Follow the Book’s Lead: Berman and Pulcini on Ten Thousand Saints
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini discuss their collaboration process as a married couple, and the similarities between adapting a screenplay and making documentaries.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Husband and wife filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini became known for co-directing two acclaimed documentaries, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s, about the famed West Hollywood restaurant, and The Young and the Dead, about the restoration of the Hollywood Forever cemetery and the man who oversaw its rehabilitation, Tyler Cassity. The duo began making narrative features with the acclaimed 2003 film American Splendor, a film that they wrote and directed based on the life of underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar. The unique film, which combined the narrative with real-life interviews and footage of Pekar, was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
Along with other projects, Berman and Pulcini have since written the scripts for three other films they directed, The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, and Ten Thousand Saints, all of which are adapted from novels. All three are also set in New York, where Berman and Pulcini live.
Set in the late 1980s and adapted from the acclaimed 2011 novel Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints follows Jude (Asa Butterfield), a young drug abuser who lives in a small Vermont town with his mother (Julianne Nicholson). At a young age, Jude’s father Les (Ethan Hawke) abandoned him. On New Year’s Eve 1987, the daughter of Les’ girlfriend, Eliza (Haliee Steinfeld), visits Jude and, after a tragic evening, Jude descends into an even darker place. Les reenters Jude’s life by taking him to live in the East Village in New York City, a community then plagued by homelessness, crime, and social unrest. There Jude reunites with Eliza and meets Johnny (Emile Hirsch), the half-brother of Jude’s best friend. As a member of a straight edge punk band, Johnny introduces Jude and Eliza to his lifestyle as the trio explores the turbulent East Village neighborhood and discovers they are linked by more than just their growing friendship.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Shari and Robert about their collaboration process as a married couple and the similarities between adapting a screenplay and making documentaries.
I’ve interviewed several screenwriting teams, but you are the first wife and husband writing team I’ve interviewed. How would you describe your writing process together?
Robert Pulcini: A lot of people seem to think we sit down at the computer together and write, but we never do that. We actually work on an outline separately and then write separately.
Shari Springer Berman: Usually Bob is really good at structure, and he’s an editor so he has a good editorial mind especially when it comes to adaptation, which is very much an editing process. So he’ll usually write the outline, and then one of us – depending on which one of us feels inspired – will take a crack at the first draft, or at least half of that draft. Sometimes someone will get stuck in the middle and then the other person will jump in.
Robert: Every script is different. Sometimes we trade off scene by scene, other times someone will power ahead through half of it and the other person will go back and start rewriting that half.
Is that in any way reflected in the credits of your films? I noticed that the credits for Ten Thousand Saints say that it was directed by Shari and Robert, but the screenplay was by Robert and Shari.
Robert: That’s just a rule we have. If there’s more than one credit, we flip them around.
Shari: There’s no meaning behind it. It’s very random!
The four narrative films that you both wrote and directed – American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, and Ten Thousand Saints – are all adaptations. What do you enjoy most about working on adapted screenplays?
Robert: It’s wonderful to have established characters with established voices because even if you don’t stick to the text you know what they would say in a situation. When you’re starting from scratch, you’re building all those things, and sometimes you’re getting it right and other times you’re not getting it right. I find that if I’m working from existing material, the voices of the characters come very easily to me because I have been given so many opportunities to see how they react in certain scenes. Sometimes it’s harder. Ten Thousand Saints was a difficult process because it is a long book with a lot of subplots, so organizing that material to figure out what to cut out is sometimes daunting.
Shari: In the case of something like American Splendor, it wasn’t just a book. It was a whole oeuvre of comics and graphic novels and we had to find a way to synthesize it all into one film. But our first few features were documentaries, and I think there is something akin between making a documentary and adapting a book or a bunch of stories. There are creative process involved that use a similar part of the brain.
Both of you are New Yorkers, so what appealed to you most about the New York setting of Ten Thousand Saints?
Shari: I love to read, and I read a book review of Ten Thousand Saints in the New York Times. It was quite a good review and the time period it covers was a very important part of my life. I was a young person breaking into the arts in New York City, and in fact I had personally been in the Tompkins Square Park riot – I sort of wandered into it – which the book and the movie culminate in. Then I read the book and I loved how human the characters were and how flawed, yet well-meaning, they were, which I think is a very truthful thing about most people. I loved that era in New York. I thought it was such an exciting time for me, so there was a personal connection. It was this time when New York was really scruffy and dangerous, and there was crime, violence, crack, and AIDS – a lot of very horrible things, but also excitement and creative opportunity. You could be an artist and live in Manhattan in a squat and pay no rent. It seems inconceivable right now. The music of the time was also really important to me. When you make a movie you have to really immerse yourself and live in it, and that was a time I wanted to revisit and live with.
Robert: It was set in the year I moved to Manhattan, and when you move to a new place all your senses are heightened and you’re just so aware of everything around you. I thought Eleanor Henderson just captured that era so perfectly in the way I remembered it. I also was a musician, and while I was not involved in the straight edge scene I connected to these young people and I also connected to the older people as well. I just thought the characters and the setting were so rich, and that appealed to me.
Speaking of that straight edge community, there is an interesting dynamic in how Jude’s character starts as a drug user, but then becomes seduced and addicted in another way to the straight edge lifestyle.
Shari: One of the things in the book that’s so interesting – and I had friends like this – are people who were raised by parents who were hippies and didn’t give them a lot of rules and boundaries. The question is, how do you rebel against the people who invented rebellion? [Laughs] Because youth is about rebelling. I think there’s an element of that in straight edge, which became very popular around that time with young people who were rebelling against what they thought was screwing up their parents. There was something seductive and rebellious about being sober and not being promiscuous [Laughs]. Nobody heard of being vegan in the 1980s except for straight edge people. Now it’s so common, but then it was almost unheard of. It was a real phenomenon that really existed, and there still is a big straight edge movement, but it was very big in the mid-to-late 1980s. I think as it was used in the novel was a response to the world that their parents came from.
Robert: I think there’s an overall theme in the story of the desire for rules versus the desire for anarchy as well. That certainly existed in the East Village at that period, and that’s ultimately what the riot was about in a lot of ways. It was about a curfew to take control of an area of the city that was almost erupting in anarchy. I think that exists in Jude’s family life because his parents really have no structure for him at all and he’s longing for something. Both have benefits and costs, and you see that in Emile Hirsch’s character.
Another interesting aspect of Jude’s character is that for much of the first half of the film he mainly just observes and reacts to the actions of the other characters. Was he a difficult character to write?
Shari: I don’t think he was a difficult character to write because he was so beautifully written in the book and we just followed the book’s lead, but I do think he is someone who is seeking to find his voice. Like many young people, he’s struggling. It takes a lot of pain, a change in scenery, and falling in love to get him to become more of an active player who makes choices in his own life.
Robert: I think it’s deeply rooted by his father’s abandonment, and he gives up on a certain level when his best friend dies. He’s completely hollow, and I think he’s brought back to life by his father re-entering that window, bringing him to New York, and finding him a place with this straight edge community. A lot of straight edge people were formerly drug abusers, and I think some people are just attracted to extremes. Jude is certainly a case of that.
Were there any scripts that influenced you as you wrote about this era in New York?
Robert: We watched The Outsiders.
Shari: I don’t know if the actual script was as influential, but certainly the mood of the movie was.
Robert: We thought there was something similar about the worlds of absent parents and these kids trying to create an ad hoc family. But most of it did come from the book because I thought the book was beautifully realized in those regards. But we always watch movies with similar themes.
Shari: There’s a movie that’s considered a narrative film but it’s more of a documentary called Downtown 81, and it’s basically footage of Jean Michel Basquiat walking around the bombed out East Village just hanging out and running into Fab 5 Freddy and all these other downtown people. It’s a narrative film, but it’s really a very loose narrative. It is incredible to watch, and it really just brought us back to things we completely forgot about the time like just how abandoned the East Village was. That was very useful to watch.
You were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for American Splendor. One of the most impressive aspects of American Splendor is the structure, which includes Harvey Pekar as portrayed by Paul Giamatti and the real-life Pekar along with both fictional and real-life versions of several of Pekar’s acquaintances and family. How did that structure develop as you were writing the script?
Robert: It really was the only way that made sense to tell that story because we were handed this stack of comic strips where the main character never really looks the same because he’s drawn by so many different artists. We wondered how to stay true to the material, and that’s the concept we came up with. The structure came out of that very naturally. It wasn’t something that we labored over. We also wrote that screenplay under the pressure of a potential Writers Guild strike, and we had to get it done very quickly. It’s probably a testament to not self-editing too much because we really just went with our imagination and got it done.
Shari: It was the only way we thought to make the film. I think if we had more time we would’ve freaked out and said, “This is insane!” [Laughs]
Joyce has that line in the film about how Harvey is drawn, “Sometimes you look like a younger Brando… but then the way Crumb draws you, you look… like a hairy ape, with all these wavy, stinky lines undulating off your body.” That concern of yours obviously comes through in the film.
Shari: It took us a while to wrap our head around the whole thing. He looks different and he doesn’t draw himself. There were a lot of weird parameters to it.
Robert: It was sort of a cubist perspective on a character, you know? I think that’s how we wanted to craft the screenplay.
Shari: We also got to know Harvey even before we wrote the screenplay. We actually went to Cleveland and spent time with Harvey and Joyce, and spoke to them on the phone a lot. Once we spent some time with both of them, we were like, “Oh my God, we have to put them in the movie!” That was a case where we were still using our documentary instincts and had to figure out a way to include him in it that was a natural fit for the material.