The End of the Tour: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
Donald Margulies discusses the difference between writing plays and screenplays, the responsibility of the writer to verisimilitude, and writing a 70s movie for the 2010s.
By Daniel Mintz.
The End of The Tour is fast becoming the most popular independent release of 2015. Directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), and adapted from journalist David Lipsky’s memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, the film follows Lipsky’s time spent profiling the late great novelist David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone Magazine, while on a cross-country press tour for Wallace’s hit novel Infinite Jest.
The film’s script was written by Donald Margulies, a man who knows a thing or two about dramatic writing. As the scribe behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends, and a playwriting professor at Yale’s School of Drama, Margulies has long been many a producer’s go-to guy for literary adaptations, and other projects bound for the screen.
With The End of The Tour, Margulies has penned what he refers to as a “small road picture”, a passion project which he also helped propel the production of as an executive producer. Accordingly, despite weeks of press (unquestionably a sort of bizarre, meta experience given the film’s plot), his enthusiasm for discussing this fine piece of cinema has not waned, and he was more than pleased to talk about the writing of it.
What’s your usual approach for adapting books into film scripts?
Well the first thing that I do, I read whatever source material I’m adapting multiple times. Each time I read it, I sort of break it down. I find that I discover new things with each reading of it.
My background was in visual art. I was at Pratt for a year, and then I went to Purchase. I have a BFA in Visual Art; didn’t really help my playwriting much. But I’m a collagist. So my approach to adaptations, for me, is very much like making collage. Where you’re given source material. In this case, it was this treasure trove of Lipsky’s transcripts. It became part of my process to sort of break it down, to deconstruct it, essentially. To then create new juxtapositions with these moments. These lines. To create a new construct.
That is pretty much the definition of collage. It’s like solving a puzzle. How do you translate something that worked in this form, in this genre, into something that’s meant to be performed. In a scene. It’s different. Language that’s written, that’s prose, is very different when spoken.
Were there any major parts of the film that weren’t so pronounced in the book, or weren’t in there at all?
In one of the first conversations I had with Lipsky, I asked him, “Could you tell me what was happening when the tape wasn’t running? You know you guys spent five days together, and you never had a tiff?” It was just the very idea of these guys being in cold weather, in close quarters, for days on end. There had to have been tensions that arose.
Lipsky, to his credit, and I’m very grateful to him for his candor and his openness, said, “Yes. You know, there was.” What Lipsky shared with me is that moment that some people have accused me of creating. As being too Hollywood. [Laughs]. When in fact it was something that Lipsky didn’t include in his book because he felt that it got in the way of Wallace’s voice. Because that was really what he was trying to convey in that book.
My story places Lipsky in the foreground, and Wallace in soft-focus in the background. I really needed to find a dramatic arc for my protagonist, David Lipsky. That moment that occurs between the two guys in Julie’s kitchen, I wouldn’t have known if David Lipsky hadn’t shared that with me. Not to sound too coarse about it, but it provided me with my third act. Because it’s a turn that occurs. A schism that occurs that changes the tenor of what follows.
Dramatically speaking, I felt that that was absolutely necessary. And serendipitous that such a thing actually occurred, and that David Lipsky was generous enough to share it with me, and gave me permission to include it in the film. So there were things that I pulled to it that were not in the book. But certainly not anything that didn’t happen.
When you’re dealing with true events, or characters inspired by real people, how do you balance those elements with the overall story you’re trying to tell?
The writer has a responsibility to create a seeming verisimilitude. You can’t really recreate what happened. But you can recreate a dramatic telling of something that was inherently undramatic. The conversation, as it occurred, is interesting. There are certainly moments in it that are more provocative than others. There’s more gossip. There’s more shop talk. There’s more swapping likes and dislikes in the media. But that stuff only goes so far in the space of a 106 minute movie. I did lose a lot of that.
At the same time, I needed to create a drama out of this experience. It’s inspired by this experience. It is not a recreation of this experience. It is me, Donald Margulies’s take, on David Lipsky’s book, which was recounting these days that he experienced ten or twelve years earlier. So there are all these filters. James Ponsaldt taking my script. At no time were we trying to create a docudrama.
This is one man’s impression. We are telling this story as filtered through David Lipsky’s experience. We’re not trying to pass it off as anything definitive. It’s not really going beyond those five days. And we were very scrupulous about the point of the view. There are only a few moments in this film where we deviate from something that I was very specific about in the script, that James adhered to.
The only moments when we deviate from Lipsky’s point of view are really toward the end of the film, when Lipsky imagined Wallace dancing. Then the faux outtake was a moment that actually occurred. Which is when Lipsky goes to the bathroom and leaves the tape running, and discovered later that Wallace had playfully talked into the tape recorder while he was out of the room. I thought that was such a wonderful impish moment that I wanted to include. But it seemed to me to belong at the end of the story, when the story was over, and function as a coda. Because you know him saying, “It’s just me,” into the tape recorder is really a summation of what we have just seen in a very sweet but unsentimental way. That occurred just in passing over the course of those days.
It’s a question of placement. Saving that for post-script is what gives it the power that it has. When the audience has been through this experience of revisiting this watershed moment in David Lipsky’s life. Of encountering this giant of letters. Seeing him in an utterly human, impish moment, I thought was kind of terrific.
It’s been said, and I felt as well, that the film has a sort of My Dinner With Andre-ness to it. Was that conscious to you or James at any point?
I think that in the initial discussions about it, we referred to it as My Dinner with Andre in a car. Arguably our movie is much more cinematic than My Dinner with Andre, which is literally at a dinner table for 90 minutes. We have the benefit of going from place to place, and introducing other characters along the way. But that wasn’t the only one for us.
The very first conversation James and I had, we referenced Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, which is another guys on the American road story. Two Lane Blacktop which is Monty Hellmen’s film from the 70s, is the only dramatic thing that James Taylor ever did. The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s film.
It was clear from the script that this needed to be a certain kind of intimate movie. But that it was a movie. It wasn’t confined to the stage. The subject of David Foster Wallace’s entire body of work, really, is American popular culture. So for me, the very idea that David Wallace was on the road, going to fast-food places, going to 711s, going to bookstore readings, and the multiplex to see a John Travolta movie, and going to the Mall of America, all of those things are so visual. Placing this iconic figure, whose subject was the American landscape, literally on, visually the American landscape, I just found to be a very exciting idea.
Even though, yes, it’s very much about language, I think it’s also about the American image. Seeing these guys on a road driving past these neon-lit fast-food places. All of that is so evocative. I think it tells the story in a much more exciting and palpable way. Yes, we could probably sit around and read the script, and it could be very entertaining. But it’s not going to have the impact of the film just because the words are the same. It’s the imagery. It’s the tonality of it. It’s the score. It’s the soundscape. That I think contributes to the overall experience of it.
Is there anything you’ve picked up from the screenwriting form that’s carried over to your playwriting; or visa versa?
Well they’re very dissimilar. But being a dramatist, who writes for film, what I have learned being a screenwriter, is precision. Being as concise as possible. Learning where to begin and end the scene. I think that my years as a playwright have given me the foundation to understand that even the short scene is not that short. That there is subtext. There’s something at stake. The characters are looking for something. Whether it’s an answer. Or approval. Or whatever. It’s all there. I think it’s probably helpful to think of scenes in those terms. That they’re not just to move the plot along. But they’re to reveal things about characters. I’m not saying that other screenplays lack that. I’m just saying, in something that is as dependent on being driven by character, it’s something I am very keenly aware. I do think that my background in playwriting certainly contributes to that.
Jason and Jesse relished the complexity of even a three page scene. Of the power-plays shifting from beat to beat. For me, as the writer of it, it’s so delightful to see them making those turns. It’s something that you don’t really see in movies very often. It’s the kind of movie that was made in the ’70s, that I certainly grew up on. The Robert Altman movies, and Hal Ashby movies. That world is not really so much a part of our cinema vocabulary anymore. The fact that we got this made at all, is a kind of miracle.
[woocommerce_products_carousel_all_in_one template="compact.css" all_items="88" show_only="id" products="" ordering="random" categories="115" tags="" show_title="false" show_description="false" allow_shortcodes="false" show_price="false" show_category="false" show_tags="false" show_add_to_cart_button="false" show_more_button="false" show_more_items_button="false" show_featured_image="true" image_source="thumbnail" image_height="100" image_width="100" items_to_show_mobiles="3" items_to_show_tablets="6" items_to_show="6" slide_by="1" margin="0" loop="true" stop_on_hover="true" auto_play="true" auto_play_timeout="1200" auto_play_speed="1600" nav="false" nav_speed="800" dots="false" dots_speed="800" lazy_load="false" mouse_drag="true" mouse_wheel="true" touch_drag="true" easing="linear" auto_height="true"]