Prof’s autobiography makes the big screen
Poet, playwright and UH creative writing professor Nick Flynn took a moment from promoting the opening of the movie, “Being Flynn,” to talk with The Daily Cougar about the process of turning a written work into something visual. The film, which is based on Flynn’s 2004 memoir, “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” opened in Houston on Friday at the Sundance Cinemas.
The Daily Cougar: After screening the film, a quote from Sherman Alexie’s “Reservation Blues” came to mind: “It’s hard not to see a father’s life as prediction for his sons.” It seemed like it was true for you on a number of fronts until your father “absolved” you. How about now?
Flynn: That’s just the nature of life, I think. Sherman Alexie has it right — we are the physical manifestation of our parents, for better or worse. I hope it came across that my father is complicated, but also he has some sort of basic humanity, too. So, going with that — the humanity rather than the madness, some days are better than others.
TDC: How about you as a father? How does that fit in with you?
Flynn: It took me a long time to actually become a father, certainly in part because the models I had were complicated. I didn’t feel quite up to the task. Now, I have a 4-year-old daughter and it’s just all they say it is. It does change your life, which sounded kind of ominous to me before, but actually I realized that, now that it’s happened, that the things that changed sort of needed to be changed.
TDC: Some scenes from the book were brought to life in a pretty fantastic way, namely the invisible man part and the scene with the ice cream. Did you have any favorites in particular?
Flynn: It’s interesting that you agree on those two. The invisible man one, where (Robert De Niro, who plays Flynn’s father) sleeps on the crates the first time he sleeps outside, that was quite an elaborate shot where the crane suddenly does this thing to your sense of perception — vertigo and disorientation in a visual way. I was just kind of amazed by it.
Also, the ice cream scene was a scene that came out of editing. We took that (scene) and dropped it in the middle of the crazy, collage scene of the film. We put these two things next to each other to sort of create this whole other level of energy, which I think was amazing. Those are good scenes to choose, I think. Those are different things you can do with film that you probably can’t achieve through writing.
TDC: As much as the movie was a reflection on the father-son relationship, it was also about the mother-son relationship, but it didn’t seem to be as big of a focus. Was that also part of editing?
Flynn: Well, it’s primarily a father-son relationship, but the mother or the spirit of the mother is what animates almost all the action. She’s actually in every scene, except you just don’t see her, you know? Like almost everything that both of them do is animated by her spirit. That was actually what we were thinking when we were making the film. That was our intention, so you may not see her but her spirit is there.
TDC: Were there any scenes from the book that you maybe fought to include in or exclude from the film?
Flynn:The book has all sorts of other layers to it, but I think the good thing is how things get streamlined and then focused on and sort of lingered on. There’s part of the book called the “Sumer of Suits,” which I had sort of thought would be good to have in the movie because it shows this sort of life, this relationship with the homeless. But, it didn’t get in. I don’t miss it now that it’s not there. I think the movie has found itself, has found what it was supposed to be.
TDC: Creative writing professors are always saying to get the character out of his/her head. Turning a memoir into a movie seems like the perfect example of why you should get out of the character’s head. Did you find a lot of difficulty in translating the book into film?
Flynn: Well, it’s interesting because the film, you may have noticed, has a lot of voice-over, sort of internal meditations from people … so there’s a lot of actually “in the head” moments. But I think that works with the movie because it layers on top of what you’re seeing. It’s sort of that what you’re seeing almost contradicts what’s being said. We sort of kept the disconnect between what goes on in the head and the reality — and that’s a big part of the movie.
TDC: I read that there were almost 30 versions of the script and you had to read everyone of them, including like a comedy version.
Flynn: Well, I didn’t have to read every one of them, I was fortunate enough to read every one of them. Paul (Weitz, who directed the film,) and I worked really well together, it turned out. He’s creative in writing scripts, but I think he also thinks of it as a collaboration of sorts. I feel very lucky to have read them all.
Now, was there a comedy version? Paul does comedy. That’s one of the reasons that it seemed like a good idea to work with him because he could cheer up (something that), in the wrong hands, could just be sort of really ponderously dark. Paul does comedy, but he also is, it turns out, very soulful, so he turned out to be the right person to do the project.
TDC: You wrote about it, then saw it replayed take after take and now you’re doing “The Reenactments” (a new work by Flynn where he writes about the whole process of turning the book into a film). Do you think that will be a little too meta or something?
Flynn: I’m sure it won’t be too meta for you. Everybody is asking me what it’s like to see your real life recreated by Robert De Niro and Paul Dano (who plays Flynn in the film). It’s not a simple answer, there’s not like one answer. It’s actually quite a complicated one. And what I do is write books and that’s sort of how I deal with complicated questions, you know. I think it’s a good question, but it’s a longer answer.
TDC: Did you have any part in the soundtrack? It seems to fit the movie really well.
Flynn: I’m glad you liked it. Paul has worked with Badly Drawn Boy before on “About a Boy” (Weitz’ 2002 film). We were looking at all sorts of music and at one point Badly Drawn Boy had a new album come out and there were a couple of songs on it … that really sounded like they fit the right tone for this movie.
He wasn’t someone that I would have really actually gone towards. He worked for “About a Boy” because he’s so British, you know? And this is a very American movie. But the song was just so haunting; I think it’s called “Safe Hands.” And then the whole thing just came about from that one song. It was good to collaborate with him.
TDC: Another music related question, going back to the collage scene. Was the Butthole Surfers song actually playing or was it just chosen because the lyrics actually kind of fit the whole scene?
Flynn: Well, it was playing while we were shooting. We sort of came in that day, Paul chose that—he’s good with music. For that party scene, we did a lot of different music, we sort of thought of, like, dance songs. And then Paul chose the Butthole Surfers. We had it playing the whole time but we weren’t even sure if we’d get the rights to it. It just seemed like we had to have some sort of song playing while they were having this party. Then it just looked so good, it actually worked so well that we just went and figured out how to get the rights.
TDC: Yeah, it worked extremely well.
Flynn: Yeah, we didn’t have the rights before. We had the rights after we realized it was kind of essential for the scene, so we were hoping we’d get the rights, and it worked out.