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A Single Shot’s Journey to the Screen

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of the first Mulholland Classic, A SINGLE SHOT, author Matthew F. Jones details the ongoing story of how a book becomes a film.

The history of A SINGLE SHOT’s journey to the screen (a history yet in the making) is a torturous one that extends almost back to the novel’s original release in 1996.  First optioned in 1997, the novel has been under option every year since, albeit by a number of different producers and with four different directors attached in that time.  From 1997 to 2007 I was shown versions of, I believe, six different screenplay adaptations of the book (though I’m sure there were more the producers chose not to show me based upon my reactions to the ones I did see!) by a variety of Hollywood writers.  Before showing me his version of it, the writer first attached to the project warned me, “I loved your book, you’re going to hate my script.”  When I finished reading it I sent him a note saying only, “You’re right.”   Since it was the first script of any kind I’d ever read maybe I was being a little unfair, though even in retrospect I believe that assessment was right on; it was pretty horrible.  In trying to make an homogenized version of the story the writer had sucked out all of its soul and made John Moon into a somewhat dimwitted, good-hearted backwoods character only an LA writer (actually I believe this particular writer was from Manhattan, same difference to a rural upstate New Yorker!) thinks actually exists.  And the bad guys of course were made into downstate Italian wise guys!  Thankfully that script went into the toilet along with the first option.  It puzzled me at the time why someone would go to the trouble and expense of optioning a book only to hire an adaptation of it that would remove the book’s core essence and power.  How little I knew about the business of movie making!

My opinion of the next five scripts, all done by different writers, was about the same as it was of the first one.  Each producer I gave an option to would tell me beforehand how much he or she loved the book and intended if I gave them the rights to it to do an accurate a film portrayal of it as possible.  Of course since I had no say over the screenplay, once I had signed the option all I could do was offer my strongly worded opinion on it when later I was shown a script that represented at best a severely watered down version of the novel; and, even apart from its tenuous connection to the novel, a script that in my opinion didn’t make for a potentially good film.  The best thing I can say about those first ten years relative to A SINGLE SHOT’s film prospects is I appreciated receiving a check each year for the option.  And I tried to keep in mind that famous line to all novelists regarding movie rights to their books – ‘take the money and run’.  That, though, was hard for me.   I love films (especially well done independent films) almost as much as I love books and I’ve always felt there was a great one in A SINGLE SHOT.  Never during that time though did I consider trying to write a script of it myself.  In truth I sort of looked down on the craft of screenwriting without knowing very much at all about it.  I had the sort of uppity (totally nonsensical and naive) attitude that I was a novelist, not a screenwriter bound by some conscripted form.

Then, around five years ago a perfect storm of events led me to rethink my view.  First, my novel DEEPWATER was made into a film I had nothing to do with other than that I wrote the book.  ‘DEEPWATER’, the movie, is not a bad film for what it is, it just isn’t close to an accurate representation of the novel or – more importantly – near as good a film as I believe it could have been with a better script.  After seeing it my foremost thought was ‘what a missed opportunity to make a really interesting film.’  Shortly after that A SINGLE SHOT nearly got made with a script I didn’t think much of.   Though it meant I’d missed a good payday I was relieved when one of the investors backed out not long before filming was to start and just before the option came due.  A few months prior to when it came due another producer had offered to hire me to write the script if I would option the book to his company if and when I ever got the rights back.  I was impressed with his insight on the book and his willingness to give me a free hand to write my vision of it for the screen.  Despite the fact I’d never done any script writing and had barely even read any scripts and the warnings from a few of my novelist friends about their unpleasant experiences in trying to cross over into the film world I felt, as critical as I had been of other writers attempts, I had to give it a shot.

The first thing I did was read some scripts of movies I admired – China Town, The Deerhunter, Body Heat, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Usual Suspects, Affliction, The Getaway,( not the Alec Baldwin remake, but the original with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw) The Godfather, Fargo, to name a few.  A really good script I discovered does two things: draws a precise but simple expositional outline from which a director – or anyone reading it – is able to envision an entire, detailed tableau, in the way a skilled architect sketches a blue print from which the viewer is able to picture the house he hopes to have built for him: secondly, it creates interesting and compelling characters in large part through the words they are given to say – i.e. dialogue, an aspect of novel writing I’ve always enjoyed and considered one of my strengths.  Next, I reread the novel, A SINGLE SHOT, with the view that I was reading a novel not written by me; a novel someone else had written I had simply been hired to adapt.  In that I hadn’t read the novel since before its initial release and never in bound form, that was easier than it sounds.  That imposed distance I believe made it much easier for me to write the script in a coldly, analytical way; in a way that I suspect would have been much more difficult had I clung too tightly to my novelist’s credo that every scene, character, word and line of a work is essential.  The lesson being I suppose is that it’s much easier to cut and rework someone else’s work than it is your own!  A couple of years later when I was hired to write a script of my novel BOOT TRACKS I applied the same tactic with similar results, despite that that book (having come out much closer to when I was hired to adapt it) was much fresher in my mind at the time.

And, to my surprise and joy, I found I enjoyed script writing.  Enough so that I have since written other screenplays, both original ones and novel adaptations. That said, the two forms – novel and screen writing – are much different.  Novel writing, in my view, is an art in which the writer seeks to touch every one of a readers five (or, I guess, six) senses, whereas script writing is more of a craft in which the rule is, ‘if you can’t see it or hear it don’t write it’.  One quickly learns too that movie making, in direct contrast to novel writing, is very much a collaborative endeavor.  Every one – from the director, to the producers, to the actors, to the cinematographer – give their input on a script.  Then there’s the money people who worry is it too dark?  Is it too graphic?  Is it too anything that might affect negatively on their investment?  So, the writer, while making compromises, has to work hard to keep in the script the true core and essence of his story.  Writing scripts has helped me appreciate more the extraordinary talents of really good actors, cinematographers, set people and so on, and how exhilarating collaborative storytelling can be.  It also has emphasized for me something I’d known for a long time as a novelist – as long as it’s told well a good story can be told in many different way without losing its soul or power.  The only way I believe that a novelist can do a good adaptation of his own novel is too always bear in mind that the movie will not be the novel.  And it shouldn’t be.  It should be the novel seen through a different prism and experienced in a different medium.  My hope is that when (hopefully, not if) the film is finished (with a little help from the movie gods, by the end of the year) readers who enjoyed the novel, A SINGLE SHOT, will enjoy the film, A SINGLE SHOT (with its permutations and nuances) just as much.  And that I’ll be nearly (fully may be hoping for too much) as proud of having written the movie as I am of having written the book.

   Matthew F. Jones is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels Boot Tracks, Deepwater, The Elements of Hitting, Blind Pursuit and The Cooter Farm, as well as a number of screenplays, including adaptations of A Single Shot and Boot Tracks, both which are being filmed in 2011. Deepwater was made into a film in 2005. Jones grew up in rural upstate New York and lives now in Charlottesville, Virginia. Learn more at http://matthewfjones.com/