19 January, 2009

Film of the week: "Wonder Boys"

" It seems ironic that Chabon spent five years working on another novel before ditching it for "Wonder Boys" and that Kloves went through a similar experience before working on the screenplay. "But Michael wrote something," says Kloves, "and I didn't write a word! Part of it was from the gift and the curse of becoming a director. Whenever I started to write, I'd realize that a scene would be part of the next three years of my life. When you become a director, you realize how many questions a scene has to answer, how much pressure it has to withstand. When I was a writer, I just wrote. Then again, I always feel like I'm blocked. The exception was 'The Fabulous Baker Boys,' where the idea of brothers in a dual-piano act was enough to get me started. So maybe it was more like I was in a holding pattern. I was also sick of the business. But I didn't know anything else. I did make ice cream for a living once; that may have been what I was best at."

Luckily, Kloves fell in love with Chabon's novel. "It was like, 'Wow, and you'll pay me to do this?' I liked the sensibility. I felt a kinship with its tone. And it was a chance to do something like the movies I grew up watching."

As a first-time adapter, Kloves had to "learn on the job. I wrote a long first draft that was incredibly detailed. I found it harder to kill someone else's little darling than it ever was to kill my own. I had to run with the story more, to cut away from whatever wasn't helping move the characters."

His breakthrough came when he excised an elaborate Passover scene featuring the hero's wife and in-laws -- a family of Jewish parents and adopted Korean orphans. "That hurt! As a goy writer with a Jewish wife, I wrote this incredible Seder. But it was 25 pages that didn't do much for the film. Also, sometimes, what can be hysterical in a book can seem, in a movie, like pushing the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. It can make an audience feel that the filmmakers are fucking with them. When absurd moments happened, I wanted you to believe them totally. My sensibility is a little more grounded than Michael's; his book has a streak of wild, unruly and anarchic farce. I'm not comfortable with farce."

What Kloves liked most about the book "was that it doesn't comment on things and it doesn't tell you what to feel," whether the hero is smoking marijuana or letting his editor seduce his protégé. And unlike most college comedies, it doesn't trivialize campus life as a centre of "Animal House" high jinks or inflate it as a hotbed of rebellion.

"There's no rebellion left for the Michael Douglas character. But he has his job, and there is life. It confronts him directly when he finds out his mistress is pregnant. Probably the hardest thing was not to let the resolution get too sappy." The key was letting the hero "stumble into what is right -- he learns what he wants, then stumbles into it. And I think the ending is ambivalent. These situations are not usually dealt with in adult films. And that's another thing I liked about the material: It felt very adult all the time."

Kloves realized that the teacher's prize (and problem) student, played by Maguire, was as crucial to his epiphany as his lover: "I had to drop crumbs along the way establishing their connection." He also had to be flexible about the supporting characters. When it came to casting Downey as the editor, "Curtis didn't want to limit his search for the actors who could play that role to actors aged 54 or 55. We started to talk about how, if the actor playing the editor seemed to be part of that Jay McInerney/Bret Easton Ellis group, there would be something graceful and ironic about having his biggest writer now be this guy who is in his 50s. All the people in the Amaretto ads have gone, and this is who he's left with. Downey was a great idea. It would be easy to go wrong by making him a 'character,' but the way Robert plays him, he's this smart, intuitive, fucked-up, talented, strange man."

Hanson and Kloves collaborated closely on and off for a year. "We kept tweaking the voice-over, doing all the usual things." And unusual things, too. When Hanson settled on his locations, he would send Kloves "real blueprints, even if it might only change one line, because it would allow me to see the scene better. We both feel that what the actors and crew read on the page should reflect what they see when they're standing there."

A screenwriter friend who was a veteran adapter had advised Kloves, "If you find something good, take it, because someday you'll be doing a book and you won't be able to take anything from it." Kloves seized on as much of Chabon's juicy dialogue as he could, including its literary references.

"One thing I am real allergic to is preciousness," he says. "But I found little of that in the book. Any references that were out in front and meant something we used; we figured it would be a bonus for anyone in the audience who would get them." When the Douglas character has lost his manuscript, and his editor brings up that [Thomas Babington] Macaulay and [Ernest] Hemingway once lost theirs -- "well, 90 percent of the audience won't know who Macaulay is, and 50 percent won't know who Hemingway is. But Curtis didn't want to talk down to the audience. Curtis said we should write this for our best audience, and not feel we had to make this understandable for kids who may know only 'Star Wars.' We wanted to make this movie for the right reasons." "



BBC1, Tuesday 20 January, 11:35pm


mark eastwood said...

I love that film!

OutOfContext said...

Me too. I like that Douglas' character has this huge manuscript because he became incapable of making choices and the screenwriter seemed to have had a similar problem.
Thanks for the post.