Tom Perrotta on Screenwriting

Question: Why did you get into screenwriting?

Perrotta: I think that one of the reasons that I got into screenwriting had to do with the sense that my own position, my own ability to make a living as a novelist was pretty precarious a few years ago.  That’s changed a bit, you know, with my last two books, but I, “Joe College” was my fourth book and, you know, I hadn’t really made any kind of a living as a writer.  I was teaching and I’d had, you know, a little bit of luck with “Election” being made as a film, but I was really trying to think like how am I going to keep going as a writer economically and I got some opportunities, because “Election” was so well received, to write some screenplays and, you know, I was definitely responding to a kind of economic imperative.  I wanted to make a living writing as opposed to teaching but I was also well aware that, you know, if you make a movie, millions of people see it, and if you write a book, if you’re lucky, tens of thousands of people will read it and I think that if you want, like, something like “Election” I thought, when I wrote the book, this is a political novel.  I would love for people to talk about this book in relation to the American political system.  When it came as a book, nobody did.  It was hardly reviewed and when it was reviewed, it was reviewed, and I think in terms that were smaller than I’d hoped, but when the movie came out, people immediately saw that it was a political allegory.  They still talk about it now.  I mean, in this election, Tracy Flick has come up both in terms of Hilary Clinton and in terms of Sarah Palin and, you know, just, it’s very clear to me as a writer that if “Election” only existed as a book, none of that would have happened.  Tracy Flick would not have become this iconic figure within the culture that people just… It’s just a shorthand.  Now, you say the name and people know what that is.  So, it will be, I think… it would just be disingenuous of me to say that I wasn’t aware of that disparity in terms of audience and just in terms of impact on the culture.

Question: How is screenwriting different from writing a novel?

Perrotta: Screenplay is a much more rigid form.  It’s got to be a certain length.  It’s got to have a certain characteristics if it’s going to survive in the Hollywood marketplace or even the indie marketplace.  And what happened was “Election” came out, people really responded to it in Hollywood and I suddenly got, I got an offer from the WB Network, which well, you know, makes no sense to me, really.  But they said, you know, we want you to write TV pilots for us and they gave me an offer of, you know, 2 pilots, a half-hour sitcom and an hour drama, and so I got paid to do that and, you know, it’s a sort of on-the-job training.  You know, I read the books that everybody reads in film school about writing screenplays, but I actually found it was a fairly intuitive thing for me.  I have been a huge movie fan since I was kid and, you know, spent a lot of… I took a lot of film classes in college and in the years since [I was out of] college I went to movies constantly.  So, I trained in a way without knowing I was training for it because when it came time to write a script I had a pretty good idea of what it was.  I also feel like I write my fiction in a kind of scenic way, you know.  It’s, you know, very often the conversation at the heart of a scene, the narrative structure is pretty tight.  It’s not so voice driven that you can’t make a translation from the page to the screen without doing some crazy thing.  So, even though it was a craft and I had to learn the craft, and I’m still learning it, I think I could write a competent screenplay pretty early on.

Question: How has writing “The Abstinence Teacher” informed your screenwriting?

Perrotta: Writing screenplays made me very conscious of what I could do is a novelist that I can’t do as a screenwriter.  Particularly, those 2 things are, you know, move around in time, very difficult in a script.   Even though, I will say both “Election” and “Little Children” as films were fairly literary and there are a lot of flashbacks, there’s a lot of voiceovers.  But, generally speaking, you can move in time so easily within the context of prose fiction and it’s relatively difficult in film to…  A flashback is like a big phenomena within a film.  Everything stops and it’s kind of clunky and you have to figure out some way to hint at the passage of time or the disparity in time.  So, oddly enough, you know, some people will say, “Oh, you must have start…” and I’ve had this criticism.  People say, “Oh, this looks like it was written as a screenplay,” whereas my experience of it is that I’m so much more conscious of the fact that I’m writing a novel and so much more aware of all the tools that I have at my disposal in terms of sentences, you know, literary style and movement in time in narrative structure and just space to expand.  You know, film is a tight construction and a novel can expand.  So, I feel like “Little Children” and “The Abstinence Teacher” were actually, you know, quite expansive and that in a funny way it’s a reaction against the restrictions of screenwriting that it allowed me to that, and they’re bigger in scope too.  They have a lot of characters and they try and get at, you know, an entire community.  So, I feel like screenwriting really made me appreciate all the tools at my disposal as a novelist and, you know, when I wrote “Joe College” it was right after “Election” had been made into a movie and at that point I really was thinking a little bit about, “Oh, you know, maybe this will be a movie and maybe this will be a great scene in a movie,”  and “Joe College,” as you know, never became a film.  And I wrote “Little Children” sort of feeling like I just got to forget about that.  I just want to write this is a book, and when I turned it in to my film agent, she said, “You know, I love this book, but it’s really going to be hard to make this into a movie.  It’s very dark, you know, there’s this child molester character.  It’s an ensemble piece.  The ending isn’t a happy one,” and I was fine with that. But that was the one that became a movie, and so I realized it’s just… in that corner of the film world that I work in it, it almost doesn’t matter what the book is.  It just matters if some filmmaker on the level of Alexander Payne or Todd Field or Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris, you know.  If they see a movie there, then a movie might happen.  So it’s not like I’m writing a…  It’s not you can write something to order.  Somebody has got to really connect with it, and so I just try to push that out of my mind.  You know, what would this book look like on screen?  It just, it doesn’t make any sense to try and second guess that kind of thing.

Tom Perrotta on the joy of writing movies.

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Photo credit: Getty Images / Stringer

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