Novelist Stephen Elliott: ‘Screenwriting is definitely easier than writing a novel’
Stephen Elliott never set out to be a writer. Seven books later, he’s become a respected author and the editor-in-chief of his own online magazine, The Rumpus.
He never set out to become a filmmaker, either. Now Elliott’s promoting his directorial debut, About Cherry, a film he also co-wrote.
“I never had any intention of making movies,” the 40-year-old San Francisco resident told Tail Slate last week during a phone interview.
This may seem like a strange statement when you consider he studied film at Northwestern University in the early 1990s. But Elliott, who grew up on the streets of Chicago and lived in several group homes, describes himself as someone who didn’t have much “direction” when he was younger.
Yet the respected writer found success with his semi-autobiographical novels. It was his most recent tome, The Adderall Diaries, which led him into the company of James Franco.
The Academy Award-nominated star of 127 Hours bought the film rights to the novel, and Elliott asked if he could write the screenplay.
“I really enjoyed the experience… and I wanted to write another one,” he said.
Making the transition from novelist to screenwriter was a fairly easy one for Elliott. In fact, he argues that crafting a script is a piece of cake compared to constructing a book (a claim he quickly admitted would probably upset some people).
“Screenwriting is definitely easier than writing a novel,” he said. “First off, it’s a lot less words.”
Fewer words, Elliott argued, translates into less time spent physically writing.
“Some of the greatest screenplays were written in a short period of time,” he said, citing Paul Schrader, who has said he wrote Taxi Driver in less than two weeks.
“There are stories about ‘On the Road’ being written in four days,” he said, “but they don’t account for the years he spent gathering notes.”
Ultimately, Elliott said, making the shift from writing a novel to writing a script is something any good writer can do.
“Anyone who can write a novel can write a screenplay,” he said, before adding, “if you’re a good enough writer.”
Elliott’s second script became About Cherry, the tale of an 18-year-old woman named Angelina (played by the beautiful Ashley Hinshaw), who escapes an abusive home to live in San Francisco where she finds a new life as an online porn star.
He stressed that while the movie is set in the porn industry, the film “is not necessarily about porn.”
About Cherry also doesn’t focus on the often tread, perhaps tired view of pornography being a dark world of drugs and violence.
“There’s a lot of different narratives for people who work in porn,” Elliot said. “There are a lot of people who get into porn, and its not a tragic experience for them… This is one story, one thing that happens, to one person.”
Elliot co-wrote the film with Lorelei Lee, a porn star and writer, who infused some of her own experiences into the story.
“Lorelei had a very similar experience with her first porn shoot” to the one seen in About Cherry, Elliott said. She also had “the conflict we see with the boyfriend, and him getting upset about the boy-girl [sex] thing.”
Writing the script was originally all Elliott wanted to do. His main goal was to just get it produced. But he realized quickly that getting someone to direct the movie with its roughly $500,000 budget would be difficult.
“I didn’t want to direct it,” he told Tail Slate. But “I wasn’t going to get Steven Spielberg for my budget.”
Once he decided to helm the project, he went back to Franco, who quickly agreed to play the role of Angelina’s drug-addicted boyfriend. Having the Rise of the Planet of the Apes actor on board meant others were willing to give the script a chance, including Lili Taylor, Dev Patel and Heather Graham, all of whom worked for very little to appear in the low budget indie.
“Actors… they just want to be in something good,” Elliott said, but you “gotta get past the agents and managers.”
Despite having never directed before, Elliott said he found the process easy, mainly because of the people he worked with.
“Everyone was cool,” he said, especially Graham.
“I was nervous the first time I had to direct [her],” Elliott said. “I would talk to her all the time on the phone about her character, and she’s really, really smart. She had a lot of great ideas about her character.”
While orchestrating the sex scenes which appear in the film may throw some people, Elliott said they were fairly simple to do since nearly all were shot on real porn sets.
“We filmed them at the Armory,” he said.
The San Francisco Armory is the home of Kink.com, with whom Elliott has a close relationship. The Armory is the largest adult film studios in the world.
“So we were surrounded by porn all the time,” he said, adding that the woman seen operating the camera alongside Graham really shoots porn films.
About Cherry opens in theaters Sept. 21.