It doesn’t get more high profile than Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman attaching themselves to star and produce a film, but when both actors put their names to the adaptation of Leanne Shapton‘s “Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry,” it’s no surprise that the project became a hot property.
The book is a fictional estate auction catalog consisting of personal items and photographs from a four-year romance between Morris, a 40-something male photographer, and Doolan, a 20-something food columnist. Items featured in the catalog include, “books, pajamas, bedside lamps, a stuffed squirrel, an astrakhan coat, the winning half of a wishbone and lots of notes, inscriptions and e-mail messages that start out giddy and become slowly more complicated, angry and sorrowful.” Last spring, Greg Mottola came onboard to pen the screenplay and reportedly spin the tale into a romantic comedy. We sat down the Mottola at SXSW where he was doing the rounds for “Paul” — his excellent alien road trip comedy hitting theaters this Friday — and he talked a little about “Important Artifacts” and the challenge of turning the book’s unique concept into a screenplay.
“…there was a part of me that was like, ‘I just want to do something different from ‘Paul’ and I want to get back to writing and I thought taking a writing assignment would jumpstart that a little bit,” Mottola said about his decision to take on the project. “Because ‘Paul’ was exhausting — I mean even in post I was working 12 hour days because we had a small crew and it was just to get it right….I thought well maybe adapting a book because it’s an existing property won’t be as hard as starting from scratch. I couldn’t quite get myself psyched up to write an original script yet. And then I picked the hardest book to adapt ever.”
As we mentioned, the book is essentially structured as a faux estate auction catalog between a couple with the items listed lending an insight into the dissolved relationship, and therein lies the challenge in the material. “You pick up the book and you look at it and it’s all photographs of gifts they’ve made for each other or things they’ve done for each other or emails and little descriptions, like snippets of dialog or part of a letter,” Mottola describes. “Like little bits of an email or part of a letter or some context, like the smallest context you might give if you were at an auction for Truman Capote, like ‘Truman Capote wore this shirt at this event,’ you know so as to attribute some meaning to the things. It’s like a weird Charlie Kaufman experiment and it really works.”
It opens up a world of possibility on how to frame the relationship — played out in ephemera and clues — but for Mottola, he hopes that he can find the notes and tones of people between Morris and Doolan, capturing what made their relationship unique. “….one of the movies that’s mentioned in it, there’s like stubs of film tickets to Film Forum — they were going to go see ‘Annie Hall’ and decided not to go and later in the book they dress up like Alvie Singer and Annie Hall for a Halloween party. Clearly [Leanne Shapton] thought a lot about ‘Annie Hall’ while she was writing it, pretty obsessively. I thought about how that would be captured,” Mottola elaborated about his approach. “You know the drama can be in the smallest things in the relationship, ‘How do I keep it going?’ or ‘How do I get out of it?’ and….there’s no big drama in the film and I thought, if I can write something that tells the rhythms and the real intimate feeling of a relationship and use this framework of stuff….I have a way of doing it…I think there’s a potentially really cool movie in it, which I don’t know if a studio will ever make it, but because of the nature of it, it can’t be turned into a big stupid romantic comedy, it just can’t.”
With “Paul” now out of the way, Mottola can give “Important Artifacts” his full attention and he’s ready to take it on. “[The book] plotted out a really intense relationship that fails and Natalie Portman optioned it, brought it to Plan B. Maybe Brad Pitt will play the guy, we’ll see, and I thought ‘God, this is really interesting and such a challenge, how do you turn this into a movie?’ Now that I’m done with the movie and I can think of it in a more full time way, I’m really, really into it.”
It material sounds like the seeds of really unique relationship and with the Pitt and Portman powerhouse behind it — two thespians who readily embrace challenging fare — we’re eager to see how it all comes together.
“Paul” is playing SXSW this week and will open this Friday in theaters nationwide. —reporting by RP