this year, a man named John Stockwell signed on to direct, and now Bad Men - renamed Sanctuary - is due to go before the cameras at the end of 2009 or early in 2010. My involvement in all of this has been precisely nil, apart from meeting the lovely producers and cashing a decent cheque. I will get another, larger cheque for the rights to the book on the day it starts filming. I will then go to see it in the cinema, and I hope that it will work out because I like the producers and I want to see their efforts repaid.
The Book of Lost Things, meanwhile, moved in the direction of Hollywood because an Irish director named John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Max Payne, and a director, I feel, who is much better than some of his material) wrote me a long, passionate letter asking for the rights to the book. That was unusual. Most approaches are done through agents, but John's letter impressed me a lot. We met for dinner and drinks in Dublin, and I entrusted my most beloved book to him. John is an old style director, one who believes that he can prove his worth by bringing in the studio's movies on time and under budget, and in turn can use that leverage and trust to have his own, more personal projects, green lighted. Now it's just a matter of waiting and seeing, although I might be tempted to put my oar in on that adaptation, if I was asked.
The other films are all adaptations of short stories, of which one has already been completed and is "in the can", as the saying goes. It's called The New Daughter, and it's due to appear in cinemas later this year. You know, I really did mean to talk about The New Daughterin the course of this column, and I still haven't managed to discuss why I think short stories make better source material than novels for movies, or how I managed to get bitten just below the testicles on the set of the movie.
Oh well, next time.
I have on my desk a pass from the set of THE NEW DAUGHTER, the movie that has been made from one of my short stories. The pass describes me as a member of the 'Film Crew', which pleases me no end. I've always wanted to be part of a film crew, especially on a Hollywood film. The fact that I had next to nothing to do with the making of said film is beside the point: I have a pass. It's official.
This is how the film of my short story, "The New Daughter" got made. I've no idea if it's typical of Hollywood or not, but here goes . . .
"The New Daughter" is a story of adolescence, and in particular that moment when a fissure opens in the relationship between a parent and a child who is turning into an adult. I've sometimes thought that this is especially difficult in the case of a father and a daughter, or a mother and a son, because the natural differences and gaps in understanding between the sexes start to kick in with a vengeance at that point. Then again, there can be few parents who have not at some point looked at their teenage child of either sex and wondered if he or she has not been possessed by some demon or malign entity, so different is the adolescent from the child.
In "The New Daughter", a father who is left with two children after the disintegration of his marriage begins to notice changes in his daughter's behaviour, but can't figure out if they're a natural consequence of her development, or something much stranger. He notices her fascination with the old mound at the back of their property, and becomes convinced that something in the mound is transforming his daughter . . .
So that's "The New Daughter", in a nutshell. I'm fond of the story, as I think there's an essential truth at the heart of it, but it was written, along with nine other stories, not as an idea for a film but to be read aloud on the radio. I've always been fascinated by the idea of someone listening to a ghost story in a dark kitchen, or driving alone in a car late at night. There's an intimacy to it, and it brings with it a delicious frisson of unease. Over the space of two or three years, the BBC broadcast ten of my stories, read by six different actors. Recently, Radio Times magazine voted them among the ten scariest moments on radio, which says at least as much about the quality of the readers, and the talents of the producer, Lawrence Jackson, as it does about my odd little tales.
"The New Daughter" was eventually published in 2003 as part of Nocturnes, a collection of my short supernatural stories. Short stories are regarded as the kiss of death commercially. The general wisdom holds that more people write them than read them, and their main use is as a dry run for young writers who will eventually go on to produce a novel, a.k.a. a 'proper book'. (Incidentally, I was once nominated, unsuccessfully, for an Irish literary prize. After the winner was announced one of the judges leaned over to me and said, in all seriousness: "You know, you write very well. Have you ever considered writing a proper novel?") This perception has bedevilled short story writing for some time, even though there are certain writers who are simply born to produce short stories, not novels. Tobias Woolf springs immediately to mind among modern writers. I liked his novel Old School, but it lacked the power of a story like "Hunters in the Snow". On the other hand, he is a superb memoirist, and This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army are among the best non-fiction books to deal with, respectively, childhood and army service.
An even better example might be the late Donald Barthelme, even though his longer works, Snow White and The King, are, I suspect, strictly speaking novellas. They're curious, and playful, but even as slim volumes they seem somewhat overextended, like comedy sketches that overstay their welcome, whereas in the short story form Barthelme's wit and genius fizz and crackle like a firecracker in a tin can. Track down the wonderful Forty Stories, which contains my personal favourite among Barthelme's tales, "Engineer-Private Paul Klee Misplaces An Aircraft Between Milbertshofen And Cambrai, March 1916", to see what I mean.
So why read a short story over a novel? Well, I'm not sure that it should be seen as an either/ or situation. One form simply complements the other, and the pleasure to be derived from each is different. It's the distinction between a four-course meal and a snack, or, more aptly, between a shot of espresso and a huge cafe au lait. Also, for me, part of the pleasure in reading a short story is that it provides a snapshot, a glimpse of a moment or an incident from which a great deal that is not said in the story can be extrapolated. Or, to put it another way, a short story doesn't have to follow a beginning-middle-end structure. It can be all middle, but it implies an ending. There's a fantastic Irwin Shaw story, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses", that adheres to this template: a seemingly inconsequential incident is described, and the reader is left with the knowledge that its repercussions will be tragic without those repercussions ever being revealed.
Perhaps that's why short stories are such a natural fit within the supernatural genre. After all, it's rare that the explanation for a horrific or supernatural experience in fiction is half as interesting, or terrifying, as the experience itself. By attempting to explain the reasons behind the occurrence we diminish some of its power, but the length of a novel, and the reader expectations associated with it, require an explanation of some sort. Therefore a law of diminishing returns tends to apply to novels in the genre. The same is not true of short stories, where generally nothing beyond a description of the events in question is offered. Think, when it comes to such matters, of the best of M.R. James, a personal hero of mine; or "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood; or, slightly more obscurely, "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen, although the latter is undermined by its length and, arguably, by its sheer oddness.
Which brings us back to the business of film, as in my last column I mentioned that, when it comes to the matter of movies, short stories function as a kind of pitch, a concept or idea that a screenwriter can run with and adapt in whatever way he or she chooses. While a novel has to be edited and whittled down to turn it into a screenplay, a short story, by its nature, requires expansion: a film of a novel will always be something less than its source material, but a film of a short story will, by its nature, be something more.
I have a film agent in Los Angeles named Steve Fisher. I rather like how that sounds - "I have a film agent . . ." - but Steve is actually my literary agent's representative in the world of film, and he's not really a typical movie agent type. He doesn't smoke a stogie, talk very fast, or wear loud ties. Maybe none of them do, but that's always how they've traditionally been depicted in films, just as journalists always had a press card tucked into their hats, and photographers looked and dressed like Weegee.
So Steve Fisher sent out Nocturnes to a fellow agent, one whom he knew had a young, well-regarded screenwriter on her books. His name was John Travis, and he was attracted to "The New Daughter" by its title, simple as that. He read it, liked it, and began writing a screenplay based on it. There was no money in it for him, as nobody had bought the rights as yet. He did it in part because he hoped that somebody would buy the resulting screenplay, known as a 'spec script', but also, I think, because the story genuinely struck a chord with him.
The script sold almost instantly. Apparently, it was snapped up within a week. After that began the long process of editing it. Week in, week out, for many months, John would meet with the film's producers and they would work on the screenplay, suggesting changes, trying out ideas, discarding those that didn't work and expanding upon those that did. Meanwhile, there were three central roles to be cast: the originally unnamed father, now a novelist named John (!); Louisa, the daughter of the title; and her younger brother, Sam. The role of Louisa was cast first, as the young Spanish actress, Ivana Baquero, who was the star of Pan's Labyrinth, wanted the part and, after her performance in Guillermo Del Toro's movie, nobody in his right mind would have turned her down. The script then went out to some big-name actors, and eventually Kevin Costner agreed to take the role of the father. Finally, at a very late stage, and after much searching, a young actor named Gattlin Griffith, who had not acted in a film before, as far as I'm aware, was cast as Sam. A Spanish director named Luis Berdejo, who had made a number of acclaimed short films, and had co-written the horror film Rec, agreed to direct, and all was set to go. Eventually, filming began in Charleston, South Carolina early in 2008.
Now let's step back for a moment. My original short story was very short indeed: six or seven pages, I think. It was also set in what might have been England, or possibly Ireland, but not in South Carolina, and it concerned what were known as 'fairy mounds' or 'fairy forts' when I was growing up. These peculiar phenomena were essentially small hills in the centre of otherwise flat fields, and farmers and local people tended to give them a wide berth. They were associated with illness in cattle and, in certain Irish stories, with the notion of the 'changeling', a fairy baby that was substituted for a human child. They don't really have fairies in South Carolina or, indeed, in Michigan, where I think John's script was set in an early draft. Changes would have to be made to the story in light of this, but I had no idea what they might be.
Thus it was that on a wet day in March 2008, John and I arrived at the set outside Charleston. The first thing that struck me, having never been on a movie set before, was how many people there were milling about. I couldn't figure out what they were all doing, and when I asked Luis, the director, he joked that he didn't know either. The producers had sourced an old mansion near a swamp, and had decided to film as much as possible within the house itself, avoiding studio sets in favor of a more atmospheric existing location. Tracks were run through the house, and rooms were furnished appropriately. Outbuildings were converted into creature workshops, where the monsters in the mound would be created.
Hang on. Monsters? I didn't write about monsters. In fact, in my original story we never get to see what might be causing the changes in Louisa, some drawings by a previous occupant of the house excepted. Hmmmm, I thought, I really should read the script at some point, but there were too many other distractions. Look, there's the director, directing! Wow, free food! Hey, it's Kevin Costner!
And it was. He was sitting in a chair in the house, waiting to be called for his scene. We shook hands. He was very tall, but then again I'm not, so he might just be 'tall'.
I've always quite liked Kevin Costner. He's made a lot of good movies, some of them very good indeed, and only a couple of duds. He's also won an Oscar as a director, which is rare for an actor. No Way Out. Dances With Wolves. Bull Durham. I even liked Waterworld, although I struggled a bit with The Postman. He was now playing a character that I'd created. I wanted to hug him, but I didn't think it would be entirely appropriate.
There's something very strange about meeting a movie star who is being a movie star, as opposed to, say, passing one on the street, or encountering him under other circumstances. When I worked for The Irish Times, I had to cover the opening of the ill-fated Planet Hollywood restaurant in Dublin. Arnold Scwharzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis came along for the event, and Arnold and Sly attended a big reception beforehand to which journalists were reluctantly admitted. The two stars were smaller than I expected, and Stallone grimaced as he was asked to sip on another pint of Guinness for a photograph: "I can't drink any more of this stuff," he complained, the wuss. Arnold smoked a cigar and grinned a lot. I got talking to Mike Myers, then in his pre-Austin Powers phase. He was shy, and gave the impression that he would rather not have been there, but I'd like to think that we bonded over our shared affection for Liverpool FC. I'd like to think so, but I'd be wrong. We spoke for a couple of minutes, and then he drifted away to be somewhere else.
So that evening they were kind of in movie star mode, but not really. Costner, on the other hand, was getting ready to act. This was what he did. This was why they were paying him the big bucks. (In fact, I later learned that Costner had waived his fee in favour of a percentage of the profits as he was so keen on making the film, which was pretty decent of him. I hope he makes a bundle when it's eventually released.)
So it was all going very well with Kevin Costner. And then the mosquitoes came. But that, along with how I came to be bitten just below the testicles, will have to wait until next time . . .