Adam Mervis Discusses His Journey Of Getting “21 Bridges” To The Screen
Adam Mervis hails from Miami and started his artistic career in New York City as a playwright and actor. His current film, 21 Bridges, starring Chadwick Boseman, Sienna Miller, and J.K. Simmons is produced by Joe and Anthony Russo of Avengers and Captain America fame. We spoke with Adam about getting 21 Bridges from script to screen.
What sparked the initial idea for 21 Bridges?
I was living in New York City, and looking for something new to write. I meet a guy who had done twelve years in prison for the mob, and currently had a “pension”, but while he was in prison his wife had died of stomach cancer. He was an incredibly complex person and I loved to listen to him talk. At the same time I met him I had read about the Maraschino Cherry factory in Red Hook, and how it was really one of the largest underground grow houses in the city. Those two events combined with my manager begging me to write something big big big sort of made this stew of ingredients that became 21 Bridges.
What made you stick with the screenplay for so long during the development process?
I had been through the development process a couple of times so I knew what to expect. That being said, it’s always a journey of faith once you get inside that beast that is development. I would say, I had just enough positive momentum over three years to keep pushing through the notes and get to the next draft.
How did you honor the common tropes of these dirty cop crime movies?
I love the idea of playing to the highest bar in any genre, but especially crime films as I come from a family of cops, and lawyers, and… maybe a couple of robbers. To be honest, I watch LA Confidential and Michael Clayton and read Richard Price, and pray that something great finds its way into my script.
How did you subvert and personalize these common tropes to give a new spin to your story?
It’s really for me all about dialogue. Having a background in theatre, the dialogue for me is where the ‘who thing’ sings. If you took a script I wrote and changed the dialogue then it becomes, for lack of a better phrase, a b-action flick. For me, dialogue is personal and the very essence of the characters. Everything else is window dressing.
What research or other preparation did you do?
I walked the streets of New York City. I talked to a couple of cops. And as I said, I shared a couple of Budweisers with this gentleman who had done some prison time for the mob. Then I locked myself in a room in Harlem, and I wrote and prayed.
How did the story evolve from the first draft to shooting script?
I would say that once Brian Kirk (director) came in there was a real propulsion to the screenplay. He was great with velocity and was extremely ambitious with interweaving narrative in order to achieve that propulsion. Also, my early drafts were very straight forward, and, as the drafts continued, I would say that characters began to deepen as they would when you live with them for three years.
What outside influences shaped the film?
At a certain point outside influences shape everything in the film. Writing a screenplay is a very isolated process and you emerge from your cave with this scroll that you hope survives the gauntlet of production. Everyone gets to put their hands on your script and, if you’re lucky enough to hang onto the initial thread, then thank God and move on to the next one.
What is your writing process and are there any unique elements to it?
One of the things I like most about screenwriting is that every piece is different. They require something completely different than the last. I am going to have to use another trick or learn something new to get each screenplay over the finish line. For 21 Bridges, I had the initial kernel of a Manhattan shut down after this robbery that goes wrong. Then as fate would have it, I was gifted a free summer (unemployment). So, I was able to sit for six-seven hours a day and write. I didn’t outline, I didn’t note card… I sat and wrote, and let it twist and turn, and, yes, suck for that first draft.
As far as process goes… I once heard Tony Gilroy say he walks the streets of New York until the thing feels cooked. I like to walk New York too. I always seem to find something. She always seems to know what I’m looking for. I hadn’t known who was going to chase these two guys through Manhattan, and then I went for a walk in the West Village, and I turned onto Cherry Lane, where I did my first play. It was a warm summer night and I saw those townhouses, and I began to hear someone talking. I think I wrote Andre Davis’ opening monologue on the subway ride back home.
How do you balance character, plot, and theme in 21 Bridges?
The challenge for 21 Bridges was it always wanted to be a straight shot. Once the manhunt started there was no taking the train off the tracks. That meant that characters had to reveal themselves at full speed. We didn’t have time to stop and take a nice little beat to explain history. These were our players and through dialogue and action, you were going to meet them, hate them, love them, etc.
Are there any elements of your personal life that have found their way into 21 Bridges?
As I said I have cops in my family so there’s that. Besides that, I think I try to make everyone as personal as possible. It’s impossible for me to say exactly what of me I’ve given to any of these characters. Let me ask my therapist. I’ll get back to you…
How does your theater and acting background inform your writing voice?
I think it’s everything for me. Never do I feel closer to whatever magic there is in this universe than when I get to step out on stage and play. How that seeps into my filmmaking I can’t exactly say other than I love writing dialogue that I want to say as an actor. I think a lot of screenwriters haven’t had the chance to act before and so they can get a little too intellectual with their scripts.
Acting isn’t about thinking it’s about action. Sometimes you’re going to suck, and that’s great because there is nothing worse than mediocrity. I think that’s the gift the theatre has given me. Sometimes when going full speed you suck a little, but that’s fine because you get to do it again. It’s the only way you get dangerous, and… as my voice coach would say, “the good lord don’t mind a bum note every now and again.”
Your produced work straddles many different topics. What ideas, concepts or themes do you gravitate towards the most?
Thank you for saying that. I love the idea of not doing the same thing twice. Although, I would wager to guess that secretly I am writing the same thing over and over again with different window dressing. I seem to gravitate towards the idea of man versus the machine, what William Goldman would call, noble courage. I love the idea of the hero. The person who comes eye-to-eye with the consequences of action, its inevitable fatal result, and then takes it any way.
What makes an average script awesome?
I like this story about Shakespeare who would write some of his plays with tracing paper, copying the plot from another play, but writing all his own dialogue. The story of Hamlet had been around before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, but he was the best poet the western world has seen, and he made it sing. At the end of the day, all we’ve got is what the people in our movies say to each other. The rest we can get with tracing paper.
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