Patrick deWitt on writing the screenplay for 'Terri'
Patrick deWitt, the author of two excellent novels, is a former Los Angeles bartender who's decamped for Oregon. Soft-spoken and often anxious, he doesn't quite fit the mold of the typical screenwriter. Yet he's the guy who wrote the screenplay for "Terri," an independent film that stars Jacob Wysocki (pictured) with John C. Reilly. "Terri" is out now, and it's Kenneth Turan's film pick of the week.
"A gently melancholy film about loneliness and hope revolving around a way overweight high school misfit who so doesn't belong he wears his pajamas to class, 'Terri' doesn't observe its characters, it gets inside them," Turan writes. "This may sound like a film you've seen before, but you haven't seen it done like this." The film was directed by Azazel Jacobs, whom deWitt calls "Aza"; he shares a story credit with DeWitt.
DeWitt answered Jacket Copy's questions via email about how he wound up detouring from novel writing to become a screenwriter.
Jacket Copy: When did you start working on the screenplay for “Terri”?
Patrick deWitt: Aza read the Terri sections of a novel-in-progress (which I eventually abandoned) in 2007, and from the start he expressed interest in adapting it to screen. But he was busy writing and directing "Momma’s Man" and I was busy finishing this hundred-thousand-word novel that would never see the light of day, and then getting started on what would become my real second novel, "The Sisters Brothers," so we didn’t get down to business until early 2009.
JC: Had the novel that it derived from been excerpted anywhere?
PDW: None of the "Terri" stuff has, but there’s a short story called “The Worst Thing My Father Did In His Life,” which was lifted from another section of the book and subsequently published in Issue 7 of Annalemma.
JC: How did your work on “Terri” overlap with your work on “The Sisters Brothers”?
PDW: Overlapped is too nice a word. It was more like they collided. I was halfway through a rough draft of "The Sisters Brothers" when it came time to start the "Terri" adaptation. Things were going at a good clip with the novel and I didn’t want to stop working on it, so I hatched a plan: I’d work on Sisters for five days, then spend five days on the Terri adaptation, then five days back on Sisters, etc. Why did I think this would work? I don’t know. But I did. And it didn’t. Once I realized my mistake I set aside the novel to focus completely on "Terri."
JC: What do you think of the reception the film has been getting?
PDW: I wasn’t prepared to go through the whole critical process again so soon after "The Sisters Brothers" came out, so I asked Aza to keep me out of the loop unless he had something really positive to show me. Happily, he’s had a lot to show me. But I’m maintaining a certain distance. All I know is, everyone involved with the film seems happy, so I’m happy.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jacob Wysocki as Terri in the film written by Patrick deWitt. Credit: ATO Pictures