Friday, July 16, 2004

Interview with John Irving and Tod Williams about "A Door in the Floor"

Acclaimed author John Irving wrote A Widow for One Year, about a writer
named Ruth Cole. For "A Door in the Floor" screenwriter/director Tod Williams
adapted the first part of the book, about the summer that Ruth's parents,
children's book author Ted Cole and his wife Marion, separated when she
was four years old. Nell Minow spoke to Irving and Williams about the film.

NM: Mr. Irving, how involved were you in developing your book into a film?
JI: Well a lot, though he did all the work. All I did was respond to various
drafts. I gave him a lot of notes. I liked everything about the concept.
The book was like a play in three acts so it had its own closure at the
end of part one. The title is especially well done. I really liked the
post-production part, watching the dailies and taking pieces and putting
them together in different ways. That part of the process feels more like
writing a novel to me, moreso than writing a screenplay. I am a "more is
more" person and he is a "less is more." There was a shot of the snowplow that
was too good to leave out, like a sentence too good to throw away. It
may be extraneous but it's a good sentence so you leave it in. There was
something I liked so much I still sometimes imagine it is in the film.
We shot it and had it in dailies. It was a line said by Marion, after she
says she won't be a bad mother to Ruth and it wasn't in the book. But it
was a shocking comment. My novels always go too far -- funny and true and
then one note that is uncomfortable. But that was not like Tod's Marion.

NM: One striking aspect of the novel is the narrator's omniscience, even
greater than usual because he not only knows what everyone is thinking;
he knows and frequently tells us what is going to happen, even many years
later. The narrator's voice is almost another character in the book, and
a vivid one. Did you try to adapt that to the storytelling in the film?

TW: It was my fantasy earlier on to bring more of that to the film, to make
something very strange like "21 Grams," but that's a different movie. In
this story, as we saw it, it was not the technique but the people and the
characters that were important. Telling a story is different on screen.
Even when it was still in words, in the screenplay at one point, it just
said that Ted looked at Marion and "the look means something." Then, when
we filmed it, Jeff Bridges brought all we thought for that moment and more.
That is one of the transitory, ephemeral, gestural moments, the tiny things
that say so much in a movie.
JI: There are visual images in the book that translate well to the screen,
certain totemic things like the sweater and Mrs. Vaughn destroying Ted's
drawings, one of the most successful translations to the literal in the
movie. I love the opening credits with Ted's drawings. One of the most
literally faithful scenes is when Mrs. Vaughn shreds the drawings Ted made
of her. That's the kind of thing that film can do better than a novel.
TW: And the black ice cubes, made from squid ink, are a great image -- they
summarize everything Ted does to his women and himself.

NM: Mr. Williams, you cast an unknown in the key role of Eddie, the 16-year-old
hired to assist Ted who becomes involved with Marion. Tell me a bit about
how that worked.

TW: It was a huge advantage to bring someone new to the audience, so they
could get to know him as the other characters in the movie do. Eddie is
our window to the story. In the beginning, we know only what he knows,
and he is our tool to get to know Ted and Marion. They are married, but
in the whole movie they have only four scenes together with very little
dialogue between them. So Eddie is the glue. Jon Foster had to be sincere
without being stupid and sensitive without being sappy. At the end of the
story he had to be less sweet than he was at the beginning, capable of cruelty.
He handled all of that brilliantly.

NM: What is it like to work with characters who, like you, are writers?
JI: When I finished "The World According to Garp," I said I would never
write another story about a writer. Originally, these characters were all
actors. Ted was a character actor, Eddie was a child actor who never got
to be an adult actor, and Ruth was a real actor. But then everyone in the
book became a writer. It is a challenge; you feel that you are stretching
the audience's patience by writing aspects of yourself. Ted is a kind of
failure as a writer. But he is also the author of everything that happens
to him. It is daring in a film to make a character so much the architect
of his own demise, his own undoing.
TW: Ted could have been a good writer. He took his talent and didn't do
anything with it.

NM: One thing that works very successfully in the book and the movie is
the way you include surprising moments of humor in the midst of a very sad
moment in the lives of the characters. How do you make that work?

JI: You can go to further ends of the extreme in a novel. Though there's
a polarization between slapstick and tragedy, you can do both. In a film
you have to find a tone to a degree and stick to it or the audience is confused
or misled. In "The Cider House Rules," [director] Lasse Hallstrom and I
lost most of the humor in turning the novel into a movie. Every time we
went there, we lost the melancholy that the film is so infused with. This
film has more successfully brought the humor in without losing the melancholy
tone. I think the Mrs. Vaughn stuff is exceedingly funny. Marion's teasing
Eddie about boys his age and what boys want, her discovery of the way he
was using her things -- that could make everyone wince, but we played it
with some humor.
TW: The movie is a tripod that loses one leg when Marion leaves. The most
tragic moment is when she leaves and the most slapstick moment is immediately
after that. I really like the way that the composer of the soundtrack,
Marcelo Zarvos, put both playfulness and pathos into the music as well,
a waltz with strings.

NM: Mr. Williams, is it easier to adapt someone else's work, as you did
here, or start from scratch, as you did with "The Adventures of Sebastian

TW: It's easier to adapt, because you get better stuff to start with!
JI: We're hoping to be able to work together on a script I wrote, "The
Fourth Hand."

NM: I hope I get to see that. Thanks very much!

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