Taking on John Irving

Taking on John Irving

Articles - Screenwriting

Todd Williams

Tod Williams directs Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger in The Door in the Floor

Photo Credit: Focus Features

Taking on the work of a celebrated author is an assignment for which many moviemakers wait a lifetime. But as writer-director Tod Williams discovered, it’s not about how long you’ve been playing the game—but how well you do it.

Adapting the first quarter of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year into this summer’s A Door in the Floor—starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger—is certainly a project that has paid off for Williams. Not only has he received accolades far and wide for his tale of a dysfunctional couple living in the wake of a family tragedy—he’s also now adapting and directing Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, starring Benico del Toro, for Focus Features. In an interview with MM, Williams talks about his old-fashioned approach, how John Irving has gone from mentor to friend, and why he hates the word “ambiguous.”

Jennifer Wood (MM): So many enormous novels get compressed into a 90-minute film; it’s interesting that you chose to focus on just the first quarter of John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. What was it about the beginning of this book that spoke to you, cinematically, and made you think it was a complete story all on its own?

Tod Williams (TW): I don’t believe great novels necessarily should be adapted into films. Probably they should even be avoided. When I read John’s book I wasn’t looking for source material, I was just enjoying it as a reader. I read the first section, 183 pages, in one sitting and was immediately struck by the need to make it into a film. I very much like the openness of the ending… The final image is a visual summation that is so clean and convenient, it forces awareness of all the unfinished business of the film itself. I also hope the film works as an invitation to read the book—and find out what happened to these people over the next 30 years. What this approach allowed me to do was to spend a lot of time on an aspect of John’s work—depth of character—that can get overshadowed by another aspect of John’s work—intricacy of plot.

MM: How did the entirety of the book—the remaining 500+ pages—influence what you did with the script for The Door in the Floor?

TW: I wanted to leave the rest of the book intact for readers, and for those who would come to the book through the film. But I was very aware of what, 30 years later, happens to Ted in that squash court—namely suicide by asphyxiation. Certainly one aspect of the final image is that it depicts a man descending into the grave. I also very much like that Eddie turns out to be a loser. However, the subject of the novel, in brief, might be an exploration of how much disaster Ruth needs to suffer as an adult in order to forgive her parents for what we see them do in The Door In The Floor. Whereas, the subject of the movie, because of where it begins and ends, is fundamentally about what remains of love in this couple after the loss of their sons.

MM: The film’s ending is a bit ambiguous—we don’t really know what happens to Ted or Marion. Was this a result of using only part of the novel, or a conscious decision on your part to invite the audience to use their imagination?

TW: I hate the word ambiguous, because it implies a lack of rigor. Unfortunately, the movie simply won’t work if the audience doesn’t creatively and inventively connect the dots.

MM: Adaptation seems like such an intimidating task—especially when you’re adapting an author as widely celebrated as John Irving. As a relative newcomer to the moviemaking game, how did you approach Irving about adapting this? And what was his response to your only wanting to use this first part of the book?

TW: I knew from the beginning exactly what I wanted to use from the book and why, so I spent three weeks drafting a letter to John trying to be as precise as possible about my goals and intentions. I think John was immediately intrigued by the fact that such a radical approach, paradoxically, would allow me to be extremely faithful to at least the section of the book involved. His adaptation of Cider House required a much more complex redaction. He asked for approval of script, cast and title and gave us the rights for one dollar. Over the course of the four years it took to make this movie, John has gone from being my mentor, to becoming one of my very good friends.

MM: What role did Irving play throughout the production of the film?

TW: Perhaps John’s preeminent gift as a writer is his sense of story—how and when to impart information to the audience. In every part of the process, I took the opportunity to use John as a sounding board. He was busy writing a novel, but always made time for the film. It was clear from very early on that I had nothing to fear from John; that anything could be considered. He was not protective or precious about his book at all. Where differences arose, John actually encouraged me to do what I thought was right, even if it wasn’t what he would have done. He’s a very unusual man.

MM: It’s impossible to talk about this film without talking about the amazing cast you assembled—from the newcomers like Elle Fanning to the truly talented veterans like Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. Did you have anyone specific in mind when you were first adapting the book? What were you looking for specifically—physically, emotionally, etc.—in your actors?

TW: I always wanted Jeff for the part of Ted; I always loved the character and I knew Jeff could make you love him in spite of all he does. I was probably even attracted to the book in part because it contained a character so suited for Jeff Bridges, who I consider to be the best actor working today. I would make any movie Jeff wants to make.

I never had a clear conception of Marion until I sat down with Kim. I met every talented actress over 35, but nobody convinced me that they understood the character better than I did, which wasn’t very well at all, in the sense that I cannot truly imagine what it must be like to be a mother and lose two sons. And then I met Kim, and I could hardly look her in the eyes when she was in character. There’s a huge close-up of her eyes in the first reel because of that. Her beauty, perhaps the main quality that John granted to Marion, was for me an afterthought. But Jeff and Kim look great together.

MM: With Jeff Bridges’ “Ted” in particular, it seems that this is a character that could easily turn into a caricature—a loud, drunken louse. How did the two of you work to create a balance in making his character clear, but still managing to make him “real”—and interesting to the audience?

TW: Jeff and I rehearsed, improvised and spent days on every little detail of the character, riffing on Ted’s wardrobe, taking it from a Sari to the full galabia, talking about his workroom, his tools. We were very careful about how many times we see a drink in his hand, and in the edit room, with Jeff’s input, sharpening the razor edge of how despicable/lovable we would let him be. Jeff wanted Ted to be even harder to love than he is in the final edit.

MM:  As a writer-director, how do you balance creating truly tragic but “real” individuals with the reality of the box office and what mainstream audiences come out to see? When you’re writing such a personal story as this one, do you concern yourself with how it may fare in the marketplace, or is that a dangerous thing to do?

TW: You have to assume that there are people out there who think like you. John Irving is not an obscure author, either. All the people who worked on the film seemed to get it, so I guess I hoped we weren’t the only ones in America. This will sound awful, but my observation on the responses to the film is that in some ways it functions as an intelligence test. Since the film requires a nimbleness of mind and a generosity of spirit and an ability to laugh at the same time as you feel sad, dumb people are baffled. All non-mainstream movies gamble on the same idea—that is that there are still smart people left in the world. I’m sure some smart people still won’t like it, but I don’t think any dumb people will like it at all. Focus has consistently managed to find those people willing to try something different.

My main goal with film is for the audience to withhold judgement of these people. To exonerate them even though they don’t deserve it, and by extension arrive at the emotional state where acceptance and sympathy for human frailty become grace.

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