David Vaipan has written and directed more than seventy projects. Currently, he’s at work on a feature-length adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Homer’s Odyssey, titled You (Plural). Recently, he answered a few of my questions about screenwriting and the process of adapting classic literature to film.
From 2008-2011, nearly every short movie, music video, essay, short story or poem was created to showcase different themes in an attempt to provoke the viewer or reader to change: sexism, racism, consumerism, classism, laziness, existential dread (bleh), escape through drugs or alcohol or religion or high- or low- or pop-culture. But nobody was changing; maybe I was naive, mostly preaching to the choir, so I started jotting down notes for this project at the end of 2010 while working on a thirty-minute short (“Seizure”), which focused on finding motivation and the fear of success or failure.
The first tentative title was “My Own.” It was to be a thirty-minute short (usually when I set out to make a five-minute short it expands to around thirty minutes, so I should’ve guessed I was in trouble), and it was to finally be something that was made just for fun, for me, even if it was esoteric and difficult. Something that would make me smile. Immediately after I finished “Seizure” in July of 2011, I set to work on compiling notes and preliminary structuring of “My Own.” I’d read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before and recognized some of Joyce’s ideas in this project (e.g. in Joyce’s “Oxen” chapter, he traces the history of English prose styles; I wanted to recreate the entire history of dramatic cinema. I also had extended first-person scenes which mirror Joyce’s stream of consciousness). I remember sitting outside of a cafe when it dawned on me, and laughing at myself for even thinking I could adapt Joyce. And immediately I told myself, “Yes. I’m going to adapt Joyce.” (I had written several full-length screenplays before, but wanted my first-feature to be something special, so I thought I was ready.) But, if I was going to change Joyce’s “Oxen” chapter to be focused on cinema instead of prose, then I could free myself to change many other things. So, I bought a fresh copy of Ulysses and opened it up for the third time.
What is your approach to literature and filmmaking?
Because of my experience with close-reading and analysis of literature — I’m beginning work on my Master’s in literature this fall at San Francisco State — I had tools and preparation in approaching these works from a number of critical perspectives, such as a Marxist or Feminist or New Historicist reading. As luck would have it, the writing sample I sent out to graduate schools was on Hamlet, so I’d already devoted an inordinate amount of time on the tragedy and the scholarly research of it. In the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012 I took an Ancient Lit course and Classical Athens course, respectively, with two incredible professors who both knew Ancient Greek, so I was the annoying guy with hand often raised asking absurdly abstruse questions about The Odyssey.
Perhaps what informed me most in my approach toward adapting these works for the cinema was Joyce’s approach toward adapting Hamlet and The Odyssey, a play and an epic poem, for the novel. Joyce wholly appropriated not only the aforementioned works, but all the arts before the twentieth century to create something absolutely new. To give you an example, in a presentation I gave on Milton’s Comus and the Circe chapter of Ulysses, I ran through the book-length studies on Ulysses I found at the Cal State Fresno library:
“Flaubert & Joyce, Shaw & Joyce, Shakespeare & Joyce, Joyce & Wagner, Joyce & Dante, Joyce & Ibsen, Joyce & The Victorians, Joyce & The Bible, Joyce & The Jews, Joyce Beyond Marx, Joyce Between Freud & Jung, and something called Pedagogy, Praxis & Joyce which I guess is for professors who’ve run out of ideas. And these are only the books with proper nouns in their titles.”
Because Ulysses was the fountainhead of twentieth-century literature and an homage to all the arts before the twentieth century, I wanted to make this movie an homage to the arts after the turn of the century. So, concomitant with my close-readings of the three primary sources, I studied classical, jazz, and popular music, the history of all cinema, all literature, and the fine arts. An example of one form of homage is that the first thing the audience hears is Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” in and of itself a sort of fountainhead of twentieth-century classical music, and the movie continues chronologically through some of the greatest works, including those by Satie, Stravinsky, Varese, John Cage, Phillip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov, and many others. In this movie we allude to more than 500 different works, which you can find at the works cited page for the film.
Some of the greatest fears in adapting a work of literature for the screen are the expectations that an audience familiar with the works may have. However, more important for me was the perception of people who have never even heard of Ulysses, or couldn’t tell Prince Hamlet of Denmark from Prince Harry of Wales. Of course, people familiar with any or all of the works I’m adapting might garner more pleasure from the movie, but one of my main motivations is to introduce at least Ulysses to a whole new audience.
What’s fundamentally different between my approach and, say, Bahz Luhrman’s of “The Great Gatsby” or the Coen brothers of “No Country for Old Men,” is that it isn’t a simple print-to-screen adaptation, but an appropriation. General readers of Ulysses don’t raise their clenched fists in the air, shouting, “How could he have so butchered Homer’s magnificent Odyssey?!” because it isn’t just a prose version of the epic poem, it’s a complete recreation. And just like Joyce appropriated those works for the novel, I appropriate these different works for the cinema.
What is your writing process?
By now, my process toward writing poetry, prose, nonfiction, or for the screen is often the same: I take a copious amount of notes on structure, theme, character, and so on before I begin formally writing. This project was no different. By the time I do begin writing, I’ve already completed at least a couple rough drafts of almost ever scene. (Here are some pics of my notes/annotations.)
Something particular to Joyce, Homer, and Shakespeare is that every chapter, book, or act not merely underscores the overarching themes, but also introduce new themes particular to that section. So, I stay true to the overarching themes and distinct themes in all three works. Ironically, in my attempt to escape a project focused on issues of class, race, sex, and other social issues, this project turned into what I think is my most acute analysis of these subjects because of how well the three works approach these topics.
One of the largest challenges I faced was in adapting Joyce’s unique style to the screen. It’s apparent that every single chapter has its own distinct style which compliments the distinct themes. The issue is how to adapt it for the screen. The easiest, perhaps, is Joyce’s stream of consciousness (SOC). Almost every time, which is unfortunately seldom in cinema, the audience is allowed to hear a character’s thoughts on screen, it is done the same way: a shot of the character looking severely and poignantly off into the distance while a nearly monotonous voice over slowly expounds on something heady. More unfortunately, both previous screen adaptations of Ulysses employ this very same technique for Joyce’s SOC, which is seldom heady and often silly and banal. One of my methods in approaching the SOC is shooting from the literal first-person perspective of a character, which includes fantasies, memories, and subjective reactions (e.g. when something awful happens, color subtly drains from the screen). There are many other stylistic experiments, but they’re better seen than read.
How is screenwriting different from, say, writing a novel?
There are many differences in approaching something for the screen as opposed to for the page. I constantly jot down notes for ideas, at a cafe or while driving or waking in the middle of the night, but I separate them by poetry, prose, or cinema because the mediums are inherently predisposed to being better at some things over others. One main disadvantage for screenwriting is that, like music, it’s fixed in time, whereas while I’m reading a novel I can easily flip back a few pages to reread something, pause to laugh or cry, or set it down for later. Reading is also inherently private; movies are still watched on an epic scale with sometimes hundreds of people in the theater, which requires its own etiquette.
The most important aspect relating to the temporal nature of cinema versus literature is that a movie is almost never longer than a couple of hours. Reading something like Crime and Punishment will require maybe ten times that, so audiences are taught to bring different attention spans to a movie as opposed to a book. A more egregious error common in cinema, which reflects the shift in attention span, is that many movies are made to be consumed just once, leaving the audience sated, bloated, and ready for bed–not unlike junk food. However, a great work of cinema can have viewers spending many hours more than it would require to read hundreds of pages. I have a ritual that I’ve been doing since I was fifteen where, upon discovering something truly genius, every night for a week I’ll rewatch the same movie often two or three times every night. Because cinema is limited by time, great cinema needs to compress in just two hours what a novel can explore over ten times that, thus stimulating a viewer to watch again and again to fully appreciate the work.
One of the main advantages of writing for the screen as opposed to prose is the mise en scène. What a camera can do with just one ten-second shot–of perhaps a classroom full of students who are in various states of boredom, or a party at its climax, or even just a panning shot of someone’s bedroom full of idiosyncratic things–would take much more than ten seconds to read from the page. Imagine taking a photograph, just one still frame of what’s around you, and describing every single thing in that frame on the page! So, cinema allows the spectator to consume a great deal of description in an incredibly short amount of time. A benefit of this is the great surprise on the audience’s part. Take these three shots, each ten seconds long: A character is sitting at her desk at her job, working; CUT TO: she is at an elegant rooftop party dancing with friends; CUT TO: she is on the beach watching her children play. Or a character walks through his front door, flicks on the light; the room is extravagantly decorated, and fifty people inside scream, “Surprise!” because it’s his birthday. Because of how quickly one digests everything on the screen, it is much more startling than reading a description that, even if it cuts out half of what is shown on screen, will take at least ten times longer to process.
The biggest difference, however, is that almost all cinema is a collaborative effort. A script is never a holy thing. By the time a movie is finished, there are so many differences from what was on the page to what’s on screen that it’s entirely unrecognizable. A script is just a shadow. It doesn’t have the beautiful descriptions that a set designer puts together; or characters’ unspoken thoughts and their smallest facial reactions or how the characters act, which the director and actors work on together; or usually anything about camera movement, whether its close or far and what that means in context of the scene, which the cinematographer focuses on. Even blocking and the lines themselves, lines which are absolutely perfect on the page, from any actor will sound different and sometimes need to be changed for the scene to sound authentic. I’ve read about some famous screenwriters occasionally going crazy over even the smallest changes to their script, but from the perspective of someone who writes and directs, in order to make the best movie possible, it’s important to adapt to every situation.
How can readers see the film?
Visit the Kickstarter page of You (Plural) to support the film by Thursday, June 13. We’re in the fundraising stage with 25% of our project backed on Kickstarter. This experimental film has one male and one female play every role, has extended first-person perspective scenes, shot-for-shot recreations of movies across all genres, and many other stylistic innovations which you can watch on the Kickstarter page.
In the meantime, you can see exclusive clips with short descriptions, embed codes, and pictures and movie stills on the You (Plural) website, and receive regular updates to the project on its Facebook page.