Rebecca Miller on Novels and Film

Question: Did you intend Pippa Lee to become a film?

Rebecca Miller: Well, honestly, I started definitely with it as a novel.  I started right after I finished a book of short stories “Personal Velocity” and I had a publisher and I knew it was going to be published and so immediately I started on this novel.  But what happened was, because “Personal Velocity” when it came out, and I had not made a film for quite a long time ‘cause I couldn’t get any money for a long time.  And Personal Velocity, in a way, came out of the short stories.  I gave up making films, started to write short stories and decided to write fiction.  And then, was offered to make “Personal Velocity,” made it.  It had some success.  And then all of a sudden, I was able to make this film that I had wanted to make for 10 years, which was “The Ballad of Jack and Rose”.  And so, I got a chance to make it.  And I made that film.  Well, first, I made “Personal Velocity” and then I made that film.  So, that really took me away from the novel for a long time.  And after I was done with the second film, I was so shattered, kind of, that I didn’t have it in me to write a novel.  A novel, you have to be very robust in yourself.  You have to have really good mental health and really good, you know, just health, I think.  And I didn’t have, I just didn’t have the concentration, so I started to try and write it as a screenplay and I got absolutely nowhere, it was a disaster actually.  So I thought, no, okay, it’s not a film, it’s definitely a book and I went back, and then we were in Ireland and I just started to write and I…  and so it took me about two and a half years and I just wrote the book.  And then, about three-quarters of the way through writing the book, I started to see double, like, there’s certain way that I have where I like I start to see it double like I start seeing a film too.  And once I, once that happened, it was really… the book was really finished, fundamentally finished.  But I was starting to kind of add things on and pad things and take things away and that’s when I already knew.  So then I had it more or less finished and I wrote the screenplay.  Then I went back and I finished the novel.  And sort of, at the very end, they start to kind of talking to each other a little bit.  But I find it, for me, the best thing is if I’m going to do it, like I did with “Personal Velocity” too that I, it’s better if I’m not finished…  I’m almost finished with the book but it’s still kind of open like the wound is open and then it’s almost becomes like part of the same thing.  I don’t know what it would be like to write a book and then 10 years later, make a movie.  I don’t know what that would, that hasn’t been how I’ve done it ever so…

Question: What is it like watching actors interpret characters from your book?

Rebecca Miller: It’s really… It’s interesting.  I don’t, I mean, I sort of feel that Pippa in the book is always going to be Pippa in the book.  Like that Pippa will never be erased or substituted by anything else.  Although, I think that what’s…  So for me, I’m not really… I don’t think of it almost like it’s not really adapting the book as much as kind of almost reinventing it from the same knob, in the same idea because the film is actually completely different form than the book.  But I think that Robin Wright Penn who’s playing Pippa actually kind of, she gets this essence of Pippa.  Like what I was saying before about this essence, she really does embody a certain kind of… sort of an acceptance that Pippa has of other people in the world around her and a kind of grace that she has, that’s very, you know, that was really beautiful to see.  And I love working with actors.  I love, actually in a funny way, losing control because then, to me, you know, what the good ones do is so miraculous.  They kind of take it.  They…  It’s just exciting to see them… I don’t know.  You know, make it something else and yet it’s still the thing you made.  And yet, it’s more than what you made and different than what you made.

Question: How do you choose actors for your films?

Rebecca Miller: Yeah, it’s very interesting and I think it always remains.  I think the thing that keeps me hooked into that process is the all chemical, almost an alchemy that happens inside of the actor.  And, you know, in the end, it’s mysterious.  I mean, directing is a very mysterious process because you have to kind of, you don’t even really know how you do it.  I don’t think.  You have to influence almost like the magnetic filings of somebody’s insides, you know, in a way that isn’t, you don’t say it.  You don’t, like, come out and say what it is.  And sometimes you don’t know exactly, you don’t know exactly the result that you would like, but you have a sense of changing direction.  And, so it’s kind of, it’s kind of magic in a way, I guess.  I feel like the whole process has an element of magic to it in a different way than writing, which has its completely different satisfaction, just as profound but different.

Recorded on: 10/16/2008

Rebecca Miller talks about watching her novels become film and what it is like to select actors for characters she has created.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.