Film Adaptation Notes

After being asked to speak about film adaptation at the monthly Sidewalk Film Festival’s Rojo networking event for April, I decided to post notes for my talk here on the page. You can scroll down through other posts on the blog to see the film, hear more original music from the film, read the original story, and see production stills. Please watch the film if you haven’t already; it’s only 11 minutes long, and we appreciate your interest.

It had been a goal of mine since before I began freelancing as a filmmaker and web video producer to migrate from primarily documentary, news, and promotional video production into narrative filmmaking. I left CBS42 News in October, 2008, and have since then worked as a PA, audio recordist, camera operator and grip on several films by local filmmakers in Birmingham, Alabama, including the late Nancy “Nan Lin” Stricklin, Tam Le and Randal Crow.

When Canon announced the 5D Mark III would be available in late March 2012, I decided it was time to take the plunge and make a short film for the Sidewalk Film Festival; I had worked on films that appeared in the festival in 2010 and in 2011. Over the years, I was able to have very productive and educational discussions with film and television producers about short films, mainly asking them, “How do you come up with a good script?” The most common response apart from creating a completely original story based on my own life experience was to adapt a short story, which is what Hollywood often does for feature films.

It made a lot of sense to me, since a short story would have already had a lot of thought and editing poured into it, as well as having the gatekeepers at a magazine or publishing house vet the story before it appears in publication. My co-producer Whit Russell introduced me to F. Paul Wilson’s “Lipidleggin'” around Christmas of 2011, and I thought it would be an ideal story to turn into a script for several reasons.

First, I was producing this myself with a limited budget. I had a small volunteer crew, and from my experience working with Nancy Stricklin’s film “Time Calls,” I knew it was possible to shoot an entire short film in a single day with proper planning, a dedicated team, and ideally few locations and a small cast. Lipidleggin’ is essentially a short story with one primary location and three main characters, with brief appearances from a distance by a few other characters with no lines.

Second, it was a story with history and depth. Lipidleggin’ was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1978 (scroll down the blog to see a picture of the cover of that issue on an earlier post). The author, F. Paul Wilson, is still writing and publishing stories in 2013 and has a passionate and dedicated fan base. He releases a monthly newsletter as well. I emailed him and after a few weeks, he replied to my lengthy request for permission to adapt the story with a simple, “Sure John, go ahead. -FPW”

Third, while the story is technically science fiction, it’s more about the characters and the situation than about the time frame. We do have one “Special FX” shot, graciously created by After Effects wizard Joe Walker, but other than that, we suggest, rather than explicitly try to show, a future time frame. Unlike the world of 1978, we actually now have mini-refrigerators, taser guns, and tablet computers, all of which would have been thought of as science fiction technology back then. So props were pretty easy to procure; rather than an actual taser gun, I bought a resin cast model of a taser gun and painted it the correct colors based on online images.

So with technical, copyright and budget hurdles out of the way, it was just a matter of waiting for the camera to be released and getting our cast a final version of the script. This is where we come to the discussion about film adaptations.

I knew that a short film should try to come in somewhere between 7 and 12 minutes, as close to 10 minutes as possible really so that it would be easier for programmers at the festivals to find a slot for it in a block of shorts. However, I was not experienced at translating stories into scripts. I’m a shooter/editor learning about filmmaking, not primarily a writer/director although that is where all this is headed eventually. So, Whit shared our choice of story with writer/producer Bill Chitwood, with whom he had worked on a History Channel documentary about Project Valkyrie in WWII, and he whipped up a script. Later in the process, Whit, Bill and I sat around for a couple of hours going through the script and making some changes based on our location and other factors we’ll discuss later in this post. This was a HIGHLY successful and productive “writer’s room” exercise, and we have since made it standard procedure. I think having a writing team work on a script together toward a common vision of the story is key to polishing a script in the pre-production phase.

The primary problem with adapting Lipidleggin’, as I imagine would be the case with many short stories, is that there is a great deal of inner monologue in the story as the first person narrator gives back story to provide a context for the conflict that will play out. However, this back story material is pretty crucial to understanding who these people are, what the conflicts are about, and what the stakes could be for the main characters.

On a side note, in doing research about Lipidleggin’, I discovered that in the mid-2000s, another filmmaker in the UK had already turned it into a short film. However, he added a character that changed a bit of the dynamic of the story without developing the original characters as much as they could have been, in my opinion. It was also shot with a Standard Definition video camera in 4:3 aspect radio, and now we have the benefit of stunning 1080p HD footage shot on a big sensor DSLR with a very filmic look. So I felt like we could create a new interpretation of the story that would be faithful to the intent of the original while adding some interesting layers and depth.

In the UK version of the story, they solved the problem of back story by having the opening shot include a radio in focus in the foreground, with a person preparing breakfast in an apartment out of focus in the background. This is one very long opening shot, in which the radio announcer relates information that essentially describes the world and situation. But from a filmmaking standpoint it is a pretty boring opening to me; there’s nothing really happening as you listen to a lot of information.

In our version, we had the same problem: turning long stretches of inner monologue into story material that would prepare the viewer for the main conflict scenes but also weave other story elements into the process of delivering the back story. The solution to this was a voice over sequence delivered by an off screen narrator who is also one of the three main characters in the film. In the story, this character “Gabe” is very minor and is basically a plot device to trigger an ambush for the agent who is confronting the “Lipidlegger”  (a man selling illegal substances that raise heart lipid levels and thus contribute to heart attacks and strokes, an unacceptable outcome for the bankrupt nationalized health care system described in the tale). Since our actor Jim Reed has had a long career in radio, we felt it would make more sense to turn more of the inner monologue into dialogue between the main characters and a voice over introduction.

This led to a second problem: what do we show during the voice over? In the story, the agent begins his trek from his office to the remote country store where the illegal commerce is going on early in the tale; we decided to film this trip by our agent in order to suggest how far he has to drive into the country to get there, with a sort of “Deliverance”-like aroma of, “we’re not in Kansas anymore” that adds to the uneasiness he feels when he realizes that “The Boys” are coming to make sure the Lipidlegger won’t have to be arrested by him. Ah, spoilers.

Anyway, we found a wonderful location for the main action in rural Walker County, Alabama: the Riverside Fly Shop, located next to the coldest fresh water stream in the state, that flows out of Smith Lake and is regularly stocked with wild trout by the Fish & Game Department. With its rustic charm and pine walls, floors and ceiling, we had a really atmospheric setting that I felt would add to the motif of “fishing” as a metaphor for what the agent was up to and what the Lipidlegger is revealed to be a master of. Since the 1-hour drive from Birmingham to the store was something that had to happen anyway, we thought, why not film this and use it for the opening?

I have read in books on short films that voice over is generally something to be avoided. Movies are about showing, not telling. Unfortunately without a massive SFX budget, there was no way we were going to be able to “show” all of our back story successfully in the time allotted. So VO became our “poor man’s SFX” and it also gave Mr. Reed’s velvet voice a showcase.

The original story was set in upstate New York at an antique shop. Our film was set in central Alabama at a fly fishing shop. We probably could have found an antique shop out in the country, but since the Riverside Fly Shop had such a great look and since the owners were not only willing to give permission but also to provide props and even appear as extras, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Also, I had had a vision of my opening shot: fly fishing on a lazy river, with the strains of blues guitar to provide the mood and setting instantly. My super talented veteran Shoals Rock musician Uncle Marc Patterson created this amazing music, and in my opinion, it’s worth watching the film just to hear it. So we had a powerhouse combination of authentic Alabama location and music, and that actually helped shape the way the script developed.

Another issue was safety and the fact the original script included firearms. Originally, the agent pulls a hand gun when he has enough evidence to make his arrest; we decided to go with a taser gun for several reasons. First, safety. I didn’t want an actual hand gun on set, even unloaded. While “The Boys” do carry long guns in one short scene late in the film, they are props viewed from a distance, never up close or pointed at a person. We also felt that the irony of taser guns, which have in fact led to deaths despite being labeled “non-lethal,” would have been a more appropriate choice for a government worker in a nanny state dystopia. The story describes rampant corruption: “AGENT – ‘you can’t get a conviction in the city even if you brought a ‘legger in smeared with butter with egg in his mouth,” since the judges have all been bought off by local suppliers of contraband. This is the situation that leads the agent to make such a long trip to a place he’s never been… he needs a conviction to get a promotion. While our prop taser is pretty authentic, I limited the focus on certain shots and kept it mostly out of view to avoid having its fakeness too apparent.

Another change we made was to the bit at the end of the film where the Lipidlegger looks at the headline on a stack of just-delivered newspapers that announces the Bugs Bunny cartoons from movies and TV as too violent for children. Apart from not wanting to include references to a copyright property like Bugs Bunny, we also realized that printed newspapers are now becoming a thing of the past as well. We created a fake newspaper page and changed the ban to comic books, an age-old debate that is not going away and rears its head from time to time, even as comics themselves are now moving to digital distribution. I built a generic superhero image to avoid more copyright issues.

Another unusual problem we had was with some of the invented “future jargon” the main character uses in the story. The one that led to the most discussion was his use of the term “giraffes” to refer to the government/powers-that-be/feds. We ended up going with “feds” since “giraffes” seems to have been a word chosen to replace “G-men,” the only slang term for federal agents that includes the letter G that would have been widely known in 1978. I felt it would have been confusing to the audience, and I wanted to remove any possible distractions from remaining engaged in the story itself.

You can see all these differences if you read the original story, which is located online at the link in the box on the right side of the home page and then view our final version of the film, which is now on YouTube and is viewable here in the preceding blog post.

We are currently working on adapting a one-act play; it is a 40 minute production and we are going to try to trim it down to about 12 minutes of script for filming. As we work on adaptations of plays or short stories for film, I have several guiding questions in mind that help me when I have to jettison dialogue or narration. Some of these include:

“What is the essential question posed by the events of the story?”;

“What are the primary internal conflicts evoked in the main characters by the circumstances and events in the story?”;

“Have we included the essential bits of dialogue or narration from the original work that give the audience the information it needs to fully understand and appreciate these conflicts and their resolutions in the film?”;

“Are there visual or audio elements or motifs that we could include, without changing the essential story or its meaning, that would amplify, extend, or deepen its meaning, or broaden its interest or audience?”

“Will this film still be relevant in five, ten, or twenty years?” (as a corollary, “Will we be embarrassed to watch this film in five, ten, or twenty years?”)

“After viewing this film, what will the audience most likely be discussing?” (i.e., the message, the story, how they felt when X or Y happened, what will happen to character Z…or, less desirably, the cinematography, music, sound quality, or acting.)

When I work on projects for clients, I always ask, besides the obvious issues of budget and length, “Who is your primary audience?”, “What is your message?”, and “When the viewer finishes watching the piece, what do you want them to do next?” These elements are also applicable for documentaries and narrative films. Keeping them in mind has helped me keep focused in all stages of production, as well as when considering new projects. Filmmaking takes a lot of time and effort, and with a small budget, it also takes a lot of good will by helpful friends who also want to see the project finished and put in front of audiences. It’s simply too much work to waste time on things that don’t serve the story and your goals for the project. That’s why I like to start with a good story by a published author, because I know I’m going to be creating a work that will be of value to more than just my circle of friends. I want to make films that have something interesting to say and that will be enjoyed by an established audience as well as hopefully gaining new fans. Starting with a published work is one of the best ways to do that.

Hopefully this has been helpful to read. I have also found some books on film adaptation that seem to address many more issues than I encountered, both practical and academic. Here’s a link to those titles. I have not read them, but I do plan to purchase the Kindle versions of some of them in the future. For me, it is more helpful to see how specific adaptations were handled than to discuss adaptation as a theory. While original works may be sacred to their authors, they are still single expressions of a story, and for me, the story is the crucial thing that must be served. If I have an understanding of the story that makes sense and I feel is worth sharing and discussing, it makes it easier to make decisions about what to include and exclude from a film script.

It is also important to remember that books and films do different things well, and that works translated from one form to the other are most successful when they are allowed to be most fully themselves in the new medium. It can’t be overstated how important and underutilized sound design is in amateur short films. We worked hard to create a subtle sound palette for Lipidleggin’, especially in the fish frying scenes. Combining sound design with the visual elements can totally immerse the viewer in the story; on the other hand, I see a lot of short films at festivals where there is no ambient sound added in because the director/editor didn’t know to do it and only shot dialogue audio with a shotgun microphone. is a wonderful source of sound effects for layering ambient indoor or outdoor sounds into your production. Adding two to four layers of subtle ambient sound to any scene will unconsciously suck the viewer into it; the absence of sound creates a disconcerting effect that you’re not really sure why you are experiencing until you pay attention to the audio. The question I always ask myself is, “What sounds ought to be present or absent in this environment in this scene?” and then if they aren’t there, I go get them from an effects collection or Soundsnap and layer them in, very subtly, between -12 and -22 db on the audio meter in my editing software, but enough that they help to create a rich soundscape to augment the visuals.

Another important reason to do this, especially for festival films, is that you don’t know what your film is going to look like and how it is going to be experienced by the audience. The projector bulb might be old and dim, or it might be new and too bright and blow out your picture. Your home computer you edit on might be on a darker setting and so your picture is washed out when it is displayed on a screen by a projector. Chances are it will be too dark, rather than washed out. But despite all these variables, if you have consistent audio with multiple layers, that will actually compensate for sub-par projection in terms of the audience experience. Take the time to do it; it matters more than color grading in my opinion.

So here are the books; caveat emptor:

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