Married authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are deep into the literary world: They’ve both written novels and non-fiction books. (He’s best known for A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, and What Is The What; she’s best known for her novels And Now You Can Go and Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name.) They helped co-found the “826” writing centers that started in San Francisco and spread across the country. He founded the publishing house McSweeneys; she co-edits the McSweeneys magazine The Believer. They’re all about the written word. But recently, they’ve expanded their artistic endeavors to the screen: Eggers scripted Spike Jonze’ upcoming Where The Wild Things Are, and film adaptations of his books What Is The What and You Shall Know Our Velocity are in the works. And Vida and Eggers recently collaborated on the screenplay for Away We Go, a new film by American Beauty and Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes. Recently, The A.V. Club sat down at an Oak Park, Illinois restaurant with Eggers and Vida to talk about how the film came about, how their schedules became boring, and how Sam Mendes is a decent-smelling cuddly bear.
The A.V. Club: Which came first, working on Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are, or the adaptations you’re doing of your books? How did you get started with Hollywood?
Dave Eggers: I’m not making any adaptations of my books, thank God. I mean, I’m not writing them. People option things, whatever. Where The Wild Things Are started back in 2003. I had never written a screenplay or started a screenplay or read a screenplay, and I didn’t know anything. That just started with a phone call from Spike. I had no idea what I was doing.
Vendela Vida: You didn’t know him that well either, right?
DE: No, we knew each other at that point, but we hadn’t worked on anything together. It just seemed like… It’s hard to say now, because I love Spike’s movies and I love the book, and I didn’t think it would be a six-year process. I thought it would be a few months, maybe. But that was still going on when Vendela and I started doing the earliest notes for this movie. We didn’t set out to write a screenplay. We were in the middle of writing other books, and we were just sort of taking notes about pregnancy…
VV: 2005 was when I was pregnant for the first time.
AVC: Which of you came up with the idea of doing a film?
VV: I think what happened is, I would just come home every day from my going out into the world, and tell Dave about situations I’d run into as a pregnant lady, people giving me advice I didn’t necessarily ask for. It was a completely new experience for me, just having people comment, like, if I wasn’t smiling, it was potentially harming the baby. So I’d come home and laugh about it with Dave, and we started taking some notes. We weren’t sure what we were going to do with them, but just taking notes about my experiences and friends’ experiences. I had a couple other friends who were also pregnant at the time, and of course we’re reading tons of books, laughing about things like vaginal flavor and tilted uterus, and I knew I wanted to use them somehow, but I didn’t know in exactly what context.
AVC: How did the screenplay develop? How did a bunch of notes turn into this movie?
VV: As Dave was saying, we were both really deep into other projects at the time. I was writing Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which takes place in the Arctic Circle and was a really dark book to write in a lot of ways. And Dave was writing What Is The What, and I think we both just needed some sort of break from the intensity of what we were doing.
DE: What Is The What took four years, and Vendela’s book took three, and Where The Wild Things Are was taking a long time too. And at that point, I had some familiarity with the screenwriting process, so we honestly just thought, “Maybe some of these thoughts would make sense in a screenplay.” So we really went into it just sitting on the couch one day, opening up Final Draft and writing a scene, and it was far more fun than we thought possible. And then we just did that for a few weeks, really with nothing in mind, with no idea that it would come to anything. But when you’re deep into pregnancy, you spend a lot of time at home and together…
VV: We weren’t traveling.
DE: So it was something to do.
AVC: How did it go from being a script to a film? How did Sam get involved?
DE: We have no idea. [Laughs.]
VV: You should ask him that. We got a random phone call one day. Honestly, we don’t know.
DE: I was trying to figure out what the film world is like, because I’ve heard about it before, where if you make one copy of a script—
VV: We did have one copy of the script that we sent to one person, and then—
DE: And then somehow, everyone in that town has it, and it’s like there’s just these underground passages where little mole men make copies and distribute them. I’ve heard about it before, but this was our first experience where people just get hold of things. We got a call one day that he had read it and had heard from somebody, “Yeah, Sam Mendes read your script, wants to talk, blah blah blah.”
VV: So we looked him up.
DE: We looked him up on IMDB. He’s from this little island nation. [England. —ed.] Because we had done it for fun and we didn’t expect much of it, our main thing is always going to be… We’ve had friends who have had their lives ripped away from them, have been torn from book writing or whatever for years because of this prospect of film, and it can be very painful. We’d heard so many stories that we actually really insisted and begged Sam to… “This’ll be fun, but you’ve got to guarantee that it’s not going to be years and years of back-and-forth and changing this and that just because of…” You know. “Don’t rip our guts out and urinate on them and feed them back to us,” all that.
VV: Sam agreed.
DE: We were really serious. We kept saying, “No, you don’t understand…”
VV: He was serious too. He respected that.
DE: I don’t know. I think the film world can devour writers, and obviously Faulkner and Fitzgerald have their stories, and [in Barton Fink] there’s that scene where John Goodman is running down the hallway and it’s lighting on fire. Because we had other things to do, we just said “Let’s write it collaboratively. And if you like it basically how we wrote it, then great. If you want to change an elephant into a giraffe, then let’s just be friends.” That’d be a good softcore porn, wouldn’t it? An elephant into a giraffe, “Let’s be friends.” He agreed, and he’s a text guy. He’s a theater guy, and he gets it. If he felt like something needed adjustment, he knew how to do it, or…
VV: He’s very specific with his comments.
DE: And that’s not always so. And he also said, “The only comments you’re ever going to get are from me.”
VV: He also had a really good ear for comedy. Having directed comedies on stage, I just think he had a natural instinct for it that was really great. He would be able to specify what line wasn’t working, why it wasn’t working, why the joke wasn’t—
DE: Most of the time he was wrong.
VV: Most of the time he was wrong.
DE: But every so often…
VV: I’d say 99 percent of the time.
DE: We humored him. He was very sensitive. He would just cry if you said no, so we would say yes, and then we just wouldn’t do whatever it was. He was so emotional. He’s like a little cuddly bear. You just feel like you’ve got to hug him a lot and sing softly to him just to get him through the day.
AVC: [To Vendela.] Does this process make you think at all about what it would be like adapting your novels to film? Is that something you’d ever want to do?
VV: I would love for my novels to be films, but I don’t think I’d want to do the work myself, because I couldn’t be able to see it straight. I don’t think I’d be able to see what was the important part of the story. What was really important to me would probably be tangent to somebody else.
DE: You know what, though? It seems to never work. It seems that everybody I know that’s tried to adapt their own book, the first thing they’re told is that they didn’t capture the spirit of the book. “Yeah, you really didn’t understand your book so well. Let me explain it to you.” This is so common.
AVC: How do your processes compare as novelists? Do you have similar styles in terms of shutting yourself into a room every day, or going out to coffeehouses or whatever?
VV: We both shut ourselves in separate rooms. We’re either doing that or traveling to research our books. I think there was one point where Dave was in Sudan and I was north of the Arctic Circle at the same time, and we thought, “This is kind of…”
DE: It was the same week, but I think we planned it that way, to be gone at the same time. We both have offices at home. These days, with two kids, we really keep painfully boring hours, you know, like 9 to 5 and then it’s time for dinner, which is new to me. I used to write mostly after midnight. It’s completely flipped. And then once we have something that’s worthwhile to show to the other, then… or maybe try out an idea. So that’s why writing this wasn’t such a stretch, because we talk.
VV: We don’t hide for three years and then present our books.
DE: We might try out an idea in the middle because we both edit so much too, so I think we’re always ready and willing to look at something in progress. We do that with so many of our friends, too. There’s just like 20 people, where at any given time, you’re reading a rough draft of something of theirs.
AVC: So did all the travel you were both doing influence the structure of the screenplay, with all its jumping from place to place? Or did the places you were visiting work their way into the story?
DE: That’s a good question. Maybe.
VV: We traveled in the past. We weren’t traveling while we were writing it.
DE: I guess we traveled a lot before our kids. But the real impulse was, we’d been in the same place for a long time, like 10 years now. I’ve been more or less in San Francisco for 17 years, which is a shock. Vendela grew up there. Her parents live a few minutes away. So this couple [in the film] is sort of the polar opposite of us. We’re very old and boring and settled, and we thought, “What if we were at a different stage?” If we had had kids six years earlier, we might bear more of a resemblance to [Away We Go protagonists] Burt and Verona. But we thought automatically that parallels would be drawn, like a couple writing a movie about a couple, so we actually took pains to make them as different from us as we could think of. So they have semi-narcissistic parents, and they aren’t in a settled or… what’s another adjective that goes with settled?
DE: Tethered? Good, yeah… place in their lives.
VV: That’s how we work. [Laughs.]
DE: Around that time, we saw a couple on the ferry one day in the San Francisco Bay going to a place called Angel Island, and that couple in the end bore a close resemblance to Burt and Verona. So we were sort of studying them. We were on this ferry for an hour or so. We saw them, I don’t know, holding hands and seeming kind of…
VV: She was hugely pregnant.
DE: Yeah, hugely pregnant. They had a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look on their faces, and maybe they were from France and didn’t know where the ferry was going—maybe that was what it is. But we kind of kept that in our minds, thinking…
VV: They had a look very much like Katharine Ross at the end of The Graduate, in the famous last scene. That’s a scene we actually referenced a lot in the script for Away We Go, just this couple who, even when they figure something out, they still don’t seem like they have it fully figured out. And I think it was that look on this couple’s face on the ferry that most resonated with us.
DE: A kind of “We’ve got it made; where the fuck are we going?” look, you know?
AVC: So were you two involved in the production at all?
DE: In the pre-production, as they say, I didn’t really know what the terms were for filmmaking until pretty recently. It was really just the three of us. Like, Sam and us and then the producer Ed Saxon, who we had known for a while in other ways. We didn’t hear from a vast board of executives or anything like that. We didn’t get notes from some faceless corporation. It was very intimate—not in a nude kind of way. But he’s an attractive man. You’ve got to admit it.
VV: He’s got a haircut.
DE: [Dreamily.] He’s well-dressed.
VV: [Also dreamily.] He has that accent.
DE: [Musing, faux-judgmental.] He smells okay. Musky, you know, like a man from an island. An island nation. But it was a small-scale film. We talked about casting and all that stuff, so it was really kind of like making a movie with a few friends, actually, until the production, which we really didn’t… Vendela was on set twice, and I was there once one day in Connecticut, when Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara do a dinner scene. That was the only day I was there. Because otherwise, at that point, we had kids, and we were very happy to let the professionals do their job.
VV: And also we had our books and other day jobs.
DE: It would have been fun, I guess, but it’s also…
VV: There’s something really nice about handing it off to someone. We trusted Sam, and knew that we’d taken it as far as we could take it.
AVC: Were there surprises when you saw the final film? At least one of the scenes was completely improvised by the actors. Was there a lot of that, where you saw things you hadn’t written?
DE: There were only little parts of scenes that were improvised. We were hoping they would improvise wherever they wanted, and they did do some nice touches. But they stuck really close to most of the script.
VV: Some of the scenes we’d written in were taken out in the editing process.
DE: Maybe like three of the first five were gone.
VV: Which we didn’t miss at all. It was kind of nice.
DE: Yeah. We were always happy to see anything cut. I think there were probably like two little things at the end where we thought, “Oh, could have left that in, and it would have been painless,” but we went into it knowing it was a really collaborative thing. We were prepared to be surprised, and when you have a bunch of people you trust, that’s the best thing. That’s how we work at our little company. Everybody has a lot of autonomy. Everybody that runs any little one of our things just does whatever they want.
AVC: Another A.V. Clubber interviewed Sam Mendes earlier today. One of the things Mendes said was that this film is a great break for him after Revolutionary Road, because with that film, he felt like he really had to stick to the source material, and here he didn’t. Were you aware of that attitude as screenwriters?
DE: That fucking bastard. I can’t believe he would say that. Damn him! No, I mean, we talked a lot about it. He had come off of this book that had such a devoted following, and he was in touch with the family of Richard Yates and all that stuff, and it’s like this canonical thing at least among so many writers. And I think he felt a big responsibility to that, as filmmakers do when they adapt novels, for better or for worse. But this was an original thing. He was in on it pretty early, so he was able to sort of , I don’t know, get involved with the text and suggest this or that. Also, I think he knew we weren’t so precious about…
VV: Every line.
DE: Everything. But I mean, we definitely fought back about certain things. We were like, “You can’t deal with that,” so it was a lot of back-and-forth even during editing. Again, that’s why it retained that kind of intimacy all the way through, where it didn’t feel like I think it sometimes feels like with some screenwriters, where it’s been ripped from you and it becomes something else entirely. I don’t think any words ended up there that we didn’t approve of, right?
VV: John Krasinski added some swearing.
DE: We didn’t have any cursing at all.
VV: It was a very clean script.
DE: I don’t know where that came from. He’s got a potty-mouth. I don’t know, it’s to compensate for something.
AVC: The characters are so closely observed, so specific, particularly in their freaky parenting advice. Is that another case where you were putting in a lot of detail because you didn’t want these characters to be mistaken for people you know? Or are there people you know in there?
VV: No. Thankfully, no.
DE: Well, in San Francisco, especially the LN and Roderick characters, they have kind of a Bay Area feel to them, in a way. At our first screening, we had to introduce the movie and make sure no one thought it was about them, because half of the people there were family and friends.
AVC: The film veers back and forth between broad comedy and sweet sentiment. Were you worried about the balance there, or how Sam was going to handle it?
DE: It started out almost all broad. When we wrote it…
VV: We were doing it to have fun. That’s what was interesting. Sam was coming to this after Revolutionary Road, obviously wanting a break for many reasons, and we were both coming to it looking for a break from our books, and it was a sort of palate-cleanser. We all were looking toward this film in the same way, so it started off a lot broader. The humor started off, I think, even more extreme.
DE: Yeah. Our first draft—actually, the draft Sam must have read—was really broad. There were like six more scenes at the level of the stroller scene, just really big and loud. We had a lot of fun writing it. We were thinking of anything from Hal Ashby movies, like The Landlord in particular, this movie that really has some big scenes that are approaching farce, and then it’ll go deep, deep into social realism in a way that some of those ’70s movies did. Even Dog Day Afternoon has some pretty broad comic moments, and then it’ll get really serious. So in the ’70s, they veered around a little more. Maybe I’m putting those two movies together and generalizing. But what was funny was, through the process, we deepened the relationship between Burt and Verona. It started out—when we wrote it, it was deeply political. It was kind of a reaction to the Bush years.
VV: I do think when you’re just with Burt and Verona or with their siblings, the humor and the rapport is more nuanced and delicate, and then with these other people, it’s broader. That was a deliberate choice we made.
DE: It does have tonal shifts, but we were just happy to sort of… We didn’t actually overthink it. But I think that Burt and Verona stay constant throughout.
AVC: You talk about the film in terms in ’70s cinema, but it also very much fits into the kind of quirk-driven, small-scale indie-core film we’re seeing a lot of right now. Were you aware of this fitting into a genre or a continuum of other movies?
DE: We hoped not. I mean, the only movies we had in mind were Hal Ashby. That was really it. The Graduate, maybe. We were binging on that. That’s what informed the look of it, to have it actually filmed, as opposed to looking like a set or TV or whatever, and giving it some room to breathe in between, and some of the transitions. The music was all Sam’s doing, and that evokes The Graduate, obviously. Actually, I don’t know enough about the… I’ve heard of mumblecore, but I don’t know if I’ve seen many. I saw The Puffy Chair.
VV: You liked The Puffy Chair.
DE: I really liked that. But I don’t know if I’ve seen enough of some of the other ones. We just sort of wrote it. We were just in a very ’70s movies state of mind, even though it’s not like a homage or anything. I think we wanted it to be ideally its own thing, and it doesn’t really owe too much to anything else, and I think what Sam did with the shape of it is really hard to categorize.
AVC: So what’s next for you guys? Was this a fruitful experience? Do you want to do more films?
VV: We’re both just finishing up books, I think this week.
DE: I think I’ll do a little softcore pornography to try to improve the writing quality.
VV: I thought it was hardcore.
DE: I can bring in a little comic sensibility, and also there’s so much more that can be done with story, you know, in porn. I think some of the setups are very weak and not so believable.
VV: You can lend more credibility to porn plotlines.
AVC: You know, you’re kidding, but we just ran an interview with a porn star whose stated goal is bringing more respect to the genre and letting people explore their sexuality in safe spaces. She may have beat you to the punch.
DE: [Laughs.] Well, good. As long as someone’s doing it.
VV: As long as that important work is being done. Our main love is writing books, and I think it always will be. This was just something that was fun. We had no idea it would turn into anything when we were doing it. It was just a fun experiment.
DE: We really looked at it as a lark.