Adapting a book to film can be quite the challenge. What do you keep in, what do you take out? Close to both of their hearts, writing/directing duo Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor, The Nanny Diaries) adapted Ten Thousand Saints to the big screen. The film, based on Eleanor Henderson’s novel of the same name, follows Jude (Asa Butterfield) after a personal tragedy takes him from Vermont to New York City and reconnects him with his father (Ethan Hawke). At the center of the straight-edge lifestyle and the height of the tensions in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park, Jude and newfound friends Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld) and Johnny (Emile Hirsch) become a surrogate family of sorts among the chaos in their lives.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini took some time out to speak to me about Ten Thousand Saints, working with a talented cast, and why it was so important for them to bring this story to life on the big screen.
You can read the interview below and check out my review of the film here.
Ten Thousand Saints is in theaters tomorrow, August 21.
The film is based on the 2011 novel by Eleanor Henderson and you both wrote the script. Was there anything that you added to the movie to fit your own vision of the onscreen translation? And was there anything you thought wouldn’t translate well and removed?
Robert: There a lot of things you have to do to adapt a novel as lengthy as Ten Thousand Saints, so there were some plots or things we had to cut or eliminate in order to make a movie out of the novel. But we tried to stay true to the spirit of it. I think the lens that we used to focus the story was the father/son relationship. And everyone who came in and out of the story kind of informed that relationship.
Shari: And the characters are so beautifully written in the book that it was actually very difficult to decide what to use and what not to use. It was painful to have to eliminate some of the story lines, but otherwise the movie would have been a miniseries so we had to do it.
What about the story attracted you to turn it into a feature and what stood out the most versus other films you’ve worked on in the past?
Shari: We had talked about doing… well, Bob and I are ’80s kids, so that was our era [laughs], and that was when the book was set. I grew up in New York and moved to the city in 1988, the year that the story takes place. There was definitely some pride when reading the book and we were interested in doing something from that time period and I actually just stumbled upon the book. I read a book review of it and it sounded wonderful and mentioned the Tompkins Square Park riots, which I actually had somehow had stumbled into. And so it was the middle of the real riots and so I was like, “I have to read this book,” and read it and it exceeded all my expectations. I loved the characters and how flawed and human they were in a way that felt very real and really loved the material. Unfortunately, it was optioned once we investigated the availability. It had already been optioned by Oprah Winfrey’s company, so we were like, “oh well, forget it.” So we went away and did some other stuff and then got a phone call about a year later saying that the book went into turnaround and then we were able to make it happen.
Shari: Yeah, it’s very unusual for a story to end like that [laughs]. And what else I loved about the story was that it was about family and all the different ways people can become family. We have a lot of adoption in our family and so it was very meaningful to us.
And the film touches upon adoption a lot. How do you think the knowledge of Jude’s adoption helped inform his life and decisions?
Robert: Well that’s something that was kind of interesting, was that it he basically learned about it in a very clumsy way that he’s adopted from his father. The way no one should learn about that. It kind of comes around to witnessing a child enter the world in the same way and that became the structure of what we thought would be an interesting way to tell the story. And I think for an adopted person, it’s a bit more extreme, but it’s also a universal feeling of how did I end up existing and why did I end up with the people that I’m with? Just these cosmic questions that were expressed so beautifully in the book. One of the things I really liked about that issue was the variety of perspectives that were given on adoption. From Jude to Jude’s adoptive mother and father. To Hailee Steinfeld’s character as well, so it had a lot of different angles.
Shari: What I found really interesting was right after Jude’s father tells him about the adoption, he kind of disappears from his life and it created a mask for him emotionally. I think you meet Eliza and she’s a biological child and had the mess in her life too. And Johnny has a mess. Everybody has their emotional pain in all kinds of ways and I found that very honest, the complications of growing up.
So the film is set amid the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988 and all the gentrification that was going on during that time. It’s very central to the film. Talk to me a bit more about why it remained so important.
Robert: Well one of the things that was going on in the East Village, was this extreme tension between anarchy and rules and the people who were starting to spend money on condominiums in that area and were gentrifying the neighborhood wanted some rules put in place. And the riots actually erupted because they wanted to have a curfew in the park to keep the rif raff out at night.
Shari: The people in the community saw it as the beginning of the end of their way of life.
Robert: The people in the community kind of embraced anarchy in the East Village and liked that aspect of that Bohemian enclave there. So I think that one thing that’s going on in Jude’s life is that he’s kind of raised in an extremely rule-free family. His home life is kind of anarchy and I think he craves some kind of order and he finds that in the straight-edge movement, which has very definitive rules about drinking and sex and drugs. It’s very rigid, almost militaristic and obviously he learns there’s a cost to rules, so it’s more about that tension it creates and the costs that come with structure.
And I know that you recreated some sets of cafes and other places in the East Village, correct?
Shari: We recreated CBGB and we actually shot at Yaffa Cafe before it closed.
Robert: It was kind of a famed landmark.
Shari: It hadn’t changed since the ’80s when it opened. So that was a total gift, but every place else was recreated. Now Tompkins Square Park is completely different, but at the time homeless people had taken over. It was a tent city so we had to recreate that as well.
Each character from the film is essentially from a different walk of life. What about each character did you want to represent in regards to the overall plot?
Robert: There were two worlds we wanted to represent. There’s the Vermont world and then there’s the world of New York and we have two worlds of New York that are presented: there’s Eliza’s world, upper west side and then there’s Ethan Hawke’s character who kind of lived more of a Bohemian life. And then you have Jude who’s moving through all three so they’re all products of their environment in a way. We really though about having different looks when we shot the film. Especially having contrasts between the Vermont world and the New York world. In Vermont we have a lot more color and more of a home warmth there, whereas New York is a bit more rough.
Shari: And we made the decision to shoot the movie on super 16, which is kind of not used as much these days, but really quite beautiful and really degrades the image, especially in comparison to digital which is very pristine. It gives it an automatic grungier look and also a more ’80s look. That was a decision as well for the look and so you just feel like it’s different without really knowing why.
What was it like working with such a dynamic cast and what did they each bring to the table?
Robert: It was wonderful. Ethan [Hawke] is such a generous actor. I always enjoy working with people who have been in the business for a long time, especially people who came up as child actors. I think if they survive the business, they have a certain wisdom. And Ethan has certainly survived and he keeps getting better and better. He’s so generous and sharing with the other cast members. Hailee [Steinfeld] is following in his footsteps and working constantly. And she’s a very gifted young actor and very serious and wants to do good work. Emile [Hirsch] kind of lives a straight-edge life while he was playing that character and really wanted to feel what that was like.
Shari: He was really committed to the character. Every single actor is so rich and really moved into the character they were playing. And really lived it and felt it.
Robert: We felt very lucky.
Shari: And there was this wonderful thing that they had, these interconnections. Like Asa [Butterfield] and Hailee had done Ender’s Game together and Emily [Mortimer] and Ethan have known each other for a really long time and are friends. And Julianne [Nicholson] had been in a movie with Ethan and her husband was in Emily’s TV show [laughs]. So there was already this warmth and connection among them and made it that much easier to create an intimate environment.