Upon reading Stephen Elliott’s memoir, The Adderall Diaries, James Franco acquired the rights to adapt the book into a film and turned to close friend and collaborator Pamela Romanowsky to fulfill the vision as writer and director. The film focuses on the themes of the memoir — Elliott’s relationship with his father (Ed Harris) and how the two perceive the past in vastly different ways. But, as Romanowsky explains, the character of Elliott in the film, played by Franco, is vastly different than the Elliott in the book and the Elliott in real life. In the film, Elliott struggles to complete a memoir, leaving his agent (Cynthia Nixon) in a wave of frustration and excitement. He simultaneously is observing a court case of a man (Christian Slater) accused of murdering his ex-wife in attempts to write the next In Cold Bold, then delves into a relationship with a New York Times reporter (Amber Heard), and fails to avoid his father’s confrontations to discuss their past.
We talked to Romanowsky about her adaptation, her mentors on the film, Ed Harris and Robert Redford, and how Elliott revealed dissatisfaction with the movie (which the author elaborated on in an essay for Vulture) before it was even filmed.
When James Franco brought this idea to you, to adapt The Adderall Diaries, what did you make of the idea?
James and I met at NYU where we both did the MFA filmmaking program, we have similar aesthetic and became close friends and collaborators. We made a short film together that I wrote and directed and he acted in. It’s called “Tar” and it was part of a multi-director film called The Color of Time. It’s an adaptation of a poem. It deals with some similar themes [as The Adderall Diaries] about memory and how the past impacts us in the present. And so he asked me after we shot “Tar,” “Have you read the book The Adderall Diaries?” And I said, “Yeah, I read it last year. I really loved it.” I loved the book as a casual reader, so when he mentioned it and said he had the rights to it and asked if I would like to do the film, I jumped at the chance to make an adaptation and embarked on the long process of adapting it.
I’m curious about that process. At what point did you reach out to Stephen Elliott and how involved was he in the adaptation?
I talked to him several times early on. Stephen writes pretty prolifically and almost always about himself. So in addition to The Adderall Diaries, he writes a lot of essays and nonfiction. His father, their relationship, is the primary drama in the film. His dad was also a writer. In addition to the source material, I had all this other writing from the both of them. And I never got to meet his dad because it was important to Stephen that I didn’t, but I did get to meet Stephen a few times. So there’s the character in the book, there’s the character in the movie, and then there’s the real person. And none of them are the same, but they all inform each other. The most interesting thing to me was to see the differences between Stephen the character in the book — how this person writes himself — and Stephen in real life. And it’s an interesting position to be able to call your main character on the phone and say, “Hey, where do you go on a first date?” Stephen is a filmmaker also and the point of his book is there’s a strong desire to be able to control the way other people tell our story. He doesn’t like the movie very much, but he also told me in our first interview, “Look, whatever you do, I’m probably not going to like it, so you really shouldn’t try to please me.”
What specifically does he not like?
He doesn’t like that I got facts wrong, which is true. It wasn’t so important to me in an adaptation to be factually accurate because the point of the movie is that different people remember things differently and that we remember with an agenda. And what was the most exciting to me was this idea that two people could be in conflict because they tell their shared story very differently. He also is a person who writes a lot about memoir and about being written about and how people react to it. He says that when people are angry about being written about, it’s not that you cast them in a bad light, it’s that the person you see them as does not match the person they see themselves as. I imagine that’s strange and disorienting. The character in the movie comes to the realization that Stephen in the book and Stephen in real life have not. So there is some fictionalizing and there’s work that has to be done to make this introspective, internal book cinematic.
When you read the book, were their aspects to it that you felt clearly would not translate to film and moments where you felt like you could add or embellish?
The main problem is that the book does not have a present-tense narrative. It’s ideas and introspections and memories and thoughts. But there’s no plot. What I needed to do in the adaptation was to take the themes and ideas and relationships from the book that most spoke to me. There’s this quote I had pinned to my writing board throughout that says, “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, we order information into stories to justify how we feel.” And I love that idea. The point of conflict for these two characters is that they tell their shared story very differently. I knew that the heart of the story was about Stephen and his father and how so much resentment was based on the way that they were each telling their shared story. They fight about facts and they fight about iterations of the same event, but what I think they’re really fighting about is casting. That they can’t both be the victim in the same story. His relationship to sex is really interesting and has a lot to do with victimhood. He gets off through S&M sex so he’s casting himself very literally as a victim. In the book, he explores that with a whole bunch of different women, you don’t really get to know them. His girlfriend in the movie is the one character who is fictionalized completely. I wanted to see all those ideas and themes play out in one relationship he cared about.
When working on the script, one of the people who mentored you was Robert Redford. How was it getting input from him?
One of the biggest influences on the script was taking it through the Sundance Labs, we did the Screenwriter’s Lab and the Director’s Lab with them and it’s a really incredible program and opportunity. It changed my life in many ways. I met so many incredible people there. Three of the most important voices in the credits are Michelle Satter, who is the founding director of the program, who read so many drafts and watched cuts and is really an important voice in my life. And Robert Redford, who founded The Lab with her and happened to be there the year I was. We really connected and his first film as a director, Ordinary People, was a huge influence on this project. He has so much wisdom. And then the third person was Ed Harris, who I had written the part of Neil for without ever knowing that I would get to meet him and offer it to him. And as fate would have it, there he was, on this mountaintop in Utah. In the process of helping me and mentoring me, at one point he jumped in the scene as Neil to try something. It was incredible to see this person, who I had in my head, really doing the scene. At the end of the lab, I told him, “I wrote this part for you and I don’t have a B plan, I’m going to keep asking until you say, ‘No.’” It took about six months, but I talked him into it and I think he was just incredible.
And when it came time to shoot, what made you set it in New York as opposed to San Francisco, where it takes place in the book?
The reason for the reset was that the city is important to the story. I hesitate to say the city of New York is another character because that’s such an overused thing, but there is a lot of subtext that comes with any location you’re shooting in. And I don’t know San Francisco at all. I’ve been there, I’ve visited, I love the city, it’s really cool. But New York is my home. I’ve been there for 11 years and I love it and I thought that all of themes that are important in this story, reinvention and history and rebirth, these things are all very much part of New York. For me, it was a more authentic way to connect the story to the location and shoot in places that enhance the story.
A city you could personally connect to.
Exactly. There are all sorts of Easter eggs in there, like the scene where he does the book signing in the beginning of the movie is the bookstore where I bought his book for the first time. Amber and James’ first kiss happens in my favorite spot in New York. It’s incredibly romantic and I wanted to have the scene there. Amber’s apartment is in Bushwick, a neighborhood I love. Her apartment is right above Roberta’s. So there’s a lot of personal texture and history in the movie that I wanted to be authentic.
Is there a scene that was your favorite to shoot or that you think and reflect on the most?
The one that still stays with me the most was the scene where James goes to a motel to confront Neil. We shot that our second day of filming. It was the first scene that we shot with James and Ed together. We had no rehearsal time so there were so many things that were ideas going into that scene. What Ed and James would be like together, how this scene would become a living, breathing thing. So the first time I saw them do the scene was when I call action on the first take. And it was incredible. These two phenomenal actors, two of my favorite actors in the world coming together to do the scene. In some ways, it was exactly how I pictured it in my head and was so fulfilling and satisfying. Then there are things that you can’t imagine that happen that are magical. That’s the gift of great actors, they turn words into flesh and bone and heart. The scene is better than you ever could have imagined.