David Paterson on set of Love, Ludlow
David Paterson on the set of Love, Ludlow (2005)

Most screenwriters will tell you they feel a personal connection to the scripts they write, but David Paterson has a whole other layer of attachment. His most recent effort, Bridge To Terabithia, is based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel written by his mother, Katherine. With a background in acting and playwriting, and with only one other feature screenplay under his belt, Paterson embarked on the difficult task of adapting the book in a way that would satisfy both his mother and its legions of fans.

With Bridge to Terabithia set to hit theaters on February 16th, Paterson sat down with MovieMaker to discuss the challenges of adapting a novel for the big screen, the difference between writing an indie versus a big-budget studio picture and carrying on the family legacy.

Jennifer Straus (MM): Bridge to Terabithia has a lot of personal significance for you: Not only is your mother the author of the original novel, but she based the story on events from your childhood. Can you describe the process of adapting the novel for the screen? What were the biggest challenges?

David Paterson (DP): Clearly, since the work was so close to me, my goal was to stay as true to the novel as I could. Otherwise, family holidays could get pretty nasty…! The book has been around for nearly 30 years and has won many notable awards for one very simple reason: It’s good. So stick with the story. Rule number one.

The most problematic aspect in adapting any work—short story, novel, etc.—is “presenting” your characters’ thoughts and feelings. In a novel or short story, the author tells you straight out what their characters are experiencing emotionally; a screenwriter does not have that luxury.

MM: Your first feature screenplay was for an indie film called Love, Ludlow, whereas Terabithia is a major studio release. How did your experience differ in writing these two films?

DP: In writing Love, Ludlow I had much more freedom as a writer, and I made many line changes on the fly, sometimes even during a shot.

In the studio system, all writing has to go through several reviews by various people attached to the project. It’s dialogue by delegation. See, there is no “I” in film. Well, actually there is, but simply put, the writer has much less creative control. Interestingly enough, the average number of writers on a studio film is seven; I know of one that had 12.

In Bridge To Terabithia we had three, but only Jeff Stockwell and I received billing. (That, too, is decided by a committee in the WGA.)

MM: The book leaves a lot up to the reader’s imagination; in the film, you developed a vibrant imaginary kingdom for the two protagonists. How did you go about developing what the cinematic Terabithia would look like? Was it difficult to depart from the book?

DP: Interestingly enough, Terabithia, the kids’ imaginary world, is in only 14 pages of the book, and although Katherine (Mom) makes passing descriptions of battles and giants and ogres, there really are no descriptive characters… then along comes Hollywood!

Seriously though, this goes back to what I mentioned earlier: Readers of the book created their own Terabithia as they read the novel. You can’t have the film screen go blank and then with a voiceover ask everyone in the theater to close their eyes and make up their own magical little world. Well, you could, but it would be pretty stupid.

This is where Jeff Stockwell was so great. I would have experienced almost a feeling of betrayal to change anything from the novel, but Jeff made some great contributions to the magical world of Terabithia. We both remained true to the book in that all of these fantastical creatures remained a figment of the kids’ imaginations.

MM: Do you prefer adapting works for the screen, or writing your own stories?

DP: That’s a tough one… probably the gig that is paying. I’ve adapted several of my mother’s works and will probably adapt more in the future, but there is something truly satisfying about something you created on your own being made into a feature film. I never forget how lucky I am to have gotten to this point in my career. I’m not even an asshole yet. (Give it time.)

MP: Who are some of the screenwriters you admire, and why?

DP: I met Kevin Smith and he interviewed me for a TV spot. I’m like 10 years older than the guy, but I felt like I was eight meeting my idol—nearly crapped my pants. Never have met Ed Burns but I’d probably crap myself meeting him, too. I appreciate that these guys know they’ve made it, yet remain vocal and extremely involved in the world of indie film.

In my brief time in this business I’ve met some quite brilliant writers and seen their films at various festivals. These are people who haven’t “made it,” yet their work far surpasses most of the commercial “indie crap” that does get distribution. Keep your eyes out for Pete Schwaba, Susan and Pi Ware and Ned Farr.

MM: Did you always plan on becoming a writer? Are there other areas of moviemaking that you’d like to try out, such as directing or producing?

DP: I was an actor for many years. A decent actor, terrible auditioner. Nearly crapped myself on numerous occasions. The great thing about writing is no one can limit your work to a two-minute audition. You can write, and rewrite—even toss it if you want—with no one else pressuring you “to deliver” on the spot. That’s more like pitch sessions, and I also suck at that.

I still occasionally act, but I do want to move into the director’s chair.

As a playwright I’ve seen some great versions of one of my plays and suck-wind versions of the same play. There’s a confidence there that you know your words work, and somebody will get it right eventually. But with a film, that’s a permanent visual monument to your voice, and if somebody else screws it up, it’s there for all to see. So I want to “protect” my work, but also give it the true interpretation I always envisioned.

MM: Can you tell us about any upcoming films that you’re working on?

DP: There’s a great word in Hollywood: Development. I have three different projects in “development” at three different studios. What it means is they love the script, but not enough to buy it, so they give you a buttload of notes, you do rewrites, they sit on it for awhile, toss you a few more notes, blah blah blah. Did I mention there’s no money? Now I’m not under contract with any of these guys, so I could walk with the project to somebody else… but there is no one else. I’m still a bit of a nobody.

I’m hoping that when Bridge to Terabithia comes out, people will actually return some of my calls.

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