Collaboration is an inherent part of the filmmaking process, but not in the way these three filmmakers did it. I explained that I've been working with the same writing partner since I was sixteen years old, and that I couldn't imagine introducing someone else into the process because writing is so personal and intimate. I asked how they even began to introduce a new voice into the mix.
Tom laughed and answered, "We went on a holiday together."
Smiling, Lana continued. "It's cool that you realize that. People sometimes say, 'Well, how do you direct together?' But writing is really the intimate process. Directing is a social art form. It's about collaboration. Really, the trick is writing together. Andy and I have an amazing relationship when we write together, and we said, 'I don't know, can we have a third ego in there?' And we weren't sure. But we were just so longing to develop a friendship, and it kept being so hard to hang out. So we thought if we had a project together, we could do that, and we were going to do like we did for James McTiegue, where we were going to write it and he was going to direct it, and then we found this book and we though maybe we could all play together. And then it hit us. We don't even know if we can write together. If we can write together, then surely we can direct together. So I was like let's go away outside of our comfort areas, outside of Berlin, outside of Chicago. Let's go somewhere else and just play."
Andy punctuated the thought with a simple, "Neutral territory."
Lana continued, explaining, "We had heard of fantasy vacations where creative people went together and made something, and we were like, 'This could be one of those.' So we went down to Costa Rica, and we would go boogie-boarding during the day, and in the afternoon, we would get together. We started the first day by saying, 'This is a crazy experiment and we don't know if it's going to work. We'll still love each other. We want to know each other when it's old. Maybe this will just be a funny story we tell. But let's try.'"
She went on, describing the process. "It sort of started in this very innocent of way of saying, 'Well, what are your favorite parts?' And we went through and we started checking off all of our favorite parts, and it was like 'Ka-chink. Ka-chink. Ka-chink. Match. Match. Match.' And we started getting more excited. So then we were like, 'Okay, let's start laying all of our favorite parts down on cards and then start thinking about order.' I wrote an experiment on the plane on the way to Costa Rica based on the line that Cavendish says in the book. 'My experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks,' and I was like, 'That's our opening.'"
Tom interjected, "Within a sequence that is all flashbacks and flash-forwards," his smile suggesting how much he enjoyed the irony of that.
Lana explained, "I sort of built this thing that sort of suggested a potential introduction to a new structure that was going to somehow work as a single narrative. I was like, 'We can't start over an hour and a half into a movie.' We knew we couldn't do the structure of the book, so we'd have to create a single flowing narrative like music, a full symphony, and this was the preamble experiment. We read it together, and kind of went…
Andy arched one eyebrow, hyper-dramatically dropping his voice to a whisper. "'Oh my god, this could work.'"
Tom nodded. "It was awesome."
Andy pointed out, "That's in the movie."
Tom explained, "The opening of the movie, that montage before the stories start to unfold in detail, everything that is pre-title leading to Ben putting the gun in his mouth and then you see the title, that's basically what Lana had written that first day. And it's also like a blueprint for the audience. 'Okay, this is what you're going to get.' And of course, it's overwhelming. But the insanity of it seemed like it was flowing and there was a possibility that we could keep going like this. We would probably need to help the audience get themselves organized a little bit, but that we might be able to be completely fluidly constantly cutting from story to story because they are all one story."
I told them how many times now I've been asked by people, "Do I need to read the book before I see the movie?", and how I feel like the film works as its own thing, independent of the book completely at this point. It also seems to me that people who are fans of a property are often the ones who have the hardest time accepting the choices that have to made when you're adapting something.
Tom agreed, explaining, "The reality is that usually, the more you get away from it, the more it becomes its own thing, which is much more acceptable. Adaptations that are more strictly trying to follow every letter of the book, those can be for me more difficult to watch. Why would you just film the book? You need to make it a movie first, and it's a different medium. Make it work for your medium and use the assets that you have there. I think every person I've met so far who had read the book first really enjoyed the movie. 'Perfume' was much harder for me, and the reaction was much harder. You know how it can be, of course."
Andy continued, "Our first friends and family screening went great. We had just close personal friends, people who had read the book and were huge fans of the book. Two of them were booksellers in Chicago. We were feeling pretty strong about this cut. It was very far down the line already, and it was the cut that we screened right before we took it to Warner Bros. But you could tell that there was something not quite right with everybody as they were getting into their seats."
Lana laughed. "It was like a storm rolling in."
Andy laughed as well as he went on. "They ended up watching the movie and they came out, and there was just this relief from them. They thought we were just idiots to try to adapt the book, and they thought that it was impossible to adapt."
Lana said, "Some of them had already formulated their gentle sort of non-answers. 'Oh, it's really good.' But then one of them, one of the bookshop owners, was in tears. He was like, 'I can't believe you did it.'"
I understand the reaction. When I saw it, there were less than ten of us in the room, and when the lights came up, there was a lot of looking down and not meeting anyone's eyes because we were all trying to gather ourselves emotionally. It's hard to walk out, red eyes and wet cheeks, and look cool in front of your peers. The film hit each of us for different reasons, though, and that's part of what made it impressive. There's room for you to have an individual response to what you see in it.
Tom said, "It's very interesting that now we're starting to get people who are starting to see it for the second or third time, and they are starting to say… I know this is true with all of our wives, but when they see it again, it hits them differently, and that's because today you might be more attuned to one of the layers that, in another screening, doesn't really matter so much. You know those images you can look at where sometimes things come out of it in 3D [editor's note -- The 'Magic Eye' images]? The film is like that, all based on your state of mind or your psyche."