Thank You, Carter Smith

This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing my first novel made into a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The novel is called One for Sorrow. The film is called Jamie Marks is Dead. Early on in my novel, the narrator, Adam McCormick, observes in his high school yearbook after Jamie Marks is found murdered, that he and Jamie share the same page, the same square even, but Adam’s photo is on one side of the page, and Jamie’s is on the other. For me, coming away from watching Jamie Marks is Dead feels similar to that moment of two people’s souls blurring and mingling into one.

Carter Smith, the director and screenwriter for the film, kept that moment intact, actually, as well as a lot of the novel. Though there are some changes, the story has retained the essence of the book for me. I’ve already noticed some fans of the novel online who had managed to see it at Sundance mention the changes from book to film, but that’s the nature of novel adaptations–they modify a very large story, 320 pages in this case, to fit into an hour and forty minutes of screen time. Novels and films are two different forms, and taking a novel into the film format will, by necessity, mean some things will have to change. Unless the adaptor is doing a literal translation of book to film, which for me always falls flat, simply because the two forms don’t do the same things, don’t function in the same ways (though they do have crossover points, obviously).

So in this adaptation of One for Sorrow, you’ll see that it’s a troubled single parent household instead of a troubled two-parent household, that Adam comes from. There’s no grandmother in Adam’s memory who taught him how to count crows to the counting crows nursery rhyme, which explains the change in title. And instead of squatting in an abandoned church, Adam squats in an abandoned warehouse. Some events in the book have been collapsed, or moved around in time. There are some pieces of dialogue that have been moved from one scene in the novel to a different placement in the film. And there’s even at least one entirely new scene that Carter created for the script that I absolutely love (involving the ghost of Frances Wilkinson), and that feels entirely organic to the story, made from the same essence of how I imagined Frances in the novel. 

I loved every moment of it, even the changes. Carter created a visual poem using the imagery and motifs of the novel, and watching the film was absolutely fascinating for me to see all of those codified metaphors and symbols unfold on the screen like one of those flower teas that, once dropped in water, seem to bloom and bloom again, until they fill their container.

The film focuses on the relationships between the teenagers in the novel, so other side storylines have been pushed into the background or excised altogether, and that, I think, was the entirely right choice to make. Those were the relationships and that was the storyline that were the center of the novel, too. Novels have room for background characters and side plots that might make a film feel clunky and overpacked if absolutely everything was brought over in the transfer.

This movie is dark, cold, blue and green. It holds the essence of winter and death and regret and longing inside it. And somehow, hope flowers in its darkness. That’s the book, too, really, or what I hoped I’d achieved as the tone and essence with the novel.

So I feel like I couldn’t have asked for me and my story to have been placed into better hands. Carter and his cast and crew made something I can feel good about being a part of. I can’t wait for people to see the absolutely gorgeous cinematography that Darren Lew brought to the film, too. It’s dark magic, the look of the entire thing.

Park City is unlike any place I’ve ever visited, and is the complete opposite of my daily life in the declining town of Youngstown, Ohio. A tiny skiing town nestled in the mountains, where Christmas apparently never goes away. Lights were strung from street corner to corner, throughout the trees, ever so precious that even the bulbs in the trees were made to seem like seeded berries. The people at the festival seemed professionally beautiful, as if they’d stepped out of magazines, and they lined the streets waiting to get into overfull restaurants and huddled around each other in the hopes of getting off the wait list for certain movies.

For most of the premiere day, I was nervous and felt like I was swimming through a haze, couldn’t collect my thoughts well, and kept bumping into things or feeling dizzy, much like Adam in the novel does after the body of Jamie Marks is found. But when I arrived at the theater, Carter appeared out of a knot of people and when I saw his smile everything seemed to go back into focus. I went through the media tent with him and the actors, who happen to be some of the nicest, warm people I’ve met, and any nerves I might have had that day were just gone in an instant. It helped to see the actors and Carter himself also felt anxious. I think being around everyone who had a stake in the film allowed for an easier pre-show experience of butterflies.

The lights went down, the lights went up, and everything afterward has felt a little altered for me. I’ve felt a bit like the character Adam in the days since, feeling like I’m seeing two worlds merging together in front of me, back and forth, one laid over the other. I feel stunned, to some extent, but in a good way. My vision will come back into focus again at some point, like it did when Carter came out to greet me and the proverbial light from the lighthouse brought me back in to shore safely.

Other than life (thanks Mom and Dad!), I think this may be the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. In the book, Adam gives words to Jamie to help him sustain a meaningful existence in his afterlife. At one point, Adam learns the power of the words, Thank you, which you would think a simple thing. But simple things are reduced in significance by overuse, a flattening of meaning by the scripted nature of our daily lives and that’s a loss for all of us when we fall into routine engagements with the world.

I learned the significance of Thank you some years ago, when I needed the help of other people to get through a dark period and other people did, in fact, help me, even when I felt at my most alone. I learned the power that connecting with others can have, with making friendships and relationships that make life worth living. And I learned that giving back and forth, that exchange between our individual spirits, binds us together.

To see and be seen, to be understood and to comprehend another.

This has been one of the most meaningful exchanges I’ve ever experienced.

So I want to say thank you to Carter Smith, who has given my words back to me in a different form.

In an interview he did at Sundance, he said after reading One for Sorrow, he was haunted. After seeing Jamie Marks is Dead, I want to say, Likewise. I’ve been bumping into things in the days since I left Sundance. Walls, lockers, people. Doesn’t matter what, I’m walking into it.

And I’m glad it was you.

Being on Set for Jamie Marks is Dead

At the end of this past week, I took a spontaneous trip to upstate New York to visit the film set for the movie “Jamie Marks is Dead” which is based on my first novel, One for Sorrow. The director and script writer, Carter Smith, had sent me an email earlier in the week inviting me to come see things in action if I had the chance, and since it was Spring Break week at my university, I hurried to finish up some other tasks I had on my desk, then got in the car to head across the great sea of hills and endless highway of Pennsylvania.

viewer-1

It’s an interesting thing, visiting a film set. They’re another world entirely, in a couple of different ways. For one, it was a foreign thing to me, a writer, who is used to spending the majority of his life behind the screen of a computer in a room with his door closed. But beyond that, film sets are a created world, where personal assistants pick you up at the hotel to drive you to that day’s location, a double wide trailer in a rural area that has seen better days, much like my own hometown, and when you get to that location, there is a dead deer’s carcass hanging from a basketball hoop. Which, honestly, wasn’t really surprising, and seemed the perfect detail. The novel I wrote was set in a rural town like the one I grew up in, and though my dad, an avid hunter, never hung his deer from a basketball hoop, they did hang to drain out in our garage.

But there were no personal assistants back then like I had taking me to the set, where we had to wait outside on the front porch because they were filming at that very moment inside. When they were finished, a chain of command that originated somewhere deep in the house circulated the word “cut” through a variety of channels, mostly through audio receivers attached to various crew members’ belt loops, and the door was opened for me to enter into the living room of the doublewide, which was were I was given a headset and placed in front of a monitor to watch as they began immediately to film again.

viewer-3

In front of me, I saw two teenage boys, one standing up from his unmade bed to go over and discover that the ghost of a former almost-friend who had recently been found dead was half-naked and hiding in his closet. I knew those boys immediately, and the lines they were saying in that moment. They were words I’d written nearly ten years ago, as I worked on the first draft of One for Sorrow as a 27 year old, and hearing those words performed in front of me on the monitor, all I could do was stand there and feel my jaw drop open in shock.

I’d known, obviously, that my book was being adapted into a film for several years now, but knowing something and realizing something are two different things. One is cerebral knowledge, the other is knowledge incorporated into one’s integral reality. I was just then, seeing all of this manifest in front of me, realizing that my book was really being made into a movie.

When the scene was done a second time, a break was taken, and the director came out to meet me. Carter and I had spoken on the phone five or six times in the past couple of years, and had exchanged emails at various times between phone calls, so we had a passing familiarity with each other’s voices, at least. But it felt good to finally stand in front of him, this other writer and director who had read my book when it first came out in 2007 and loved it so much he became determined to make it into a film. We talked briefly, I smiled a lot, feeling a bit like a kid getting a wish made into reality, and then the filming began again.

viewer-4

Carter Smith and Madisen Beaty, who plays the ghost of Frances Wilkinson.

I took a dinner break with the cast and crew (which was actually their lunch break). They work 10-12 hours days, and take breaks every six hours like clockwork. Meals are served in what seemed like a horse camp’s mess hall, and I ate with Carter and the two main leads, Cameron Monaghan and Noah Silver, who play Adam McCormick and Jamie Marks respectively. They were all really welcoming, and we talked about the movie, the book, their work as actors. Noah wanted to know what my high school life had been like, because the story they were playing out is a bit, well, I guess intense? I laughed. I’m used to that question. My growing up was not as intense as Adam McCormick’s and Jamie Marks’, but there’s an emotional truth from what being a teenager felt like in the book that I was able to talk about. The ghosts and talking shadows and dead space of the novel are all, for me, metaphorical extensions of my interior adolescent world.

I spent the rest of the evening behind the screen of a monitor, watching another scene acted out over and over, from different camera angles. And no matter how many times I watched them do the same scene over, it was overwhelming for me. A lot to process. The second scene I saw made that night was the first time Adam gives Jamie a word, which in the magical logic of the book can help Jamie live a little longer, find meaning in his afterlife on earth for a little longer.

viewer

But at some point in the evening, Carter’s assistant, Robin, took me over to a side room with a laptop to watch a roughly edited scene they had finished the day before. It was a scene that had the majority of the main cast in it–Adam and Jamie, Judy Greer playing the character Lucy, who has paralyzed Adam’s mother in a drunk driving accident, and Liv Tyler, playing Adam’s mother. It was a scene that was both desperately funny as Judy Greer’s shadow said all of the things Lucy herself wouldn’t say out loud (very cool special effect) and desperately sorrowful, as Liv Tyler’s Linda calls over her son, who seems to have gone off the rails completely, to make sure he knows that he’s the most important thing in her world.

viewer-6

As I watched, I couldn’t help laughing, and then couldn’t help but tear up a little as Liv Tyler gave a gut-wrenching emotional performance amid Judy Greer’s darkly humorous ranting. Seeing that rough-cut, I knew that this film was going to be stunning, that Carter was making something magical with it.

It’s an adaptation, so there are some differences in the script from the novel itself, but that’s the nature of adaptations. But what I like about this adaptation so much is that even when there’s a scene that isn’t in the book itself (there are a few), Carter has taken dialogue or details from scenes original to the book and transplanted that material into the new contexts. So there’s something old and something new mingling together, the original and the adapted versions tied together. It’s smart and remains faithful to the novel in that way, even as it occasionally diverges from the novel’s sequences. I couldn’t feel like I have a more faithful and thoughtful adaptor.

I spent the night, then had breakfast with Carter the next morning, then headed home, though I could have stayed for longer. I was still a bit stunned by everything I’d seen the day before, and processing all of it, a little starry-eyed. Also, I had convinced myself I could find the set on my own and when it came time to find it on my own, it was trickier than I’d thought. Since I had a long drive home, though, I decided to turn the gps on and head in that direction, with my head still full of images from the night before.

I never thought I’d have a chance to be on a film set, let alone on the set for a book of my own being made into a movie. This life is surprising, even when you think it can’t surprise you any longer.

viewer

I’m home again, and now it’s time to get back to writing. One thing the set visit gave me was a spark of inspiration. I’m working on one of the last revisions of my next novel. And who knows? I can’t say now that someday, I might have the chance to make another visit to a different set for a different book of mine being made into a movie. I’ll say it’s unlikely, but I’ve already had too many unlikely things happen to me in this brief life of mine to say with any certainty that something strange and wonderful won’t happen to me. I’ve learned that it’s really stupid to say the word “never.”

If you’re interested in seeing photos from the film set, go to google and search the term “#jmid”. You’ll find hundreds of photos from cast and crew and the director hash-tagged online, on Instagram mostly, but also attached to twitter etc.