One of the questions I get asked most as an author is, “Who would you want to play X?” Many writers say that seeing a book of theirs make it into film is a dream. In this article—the first in a series—I interview four writers whose work blows my mind, and is blowing up screens. Read to the end for a sneak peek at my most anticipated, coming soon watch!
“Held” was one of my favorite films from these past sixteen months, and its screenwriter/star burst onto my movie-watching radar.
Jenny Milchman: I think there’s a burgeoning “Air BnB” thriller sub-genre. Is “Held” a part of it?
Jill Awbrey: Before I started writing, I saw a news story about a couple that found a small camera positioned above the bed in their Air BnB. The fear of being watched like that stuck with me. When you stay in someone else’s home, you have no idea what you might be stepping into. And with the advancements in smart house technology and high-tech security systems, we can control so many things from a digital device. I think all of that offers terrifying possibilities to play with in thrillers.
JM: Some reviewers have mentioned a certain 1970’s book and film by a master of psychological horror. Was this an intentional allusion on your part? Any other sources of inspiration?
JA: I was interested in exploring what it is to be a woman in a world controlled by men, so yes. I also found inspiration from “The Handmaid’s Tale”, [and] the opening scene from the play “Extremities” by William Mastrosimone provided inspiration for one of the most emotionally challenging scenes in the film. The character of Henry was inspired by Harrison Ford’s character in “What Lies Beneath”.
JM: That twist! Did it come as a surprise to you, or was it foundational in your creation process?
Jill offers two replies.
The non-spoiler: It was foundational in creating the story and the arcs for the main characters.
The spoiler: I wanted Emma to go on the journey she takes in the story and Henry’s obsessive desire to control his wife was a driving force in creating that. The idea started out with Henry being part of an ancient family cult and over multiple drafts that shifted to become The Eden Group.
JM: What is it like to be both writer and star and to be directed by two exciting talents?
JA: As a writer, I get to dream up characters and moments and put all the images in my head onto the page. As an actress, I get to breathe life into the role I’m playing and live in all of those moments… some of which were pretty intense in “Held”. [Directors] Chris and Travis were giving feedback on the script from the first draft I wrote. So the three of us were collaborating from the beginning, which gave us a great familiarity when we were on set making the film.
JM: Are you as bad-a$$ as Emma?
JA: [Emma] definitely rubbed off on me. As she found her voice and strength, I grew more confident in my own. The next two scripts I’ve been working on are about women who are even stronger and smarter and more capable… and I’m excited to see where those journeys take me.
You know how sometimes you cue up a movie and are like, “Wait, I read the book!” That’s what happened with “Josie & Jack” and best of all, it’s been a longtime favorite read of mine.
Jenny Milchman: The book is a deep, dark, interior tale of the twists and turns of familial love. How did this transformation from internal to external take place?
Kelly Braffet: The book had a few nibbles from filmmakers over the years, but nothing ever came to anything. In 2015, I got an email inquiring about the film rights. [Sarah Lancaster] was an established film and television actress, super smart and determined and passionate, and the more we talked, the clearer it became that she’d read the book I’d written. She was determined to bring it to the screen in a way that was faithful to the spirit of the story. She asked if I wanted to write the screenplay, and I said I didn’t want to write it alone, so she said, “I’ll write it with you.” Sarah is a total powerhouse. She got that film done. She found the producers, she found the funding, [and] when she couldn’t find a director she liked, she directed it herself.
JM: Did you envision the book as a film while you were writing it?
KB: I don’t specifically think of my stories as films when I write them, but the visual perspective that a childhood of prime-time television put in my brain is definitely there. When I’m writing the story is in my head, and I am using the words to get as close as I can to that story on the page. But once the book is done, it’s fun to think of the film that could be made, and pretend-cast the actors, and imagine the opening credit sequence (I love a cool opening credit sequence.) The first dailies Sarah showed me made me weep, and hearing these incredibly talented actors walking around reciting dialogue I’d written was a) amazing and b) totally freaked me out. Normally the people who live in my head . . . stay there.
JM: The only thing slower than the publishing biz is the movie industry. Can you fill us in about what was happening during the fourteen years between book and film?
KB: Ha! Not a lot. I wrote a few other books. [Then] Sarah came along, and got things done in hyper-speed. We wrote the script on spec, and suddenly there were producers, and then a cast, and she texted and said, “Hey, we start filming next week, come visit the set!” I dropped everything I was doing because who wouldn’t, but I didn’t quite believe it was going to be real until somebody handed me a headset.
JM: What does it mean to have been one of the writers on the script?
KB: I’d write a chunk, [Sarah would] revise it, and then we’d switch. We became friends through the margin notes, which I honestly think is how I should make all of my friends from here on out, because snarky self-deprecating commentary is really where I shine. Adapting a book to a screenplay is an exercise in streamlining: it is not physically possible to include everything from the book, so you find quick visual ways to convey the idea you have to get across, while still leaving room for the actors to make their own choices. Sarah and I had to figure out a way around a scene involving a pay phone, because there are no pay phones in New York City anymore, and renting one was ridiculously expensive. If I remember correctly, the solution we finally landed on was, um, skipping that bit.
JM: I’m a big William Fichtner fan. What was the casting process like?
KB: Bill Fichtner brought dimensions to Raeburn that I had never even imagined, and made him a much better, much more interesting character. Annabelle Dexter-Jones, who played Lily, made that character so much bigger and more sympathetic than she ever was on the page. It made me want to do better as a writer, to find the more in every character. Having said that, I had pretty much nothing to do with the casting. Which I think was one reason being on set was so strange! I brought my agent, Julie, on one of the last days, and when we walked into the room where the monitor was set up, there was Olivia DeJonge onscreen, reciting dialogue that we’d both first read twenty years ago. And Julie gasped audibly, because Olivia was Josie in that moment.
Wilderness thrillers are a favorite of mine, and this currently in-production movie is based on one that pushed the form in a whole new direction.
Jenny Milchman: The Marsh King’s Daughter is an extraordinarily visual novel. While you were writing it, did you have thoughts/hopes/dreams of a translation to the screen?
Karen Dionne: When my literary agent told me I had a film agent for the book, my first reaction was, “Huh. I guess it could be a movie . . . ” After [it] published, many readers said they thought the book would make a great movie, but I was so focused on telling Helena’s story in book form, I never saw it.
JM: What is your connection to the development and production of this major studio production?
KD: I had an early conversation with the screenwriter and his daughter before I signed the option. Knowing that he had co-written the screenplay for The Revenant, and that the producers were responsible for movies like Spotlight, The Imitation Game, and The Revenant, I was sure that everyone would do their best by my book. One of the producers told me, “We will do our very best to bring your thrilling and moving book to the screen in a way that feels both true to what you created and cinematic.”
JM: There’s a subtext to the book about strength taken away and wrested back, and I am curious as to how that will emerge in the screenplay and actors’ performances.
KD: I’ve read the script and am very happy with how the novel’s themes and nuances have been retained, and particularly pleased with how the complicated love-hate relationship between Helena and her father is depicted. The actor playing Helena’s father is known for complicated villains and won an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor for such a part.
JM: Daisy Ridley! Ben Mendelsohn! Neil Burger! Spill the tea 🙂
KD: During the three years that The Marsh King’s Daughter was under option, there have been three actresses and five directors attached to the project. Any one of them would have done a fabulous job, but I think this trio is going to knock it out of the park. Filming is set to begin this summer, and as of this writing, Neil Burger is in northern Ontario mucking around the marshes scouting locations. I’m hoping that I can visit the set during filming. I’m also hoping that if I do, they’ll have one of those fancy chairs with my name on it. Wouldn’t that be just the coolest? Seriously though, when I think of how these incredibly talented and successful people are investing their time and abilities to bring my story to the screen, I’m still pinching myself.
This next book is foundational to the aforementioned wilderness thriller sub-genre, and brings to life a landscape—and a battle—that more and more of the world is coming to know.
Jenny Milchman: Those Who Wish Me Dead is one of my all-time favorites because of its emotional core. What was the process of translating that to the screen?
Michael Koryta: I read an interview with Stephen King where he says that if the spirit of the book survives, it’s all you can ask for. I wanted to see the sense of human evil and human courage played out against the backdrop of the American West, a place that feels at once beautiful and threatening. A place where hubris will cost you in a hurry. The book also carries a coming-of-age storyline that is harder to pull off in the condensed arc, but I thought Finn Little gave a hell of a performance. I suspect we’ll be seeing that kid for a long time.
JM: Agreed—Finn Little is one of the more impressive child actors I’ve seen. How did the process of casting go?
MK: All credit goes to Taylor Sheridan and his team. My experience was that a producer called and told me who was playing who, and I’d say “great!” It is an exceptional cast. Medina Senghore was new to me, and she was fantastic. I’ve always loved Bernthal and Gillen and Hoult. James Jordan is a guy I really like. In fact, without that guy giving just the right look at just the right time, there’s a big scene toward the end that would fall flat. We always remember the stars, but how many scenes are made by a great supporting cast?
JM: The production seemed like an intense and physical one.
MK: They built a nice-sized little forest—maybe a couple hundred acres—out in the desert and then burned it down. When you’re working on the book, such things do not cross your mind, right? “Maybe they’ll build a forest and set it on fire while Angelina Jolie runs around with an axe…”
One of the days I was there we were on a nice steep slope with a burnout, genuinely rough country, and they did some of the smokejumper and helicopter stunt work. The wind was high, and the stunt jumpers were having a little trouble. That was in the morning, early. Then I remember watching James Jordan and Tory Kittles make the same run over and over—they’ve got to shed the parachute gear and then jog sidehill along the slope, take after take, while Jolie and Finn walk down to meet them. The sun is just baking down. I looked at Taylor and he’s wearing his cowboy hat and his director’s chair is perched on this angle so he can see the monitor, which is across a downed tree on the mountainside, and I just had to smile. I loved him for that choice, for picking that place. I loved that he was determined to make it real.
JM: Hollywood or New York publishing. Where do more sharks swim? Kidding. But really.
MK: You know, it’s a decent question. I’d say there’s more honesty in New York, but I’m not sure there isn’t more passion in Hollywood. There are plenty of people in LA who lie as if it is their native tongue, but publishing is not an industry where you get people to pull a 20-hour day in the cold or the heat lugging gear in service of a story. I appreciate each opportunity I’ve had in each world. Best thing about being a writer is that no experience is wasted, not even the bad ones.
And this just in! This blockbuster author’s standalone is set to burst onto screens with one of my all-time favorite performers. I would watch this actress in absolutely anything—but to see her bring Laura Oliver to life is first-night-it-airs material.