Filmmaking is a Marathon: Robin Swicord on Wakefield
Robin Swicord discusses adapting Doctorow’s short story Wakefield for the big screen, seeing the potential in a story, and why making a movie is like a marathon.
The indie drama Wakefield is based on a 2008 short story by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime), which itself was a modern update on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1837 short story of the same title.
Successful Manhattan attorney Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) arrives home late to his picturesque house. Not wanting to face his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) or his twin teenage daughters after a long, tiring day, he decides to wait in the attic of his garage until his family goes to bed.
But Wakefield falls asleep, and the next morning he sees from the garage attic window that his wife is concerned about his mysterious disappearance. He continues to remain “missing” while keeping a watchful eye over his family and their reactions as his disappearance becomes increasingly longer.
The question becomes, how far will Wakefield take this charade? As he comes more accustomed to surviving on his own, even he does not know the answer.
Wakefield writer/director Robin Swicord has a long history of adapting literature into films, including writing or co-writing the screenplays for Little Women (1994), The Perez Family (1995), Matilda (1996), Practical Magic (1998), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). She also both wrote and directed the 2007 adaptation of Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling novel The Jane Austen Book Club.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Swicord about adapting Doctorow’s short story, building on the character in the screenplay, and why emerging screenwriters need to understand that the process of a screenplay becoming a movie is a marathon.
What was it about Doctorow’s short story that inspired you to adapt it as a film?
There was a curious thing that happened almost unconsciously as I was reading the story. I didn’t read it thinking, “Should this be a movie?” But as I was reading it, I began to see images that were not given by the story itself. They were like photographic images that floated into my brain.
I thought I was remembering a movie that I had seen, and it took me a little while to realize that it couldn’t have been a movie because the short story was just published. My imagination was engaged by the story as I read it. That’s unusual and does not happen a lot.
I didn’t pursue it immediately, but strangely a friend of mine who is a producer, Elliot Webb, brought me the short story a few years later. He said, “I have these two Doctorow short stories. Would you be interested in either one for a TV series or a film? Is there something here for you?”
I was so excited to see “Wakefield” again. I said, “This is not a TV series. This is a small independent film, and I know how we should do it.”
We began conversations with Doctorow shortly after that.
I had to get my own head right in terms of what the movie would really be. Here in the movie is a guy who is one way in the beginning and different at the end, which is not what happens in the short story. How does he change? What are the things that make him change? I had to really interrogate the story before I ever got up the courage to meet with Doctorow, because I knew he was going to want to know what kind of movie this was going to be.
I met him and we had great conversations. We emailed and talked on the phone, and started the process of getting him to trust that we had all our ducks in a row.
The flashbacks depict Wakefield as a character who is insecure about his relationship. For example, he’s worried about his wife changing in front of the window, and he believes she is flirting with other men. Can you talk about that aspect of his character?
There’s something in him that we don’t understand at first. In a way, maybe he feels he’s a little undeserving of the wife that he has.
He wouldn’t express it that way. In fact, in the beginning he thinks of himself as a victim having to put up with all of her flirtations with other people.
But as time goes on in the story, you begin to realize with him that a lot of that is just projection. We begin to understand when he unearths things from his past that he has essentially fallen in love with someone and won her through nefarious means. He has not been truthful with her. That is the core of him being fearful that he will lose her.
I think that he is driven by his fear of loss. It’s almost like he chucked it all before it was taken away from him. to have some sense of control. [Laughs] It’s a curious psychological portrait, and it took me a little while, writing him and thinking through the events of the story from his point of view, to understand that this is not mental illness.
This is a man who is in crisis and the crisis is of his own making. That was something that Doctorow had said to me.
One aspect that gets more focus in the film than in the short story is Wakefield figuring out his survival challenges. Was it challenging to figure out how he would manage?
There was an almost procedural aspect to it. What would I do? How would I survive if I were living in the attic of my garage undetected?
He is a person with certain standards of cleanliness, what he thinks of as good food, and so forth. At the beginning he takes food from the house, brings his favorite book from his bedside to read, and gets batteries for his flashlight. He prepares like a man who is going camping. There’s something about him like he’s staying in a hotel.
That’s different from how he becomes later on when life gets harder, because he adds another obstruction to his life in that he is not going to take anything from the house any more. He views his exile as a rejection of all that.
It’s all of his own making, and it was fun to figure out where he would begin to shift to when we would see him become more feral. What was the point where he would begin to feel his vulnerability? It was a process for me to outline, and then later directing Bryan while going through the script together to note where those signposts were, so we could have that progression and transformation.
One line that struck me was Wakefield saying, “I never left my family; I left myself.” Why does Wakefield consider himself to be a separate entity from his family in this sense?
Because they are separate. Out of a self you can build any number of lives. He is still there for his family. He is keeping a steady vigil over his family. Think whatever you like about him, but he didn’t leave. [Laughs]
He stayed there throughout all that hardship to keep an eye on them. He doesn’t feel from the inside that he actually left them. Like most of us, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. But he is acting on these impulses and is following through them by baby steps.
If you said, “OK, Howard, you’re going to go up to that attic now and stay up there for the next nine months. You’re going to become feral and all these things are going to happen to you because you have caused them,” he would say, “No thanks, I think I want to go inside.”
But he doesn’t know these things are coming. He takes these incremental baby steps the way we all do. First he thinks he’ll stay up there until his wife goes to bed. Then he oversleeps, so he thinks he’ll wait until she goes to work. And so on, until he realizes, “I can’t bring myself to go in.”
After he has stranded himself by not coming home and he wants to come home, he wonders, “How in the hell do I get back in?”
It’s a process of him staying and not leaving. But something does change – who he understands himself to be. That’s how he comes to a sense of not leaving his family, but instead leaving himself.
From a writing standpoint, what is the process for you in adapting such a short story into a feature-length screenplay?
With short stories you have to go in much more deeply. You have more fragmentary evidence with which you are building your narrative. Like an actor, you are seeing places where you could create something a little bigger by a small improvisation.
I tried to think of Doctorow’s short story as giving me these very strong road markers, and it was between these markers that there might be some room for exploration.
There were things that I was interested in that were not in the short story. For instance, when I was first writing to Doctorow, one of the things I said in the email was that I saw the film as a meditation on marriage. He said in his reply that wasn’t his intention in the story, but that he didn’t see why it couldn’t be.
With that kind of permission from him to explore what I found in the story, I kept putting myself under the skin in looking at it thematically, and also in terms of potential, in the sense of, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful scene if…” Some of the inventions came out of what would be purely cinematic and wonderful.
Then there were things in the short story that were just dead lifts, like the confrontation with the gleaners. It was just a matter of how I could make that the most exciting scene, but also funny at the same time. Playing with that involved keeping all the things he had, but approaching it from this kind of Wakefield-ian tone that I had already established in the screenplay.
Another film that was released recently that you have screenplay credit on is The Promise. What was your involvement with that screenplay?
I sold an original story to the company that ended up making that film, but they did not use my screenplay, which was titled Anatolia. I never met or even had a conversation with the director, Terry George. They hired him, and the next thing I heard was that he had written his own screenplay.
There’s some very fragmentary bits of my story that are in there, but he invented the Christian Bale character and changed the other characters. I had a medical student in my screenplay, but he wasn’t at all like the character in The Promise. At the end of the day, because it was an original story I had an irreducible screen credit. I was very happy for Terry George to take first place, because I did strongly feel that it was his movie, not mine.
It’s that odd thing that sometimes happens because of Writers Guild rules. I ended up with screen credit on something that I didn’t have much to do with in the end.
You have history with writing screenplays for projects that have taken a very, very, long time to come to fruition – most notably Little Women and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Could share some of your perspective on persistence and patience when it comes to working as a screenwriter in Hollywood?
I think the first thing that emerging writers should understand is that movies usually take a very long time to get made. That’s just the rule of thumb. It is unusual for people to write something and to have it immediately go into production. Because that’s true, you have to begin to build creative stamina in yourself and get your head right.
For me, getting your head right means understanding that the joy of the work is when you are in your room doing the work. That’s filmmaking.
Of course, you have to continue to hope and work towards making it real and getting it to the screen. But you’re not just auditioning for a movie that just has to happen right away. You’re actually here for the long run – it’s a marathon, and you just have to keep pushing forward.
If that’s not in the life skills that you have, and you don’t think you can learn that, you’re going to be unhappy as a screenwriter. It’s essential that you begin to develop the inner structures that allow you to survive the reality of the business that we’re in.
Featured image: Bryan Cranston as Howard in Wakefield. Photo by Gilles Mingasson. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.