April 24th, 2005

Whale fluke

All hail word nerds!

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Oregon Convention Center at the Wordstock Festival, a gathering of perhaps hundreds of authors and editors and poets and other wordsmiths, talking about what they do. I had other business Saturday, so I spent a few hours there instead of, um, Saturday, but neatness abounded.

Being a movie nerd as well as a word nerd – I follow filmmaking the way many people follow sports – I attended one particular panel on adapting books to film. The speakers were Portland novelist Whitney Otto, whose How to Make an American Quilt was adapted into a film; Mike Rich, the radio guy who has made a Hollywood career while still staying in Beaverton; Ron Shelton, the writer-director of strong sports films like Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and (trust me on this, it’s great and brutal) Cobb; and the real happy surprise of the panel, John Norville.

Likely you’ve never heard of Norville. He has one official credit, writing Shelton’s golf movie Tin Cup. But much of a major Hollywood writer’s work goes uncredited – Shawshank director Frank Darabont had a hand in rewriting the opening of Saving Private Ryan, probably the strongest part of that film – and Norville’s had a good career doing work he can’t talk about. He can say that he’s worked for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and that he’s also writing a movie inspired by Disney’s Jungle Ride. And yes, Norville had, shall we say, taken his sarcasm pills that morning, so he was in entertaining smart-ass form. His Bruckheimer project was adapting a novel about a renegade FBI agent; he did it by basically ignoring the book (he called it “this author’s wet dream of what being an FBI agent would be like”) and emphasizing the difficult and obnoxious parts of that job. Sounds like he made it more of a dark comedy, because that was his reaction to the material.

Other highlights:

Whitney Otto related how a major executive called her “a real hardass” because she insisted that the film of American Quilt not – repeat, NOT – be sentimental. (Which, apparently, the filmmakers succeeded in doing, as she was happy with the film and had said that they could change everything about the story except its non-sentimentality.) She’d probably work well with Larry David: his slogan while producing Seinfeld was “No lessons, no hugging.” Otto and her husband also visited the set of American Quilt, and she thought it was hysterical that her husband went speechless when meeting Anne Bancroft. After Bancroft went away, all he could say was, “Mrs. Robinsonnnnnn!”

Ron Shelton got fiery, encouraging writers to be ruthless with revising their work: “The best writers I know are brutal with themselves. Bad writers fall in love with every word.”

Mike Rich got to talk openly about a project that he cannot officially take credit for, due to a Writer’s Guild decision that had most everyone involved on that film go, “Wha…?” (To be honest, I’m not sure I should mention it, even on this blog. E-me and I’ll tell you what film it was. Shawn Levy, the Oregonian’s head film critic and a non-fiction author, named the film because “We’re among friends,” and people reacted positively to it. Mysteriousness ends now.)

Rich also talked up his first produced script, Finding Forrester, where he wrote everything for that film except one improvised scene (of Jamal and his friends talking at lunch), and how glad he was that a test audience actually liked the ending, which some studio executives wanted to change.

I hope to go back to Wordstock today: one speaker is Sarah Vowell, author, contributor to radio’s This American Life, and a voice actor in The Incredibles. And I’m one of those weirdos who thinks Vowell is sexy. She’s also stand-up-comic funny. (Literally. She read bits of her latest book, Assassination Vacation, at a comedy club to be sure it was funny as well as informative. It was.)
Whale fluke

All Hail Word Nerds, Part II



Back from the last day of Wordstock, the highlight of which was when a crowd of Portlanders filled a corner of a sprawling exhibition hall to hear Sarah Vowell speak about assassins. She’s written three books, and the third is Assassination Vacation, about her tour of sites related to the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She read two excerpts: the opening, about Sarah making New England bed-and-breakfast guests uncomfortable by describing what a great musical Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins was, and a section about a commune where the future murderer of President James Garfield lived for a time. This commune preached utterly open relationships to the point where everyone was supposed to get sex…but this future assassin could not get any. (His nickname there: Get Out. I’m not kidding.) Vowell knows how to tell a story: find the sex and violence! And the humor. She’s good with the funny: self-deprecating, sarcastic, deadpan, good things like that. She even sort-of-kind-of links the aforementioned commune with the TV show The O.C. Really.

She had the crowd eating out of her hand, Sarah Vowell did. The audience responded with good questions, too, and question quality is such a crapshoot with public forums like this. No Chris Farley-esque “Wasn’t that cool?” digression about her work on The Incredibles or anyone asking Sarah out to dinner (‘cause I didn’t speak up).

Other good stuff was when author Trisha Howell, who writes kids’ books about dogs (like The Pekinese Who Saved Civilization), had her twin Pekinese onstage with her: the dogs were so still that they blended together to look like a single dog with a head at each end. I started listening to her presentation because of that image. And then there was Ridley Pearson, a mystery novelist who has plunged into children’s book writing with Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to Peter Pan that he wrote with Dave Barry. Yes, that Dave Barry. The two of them started writing what they thought would be a short novel about how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, and it’s grown into a planned trilogy where the first book alone is 464 pages, with seven chapter books filling in even more gaps. The subject grew and grew, to the delight of Disney, which owns the film rights and wants plenty of material to use. And Pearson is pleased to be enjoying all of this writing…for one thing, they’re books that his kids can read. He said how triumphant his seven-year-old daughter was when she brought her copy of the manuscript over to him, after five weeks of reading it on her own, and bellowed “I’m finished!!!