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Interview with Ayisha Synnestvedt

February 9, 2016

Obviously I’m pretty excited about the idea of a miniseries of The Amazing Interlude, but we’ve all been burned by bad adaptations, and I thought it would be cool to have the creator of the project tell us a little more about how she went about adapting the book. I also wanted to give her a platform to talk about it more for an audience that’s read this book and others like than for one that has to be convinced that this is a good story.

Melody: Let’s start by talking about the book. What’s your favorite bit? Was there a scene that first made you start thinking about the story as a movie?

Ayisha: My favourite bit when I first read it as a young teen is the scene where, (not to give too much away, as it’s a pivotal scene), Sara Lee has put two and two together, and is crying face-down on her bed.  I remember figuring out the blocking for it as if I were a director working with actors.  I didn’t at that point think as far as realistically making it into a movie–that’s just what I’ve always done with books I like. This scene was definitely in my mind when I approached the book again a few years ago to see if it would work as a movie. These days, because I know the book well enough that if I listen to it I know which sentence comes next, my appreciation for different parts has evened out.  I have several favourite threads: the interaction of the King of the Belgians with others in the story, the mutual appreciation of men for women and women for men, Sara Lee’s cute attempts to learn and copy languages, the friendship between Jean and Henri.

Another favourite part of the book is how what people are thinking or feeling is often expressed by means of visual clues. I seldom have to come up with stage-directions that fit the emotional tenor of the scene: they’re already there.  Here’s an example from the Jean/Henri friendship thread:

Sometime near midnight [Henri] slipped away.  Jean was waiting in the street and wrung the boy’s hand.

“I could go with you,” he said rather wistfully. “I—”

“You don’t speak their ugly tongue.”

“I could be mute — shell shock.  You could be helping me back.”

But Henri only held his hand a moment and shook his head.

“You would double the risk, and — what good would it do?”

“Two pistols are better than one.”

“I have two pistols, my friend,” said Henri . . . .

I love this exchange for several reasons, but something I like is that the handshake lasts through three or four lines of dialogue.  It’s so understated one might not consciously catch it, but it’s a great vehicle for the emotional subtext, which is the awareness of each that this may be the last time he sees his pal.  I love finding this sort of detail and incorporating it into my script.

M: The Amazing Interlude seems like a really good candidate for a movie because the plot is pretty straightforward. Still, I expect you had to cut stuff. Can you talk about something you cut, and how you made that decision?

A: As soon as I began rereading it I could tell it would adapt well.   I’ve tried to turn several different books into scripts or screenplays with varying success.  The three that worked well, this book included, are the ones that are already dramatically–almost theatrically–set up.  Take the first line of The Amazing Interlude: “The stage on which we play our little dramas of life and love has for most of us but one setting.”  Plays were the popular form of entertainment at the time, and it’s no wonder that the authors of these three books were also playwrights. MRR talks throughout the book of the lights going down or up, and is not shy about telling us where we are structurally in the drama before us, and that makes it easy to plot into a movie structure.

Things I cut: The Amazing Interlude begins with a sequence of events that add up to Sara Lee’s decision to go to France. The book does a great job of showing how gradual shifts in thinking, small choices, and the accumulation of circumstances, can lead us to arrive, seemingly suddenly, at momentous decisions.  I love this part in the book, but I think it would lag in a miniseries version, so I’ve condensed it into far fewer scenes that cover a shorter amount of time, and don’t include things that might distract from establishing the story.  For instance, I enjoy Sara Lee’s conversation with the local doctor when he comes to check on Uncle James, but the doctor isn’t an important enough character: we’ll never see him again, so it doesn’t make sense to introduce him at that juncture.

I have definitely expanded on a few plot points.  There are many places where MRR mentions something in exposition about what dilemmas the armies are facing, what is going on in German-occupied Belgium, how the war began,  what Belgium’s response was.  She’s referring to things that would have been in the common consciousness, because everyone had heard of “Brave Little Belgium” at the time.  But my audience will have almost no knowledge about Belgium, its role in the war, or even generally about WWI.  So I’ve fleshed out the things she only mentions in passing, researching to figure out the bigger picture she’s referencing: it’s a lot like a treasure hunt! I’m also working on a rewrite right now that involves more details about Henri on his missions.

M: I hadn’t thought about having to expand stuff, but that makes a lot of sense. It’s hard to squeeze in exposition in a graceful way, though, isn’t it? Who are you saddling with that task? I could see using Uncle James telling Sara Lee about the war as a good place for it.

A: So true–it’s hard to squeeze in exposition gracefully, which is why I’m adding scenes where that information plays out, instead of using a character to monologue on the subject.  For instance, I open at the Palace in Brussels, on the night of August 2nd/3rd, 1914, with the Belgian King and his ministers rejecting the German ultimatum, and the King’s famous words: “No, whatever the consequences.”  Then come the Titles, and then the main story begins in Dec. 1914 in Pittsburgh with Uncle James looking over a newspaper.   This way, when Uncle James says something about the Belgians, it will be in context, and not as an information dump.

M: Did you do anything specifically to create a period atmosphere? How do you give the story an appropriately 1910s feel without making it seem mannered or awkward?

A: I’ve kept the dialogue that’s in the book, and usually only change it for the sake of condensing it, not for modernisation. I’m not too concerned about the miniseries feeling mannered or awkward, but I think that’s because language and body language matter a lot to me, and so I naturally give them huge weight when I’m coaching actors.  I love directing Shakespeare, for instance, and it’s always easy to tell whether the actors understand and “own” what they’re saying or not.  If a line sounds like gibberish, it’s because they’re not sure what it means.  We talk about it, they go “Oh!” and suddenly the sense of the lines, the soul of them comes out, and it doesn’t matter that the words are archaic: we understand what they mean, and the words no longer belong in a museum, but to the character who’s speaking.  The Amazing Interlude is not as linguistically removed from us as Shakespeare, so I anticipate fewer hurdles.  As for manners, I’m always watching for them. To me, mannerisms are as much a part of an historic milieu as a costume or old building. I love watching footage from WWI in Belgium, seeing how men kiss women’s hands in greeting, how soldiers stroll around in their greatcoats, hands in pockets, an army made up of everyday husbands, fathers, brothers, sons–not like a modern military with professional soldiers.  I want to get the era into my actors’ body language.

M: Let’s talk about Harvey. For me, he’s sort of the most interesting character. He’s so hateful, but he’s also fundamentally well intentioned. How do you get that to come across when you can’t get inside his head the way you would in a book?

A: Harvey is going to be a bit of a balancing act.  For me the difficulty is making his character read sympathetically to a modern audience.  He is in the wrong at times, he is a bit selfish, but he also has very legitimate wishes and needs, and Sara Lee is unwittingly unfair to him.  However, because of the current popular view that all women in past eras lived in a constant state of oppression, and our culture’s tendency to villainise men when they oppose a woman regardless of whether the men have legitimate reasons, a modern audience is likely to be disproportionately critical of Harvey in ways that MRR doesn’t intend.  So I think I have to be more generous to Harvey in the miniseries, careful to make the most of his good qualities, so that viewers don’t dismiss him outright, and so that Sara Lee’s going against his wishes at the beginning isn’t trivialised by an anachronistic interpretation.

M: It’s really interesting to me that you characterize the difference in attitude between now and then as modern readers/viewers being disproportionately critical of men, when you could just as easily call it, say, women being held to very different standards then. Do you read books from this era in a nostalgic way? Do you feel like times were better then?

A: Sure, that’s another way to describe what’s going on, although I’d say Sara Lee is holding herself to a standard–she wouldn’t come under social fire if she were a little less scrupulous.  But I’m guessing that if I weren’t careful, the reaction of a modern audience could still be an outright condemnation of Harvey, instead of bypassing him to blame the expectations of the era, and that’s why I expressed it as I did.  I should clarify that I don’t think a modern audience’s reaction would be as marked in reading the book, because we’re pulled into the contemporary mindset by the narrative, and we’re told characters’ motivations and thought processes.

It’s in the translation to film where I foresee a problem. There’s a trope in film of the overbearing male, and it’s used to justify all sorts of things: well, he was being overbearing, so it’s okay if he’s cheated on, stolen from, lied to; because of a culturally accepted negative attitude toward males, people are quick to accept this moral inequality without question. I dislike this trope because it’s hypocritical, and also because it’s boring–it asks nothing of us but a sweeping judgement.  I love that Sara Lee is honourable and conflicted, and I think it’s a really interesting part of the story that she’s holding herself to certain standards that others don’t expect of her.  And whether or not we agree with her, we can admire her convictions.  Her inner conflict would get totally trivialised if it became about “Oh, women were so oppressed.”  No, she’s a woman of conscience–she has to grow and make her decisions and resolve inconsistencies between her vying values within the context of doing the right thing.  My challenge is to bring that conflict convincingly into the medium of film: in order for the audience not to lose patience with Sara Lee for having scruples, the audience has to enter to some degree into her scruples, and sympathise, as she does, with Harvey.

Nostalgia?  Oh, I have a bad case of nostalgia for this book!  It’s even written nostalgically, and it was a contemporary piece! That doesn’t mean I think times were better then: some things were better, some things were worse.  For me nostalgia has to do with recognising good & true things in the past with love.  For instance, I’m already nostalgic for all the times I got to have dinner with my parents over the past two months (Because of having to go to my hometown to prep for my Kickstarter, I got to spend 5 days out of 7 with them nearly every week).  Now I’m about to launch into doing something I love that will completely take up my time for the foreseeable future, and as excited as I am for this, I also can see that my time with my parents was rare and precious.  The intense nostalgia I have for this book comes from a recognition that this war affected real people, whose particular lives were each individually precious to God, and had an affect on those around them, and I guess I feel a sort of sacred trust in bringing their stories to share with others.  They deserve our remembrance and respect, and – without denigrating humans of our age, whom I feel similarly toward  – there is so much we can learn from them.

Besides, this is just a really good and satisfying story, and it deserves a wider audience!

Can you talk about a scene that was difficult for you to adapt, and how you solved the problems it presented?

One tricky thing about adapting the book has been what languages to use in the screenplay.  There’s the potential for English, French, Flemish, and German.  Now, in a book everything takes place in the metaphysical reality of the reader’s imagination – you can just say “he answered in perfect German,” without having to clarify further – but in a movie the actors are actually going to have to say audible words in a specific language. So how much of the miniseries do I make multilingual?  If I’m going to have them sometimes speak English instead of French for the sake of an American audience, how do I indicate what language they’re supposedly speaking to differentiate it from when they’re supposed to be speaking English?  If I have people speak in their native tongues, do I risk alienating American viewers? What would suit both American and Belgian audiences? And how about Henri’s jokes: he tells them to a room, and people laugh, but which language is he speaking in? It’s probably French, but that means Sara Lee doesn’t understand him, and nor do some of the Flemish soldiers.

My inclination would be to be more accurate, and really give each language its due, but I know that I’m in a minority of Americans in being familiar with several languages.  So there are a few scenes I’m considering shooting two versions of, like scenes with just the King & Henri or Henri & Jean, with the English version of the scene being included in the American release, and the French version released in Europe.  Don’t know yet whether that will be practical.  At any rate, I will have characters speaking other languages when in company with Sara Lee, as her incomprehension is key to the plot.  I’ve had fun trying to reconstruct what Henri might be saying to the authorities in French when he’s helping Sara Lee get her papers! This has been another main challenge: reconstructing conversations or action that MRR has only summed up in a sentence or two. The answer to it is trial and error, and successive drafts of a particular scene as my research begins to give me a clearer picture of what might be going on in each situation.

M: Thanks so much for taking the time to discuss this with me. I really enjoyed your responses and the level of detail you included. I think you’ve really showed how conscientious and detail-oriented you are, and how much thought you’re bringing to this project.

For those of you who haven’t taken a look yet, the Kickstarter campaign is here.  There are only a few days left, but the target is within reach.

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for doing this interview! It’s a lovely and inspiring story, and well worth making into a mini-series! I can hardly wait until it is completed!


  2. This is awesome! I love that this book is being done. Great video too! I found the Kickstarter for anyone else who’s interested. Good luck! :)


  3. Thank you for doing this interview! I’ve been working with Ayisha, and I didn’t know the answers to these questions!


  4. Great questions, great answers. So excited that the kickstarter succeeded and was fully funded. Thanks for your interest and support!



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