Lately I’ve been feeling sympathy for actors. I never used to feel that. I used to think actors deserved NOTHING, because they’re already beautiful and adored. And people are swoon over how clever and cool they must be in real life, because apparently they improvised their best lines and YOU KNOW WHAT NO THEY DID NOT. They played the damn character that was written for them, that’s what they did. The alternative only gets play because people believe in their hearts that movies are real.*
Essentially, I viewed actors as mindless automatons waiting to be filled with words. Attractive automatons, to be sure. They’re a fine looking bunch. And they’re good at pretending. But that’s not a particularly impressive skill. I mean, kids do it. So I’ve never really rated actors as more deserving of respect than, say, jugglers. Especially jugglers who can balance on things while they juggle. That shit is not easy.
But this was before I actually spent time on a film set. I found that educational in a few ways. For one thing, I had to act. Only a little. I’m kind of abusing the term here. I mostly had to stand in one place and not sneeze. But there was a time when I had to move parts of my body in a coherent way while fifty people and a very expensive camera stared at me, and that turned out to be harder than I expected. There is a pressure element. So I concede that acting, or doing anything, really, is more challenging when a lot of people’s time and money is riding on you not screwing it up.
But the real eye-opener was how actors have to do what they’re told. Not always. Sometimes actors can say, “I’m not really feeling that line,” and the director will say, “Let’s try it both ways,” and the actor can perform a take differently while knowing in their soul that it will never be seen again. Actors are also free to perform minor on-the-fly sentence surgery, so long as they get the essence right. In some cases, they really can propose something different, and if the director agrees, they get to do it. But mostly they have to say the lines.
So if I write, “6 looks surprised,” then Amber Heard has to go ahead and look surprised. I want you to take a moment to think about how much you would enjoy it if you were world famous and had to look surprised just because I wanted you to. Because I would hate it. I would be all, “I tell you what, how about you go fuck yourself?” Now, okay, this probably just means I would make a crappy actor. I already knew that. And I knew actors had to say the lines. That is the most fundamental part of their job. If they weren’t prepared to do it, they would find something else to do, like juggle while balancing on things.
But still. I realize more and more how spoiled I am to own the entire process of creating a novel. I don’t need anyone’s permission to start writing. I don’t need to convince people to sign off on doing a part of the story a particular way. I just do it. You might argue that this isn’t a good thing. And I might argue, why don’t you get off my site, if you hate me so much. But for better or worse, I enjoy the ability to determine how I do my job.
Actors don’t have that. They have to give themselves to a role no matter how shitty. They’re totally dependent on being offered good scripts, and if they’re not, they have to perform bad ones. When they perform bad roles, even when they do a good job, people think they’re bad actors, because people think movies are real.* An actor might never once get the chance to perform a role at their best. Which is kind of horrifying.
Of course, they can console themselves with their immense beauty.
(* They are real. All stories are real.)
On Tuesday I had my Syrup cameo. I was not as nervous about this as I’d expected, until it came time to do it, at which point I was seized with terror. This was because everyone around me seemed to know exactly what they were doing and be very good at doing it, while I’m a writer who can’t act. I knew that whenever something went wrong during a shot, people would shout out, “RESET, RESET,” or “CUT” or “MAX BARRY GODDAMMIT HOW HARD IS IT TO TAKE ONE STEP TO YOUR RIGHT” (probably), and did not want to waste everyone’s time. They were doing such an incredible job; why was I making it harder? My very presence was an insult, implying that anyone could do this. If an actor wanted to insert a few sentences into a novel I was writing, how would I feel about that? Like no freaking way was that happening, that’s how.
So I felt indulgent. But of course every person I spoke to was completely encouraging and happy for me, so it may have been all in my head. Anyway, I completely nailed the “neurotic” part of actor right off the bat.
I was a waiter. In an earlier blog I said I was going to be an exec in a strip club—which I really should have mentioned to my wife before the day I was leaving, I discovered—but the schedule changed so instead I was a waiter. I had a line but convinced the director to drop it, because I lost confidence in being able to make recognizable sounds out of my talking hole. Instead I mostly just stood next to Amber Heard and gave her things while she delivered a monologue about feminism in the workplace. This was a good match of roles to talents. I was like the caddy of a great golfer, if the golfer was world-class and beautiful and at one point wearing a corset, and the caddy had never held a club before and was concentrating on not swallowing his own tongue.
Here’s me paying intent attention to the director, Aram:
Beside me is Shane, a very cool guy who I talked to a lot on set; he’s a producer who in this moment is standing in for Amber. I must be standing on a box or something because no way is Shane this short. That’s some kind of film trickery. The ear belongs to Scott, whose job is to herd people into the right positions at the right time by bellowing instructions. He is awesome. Everyone is awesome. Julio Macat, the cinematographer, who I wish I got a pic with but never did, is flat-out brilliant and a genuinely lovely human being. Every day I was on set I learned more about what these people do and how good they are at doing it.
A lot of exterior shots were filmed that day and next, so the internet filled with paparazzi pics. I think I am supposed to be disappointed at, you know, these vultures suckling at the teat of celebrity, but come on, HOW COOL DO THESE LOOK.
No-one felt a need to take a paparazzi shots of me, for some reason. I had to do it myself. So here is me in my trailer on the day of my cameo. (I don’t know why I got a trailer.)
Then I flew home to Melbourne, Australia. Which was heartbreaking, because I want to live on that film set for the rest of my life, but also wonderful, because I got to hold my girls (three new teeth for Matilda. Three!) and sleep for longer than five hours and get back to writing things.
This trip was amongst the most hands-down incredible things I’ve ever experienced. It was astonishing on many levels: hearing actors delivering lines I wrote, seeing characters and locations I’d imagined coming to life, being embraced so warmly by the cast and crew, watching how films actually get made, surviving a cameo. I’m so grateful to every person involved. And I know nothing will ever beat it: that even if I’m fortunate enough to have more work produced, it won’t be like this first time, where reality smashed through the ceiling of my expectations and kept heading up. I went over there fully prepared to be disappointed, at least in some respects. And I was wrong. This is going to be a good movie.
I woke at 3:35am and couldn’t find sleep so decided to get up and walk 30 or 40 blocks to location. At dawn, Manhattan was astonishingly still. City That Never Sleeps? I thought. More like City That Never Gets Up. This seemed funny because it was my fifth day in a row with less than four hours sleep. I’m basically only functional thanks to to the adrenaline of having my book turned into a movie. I walked through the Flower District, which is what I assume that street with nothing but flower shops is called, and Madison Square Park, where I once saw an outdoor film, and, without warning, found myself in Union Square, staring at the bookstore where I gave my first ever book reading from Syrup in July 1999.
(Edit: I am mixing up my locations. In the comments, Nic Woolf informs me that my first reading was at Astor Place, not Union Square. I think this is right. Union Square was where my first agent, Todd Keithley, had his office when he sold Syrup to a publisher.)
Today began in pure joy, with no trepidation about what to expect. I knew it was going to be awesome and just felt happy to be exactly where I was.
In the morning, we shot some footage of Scat being dragged into a corporate office:
I then had my costume fitting for my cameo role on Tuesday. But I am skipping right over that because I want to talk about what happened in the afternoon. And please forgive for indulging in detail, but I want to get this all down, because it is so very important to me.
The afternoon was Amber Heard’s first scene. I hadn’t had the opportunity to see Amber in anything much before, and what I did see, she was not very 6-like. Aram, the director, had sworn to me that she was perfect for this role, but I was still anxious, because, like I mentioned yesterday, 6 is special to me. I was bracing myself for the inevitable realization that she was not going to be portrayed just like I had imagined.
We were shooting at the top of the Met-Life building, where thick mist turned what should have been a glorious vista over Central Park into an otherworldly diffuse light that was actually far more interesting.
I didn’t know what the hell we were doing here, because when I wrote this scene it was set in an office corridor.
In it, 6 is fuming about a character trying to usurp her (named @ in the book, Three in the movie). 6 fumes a lot in Syrup. It is a core part of her. And what I was most afraid of was an actress interpreting this as a weakness. A flavor of helpless frustration, instead of honest anger. This is important to me not only because it goes to the heart of who 6 is, but also because the way women are demeaned in the workplace for showing emotion drives me fucking insane. (Latest example: here.) 6’s dismissal of male expectations of female behavior is one of her best qualities.
So anyway. Amber Heard turns up. She is blond. I struggle a little with that. But I’m prepared to go with it. It’s a very severe blonde. Then they set up the scene and Amber starts pacing. She radiates fury and is fearsome and so, so 6.
Then she and Scat exchange a series of lines that I first wrote in the book and reworked into their current form over five drafts and four years. Writing those drafts involved more bullshit than I can possibly describe. For a long time I wrote all day and ate dinner then went back and wrote more, seeing my family for a grand total of about thirty minutes a day, in the service of those drafts. And after enough of this, I decided it was all for nothing, because it was probably never going to be produced.
This scene looks astonishingly beautiful, because instead of the simple office corridor I imagined, it’s taking place in this striking corporate-industrial cavern. And watching this, where everything was either exactly as I imagined or else better, which I had given up hope of seeing, just broke me. I cried. Later, when I went out to call Jen and tell her what had happened, how all that shit hadn’t been for nothing, I cried again.
I’m sleep-deprived. I’m a little weepy about everything. But I will never forget this day.
First I saw a bunch of trucks. Yesterday I asked the producer where exactly I might find this location; like, would I need an apartment number? And he laughed at me, because, no, I could just look for the trucks.
Here is me meeting the director, Aram Rappaport, for the first time without a Skype connection. I am grinning like a kid on Christmas morning because of all the trucks. And the people carrying stuff. And the trailers with names on the doors that say SCAT and SIX* and SNEAKY PETE.
Inside the building, four rooms were dressed as Scat & Sneaky Pete’s apartment and the rest were for monitors and thick cables and busy people and electrical equipment worth more than my house. It was so authentic I didn’t realize this at first. I don’t know what I thought; maybe that we were passing through someone’s disheveled bedroom en route to the warehouse with the wooden sets. But then it was gently explained to me.
When writing, I tend not to imagine physical details very precisely. I get a strong feeling for personalities and emotions, but what stuff looks like, that doesn’t really bother me. Here were those vague, floating impressions given weight and detail. It was freaking amazing.
Here I am in Scat & Sneaky Pete’s living room.
A lot of people were very busy carrying stuff and testing things and then filming began. I watched this on a monitor in another room, with a set of headphones to hear what people were saying. It was without doubt the most surreal experience of my life. I’m not sure I can explain this any better than to simply say that a whole bunch of highly talented people began to recreate with astonishing fidelity stuff I once dreamed up. It was hard to shake the feeling that they were doing it just for my personal benefit. Like I had a terminal illness and this was my Make-A-Wish. The very first scene filmed was the one where Scat bursts into Sneaky Pete’s bedroom and says, “I have an idea.” I guess this was chosen for sensible logistical reasons, but, boy, was it eerily perfect.
It was also my first look at Shiloh Fernandez, outside of “Red Riding Hood” trailers, and holy hell, he is wonderful. He said lines and they magically became way better than they sounded in my head. He was Scat sprung to life. (People call him “Scat” even when he’s not acting, which reinforced my feeling that I had invented him.)
Sneaky Pete is different, because in the book he’s Asian and in the film he’s Kellan Lutz. He has the silent shtick but for different reasons, so he’s more like a new character, rather than a hallucination made material. Throughout the day I felt this difference between stuff that was different from the book, which was merely fearsomely cool, and stuff that was the same as the book, which was like having my brain excavated.
I have a lot more respect for actors than I did twelve hours ago. They deliver a line with the exact same feeling ten times in an hour while being bombarded with instructions on where to stand and exactly how far to lean forward and can you do that with your left hand instead of your right and by the way the entire crew is waiting for you to get this exactly right so no pressure. It makes me feel like a chump because when I get tired or lose interest during my job, I just go get a snack or check my email.
I have more respect for the sheer volume of time and talent that is poured into creating a few seconds of good cinema. It seems kind of appalling to me now that I can dash off a couple lines with no regard for lighting or sound or framing or whether the camera operator’s knees can actually bend that way. (The camera operator is basically a circus strongman wearing a Transformer. The physical demands of what this guy does for ten or twelve hours in a day I cannot comprehend.) So much of what I do I actually leave up to you, the reader. A film needs to fill all that in, so around my words people are pouring in new ideas, making it expand as it solidifies.
At the end of the day, I met Shiloh and Kellan and found them to be incredibly friendly and charming. I feel so grateful to these guys for not sucking. I should probably think of a better way to express that. What I mean is: you know when you have an awesome dream and you try to explain it to someone? And as it’s coming out of your mouth you realize this actually sounds incredibly lame. These guys are making the dream sound awesome.
I seriously can’t shake the feeling that I’m talking to Scat.
Tomorrow there’s the first scene with 6, played by Amber Heard, which I can’t wait to see because 6 is very dear to me and god help Amber if she screws this up. Actually I’m just really excited. I’ve had a few sleepless nights about how this is going to turn out but now I’m blissing. It won’t be just like how I imagined, of course, or an exact reproduction of the book; neither of those would make good movies. Instead there is a spirit here that feels exactly like what I was trying to capture almost 15 years ago, and a bunch of incredibly dedicated, smart people from the director down working harder than I ever have to make it happen.
(* “Six” is wrong, of course. It’s 6, the number. I pointed that out to the the producer, trying to be funny, and he assured me it would be fixed as soon as possible, but maybe not right away because everyone was so busy. So then I felt like an asshole.)
This is all pretty insane. As I mentioned, I’ve only just started to believe this film is happening. Prior to now, my experience with Hollywood has been mostly getting promised things. I learned to adopt an “I’ll believe when I see it” attitude. Apparently I’m about to see it.
A part of me is occasionally paralyzed with fear as to how this thing will turn out. I’m trying to keep that under control, and instead remember how I sat in my 1979 Toyota Corolla (street value: $200) and typed this novel out across a couple hundred lunch breaks from my job as a sales rep. I was 23 years old. That guy dreamed of this. He would be awe-struck that it’s happening. Not completely, because he was kind of arrogant, and expected nothing less than greatness. But still. I’m taking that guy to New York with me.
P.S. I will tweet what I can.
I’ll be honest: I never expected this to get made. In fact, I’m still skeptical. I’m that cynical. It’s Hollywood, man. It eats you. But now there’s a cast and a budget and a production date and I’m starting to think it could be real.
This was supposed to be announced tomorrow, but word leaked out early and Variety reported it, so: they’re making Syrup. It’s what comingsoon.net kindly calls a “smaller production,” starring Shiloh Fernandez and Amber Heard. It’s based on a script I wrote, is to be directed by Aram Rappaport, and will shoot in June in New York City. This would be (will be, will be) the first of my novels to be filmed.
I am totally flying over there and doing some kind of cameo. I’m looking forward to seeing sets. I don’t know why. But I always imagine locations pretty clearly—more so than the characters, in the physical sense—and I want to see the chair that Scat swivels around in. I know it won’t be just as I imagined. But it will be something in my head made real.