BU at the Cannes Film Festival
Script for screened short by COM’s Danielpour
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby may have grabbed much of the attention at this year’s star-studded Cannes International Film Festival, which wraps up on Sunday. But the annual two-week event also features a roster of potential gems—features, short films, and documentaries from around the world.
One of the festival’s lesser-known selections is Halfway Somewhere Else, a short film written by Debbie Danielpour, a College of Communication assistant professor of film. Danielpour’s screenplay for the 19-minute film is an adaptation of “The Children,” a short story by Maile Meloy that appeared in her collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and revolves around Fielding Bent, a middle-aged man who is entangled with three women: his wife, his mistress, and Jenny, his son’s girlfriend. As the film unfolds, he struggles with whether, and how, to tell his family that he is leaving them.
Avery Rimer, the director of Halfway Somewhere Else, was dazzled by veteran screenwriter Danielpour. “She found the actions and language to communicate a poignancy of loss and knowing that fills every scene in this family drama,” says Rimer. “The three women in Fielding’s life know him better than he knows himself; in lesser hands, this would have felt melodramatic or insipid. In Debbie’s hands, we have three-dimensional characters each seeking secure attachment.”
Danielpour’s latest screenplay, Stand Accused, a biopic about the female superintendent of the Framingham Women’s Reformatory in the 1940s and 1950s, is in development. She also has written opera librettos, fiction, and essays. She collaborated on the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner, about a runaway slave, with author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and recently completed a commissioned libretto—an adaptation of the young adult novel The Great Good Thing—for composer Bruce Wolosoff. She’s penned two episodes of the television series Star Trek (“Deep Space Nine” and “The Next Generation”) and has taught film and fiction writing for more than 20 years. She received COM’s Becker Family Teacher of the Year Award in 2011.
The Cannes International Film Festival, arguably the industry’s most important festival, is divided into two parts. Films in the Official Selection category compete for the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or award. This year’s official selections, in addition to The Great Gatsby, include Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. A lesser-known aspect of the festival is the Short Film Corner, the noncompetition arm of Cannes, where hundreds of independent filmmakers screen their work, and where Halfway Somewhere Else was shown last week.
“The Short Film Corner gives directors the chance to screen their films and then network with other directors, with the end goal of having the film picked up for distribution,” Danielpour says.
BU Today spoke with Danielpour about her writing process, her latest opera, and her advice to students.
BU Today: Describe your writing process on this project.
Danielpour: Adapting a story is different from writing an original screenplay for a 90-to-120-minute movie. Avery and I sat down together and I asked her why she wanted to adapt the short story, because anytime you adapt a story, there’s got to be a reason, an angle that you want to emphasize.
The scope of the story is very much like the scope of the film. Avery is a psychotherapist by profession, and she wanted to explore the emotional landscape of this man who is caught between different loves and devotion to his children and his marriage. She wanted to find a way to portray this adulterer sympathetically. We sat down for several sessions and talked about how to do that, because in the short story version, most of the story takes place in his head. In a film, everything needs to be seen or heard. So I created a bunch of scenes that were not in the story in order to dramatize the protagonist’s turmoil and ultimate struggle with what decision he was going to make and whether he was going to leave his wife. There are a few lines from the story that appeared in the screenplay, but the rest was invented to portray his psychological interior.
I then sat down and wrote the thing. It’s only a 19-minute film and 23-page screenplay. I wrote it during the winter break of 2011 because I have really intense semesters during the school year. Over the course of six months, Avery looked at it, I took it back and rewrote it once or twice, and that was that.
Can you give an example of a scene you had to invent to convey what had been internalized in the short story?
We decided we wanted to emphasize that the husband felt a bit emasculated by his wife. In a scene that didn’t make it into the film, we see the husband picking up a cake for his wife from the local bakery. And we learn that his wife is much loved in their community, and he knows that leaving her won’t look too good. But that scene got nixed, so we had to do a really quick rewrite to fold that information into the rest of the script.
I invented a scene where all of the characters are sitting around and toasting the wife’s success. The son’s girlfriend speaks up and says she wants to let everyone in the room know something, and there is a lot of tension about what she knows [about Fielding and his cheating]. The tension of whether she was going to spill the beans was totally invented.
In a movie you keep the tension going, whereas a book is a lot more forgiving because you have different expectations than you do from a movie experience. We played with the question of whether he was going to be exposed. We killed two birds in that scene. I invented the fact that the wife is an attorney and that the character Jenny is in a position to expose him.
The film is filled with subtle moments where the actors pause and glance at one another, and others where there is silence. Did you spend a lot of time incorporating those moments into the script?
The screenplay has an interesting relationship to a film, because it’s the writer’s job to lay out the structure of the story and establish character through behavior and dialogue. But most important, the screenwriter has to leave enough room for the director and actors to interpret what’s on that page. Screenwriters don’t have any right to production, design, lighting, music, or sound; that’s the director’s terrain. It’s a delicate balance because a lot of writers overdirect their screenplays, especially if they are going to direct the film as well. By that I mean they write too much direction. But there’s a fine line between writing too much direction and then not writing any direction, because then the actors don’t understand how the scene is supposed to play. When you read a screenplay you can tell if a screenwriter has been at it for a while, because they know how to tread that fine line.
The dialogue and the scene as the behaviors are written should generally connote the subtleties, but the very fine subtleties are in the actors’ hands in terms of their interpretations of the moments or the beats, and then in the director’s hands.
How do you feel when you work on a scene for a long time and it gets cut from the film?
It’s part of the job. I write fiction now probably more than I do screenplays. I wrote screenplays in the beginning of my career. And then over time I wrote much more fiction, because I have ultimate control when I write fiction and I really love language. You’re not writing for language in a screenplay, other than the dialogue. I’ve understood over 20 or more years that you are writing a blueprint for the director, and it is ultimately the director’s final say. You have to give it up. I tell my students that if you develop a really thick hide now, you’ll be a much happier screenwriter going forward. You’re the first step, and your vision, while it’s important, is part of a collaboration.
What other advice do you have for students?
I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and my advice when I was first teaching would have been, ‘Don’t give up, believe in yourself, keep writing, you have to write every day.’ That’s generic writing advice. In the field of screenwriting, which is different than other writing, you have to meet people. It’s a very social and collaborative art, if I can even call it art, because it’s also half business. In order to succeed in this field, it’s so important to meet people in the field. And one of the great things about BU’s film department is the Los Angeles Internship Program. COM has had students who have worked on the set of Mad Men, with the director David O. Russell, and with Robert Downey, Jr.’s production company Team Downey. When you meet people and they think, ‘Oh, I can work with this kid, because not only is he a good writer, but he’s normal,’ that’s a big key to becoming a screenwriter.
What’s next for you?
I just finished my second novel, and I’m about to submit it to my agent, which means she will give me notes and then I’ll do some rewriting. As far as screenwriting goes, I was just commissioned to write a feature that has to do with the Iranian Revolution.2 Comments