Will Neil Patrick Harris Dance for Me? Composing, 01/04/2016

I’ve been working on the You Were My Friend film script again for the past week or so. It’s taken me about three months to get to this current almost-done point because I’ve had to work on it in fits and starts. 

This is the peril of having a ton of work and activism commitments that barely make me any money in the first place. 

And we're changing the poster too.
But I’ve started adapting the last sequence, what I call the stab to the heart sequence. This is basically the fallout of a single, desperate, stupid act of betrayal that leaves the main character in an even bigger poverty trap than she was already. It’s a very simple scene – a search through an apartment and a series of frantic phone calls for help.

But the sequence unfolds very differently from theatre to film. I mean, it has to. It’s a question of literal physical material. The original version of You Were My Friend consisted of two people acting out lines live on a messy set in front of an audience of people sitting a few feet away from them. 

This new version will be a series of images projected on a theatre wall or playing through a television or computer screen with a soundtrack. 

It sounds silly to write out the actual physical form of the different media, theatre and cinema. But it actually helps foreground the challenges of adapting a story from one medium to another.

Some of the most frustrating conversations I’ve had with people about writing have talked about adaptation. How it must be so easy to adapt, say, a book into a movie. All the story is already there, you might say. You just cut bits and turn it into a script.

It’s even easier with a play! you might say before I slap you in the mouth. It’s even already a script. 

Yes, the narrative stays the same. In some cases, I’ll admit it: I literally copied and pasted lines of dialogue from the theatre script to the cinema script. There’s an entire Groucho-Chico conversation between the two leads Vicki and Madison that unfolds in exactly the same way.

But the differences between the media change a lot about the presentation. Here's an example that shows how radical the changes really are, from a composition perspective. 

Adaptation is a lot harder than people think.
The Room.

No, not that one. I mean the apartment my Vicki and Madison share. On the stage, it’s literally the only set. There’s a sequence late in the play where they go clubbing together – I depict the change by a disorienting sudden change in lighting from a bright apartment to a dance floor and they just start dancing to trance music. The transition back to the apartment the next morning is done by bringing the stage lights up extra-bright to show how hung over they are. 

It’s all one smoothly flowing sequence. The cinema version is going to be more disjointed. In fact, it’s getting purposely, extremely disjointed.

For one thing, being a realist film, I have to have the actors in an actual club. But I’ve also been playing with the order of events a lot more in the film version. It’s not going to be disorienting – there are enough visual and narrative cues in the script to show how the different events connect to each other. 

All the sequences in the theatre version unfolded chronologically – the drama and suspense comes from how their conversations about their past unfold. Peeling back one layer of truth and history at a time until you reach the raw nerve underneath all the smiles and laughter.

I'm talking Samantha into lifting ideas from Martin
Scorsese movies. Either we do it and it still looks
awesome, or we think of something even better. But
you have to start from lifting someone else's really
awesome idea.
In the film version, each sequence is about discovering hidden facts that change a situation radically – sometimes both characters know. Sometimes only one of them. The drama comes from the different effects their different knowledge of each other has on their friendship and their situations. 

So the clubbing sequence in the film version – narratively speaking – plays out just as it does in the play. Vicki’s unfolding monologue about the frustration and hopelessness of her underemployment, punctuated with comic interruptions from Madison.

But in the film version, it’ll play out in an entirely different order. Some lines of the monologue in a club bathroom, some in the apartment as they take MDMA, some of Vicki talking to herself as she staggers peaking through the crowd, and a few shots of her dry heaving alone in an alley. 

Sometimes you rock the party, and sometimes the party rocks you.

The heart of the scene now shifts seriously from the theatrical version because one line doesn’t follow another in straightforward order. Whole different parts of her speech are now next to each other. It emphasizes different themes and ideas, shows you Vicki’s state of mind in a much more visceral way. 

And it breaks the last stability for the audience by shattering the stability of all this happening on the same set. It’s a whole different set of narrative ideas to think about. 

An adaptation is more than just cutting and pasting into a different script format. It’s retelling the story entirely differently, with totally different tools and affordances. Frankly, I’m a little impressed with myself.

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