Thursday, August 8, 2013

Stephen Elliott Makes Movies Because He Wants To

"Happy Baby is a most impressive little novel, heartbreakingly and bewilderingly alive in a way most bigger books can’t even imagine." -- Andrew O'Hehir,
That was just the beginning of the praise that Salon had for Stephen Elliott's novel, Happy Baby, later naming it one of the best books of 2004. Almost ten years later, at the suggestion of fellow author Dave Eggers, Elliott is turning Happy Baby into a movie. 

Elliott has a history of crossing over between writing and film. In the summer of 2011 he directed an adaptation of his novel About Cherry starring James Franco and Heather Graham. Franco also acquired film adaptation rights to The Adderall Diaries, another of Elliott's books. Elliott is funding the production of  Happy Baby in part through a Kickstarter project that raised $93,775, and loving every minute of it.

And then there is his literary cred. He's the founding editor of the popular online literary magazine The Rumpus, and author of seven books of his own, he knows plenty about telling a good story. His writing has been featured in Esquire, The New York Times, The Believer, GQ, Best American Non-Required Reading 2005 and 2007, Best American Erotica, and Best Sex Writing 2006. 

He took some time out of his summer editing schedule to talk with us about why he makes movies, why films like Synecdoche, New York inspire him, and give us a sneak peek about what to expect from Happy Baby


Jaman: Thanks for taking some time, Stephen. So my first question is... Why do you make movies?

Stephen Elliott: Whoa. Tough question.

Jaman: Indeed!

Stephen: I was thinking yesterday that I don't know why I do anything. Like, I thought I knew, but I'm less and less sure. Then I thought, I probably do know, but I'm afraid of the answer. So I'll give you the simple answer.  
For some reason I'm drawn to telling stories, the way most writers are. And making a movie is just another version of that. It doesn't feel like I'm doing anything different than writing a book, or hosting a political event. Or building The Rumpus. They all feel like they're off a piece. They're the same thing.
So in order to say why I'm making movies I would have to answer why I write books and maybe, more importantly, why I would ever want to publish a book that I had written. At that point your getting into some pretty dark places. And I'm pretty sure any answer would probably fall short of the truth. 
Or, the really short answer, would be—Because I want to. An urge.

Jaman: As in, if I ask you why you make movies, I'm asking why you tell stories, and that is asking why you are alive.

Stephen: Exactly. I will say that making a movie can be a lot more fun than writing a book. Writing gets lonely. But editing a movie is also very lonely, so it's all the same, I guess. It's a different audience though, and that's interesting.

Jaman: That leads into another question I have, as you are an author and a director. It seemed like there was a lot of community involvement in shooting and producing Happy Baby. What was that like?

Stephen: That's the best part. I love collaborating. People get so inspired, and they have so much creative energy. It's beautiful. And when you're shooting the movie you're forced to be so creative all the time. There's no getting away from it. And that's about as happy as I can be. 
When you’re making a movie you're surrounded by this temporary family. You have a task, a purpose. I love that dynamic.  

Jaman: Why did you choose to adapt Happy Baby out of all the books you've published?

Stephen: That's an interesting question, with an answer! Dave Eggers edited the book and a little over a year ago we were having drinks near the McSweeney's office, which was great for me because I always want to spend more time with Dave. The guy is like human Prozac and whenever I see him I walk away feeling good about the world and inspired.

So I was complaining about my movie, About Cherry, how basically I really really wanted to make another movie. I'd been so happy making the first one but maybe the final product wasn't as good as it could have been. And Dave said, Why don't you make a screenplay out of Happy Baby. I said I'd tried before and it couldn't be done. The structure was too elaborate. And he said, Are you kidding? It writes itself. And then he told me how to start it, and where to go. Three days later I had a first draft. Though of course the final movie looks nothing like that. The final script didn't even resemble it. But that's the process.

Jaman: As both an author and a director, how do you think about the different roles or purposes of literature and film?

Stephen: I'm not sure I see them as particularly different. Making a movie, for me, is more fun because of all the interaction with other people. But what I'm hoping to achieve is really the same: connection with other human beings through telling a story. 

Jaman: I realize you're not done editing so it may not be so simple and I won’t hold you to it, but allow me to introduce an interview madlib. People who like the movie(s) ________________, will find something they like in Happy Baby.

Stephen: Ha! The thing is, I'm still editing, so it's hard to answer. But let's say perfect world. In my perfect world you could plug in Belle Du Jour. Or City Of God. Or Sherman's March.

Jaman: Can you name one or two movies or directors that/who inspire you?

Stephen: Well, I'm definitely inspired by Charlie Kaufman, and Godard. Not that I would ever make a movie like either of those guys. Synecdoche New York is a perfect movie. So personal, and relevant. Same with Adaptation
I'm less concerned with how entertaining those movies are and more with how connected they are. How you connect, and you feel like you've learned something about yourself. Especially Synecdoche. A lot of people don't even like that movie. They can't relate.

Jaman: What do you do when you're not making movies?

Stephen: I mope. Stare at the ceiling. Wander around waiting for the next inspiration to sweep me up for a little while.


And then our time was up. As quickly and wonderfully as it had begun, it ended. Stephen went back to editing Happy Baby, and we'll all have to wait for the movie to come out to see what Happy Baby looks like on the screen.

In the meantime, you can keep up with Stephen on his column at The Rumpus

1 comment:

Aurelia said...

I just watched Synecdoche and am torn between the need to cry and the desire to see it all over again. Thanks for giving me something interesting to lose sleep over tonight!

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