How to turn your novel into a TV show
Novelists often don’t have the ability to adapt their own work, let alone creatively control every element of the process. Whether that’s envious or atrocious – or both – is a question that Taffy Brodesser-Akner can now answer. A well-known celebrity profiler (quite memorably of Gwyneth Paltrow and Bradley Cooper) and the author of the 2019 bestselling novel Fleishman is in troubleshe has just completed her work as writer, showrunner and executive producer of the limited series adaptation of Flemishwhich airs this week on FX/Hulu.
Brodesser-Akner is a longtime friend, and I wanted to know what it was like to go from inventing the world of Toby Fleishman, a sad Upper East Side doctor going through a divorce, to actually being on set. and lay on top of Toby. bed. What was it like watching Jesse Eisenberg bring Toby to life, a stethoscope around his neck and a ringing phone with dating app notifications? Or see Claire Danes, who plays the difficult role of Toby’s wife, Rachel Fleishman, rely on her facial expressions to capture more and more viewer sympathy as the series progresses?
As a novel, Flemish plays with perspective, exploring how a marriage can break up when two people experience it very differently. Translating these perspectives into an on-screen duel doesn’t seem obvious or easy. This was just one of the challenges for Brodesser-Akner, who had never been anyone’s boss before becoming showrunner – at one point during production she texted me to say she couldn’t believe she was in charge of what felt like 300 people on any given day. In the weeks leading up to the series premiere, we met for coffee near Central Park. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Gal Beckerman: Why did you decide to adapt Fleishman is in trouble yourself?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Because every time I thought about not adapting it – I had several offers on it, and these great writers wanted to do it – I felt very jealous. But I also have a job. Also, I don’t think a novelist is in the best position to adapt her own work. So I was listening, and they all had these ideas. And I’d feel that panic – you know, that panic that builds up inside you when you’re like [growling voice] It’s not that. You become that monster. I guess the answer is I should do this.
Beckerman: Was writing for the screen one of your aspirations?
Brodesser-Akner: In fact, I went to school for it. I have a degree in playwriting from NYU. But I got into journalism after college because he was the one listing jobs in the classifieds (remember that?). But I don’t know the aspirations. I’ve never taken a journalism course in my life. It’s just kind of something you can learn by watching. It was a little different. I had these two producing partners, Sarah Timberman and Susannah Grant. They are both industry legends. The first time I spoke to them, they said: You must write it down. This is your voice. We will help you. And these two women sat with me through 30 drafts of each episode. They are the ones who crossed the finish line. That’s what really happened. It wasn’t that I was that good; it was that I had people who were so good at protecting me, both from other people’s very legitimate concerns about someone doing this for the first time and from my own bad instincts at times. But there is a transitive property to approval and trust. Those two believed in me, and then people who make bigger decisions too. Am I using the “transitive property” correctly?
Beckerman: Maybe? I want to hear about rookie mistakes, though. What was the learning curve for you?
Brodesser-Akner: You sit there writing, and you write a first draft with a hundred scenes, because you’re trying to establish things. And then someone has to explain to you nicely: “Do you understand that every time there is a new scene, they change their clothes, their hair, everyone moves to a different place? And you’re here so people can have a two-sentence exchange? »
But I fought for it, for this kind of chaotic vision of the first two episodes, and they supported me. When I wrote episode 5, we were already filming the series, and suddenly I understood: it will exhaust everyone. Thus, from episode 5, the scenes become longer and longer. The other thing I learned was that in all the time I spent with actors writing their profiles, I didn’t really understand what they were capable of. I didn’t understand how they could absorb your writing, the words themselves, if you gave them more time to be in a scene – that they could become the scene.
Beckerman: Seeing actors – and such great ones – transform into characters that you created in your head must have been a really strange experience. You’ve spent a lot of time with actors before, but I wonder if that’s led you to a new understanding of them.
Brodesser-Akner: Seeing them become these characters was profound for me. Back when I was writing about actors, I was really more interested in their fame than their talent. And now: I would be there watching them, and they would just become this thing. I was sitting in this director’s chair, and I had a screen in front of me. And I almost couldn’t rate it. Directors will tell you, “Is that how you thought of it? And I was almost in a trance. For example, what is Jesse Eisenberg doing here, saying these things that I wrote? That too was a crisis for me, crossing that Rubicon.
Beckerman: Which Rubicon?
Brodesser-Akner: Be in the company of actors and not write about them. I had this anxious dream about Jesse about a week into filming, and here’s what it was: his whole thing is that when he talks to you, he’s the most curious person that you have ever met. And he just asks about you. And in this dream I’m still at QG, and I’m writing a profile of Jesse Eisenberg. But it’s the best profile I’ve ever written. And not only that, but I wake up, and I remember the profile. And yes, it is the best profile. And here’s what it is: it’s just a list of his questions. With his answers to my answers, which are also questions.
Beckerman: This is exactly how you would profile Jesse Eisenberg.
Brodesser-Akner: I woke up, and I still had that moment where I was like, I wish I could write this profile. I wonder if someone will let me write this profile? The answer is that no one should let me write this profile.
Beckerman: Tell me about writing. What new challenges did writing for television present that you hadn’t encountered before?
Brodesser-Akner: The dialogue and the construction of scenes came to me more easily than the structure of an episode. You have this eight episode thing, which has to have an arc during this one. But each episode should also have its own arc, lest you be accused of being someone who just cut your book into eight episodes. Everyone has to have a big idea, but those ideas didn’t come naturally to me. They come naturally to me in a magazine article. But it was difficult to conform the action to the idea, since the action already existed in the book.
Beckerman: I mean, the show seems pretty faithful to the book.
Brodesser-Akner: It’s so faithful. I had a budget. And I had space limitations. And I just have this brain that produces these results for this particular story. But also, if the book didn’t exist, I would have done things so differently for our production needs. The first thing I would have gotten rid of was Toby being a doctor, because you know how difficult and expensive it is to shoot in a hospital? We had an amazing production-design team that was busy all the time, because it was constant. It was constant. Once I saw that, I think I would have been happy to make him a lawyer, or something that would have cost less to shoot. But in the end, the book worked, and the book made the decision. The gig wasn’t writing a TV show; the concert was an adaptation.
Beckerman: But what about control? I always imagined that as a writer, the collaborative process of making a movie or a TV show – not being able to figure it all out – would be difficult.
Brodesser-Akner: You might think so, but here’s what else you don’t know. So you’re writing this book where everyone’s so rich, and the first time I was brought onto the set of the insanely rich building where Rachel lives, I cried, because our production designer knew exactly what to do. . I wrote this book because I was so broke. When I picture rich people, I picture Scrooge McDuck diving into a pile of coins. I didn’t know what an apartment like Rachel Fleishman’s would look like, the details. I wouldn’t have thought of the ceiling or the shampoo; I would not have thought of the brand of the toaster.
So you would think my job would be to say, “I don’t think this works.” But the truth is, it was a constant admiration for the fact that I put these things on paper, and these people picked them up and brought them to life in the most glorious way.
Beckerman: So they were coloring in story elements?
Brodesser-Akner: No, they drew on it and made it bigger and even more specific. And I’m still in awe of it.
Beckerman: Do you see yourself doing more TV after that?
Brodesser-Akner: Now that I’ve done all of that, what I can say is that my favorite form of writing is a magazine story.
Brodesser-Akner: I just know it’s the perfect size and shape for the expression of a thought for me, and all of those things are expressions of thoughts. But I can’t wait to see what happens next. It’s like the way I now think about writing books. Journalist and novelist Laura Lippman once told me that writing her first novel is like riding a bike for the first time: you can’t believe how free you are. And now I see the following books are the understanding of the bicycle as a vehicle. Learn what it can do.