Movie: The Door in the Floor
Bringing Literature to the Screen
John Irving and Tod Williams
Author and Film Director
Monday, June 14, 2004; 12:15 PM
"The Door in the Floor" stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, and is based on John Irving's novel, "A Widow for One Year."
In the film, Bridges and Basinger play a husband and wife who grieve the loss of their sons in different ways, each harboring secrets from the other.
Best-selling author John Irving and film director Tod Williams was online Monday, June 14 at 12:15 p.m. ET, to discuss the process of bringing literature to the big screen.
Irving is the author of numerous novels, several of which have been adapted into films. They include: "The World According to Garp," "The Cider House Rules" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." He also wrote "My Movie Business," a memoir about the process of adapting "Cider House" for Hollywood.
Williams wrote the screenplay for "Door in the Floor" in addition to directing the film. He previously directed the independent feature, "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole."
"The Door in the Floor" opens nationwide on July 14.
A transcript follows.
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John Irving and Tod Williams will be with us shortly.
Mr. Williams, how closely did you work with Mr. Irving (himself, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for best adapted screenplay) on the adaptation of his novel. As the screenwriter and the director, I imagine that at some point, you had to make it your own. What was that experience like? Thanks.
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: As a huge fan of John's and a younger writer, I couldn't resist the opportunity of consulting him in the casting process, the adaptation and in the editing room. In terms of making it my own, I think as a filmmaker you're reacting to 2,500 questions a day so you can't have all the right answers, you have to answer them based on instinct. I never thought to make it my own. I always wanted to make the film its own entity.
JI: I really enjoyed this collaboration these four years because I liked his idea from the beginning and I think that the script just got better and better with every draft. I really liked the editing part of the process and I feel that part of making a film is a lot more like writing a novel than writing a screenplay is. When you're in the post-production part of the film it's a lot like writing a novel rather than a screeenplay. I've liked this collaboration so much that I hope that we can work together again.
The book has many transgressions and twists and turns that couldn't possibly be followed in a film. What story line/theme did you choose to concentrate on in the movie?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: For people who don't know, the film only deals with the first 183 pages of a 700+ page novel. So we're only dealing with essentially the section in the book called Summer 1958. One of the good things about this approach is that if people want to know what happens to these people for the next 30 years, they can read about them in the book.
JI: It's very appealing to a novelist to see such a faithful transcription of the beginning of a novel because it leaves the rest of the novel for readers to discover. It also means that for the moviegoers who've read A Widow for One Year, they won't be disappointed because the film is so faithful and it stops at a natural place of closure. It's a novel like a play in three acts. You couldn't do with every novel. You couldn't with any other novel of mine. But in this one there are three distinct acts.
Since both of you have written screenplays, how easy (or difficult) is it for you to cut scenes during rewrites? And have you ever cut scenes that you absolutely loved writing but were forced to excise because they seemed superfluous in the end?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: In all of writing you end of cutting out things that you love and things that could take you in all kinds of directions. A one-hour or two-hour form of film is particularly strict. My editor kept a collection of scenes that I loved that were cut. But they won't appear on the DVD. I think the movie's finished. If you kill your babies, you have to let them remain dead.
JI: In my case, I remember losing one of my favorite scene from The Cider House Rules because it was a longer scene than the scenes that surrounded it and we couldn't make the scenes shorter. It was the kind of scene that you had to do all of it or none of it. Everyone agreed that we had to lose it because it was disproportionate in length but at the same time you regret it because of the work that went into it. But you never have extra time in a film. You always feel that you have to lose something. You're always looking for another thing that you can lose.
Frequently the most intriguing or exciting parts of novels happen inside a character's head. How can you translate those inner thoughts or epiphanic moments to the screen?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: You have to accept that you can't be as specific but you gain so much by seeing a real human actor feeling these things in front of your eyes.
JI: The actor does make the difference because so many times in a novel you need to describe and describe and describe how someone looks. You have to say what he's feeling; you have to show how he feels by what he says -- give him dialogue. If an actor's good enough in a film, you can lose the dialogue and just see the actor reacting and that reaction goes a long way to compensate for what you can't do from a novel.
What do you think of the casting?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: Casting is the most important thing probably a director does. If you cast wrong, you're going to use every other ounce of energy you have trying to remedy that mistake. But if you cast right, you're gonna find out much more about the material and the possibilities than you saw before. If you cast right, on some level, you almost can't go wrong. In this case, Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger and John Foster were so completely living out these characters that they allowed us to cut out even more scenes and more dialogue and maybe to be more subtle and more layered.
JI: Maybe the best example of that in The Door in the Floor is a scene that Tod wrote that isn't in the book where Marion is leaving her husband and her daughter and the audience knows it but the husband doesn't know it and we watched them have this wordless goodbye. No dialogue. And it's a situation where the Kim Basinger character knows what's happening and the Jeff Bridges character doesn't know yet, but in this small scene you see that he knows that there's something he doesn't know. He recognizes that something's wrong. It was a scene when I first read it on the page that made me anxious. I wondered if it would be clear, but when you see it, because of how good Jeff and Kim are, it's perfect.
Was the name change precipitated in any way by the possibility of making parts two and three into films?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: Not at all.
There's no widow in the section that we're covering.
JI: At the end of the film the character who will be a widow is only four years old, so we had to come up with a more suitable title.
TW: And when we started thinking about that, that led us to the title that we have which then became increasingly important and for me, as a director, the key to the entire film.
We all had so much fun making the movie that we fantasized in doing a sequel in 30 years but at this point there's no intention in doing one.
Obviously you didn't get too hung up on matching appearances since Marion is a dark brunette in the book and Basinger is on the blonde side. I wonder, especially for Mr. Irving, if it is strange to see his character looking significantly different on the screen than he'd imagined her when writing the book?
John Irving and Tod Williams: JI: No, because Marion's beauty in the novel is largely seen through Eddie's (John Foster) eyes. Marion's beauty has an effect in the film which is the same as in the novel. And she is also described in the novel as someone who was more beautiful -- not because she's older now but because she's lost two of her children and the damage of that is also part of the way she looks. And Kim looked just that way -- like a beautiful woman who's lost something unspeakable.
The use of voice over is criticized but it is often used when adapting novels to the screen. Can you talk about how you work with voice over?
John Irving and Tod Williams: JI: Well there is no voice/over in this film but I think I know why voice over is so frequently criticized. It's not because it's a bad device. In films, when the voice over was a part of the screenplay, a part of the original idea for the film, it can be beautiful and it's an excellent fast-forwarding device. The reason it draws criticism is that it's often used in an eleventh hour gesture desperate to bail out a bad film. In other words, the movie was bad before the voice over but it was also unclear. Voice over is a device that is frequently brought in to fix a bad movie and you can't fix a bad movie but don't blame the voice over.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.:
Mr. Irving, you've had a few of your books turned into films. Do you view your books cinematically while you are writing them now? Like, I won't put this part in because it wouldn't work well on screen? Also, how many of your books have you sold the film rights to that have never been made into a movie?
John Irving and Tod Williams: JI: I've written 10 novels. Only four of them ever interested me as films to the degree that I wanted to write the screenplay. I never think about the movie that might or might not be while writing a novel. I only think about the novel. In the case of only two of my books, Setting Free the Bears and The Fourth Hand, have I sold the film rights and not yet seen the film go into production. Setting Free the Bears will never be made. The Fourth Hand will be -- it just hasn't been made yet. Another adaptation of The Son of the Circus is written as a screenplay but I have not yet sold the rights, therefore I still own everything about it -- book and screenplay.
How difficult is it for a new author or screenwriter to have their works considered by filmmakers in Hollywood? What recommendations would you give to such an author or screenwriter?
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: I was always annoyed when my father told me that hard work and persistence was the only way to get ahead and I was even more annoyed when it turned out that he was right. You just have to keep trying if that's what you want to do. But it's not easy.
I'm concerned about the message the trailer sends that 50-year-old women can prey upon underage boys, if they're upset enough. It's not OK and your film shouldn't imply it is.
John Irving and Tod Williams: TW: See the film before you make a judgment.
Pleasure to be chatting to you both! Mr. Irving, your book is from the wife's point of view, whilst the trailers for the film appear to concentrate on the husband. Was the p.o.v. changed for the film? Also, the most successful adaptation of one of your novels was when you scripted "Cider House Rules." The others, frankly, have been disappointing, with "Simon Birch" spectacularly bad, in my opinion. As a dare-to-dream screenwriter myself, I'd like to know how closely did you work with Mr. Williams in adapting this book? Was it from FADE IN: or did he hand you a completed draft and you suggested changes, if any? Mr. Williams, I'm eagerly looking forward to this film. Thank you for giving Ms. Basinger a good, juicy role. Despite her Oscar, I think she's a vastly underrated actress and deserves many more accolades than she gets.
John Irving and Tod Williams: JI: I wouldn't be doing publicity for this film if I didn't love it.
Hi Mr. Irving, I am a big fan. Owen Meany is my favorite of your books. I wish it had been a thousand pages longer!
-- SPOILER ALERT! Do not read the rest of this question if you haven't read a Widow for One Year.--
I recently finished reading A Widow for One Year and was surprised that Ruth wasn't more traumatized by some of her experiences (the rape, her father's death, Rooie's death). I would think that these experiences would have an impact on a person's sense of self and security. Does the screenplay explore this more deeply? At the very least, I think Ruth would need some serious therapy!
John Irving and Tod Williams: JI: Ruth is a writer. Writing is therapy. She becomes a writer. If you write for eight hours a day it would be extraneous to talk to a therapist too. The film begins and ends with Ruth as a four year old girl .. the summer her mother leaves her and her father and it's about why.
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