Just days before the January premiere of his adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Rawson Marshall Thurber shared with MM his journey from conception to exhibition. Now, in honor of its August 4, 2009 DVD and Blu-ray release from Phase 4 Films, MM revisits Thurber’s essay, originally published on January 18, 2008.
In the summer of 1995 I was suspended from college. The incident amounted to a minor fracas, but it had major political ramifications, so they suspended me for two semesters. I went back home to California to think things over. My best friend was moving to Los Angeles and I decided to go with him to see what all the fuss was about. It was there, rudderless and contemplative, that it happened.
I was at the beach (which seemed like the thing to do in Los Angeles before I discovered that no one from Los Angeles actually ever goes to the beach) with another friend of mine who happened to be reading a book. Every few pages he would laugh or let out a low whistle in admiration. Finally, I asked him what the hell he was reading. He told me. I read it. And that’s when I knew.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was so beautifully written, so smartly considered, so funny, so overwhelmingly gosh-wow wonderful that I fell head over heels in love with it. I was smitten. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that I wanted to make the movie of Michael Chabon’s novel before I even knew I wanted to make movies. That’s how much it meant to me.
Nearly 10 years later, my first film, Dodgeball, came out and did well at the box office. In fact, the weekend it opened, no other film did better at the turnstiles and I found myself, strangely, with a little bit of clout. Go figure. My agent called me with offers, sent me script after script after script—a couple of them were even pretty good. But I wasn’t interested. After finishing my first film, I knew fully how hard it was to make one—how much it required from you personally and how much you had to really love the story to be able to get up, day after day, night after night, to fight for it—to see it through to the end, to be its custodian, its guardian and its champion. There was really only one story I loved like that.
So I decided to do what I’d wanted to do from the very beginning. The guy who made Dodgeball was going to go make The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Fuck it. If I’m going to fail, I might as well fail doing something I love.’ (Which is really the only way to do it if you ask me.)
I wrote Michael Chabon a fan letter. I asked him if I could take him out to breakfast to discuss the possibility of adapting his first novel. Over the course of coffee and eggs, I would lay out my fairly radical plan, which was as much amputation and alteration as it was adaptation. Shortly thereafter, I received an e-mail from Michael saying, “Sounds great. Let’s do it.” I was stunned. I don’t think I ever imagined that he would say “Yes.” But he did and I spent the next 10 months writing my guts out.
The film is now finished and I’m very proud of it. My actors delivered such lovely, heartbreaking performances that I feel pretty well spoiled for any who follow. We’ve been accepted into Sundance and are going to unveil the film there. I can’t wait.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, starring Jon Foster, Sienna Miller, Peter Sarsgaard and Nick Nolte, premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.