The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Adderall Diaries.
How did you get involved with this project?
Pamela Romanowsky: I came to this book as a casual reader. I got it from the same bookstore you see James [Franco] signing books in at the start of the movie. I lived next door to that bookstore for many years. I’d go in and ask what’s cool, what should I read, and one day the owner handed me The Adderall Diaries. I read it; loved it; thought about it for a long time. One of things I find compelling is that it has so many ideas within it. His brain is like a Ping-Pong match and then you add the Adderall and it’s about ten thousand things at once. I think anyone who read it would find something to attach to, but for me it was the opening quote that I use in the film: “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” I was a psychology major in college long before my film life. So I studied memory and identity and human behavior and addiction, all in an academic way. It was exciting for me to think about some of those things cinematically. Memory in cinema is also kind of an obsession of mine. I like to see the ways different people represent it. But the more traditional techniques that have been used to identify flashbacks don’t necessary represent the way I process memory. For me, memory can be intrusive and sometimes unwelcome flashes of a smell or an image or moment and they really color the way that you’re in the present. That was primary to me – the idea of how the past colors the experience of the present.
“Memory in cinema is kind of an obsession of mine.”
James loved this book and I believe it was the first book he ever optioned. He had been working on the adaptation himself and then he and I made a short film together with other NYU grads. It was an omnibus project called The Color of Time and my piece was about memory. It was about how this poet is incapable of being in the present moment without all these things from the past flooding in. Once we finished shooting that James said, I have this book and it reminds me of you and maybe you’d be good at this because I haven’t quite figured it out.
One of my favorite scenes is the one where Stephen watches the videotaped confession of his father. What was it like shooting that?
We shot that scene on day three! Day two was the other hotel scene where Ed [Harris] throws the lamp. We didn’t rehearse at all. I had known James for several years at that point, and I had known Ed for about a year, so I had a lot of opportunities to discuss their characters with them individually. They only met for about thirty minutes the night before we started shooting. Everyone is really busy and that’s just how it goes. I hadn’t seen them in a scene together yet and there we were there on set, about to shoot this really important scene. We had actually run the scene through with the stand-ins in the morning and it wasn’t good. I was like oh cool, I’ve written the worst scene in the history of cinema, this’ll be a great day! And then Ed and James came in and I called action, and it was like lightning. There was the lightning I was looking for from the first moment. So I breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked my lucky stars that I got to direct them.
My AD wanted to shoot Ed’s half of the recording that day and said he thought it would take about twenty minutes. And I was like, are you serious? Ed Harris needs to weep with regret, this is a whole day commitment! So I convinced him to move it to the next day and I think we had about an hour to shoot it. But after take three, we were done. Ed is a force of nature. He’s really incredible and does everything 100%. He did a couple of takes and then I said, Ed, I want you to crack open. Whatever moment it is for you in this where the grief hits you, I want it to break you and I want you to see it. We did that take and you see it mostly intact on-screen. It was amazing. I cried at the monitor. The other half, with James watching the tape, was shot weeks later close to the end of the schedule, and James was nervous about it. I think anytime you have a scene that says “Stephen weeps” it’s like, well, what if I can’t. What if it’s not right. It was a closed set. We’d have him watch the tape and decided whatever happens happens. So I put on the tape and we did the scene and it was very emotional. What you see with James happened very quickly and naturally.
How did you integrate the Hans Reiser scenes with the rest of the story?
That was the hardest part for me because the Hans Reiser trial is such a huge part of the book that I couldn’t leave it out. It’s important in that it helps Stephen come to this realization. I thought of Stephen as the sun of his own narcissistic universe and then there are these five satellite relationships that orbit around him: his father, his girlfriend, his best friend, his editor, and his muse. He wants the story to be about Hans Reiser and he wants so badly for that story to mean something to him and he’s trying to connect to it in these different ways. Sometimes Hans says things that reminds Stephen of himself, and sometimes he says things and it’s like “Oh God, you’re my father, you’re full of excuses.” By the time he gets that conversation with Hans in jail, a light bulb finally goes off and it’s the last little nudge Stephen needs. He realizes if he claims victimhood all the time, he’s Hans. That’s the narrative purpose it serves. But the challenge of adapting the book was that it’s about all these things at once. It’s a psychological portrait of this person and all these relationships are important. It was really a balancing act in the script to chart the advancement of each relationship while making sure the other ones didn’t lose momentum.
What did you learn from this process?
I think the biggest takeaway was the weird dance of flexibility and rigidity that you have to learn. There are some things that are non-negotiable. Like, this scene is about this, and if that doesn’t happen, the movie doesn’t work. Other than those ideas, you have to be flexible all the time. You know, you get a location to shoot and you hear “There’s a pair of rare ducks that nested overnight and you can no longer shoot here.” And then you drive around frantically and you find another spot, and it needs to be woods, and they need to find a body, and you hear that you can use this spot, but you can’t dig, so you need to figure it out. I suspect shooting in general is unpredictable so knowing what the core of the scene is, what you need out of it, and having that emotional roadmap is really important. Then outside of that, you can be open to whatever gets thrown at you. Which is sometimes good. The scene where Christian Slater and James are alone in the courtroom was totally an accident that was born of one of the Jurors falling asleep so loudly and snoring so dramatically that is totally ruined the take. So we took everyone out and were shooting Christian’s coverage in this empty courtroom. Then I realized I liked it and we shot it that way. So I think knowing what you need from a scene and being open-minded is a huge part of the process.
The other is just resilience. It’s hard to make a movie. You hear no so many times. This is not a good idea. This is not financeable. There are so many no’s along the way that there needs to be some spark that convinces you to keep going. And of course once you get people to join you, it’s really exhilarating.