Going from story to screenplay is no easy task – whether that story is a popular memoir or novel, a centuries-old play or a tabloid tale ripped from the headlines. But the best screenwriters find ways to use the medium of cinema to create a companion to the original text.
As part of Variety’s FYC Fest, five screenwriters sat down with Variety Angelique Jackson on how they balanced keeping the integrity of the story intact, while translating it in a way that will work for the big screen.
Panelists included “Cyrano” screenwriter Erica Schmidt, “House of Gucci” screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna, “The Tender Bar” screenwriter William Monahan, “Passing” writer and director Rebecca Hall, and “Passing” writer and director “The Lost Daughter” Maggie Gyllenhaal, all of whom shared how they approached adapting the source material and how far these stories have come from page to screen.
With “Passing,” which adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 short story of the same name, Hall digs deep into the legacy of racial passing and found other underlying messages in Larsen’s text that she aimed to portray in the film.
“It’s an incredibly sober book that deals with many different layers of meaning — beyond the superficial meaning it telegraphs,” Hall said. “He uses racial overreaching as a metaphor for all these other ways our desires don’t align with who we think we should be.”
“The Lost Daughter,” adapted from Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, shows the gray areas of motherhood, with Gyllenhaal explaining why she wanted to show those complex feelings onscreen.
“I wanted to make it into a movie because what if — instead of being alone in our rooms with these books, having this electrifying sense of truth spoken out loud — and if it was actually said out loud,” explained Gyllenhaal. “What if we were in a movie theater, where you could hear these things about being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a thinker – sitting next to your mother, or your husband, or your daughter. “
Schmidt first adapted Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac” into a musical, but made new revelations about the story when adapting the story for the movie “Cyrano.”
“When I thought of it as a storyline, the songs became this amazing canvas where the story could continue to unfold because the songs revealed something about the character’s inner life,” Schmidt said. “For me, it was really a great joy to try to write the screenplay.”
When adapting the real-life story of the Gucci family, Bentivegna began with “The House of Gucci” by Sara Gay Forden. He then tapped into his personal knowledge of the story, which rocked his hometown of Milan, with hundreds of articles written about the Guccis to bring a fresh and nuanced perspective to the story.
“I knew there had been many attempts to tell the story, which was actually kind of liberating because I felt I had absolutely nothing to lose,” Bentivegna recalls, detailing how he used Patrizia Gucci (played by Lady Gaga) as a guide. for his story. “I wanted to have fun with this character and for it to be larger than life and operatic.”
While Schmidt, Bentivegna, Hall and Gyllenhaal are all celebrating their feature film debuts, Monahan won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Departed” in 2007. Despite his veteran status, Monahan still had to overcome a major challenge. with his latest film, “The Tender Bar” – the fact that it’s so many people’s favorite book.
“That obviously spoke to a lot of people and, that makes you a little worried, you know?” Monahan admitted, discussing the pressure he felt to effectively translate the story to screen. “What appealed to me most about this book was the fact that it was more unusual than people realize.”
Watch the full conversation in the video above.