Robin Swicord is a screenwriter, best known for literary adaptations, including Little Women (1994); Matilda (1996); Practical Magic (1998); Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); and an Academy Award winning take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). She is also the writer-director of The Jane Austen Book Club (2007) and the newly released Wakefield (2016) starring Bryan Cranston and based on a short story by the late E.L. Doctorow.
Eye Crave Network spoke to her in support of the new book On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films from the Austin Film Festival and their On Story series of panels and podcasts.
Your new film Wakefield is what might be called a strange narrative. With both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Wakefield, you’ve adapted some very non-traditional narrative styles that seem antithetical to filmic storytelling. What is it about these stories that you find appealing?
You picked up the pattern. I like a challenge, number one… and number two – both of those stories touched me because they were stories about outsiders. In Benjamin Button, he was an outsider by birth. With Wakefield, he makes himself an outsider, in order to examine himself. He doesn’t know that’s why he’s doing it, but that how it comes about. I just respond to those kinds of stories.
That outsider element, in Wakefield, is a man who comes home from work one day and decides to abandon his life, then quite literally watch it from the outside?
When he starts out, he’s just a guy coming home from work, stepping back into his domestic life. The line from the short story that I use at the start of the film is “Can you blame me for feeling that things were a little strange that night?”. There’s a power outage and he’s walking home in the dark. We don’t yet understand why he’s sending his wife’s phone calls to voicemail. When he gets home, he looks in the window and sees his family there, and he remembers the thing that’s been bothering him all day. The night before, he had accused her of flirting with someone at a party and they had quarreled about jealousy. Which is a pattern with him. Usually, after he accuses her, they fight, and then they have sex. That’s how it usually goes. Last night it did not go that way, and now he feels such a dread going into the house. He can see that his wife is still angry. He watches her throw out his dinner. He decides to wait until she goes to sleep. Incrementally, he leaves his family. He chases a raccoon into the attic of his garage, falls asleep, and wakes up realizing that he’s lost the moral high ground. One thing leads to another and, as his wife calls the police to report him missing, he realizes that this is fun, watching her be worried. It starts with resentment and passive-aggression, but then it leads him to realize that he doesn’t actually want the life he has. He doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows he doesn’t need the credit cards, and the commute, and his job as a litigator. He doesn’t want that, but he’s unsure what the next step is, so he just stays away. He watches his family and realizes that he hasn’t left them, so much as he’s left himself. Then the greater part of the movie is him trying to understand who he has become. He realizes that he loves his family, more than anything, and wants to be with them, but he doesn’t know how to come home. It’s an interesting structure, given by E.L. Doctorow and just kind of elucidated in the film.
In the book ON STORY: SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR CRAFT you took part in a discussion with Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon); Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) and your husband and sometime co-screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Matilda) on Structure and Format. You said “Structure is everything, as long as it comes out of character. It’s actually character that’s everything.” It seems like Wakefield feeds directly into that idea.
All of the movies that I love, do that. They come out of character. There are some movies that are set on the premise and the characters are sort of cardboard, but there’s enough juicy stuff in the action that you can like it and forgive it, but those never become my favorite movies.
You have also said that you have “resisted the tyranny of a likable protagonist” and that it “infects and hurts Hollywood films”. Is that another reason that you’re attracted to things like Wakefield?
Yes. There’s a certain kind of movie – Groundhog Day is another example, or something like Animal Kingdom – which begin with a passive protagonist who awakens during the narrative. Those are the kind of stories that I respond to, because the character is on a journey of becoming. In The Bourne Identity, he doesn’t know himself at the beginning and he’s on a journey of becoming. It’s a universal narrative for all of us, to become more ourselves as we go along through life. In terms of Howard Wakefield, he thinks he knows who he is. If you had stopped him as he was getting on the train in Grand Central and asked, “Who are you?”, he would have said “I’m a family man. I’m a litigator. I belong to such and such athletic club.” He thinks he has all of these answers as to who he is and what he does. But it turns out that he’s after bigger game in the sense of knowing himself more completely.
You’ve written a lot of female-centered films going back to the late 80’s – Shag, Practical Magic, The Jane Austen Book Club. A lot of films that are revered for being female-centric. Do you feel that women are finally becoming well-represented in popular culture with more films and TV shows appearing with strong female protagonists and projects like the new Ghostbusters featuring all-female headline casts?
There is a shift going on, but I can’t be too optimistic just yet. It’s been a very long time coming. When I was a very young screenwriter I turned my attention to writing roles for women, because women were almost nowhere present on the screen. As much as I loved movies starring men – and the first two screenplays that I wrote featured male protagonists – I just felt like it was really dull to go the movies and see women in the early 80’s, when a good role was if you got to appear wearing a towel. I grew up seeing these movies from the 30’s and the 40’s on television. I grew up in a small town where the TV station had no network affiliation and the person in charge of programming would get 16mm prints of these old movies and cut commercials into them. I would come home from school and Notorious would be playing. Bette Davis was everywhere. Katherine Hepburn. These were the movies I would see all the time, the movies I grew up on. I just couldn’t understand what had happened. Why were there only male lead characters in movies now? So, I started writing them. Those movies have always been very hard to get made. For every movie you may have seen of mine, there are four or five that are still unproduced. It is extremely hard to get movies made with a female protagonist. It may be getting easier now. Women have more voice now. That is something that the internet and social media have given us. Someone can go on Twitter and say “Tweet me your first assault” and 27 million women respond. We have more of a voice now, and I’m curious to see where it takes us. I hope it gives us more movies. We have a lot of rectifying to do. We have some stories to tell that have never been told.
In the new book ON STORY: SCREENWRITERS AND FILMMAKERS ON THEIR ICONIC FILMS, you look at the classic Dog Day Afternoon and how screenwriter Frank Pierson used so much of the culture of the time to play against expectations. Is that something, with this sea change going on, that you look forward to doing in your own work now?
The answer is yes! What Frank Pierson did was, with eyes wide open, looked at the world around him and what was happening, and wrote something that was very much of it’s time. He pushed a lot of boundaries. That is the work that’s ahead of us. We need to be pushing the boundaries and we need to be responding to the world that we’re living in now. One of the problems is that the film business itself, has always tried to respond to what an audience wants, rather than leading. That’s always been though of as good business but, in a way, it’s not. Steve Jobs said something like “Don’t give the people what they want. Give them what they don’t yet know they want.”. There is an awakening going on, and we should be looking ahead and giving people what they are going to want.
Your final advice in that ON STORY piece is to “Be bold. Do what you want, and have fun doing it.” Do you have anything to add to that for aspiring writers?
I stand by it! I stand by that statement, and I should immediately go out and get it tattooed.
Many thanks to Robin Swicord and the people at On Story and Austin Film Festival for arranging the interview.
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“On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films”
Takes Film Lovers into the Minds of Renowned Movie Makers, Revealing the Creative Processes of the Most Iconic Films of Our Time!
Austin, TX- October 17, 2016 – On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films presents renowned, award-winning screenwriters and filmmakers discussing their careers and the stories behind the production of their iconic films such as L.A. Confidential, Thelma & Louise, Groundhog Day, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Silence of the Lambs, In the Name of the Father, Apollo 13, and more. In their own lively words transcribed from interviews and panel discussions, Ron Howard, Callie Khouri, Jonathan Demme, Ted Tally, Jenny Lumet, Harold Ramis, and others talk about creating stories that resonate with one’s life experiences or topical social issues, as well as how to create appealing characters and bring them to life. Their insights, production tales, and fresh, practical, and proven advice make this book ideal for film lovers, screenwriting students, and filmmakers and screenwriters seeking inspiration.
On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers is co-edited by Austin Film Festival Co-founder and Executive Director Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez, producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series Austin Film Festival’s On-Story, with a foreword written by James Franco. In 2012, Barbara and Maya assembled transcripts from the archives of over 20 years of AFF panels and post-film-screening Q&As. Their goal was to make these fascinating and insightful film discussions available to a larger audience than the festival’s attendees.
On Story – Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films was published in October 2016, just in time for the 23rd Annual Austin Film Festival. Order the book here: http://bit.ly/2diqngd
About On Story
Austin Film Festival is dedicated to furthering the art, craft, and business of filmmakers and screenwriters, and recognising their contributions to film, television, and new media. A natural progression of the AFF mission, The On Story Project consists of a variety of entertaining and informative programs presented in different media platforms to give viewers an inside look at the creative process behind some of the most popular and critically acclaimed films and television shows.