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Adaptation Week: Interview with Helen FitzGerald and Sergio Casci

As a special, and very different offering, as part of Adaptation Week we talk to writer, Helen FitzGerald (novelist), and her husband, Sergio Casci (screenwriter) asking such penetrating questions such as the difference between writing novels and films, what they look for in a good adaptation and why their children have to beg them to stop talking about murder all the time.

helenHelen FitzGerald

Helen is a novelist and scriptwriter. Her bestselling series involving social worker, Krissie, began with Dead Lovely, recently reviewed on Vulpes .  This series is presently being adapted for television, whilst her recent novel The Devil’s Staircase is being adapted for film by husband Sergio Casci.  Helen worked as a parole officer and prison social worker in Glasgow for over ten years. She’s married to screenwriter, Sergio Casci, and has two children.

Questions for Helen

RosyB: Your series that includes Dead Lovely and My Last Confession is being adapted into an entire television series. Presumably this means not just adapting the novels themselves but coming up with many more scenarios for episodes. How do you set about this: where do you start – with the characters or the plot?

Helen: We start with a “series bible” which sets down the characters, the precinct (in this case a social work office in Glasgow), what the series is about, and what each episode will look like.  The kinds of questions commissioners ask include: “What makes Krissie Donald iconic?” “What should the viewer expect each episode?” “What is the ticking clock? (ie what is at stake? They want this to be similar each time – for example, someone is going to offend again, someone is being wrongly convicted etc).  It’s early stages, but we hope the characters will drive the stories completely (Krissie, the feckless social worker, and the various offenders she works with). Once we’ve got the characters right, the plots will come.

RosyB: How much say do you have over the adaptations of your work and is it easier or harder to have your work adapted by your husband?

Helen: We’re working closely with Synchronicity Films. It’s an unusual setup as we asked to co-produce with them, which means we have a lot more input than usual.

It’s great working with my husband. We have really different skills and they match perfectly. He writes a draft (often shouting questions from his office to mine about characters or social work). After that, I read it over and make notes, then we talk it over before he rewrites it.   The only thing is that work often seeps into home life. Our poor children often ask us to stop talking about murder!

RosyB: You have been both a scriptwriter and a novelist. What are the different qualities you need and which do you prefer and why?

Helen: There’s no competition. Being a novelist is much more fun. Script writing is all about what you can’t write. Also, people interfere at every step (producers, development financiers, directors). I don’t cope well with this as I tend to take on every bit of criticism given and make changes that aren’t necessarily sensible.  To be a script writer, you have to work as a team member, have a very thick skin and be happy to be at the bottom of the pile creatively.

I prefer working on my own, have a very thin skin, and enjoy a finished product that I can truly say is mine.

RosyB: I can understand that. Having had a screenwriting background yourself, how much influence does that have on your novel-writing and do you ever have it in mind to make your story more screen friendly when you write a book?

Helen: I don’t consciously think of my books as films as I write them, but my chapters do come across like scenes. They are very short and end with a big push into the next one. This probably comes from the script writing part of my brain.

When I write a book I don’t worry about budget or genre and love writing things that would cost a fortune to shoot and which subvert genre. Funnily enough, this freedom will probably produce better films/television in the end.american cousins

Sergio Casci

Sergio is a screenwriter. Among the numerous awards received for American Cousins was an Audience Award for Best Film at the Milan International Film Festival and a BAFTA Scotland award for Best Screenplay by Sergio Casci.

RosyB: How hard is it to adapt your wife’s novel for the big screen (particularly when she’s sitting across the room, eyeballing you!)

Sergio: The hardest decision when adapting a novel for the big screen is deciding what to leave out. Films are usually simple stories with a beginning, a middle and an end; usually in that order. Novels can be far more anarchic and sprawling, with a lot of time spent inside the protagonist’s head. The trick is to decide what the core story is and strip away everything else. Helen and I nut this out together before the work of adaptation begins. As in war, time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.  Helen eyeballing me is actually a big advantage; if I were adapting someone else’s novel, I’d agonise over some of the brutal cuts which have to be made. With Helen’s books, I just shout through the wall and can invariably tell by the loudness of her scream whether I’m over-stepping the mark or not.

RosyB: How do you go about an adaptation and in what way does it differ from writing something from scratch like your screenplay for American Cousins for example?

Sergio: When adapting a book, I’m always very conscious of the author – my aim is to make the best possible film while remaining faithful, within the inevitable constraints, to the novel. I feel a real sense of responsibility towards the creator of the original work, and my greatest fear is that they’ll feel let-down.  When writing something from scratch, the only person I’m worried about disappointing is myself. Creatively you might think adaptation is easier, but it’s not. It’s harder to pick out the core story from a novel – and to make it feel like an organic whole – than to make stuff up yourself. In fact, adaptation also frequently involves inventing new material. The novelist might have linked two scenes with the protagonist’s thoughts, and as I mentioned before, thoughts don’t play well on screen! These are often the trickiest moments. There’s a level of confidence required – arrogance even – when you’re putting stuff in which wasn’t there before.

RosyB: I read a book about screenwriters recently and was stunned by the number of projects that get shelved along the way – sometimes very late in the process. I also read that it is pretty standard for film projects to use up many screenwriters and keep changing them about as different parties get involved. Is this true and how do screenwriters cope with a) all the chopping and changing and adapting themselves to different people’s work and b) knowing that any one project is so unlikely to come off, ultimately? How do they keep motivated?

Sergio: Bloody good question! I could talk about this for hours, but I’ll limit myself to two points. The first is that screenwriters are historically weak. In the early years of cinema, producers ruled. It was the producer’s film up there on screen. Then directors took over – the whole Auteur Theory thing – in which an idea which might have applied to a few French art house film-makers was enthusiastically taken up by American movie school graduates, leading to the absurd situation whereby first-time directors claim that they and they alone are the true “authors” of the work.  The upshot is that whereas novelists are seen – and respected – as artists, screenwriters are considered disposable. We’re just one element in the film-making business, and when things are going wrong it’s easy to blame the script, sack the writer and bring someone else on board. That’s why you get films with half-a-dozen names next to the screenwriting credit – the first five were sacked. Imagine doing that with a novelist! “Sorry Mr Tolstoy, the first bit’s fine but we’re getting someone in to fix the ending.  Oh, and the title… Kylie Karenina plays better with the 14 to 18 demographic…”

In terms of stuff not getting produced, it’s absolutely true; I have around twenty original projects up on my whiteboard, and I’ll be happy if just one of them gets made. I guess one major reason is that there are lots of writers out there and limited opportunities. Very few films get made and there aren’t that many slots for TV drama. But I think there’s another, more subtle reason. Film and TV executives need to justify their jobs. If all they’re doing is overseeing a handful of projects, their paymasters might start asking questions. The answer is to have a big fat “slate” of projects – work in development which will never see the light of day but which generates hundreds of meetings, lunches, notes and memos. It allows a small industry to pretend it’s a much bigger one. On the up-side, writers “in development” get paid, which allows us to make a living. In that respect, the Fat Slate – the pile of projects which crawl along and never go anywhere – is essential. On the down-side, it breaks your heart. The worst painter in the world can still produce paintings and hang ‘em on the wall. For screenwriters it’s different – until and unless our work is actually filmed and put on screen, it doesn’t exist. Which is why we’re generally grumpy individuals.

RosyB: What would you say are the main skills a writer needs to write a good screenplay/be a good screenwriter?

  1. An ability to think and tell stories visually. Lots of writers have something to say. With screenwriting, you must also have something to show.
  2. An ear for dialogue. I’m amazed at how many published novelists write as if they’ve never actually heard two people having a conversation.
  3. Thick skin.

Questions for both

As you know, this week on Vulpes is Adaptation Week where we are looking at books versus their representations on film and TV (the line up is: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The End of the Affair, Jeeves and Wooster, North and South, Wuthering Heights and Brokeback Mountain). When it comes to books that are very well-known – from Austen to Hitchhiker’s Guide – there are going to be expectations from the audience. How faithful should screen adaptations be to the original book? Does the film/TV version need to accurately reflect the source book or should it be seen as a separate entity? Does it matter?

It has to be totally faithful to the spirit of the book and as faithful as possible to everything else. It also has to be a great film, which inevitably means losing a lot, adding a bit and making some very difficult decisions.

Can you give us some examples of what – in your opinion – are really good screen adaptations?

The Silence of the Lambs

The Godfather

Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility

The Shawshank Redemption

Are there books that are particularly suitable for adaptation? What qualities do you look for in a novel when thinking about whether  it would make a good film?

Short novels, short stories and novellas make good films. I guess they tend to leave out the bits you can’t show. There’s less introspection and back story.

Producers, directors and screenwriters look for the following:

  • a three act structure
  • a compelling central character who has a problem that is resolved by the end of the novel
  • an interesting setting.
  • the “X” Factor – ie something that will wow financiers/critics/audiences/everyone you need to wow. This  could be something sexy, contentious, contemporary or blindingly original.
  • A book that Anne Hathaway has read and asked to star in.

Practical q for both of you: working so closely and from home can be really hard in terms of switching off – how do you make sure that the work stops for the day ?

As we are writing this, our nine year old is begging for an omelette. Now. With bread and butter and ketchup and hasn’t he waited long enough? And why won’t we listen to him? And can he have the computer please because he would like to play Age of Empires…

RosyB would like to thank Helen and Sergio for sacrificing their omelette-cooking time to give such detailed answers to this interview.

If you would like to find out more about Helen’s books you can visit her website here.

Synchronicity Films

Sergio talks about his film, American Cousins, for the Guardian here

[RosyB is a member of Vulpes Libris, to find out more click here]

2 comments on “Adaptation Week: Interview with Helen FitzGerald and Sergio Casci

  1. annebrooke
    July 24, 2009

    Really fascinating stuff – I really loved this interview. An eye-opener indeed.

    🙂

    Axxx

  2. rosyb
    July 25, 2009

    Thanks Anne. I thought it was interesting to see how important Sergio thinks it is to be as faithful and conscious of the original book as possible when doing an adaptation, particularly in light of some of the comments on your Brokeback piece.

    The relationship between the book and the film is always going to be interesting and cause debate. There are examples of book and films that are both brilliant but very very different – Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse now spring to mind. But, for example, if an Austen adaptation changed the story there would be outcry. I have to admit I really liked the Northanger Abbey with Frances O’Conner and Harold Pinter in that brought in a whole theme and context of slavery. I thought that added a clever modern knowledge of what a lot of the money of the time was based on that wasn’t in the book…but provided a comment on the book. I wonder if the more well-known something is the more things can be changed and played with without it adversely affecting the original. An adaptation becomes a version rather an attempt to recreate the original.

    It’s a theme that comes up in Moira’s piece too. The impossibility of capturing the book of Wuthering Heights and that perhaps the most successful version was the one that inverted it and did it as modern day – that with something quite so famous and successful in one medium, the adaptation has to be an adjunct, a comment on some aspect…a bit like versions of Hamlet. What is the definitive Hamlet? No one performance can be.

    Interesting week. Lots of issues have come up. The other one that interested me was the idea of film requiring more sympathetic characters than books – this ran through The End of the Affair piece, Jean Brodie, Wuthering Heights and even, a little bit, Brokeback Mountain. And yet it is said that publishers want books with sympathetic likable characters these days too. Is this therefore to do with the different requirements of books and films – or the requirements of large audience getters versus “works of literature” that may be admired and on syllabuses but not have to attract the reader through likable characters?

    I’d be interested to know if Sergio and Helen are conscious of trying to make characters more or less likable in the screen versions of her novels… Actually I might pop that last bit onto End of Affair comments…

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This entry was posted on July 24, 2009 by in Entries by Rosy, Interviews: authors and tagged , , , , , .

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