The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Joyce Maynard is a prolific author, with eight novels, four books of non-fiction and hundreds of articles to her name, but it is for her memoir "At Home in the World," recounting her relationship with J. D. Salinger when she was only a teenager, for which she is most famous. That relationship and the memoir have distracted people from her work as a novelist. Too few people know that she wrote the novel on which Gus Van Sant's "To Die For" is based. Her 2009 novel "Labor Day" tells the story of a romance between an escaped convict and a lonely divorced woman, as seen through the eyes of the woman's son, who reflects on the story decade later. It blends the coming-of-age genre and the romance novel. Now it's coming to the screen from writer and director Jason Reitman ("Thank You for Smoking", "Juno", "Up in the Air", "Young Adult"), with Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet playing the lovers. After starting her morning by baking a pie in her hotel suite (really), she sat down to talk about the film.
This is you second experience with an adaptation of one of your books, and I would imagine they were very different experiences.
There's only one thing they have in common: They both produced terrific movies. Top quality cast, director and adaptation. But the whole feel of the experience was totally different. I had almost nothing to do with Gus Van Sant on "To Die For". Buck Henry [who wrote the screenplay—Ed.] became a dear friend. Really, nobody wants to hear from the writer, but Buck contacted me many times, we met, we talked and he was hugely respectful of the book. My one regret with "To Die For", and this is no fault of Buck Henry, is that nobody knew there's a book. So now, I hope if people love "To Die For" they'll discover that there's a book. Because it's very true to the book, but as always, the book is better. [laughs] Gus is very much a sort of arms-length person. Jason, you know…it's just been the warmest happiest connection. He's about the age of my daughter, and he's exactly the age of the narrator of the book when he narrates this story from his past. So he read the book very early on when it was still in galleys. And he said he cried when he read it, and he just knew he wanted to make that movie. I looked no further. I love his work, and I thought he was the perfect director for it. And he has said that he has never made and expects never again to make an adaptation as close to the original source material as this. That said, there are things you can't put in a two-hour movie.
Particularly challenging in making the movie is that it has a first person narration, which means that the main character has a particular function in the book that has to be translated. Here's there's some voiceover.
And he kept it to a minimum. I'm not a big fan of voiceover narration, and I don't think he is either, but we need to know that this is an experience that has resonated over the decades. I felt he did that very sparingly and well. I love that boy. I think Gattlin Griffith is extraordinary. I mean, of course Kate [Winslet], of course Josh [Brolin]. But that was a really tough piece of casting.
It's a tough part, because he has to carry the movie.
And not with a lot of lines. It's his face.
You said that you thought "Jason, perfect. I looked no further." Can you explain that? His other movies are so different from this.
What I get from his movies is not that he makes this or that type of movies, but that he's an extraordinary director. He had gotten things from actors that transcended the particular story that he was telling. I love the cinematography in his films, the set decoration. There are certain things you notice after seeing this film three times, as I have. I start looking and I can see just the corner of a James Taylor album in the background. Who's even going to see that? But I love that it's there. It's very, very layered. He has a team that he's very loyal to and works with again and again. One of the first things he said to me was he asked if he could come over to my house and learn how to make pie. And that, I loved. It's a really important scene in the movie. He shot it first on his iPhone in my kitchen. And of course it's not just about the pie. It's an easy scene to make fun of if you're a cynic. You can really have a field day on that one. And I loved that he wasn't a cynic about anything. It' a very romantic story. But I knew that he wasn't going to turn it into mush. This wasn't going to be some sappy "chick flick." I hate that term. I think women love this movie, but I am seeing men love it. A man who has no interest in a story about love and a relationship is probably a man I don't want to spend too much time with. [laughs]
The coming of age story is there. And for men, that's really seductive. That moment—twelve, thirteen years old—we're obsessed with that. Think of "Stand By Me."
Well, that's one of my all-time favorite movies.
But this is also a story that is a romance. But it's a romance and reawakening of his mother that comes to us filtered through him. So we're experiencing the disruption of that relationship between mother and son.
Well, it's kind of story that doesn't get told often enough. I told it years ago in another novel years ago, "Where Love Goes". It had too sad of an ending, because it was too realistic in some ways. A couple of single parents trying to get together, and they couldn't. We've seen a lot of love stories and we've seen a lot of mom stories. But a mother who has a sexual romantic life, that's what I wanted to put up on screen. And it's hard enough for people who have children, who are taking care of children, to have that with their fellow parent. But if they're divorced and alone, and the person that they might have a relationship with, if they're lucky enough to have that relationship, is not their child's parent. That part of the story I do know, because I was a single parent in a small New Hampshire town for a number of years. And I wanted to sort of honor that experience. And I thought about what it was like for my children, who were coming into their own adolescence and sexuality during those years when I was trying to hold onto a little bit of my own yearnings and dreams. What this is not is one of those 'woman who falls in love with a man in prison' stories, which is a phenomenon we all know. This is a woman who yearns to be touched and has been untended for such a long time. And she looks untended when we meet her. When he puts that flower in her hair, nobody's put a flower in her hair in a long time. And her son has tried, as my son did. My older son, when he was about ten, gave me a 'husband for a day' coupon book [As does the son in the book–Ed.]. That part is real. But I wanted to see the story through the boy's eyes. What it was like for a child who simultaneously yearns for a father and also is terrified of losing his mother. Yearns for somebody else to take the job that he has been trying to do. What 13-year-old boy should have to run a bubble bath for his mother?
There's a line that makes it into the movie: He wanted him to do the things, he didn't even know exactly what they were…
Yes, right. And Jason has one scene that kind of took me aback, because I didn't have anything like this in the novel. There's more sexuality in the novel. He hears them. But there's a scene in the film where Kate Winslet is in her lingerie, she's in her slip, and there's Josh Brolin, and they're clearly a couple who have slept together the night before. They're in the bathroom, and the boy comes in. And I asked Jason and he said 'I wanted to show that they were comfortable.' And liked that. They weren't guilt-ridden, and these weren't people who felt that they had done some terrible thing. They'd paid dearly to have that moment.
An author recently wrote a piece in The New York Times about seeing a film version of one of his novels. He wrote that it was like seeing a strange dream version of his book.
Not for me. My book started out as my own dream of a movie. So it's kind of come full circle. When I write, I have a little movie playing in my head. I'm typing as fast as I can—this was certainly true with this book—just to keep up with the movie that I'm watching. I hope that I will write a movie, because I think in movie pictures, And it is almost scene for scene in the movie, except for the brilliant thing Jason did with the flashbacks of Frank's story, sort of stretching that out across the movie. I hope it worked for you; it worked for me. What a thrill for a writer to pull up in her car in this little town in Massachusetts that has been completely transformed into what you saw in your brain, and Josh Brolin is the guy. It was a thrill I don't expect to have many times, if ever again, in my life. The film is the perfect support for my book and the book for the movie. Of course I would say this because I want people to read my book, but it would only enhance the experience of the movie to read the book first, or to see the movie and then read the book.