John Adams screenwriter talks adaptation, objectivity, and differing conclusions

by Ryan Mazie / Beacon Correspondent • October 12, 2011

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divKirk Ellis has established himself as one of the most respected screenwriters of historical adaptations over the past decade.  Having already brought the Beach Boys, Judy Garland, and Anne Frank to the small screen, he won a pair of Emmys for his role as producer and the sole screenwriter for HBO’s critically-lauded 2008 mini-series emJohn Adams/em.  He currently has his hands full writing a pilot about the world of modern agribusiness and adapting Fatty Arbuckle’s life into an HBO film, set to star emModern Family/em’s Eric Stonestreet. Ellis sat down for a phone interview with the Beacon last Wednesday to discuss his work and the lecture he'll give tonight in the Bright Family Screening Room at 7 p.m./div

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strongBerkeley Beacon:/strong Is this a lecture you have given before or is this a new one?

strongKirk Ellis:/strong No, they are always different. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking since emJohn Adams/em came out, but no presentation is exactly the same. It changes based on the emphasis the institution gives me and also, what I feel like talking about at that time. So this will be completely new and untested.

strongBB:/strong So Emerson came to you about what type of presentation to give?

strongKE:/strong Yeah, I’ve known Jonathan Wacks who runs the film department at Emerson for many years... We talked about a topic and really it’s about the intersection of history and drama and the idea that while people think that historical subjects are always sort of good theater and good drama, you really, really have to look beyond the surface of an idea to see whether or not it really stands up as something that will work on film.

strongBB:/strong What do you mean by looking beyond the surface?

strongKE:/strong I’ll give you an example. It’s probably something I will say in the lecture as well. I still have people three years after the premiere of emJohn Adams/em who come up to me and say, “It must have been great that you had a miniseries to do that David McCullough book, because you can just do the whole book” (laughs). I always wondered to people who asked that question if they actually read David’s book, because we don’t actually start the story until almost a hundred pages into the book, where Adams is forty years old and a struggling lawyer in Boston. He already met his wife Abigail and had kids – we don’t do anything with the courtship.

You really have to look at historical and true life stories from a dramatist’s point of view and understand where you are going to start them and where you are going to end them. You can not do a cradle to grave story. No one is going to watch it. There is simply not the attention span to warrant that kind of treatment...You are always looking to find stories that have some sort of contemporary relevance to them. That’s not to say that you have to make it anachronistic to make a modern audience understand why this story is important – hopefully that’s something that comes out of the material itself.

strongBB:/strong How do you keep the story interesting and have the audience be entertained without sacrificing the historical truth to it?

strongKE:/strong That’s a good question actually (pauses). Well, I’ll use the example of emJohn Adams/em. One of the blessings of a subject like John Adams is that despite the fact that it was a Pulitzer-Prize winning best-selling biography, very few people actually knew, even then, who John Adams was. You could explain him as the second President of the United States and often you’d get the answer, “Oh, I thought that was Jefferson.” (laughs) That tells you a lot about Adams stake historically and why David had written his book in the first place.

For me, it was a chance to explain how he was a really popular rocker. He was somebody people did not have preconceptions about, the way they would have preconceptions about, say, Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson for that matter. So he was a wonderful character to take us through a period of history we thought we knew, but from his very, very singular perspective, which was very misanthropic...It was fantastic to be able to write dialogue scenes between Adams and Jefferson, talking about their respective views on the government in very casual conversation, yet have people realize, “Wow! We are still having these debates today.”

strongBB:/strong You touched on a point I wanted to ask you about. A character like John Adams is not too well known for some, but others watching the mini-series can be huge history buffs. So with people coming in with different levels of preconceptions, is that a challenge breaking them down?

strongKE:/strong It’s always difficult to embark on anything where people have hard and fast perceptions about the people you are writing about. Even in the research phase for emJohn Adams/em, there were certain books I could not look at. Walter Isaacson’s biography on Benjamin Franklin is a classic example, because I went to the index and I looked at the first instance of Adams in the book and it talked about his contentious relationship with Adams in Paris. The paragraph began along the lines of, “In his usual irritating way…,” and I just closed the book. We were writing something from Adams’ point of view with him as our protagonist and hero. I did not want to do anything that would take away from that emphasis and particular perspective ... The thing about doing history and biographies, the mistake is too often made is that people try to use those venues, characters, and eras, as a way to impose a modern attitude on historical happenings and you can’t do that. That’s not your job. Your job is to get inside of the heads of these people who live centuries and even sometimes, millennia, before you and try to understand who they were and why they did what they did. Often you run against some very unpleasant realities, but that’s the great thing about history and drama; it’s not black and white. It’s often very messy.

strongBB:/strong Are these points you plan on highlighting during your lecture?

strongKE:/strong Yes, we will be talking about some of that. We’ll also be talking about the fact that there is no way to perfectly recreate either in a nonfictional or fictional form, a historical incident. There will always be a distance from the subject and there is always going to be a perspective on the subject. People looking at the same incident or same individual can come to a host of different and combative conclusions about that person or event...

I call it the emRashomon/em exercise, as in the famous Akira Kurosawa film set in Japan. It’s about a country couple going to a market town and they are ambushed by a bandit and the husband is beat up and the wife is raped. We see that from three different points of view in Kurosawa’s film – the husband, the wife, and the bandit. In the fourth segment of the film, we see an objective interpretation of what happened in Kurosawa’s own point of view. And that’s what I do.

strongBB:/strong Do you agree that there is no such thing as objectivity in filmmaking?

strongKE:/strong I will tell you right now and I will say it again at the lecture, that I do not believe there is such a thing as objective history, nor do I believe that there is such a thing as objective reporting. There is not. There cannot be, because of that multiplicity of viewpoints... If there was such a thing, there would be exactly one book written about every president of the United States. There would be one book written about individual war battles. There would be one book written about what happened on 9/11. But there aren’t.

strongBB:/strong Do you use [your] journalistic view point when screenwriting?

strongKE:/strong All the time. Research is the favorite part of what I do. When the subjects are removed in history as Adams is, you are basically doing academic research in libraries. But I’ve had the pleasure on several projects to actually meet people from various periods who were still around to know my protagonists and spend some time in their homes, picking their brains, and really learning things that aren’t in the books.

The classic example of that for me was the two weeks I spent in Holland researching the Anne Frank film, because all of Anne’s Christian friends who survived the war were still around; many of them still are. They are very vibrant older women with steel-trap memories who painted a very different portrait of Anne Frank than which you gleaned from the diary and some of the biographies that had been written. It was from those conversations that I understood, “Oh, she was a bratty thirteen-year-old girl! And we can make her someone everyone identifies with in the family.” And that’s what we set out to do in the film. And that wouldn’t have happened if I did not go out and interview people and reached different conclusions.

strongBB:/strong What do you find yourself researching more to get a sense of them: the person or the time period?

strongKE:/strong You always start with the person so you get a feeling for the person. But if it’s a period you are unfamiliar with, then you need to get very, very deep into the period. David McCullough calls that process “marinating your head.” The way I interpret that is to simply immerse yourself so thoroughly into the contemporary times in which you are writing, it becomes kind of automatic for you. You always want to bury yourself into the book so that when you are writing, you don’t have to go to the book that much. It becomes who you are as a writer at that moment for that particular story.

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