When adapting an acclaimed literary work into a film or another medium, it’s often said that the original author might turn over in his or her grave. But what happens when the author returns from the grave itself and shows up on set of such a film and proceeds to offer input? Brothers Adam and Aaron Nee claimed to have faced such a dilemma when riffing on Mark Twain’s tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with their co-directed comedy caper “Band of Robbers,” and now one of the filmmakers has penned a tribute to Mr. Twain’s contributions.
In his essay “Working With Mark Twain,” written to observe the author’s 180th birthday today, Adam Nee recounts the surreal experience of shooting “Band of Robbers,” and seeing Twain suddenly appear on set and amble over to craft services. One should question the veracity of Nee’s words, but the resulting film —starring Nee alongside Kyle Gallner, Matthew Gray Gubler, Hannibal Buress, Eric Christian Olsen, Stephen Lang and Melissa Benoist— is a worthy adaptation, as we called it “an absurdist crime comedy with a wicked streak.”
You can read Nee’s account below and witness how “Band of Robbers” stays true to Twain’s words yourself when it opens in theaters and On Demand on January 15th.
Working with Mark Twain
By Adam Nee
Before production started on “Band of Robbers,” people would ask me if I was nervous about adapting such revered work. Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn. Mark Twain. I didn’t think so. Maybe there was some subconscious sense of safety, knowing the author would never see it. Maybe just beneath that was disappointment at the same fact.
The first day of shooting was in the old Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. It was serving as our police station and Muff Potter’s apartment. The building doesn’t have AC and it was August. We were soaked from skin to sky, stinking and dehydrated and altogether muggy and tired. The next morning, I was hung-over and sick and my head throbbed from the great dry out.
Eric Olsen, who played my on screen brother Sid Sawyer, was feeding me pedialyte through an IV to get me right. Kyle Gallner, our Huck Finn, ran lines with me to try to get my blood moving again. Matthew Gray Gubler, first lieutenant of the Band of Robbers, Joe Harper, was fanning me with a Japanese peacock feather he had received as a gift from Winston Churchill’s great granddaughter (the one that’s a model, not the Olympian). It was a heroic effort, but not enough to stop me from seeing him. Samuel. Sam. Sam Clemens. Samuel damned Clemens. Mark damned Twain himself, sitting, legs crossed, stuffing a corncob full of Prince Albert.
At first, I pretended I didn’t notice. The heat was hot. The sweat was sweating. That’s all it was.
“He isn’t really there.” I said defiantly to my dried out brain. I tried ignoring him all day and went home that night, slept a God-fearing six hours and woke as good as new.
That next morning at the craft services table, sure as the infant day, Mark Twain was spreading strawberry cream cheese on a sesame seed bagel. I stared. Did anyone else see him? Twain looked at me and grinned halfway. I half grinned back then walked away and locked myself in the makeup trailer where I only cried a little. Aaron, my older brother, co-writer/co-director, the level head, the smart one, coaxed me out.
I nodded a lie and he nodded along with me, resolving the matter. Then he said, “I told him he could watch in video village.”
I leaned around the corner of the trailer to see Twain had Gubler doubled over, laughing. Instant pals, drinking Eric Olsen’s pedialyte like this was just normal human life. It was real. He was real. Real as the hot August sun. He only had a month left where he could get away with wearing all that white and he was. White pants, white jacket, white hair, white mustache. As he would say, ‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’
I tried walking with my feet as I usually do, but my toes and heels felt disconnected, and I stumbled and tripped on my way towards him. Gubler looked over at me. “Hey,” he said, “Mark has a great idea for the scene.”
“Does he?” I belched, (the way you do when you’re frightened by ghosts.) And he did have an idea. A good one. I smiled, trying to deny the instant agony of pressure inadvertently applied by the presence of a genius. The genius we were clumsily trying to adapt.
On day four, we shot the man cave scene where Tom Sawyer announces his plan for the Band of Robbers. I finally had built up enough courage to acknowledge Twain and I asked him, “How’s it looking? Does it feel true to the original?” He frowned, as if unable to remember a word he’d written. Finally he said, “You seem to know the facts of the story. At this point you can distort it as you please.”
Throughout the shoot, Twain would respond in this manner —direct but unbothered, occasionally stopping my heart with pithy brilliance. As the days rolled on, the fear and wonder had shifted to an easy camaraderie. He was living the rhythm of the shoot with the rest of us. He bonded with the cast and crew like an old Hollywood godfather producer, walking around with a checkbook and a tale but mostly keeping out of the creative. He let Aaron and me do what we had intended and would give a nod or grunt or frown, all signs of affirmation if you ask me. After wrap, he would saunter off somewhere out of sight and we wouldn’t see him until the next morning.
As the days moved and the end of the shoot grew near, I felt a pit of sadness in the bottom of my gut. Where would he go when it’s over? Did others know him? Maybe he was friends with Elijah Wood. Maybe he was roommates with Hal Holbrook, or perhaps he and Val Kilmer play cards together. I doubt it. At best, I’d guess he’s heard Elijah DJ and possibly attended one of JTT’s birthday parties.
By the last day, I was no longer nervous about what he thought or if we were doing it “right.” Like everyone else on set, he had become a friend. Twain bonded with Kyle, telling him all about his inspiration for Huck. I heard he even tagged along with Hannibal Buress to a stand up show after shooting one day. Hell, Stephen Lang and Twain had the kind of shorthand you only see in old married couples. Twain had become family to us. There was even a time when Melissa Benoist mentioned she had just had an audition for a new show called “Supergirl” that she hoped to land. Later that day, I saw Twain writing a letter to Les Moonves singing Mel’s praises and threatening heartbreak and squalor if she was passed over. I don’t know if that made a difference in her winning the part, but I like to think so.
The martini shot was up and the set was alive and buzzing. Nothing can describe the feeling of years of hard work and dreams coming to fruition. Maybe it doesn’t come together in the edit, maybe you didn’t get everything you needed, but for tonight, for this last moment, you won the marathon, the Oscar, the Olympics. Producers John Will and Rick Rosenthal were already passing out hats and hugging people. All that work. All that sweat. All that pedialyte. It was all worth it. When Aaron called the last and final “cut,” we laughed and hugged and hollered and took pictures with each other as the final wrap began. I looked for Mark between pictures and back pats. My eyes darted around the parking lot, looking for that white suit. That white hair. The white mustache. I felt dizzy with the energy of the crowd, my body passing from one group to the next like a dazed pinball. Gallner grabbed me into an embrace. “Have you seen Mark?” I asked him. He shook his head ‘no.’
The crew swam through the space in front of me, loading trucks and sneaking shots of whiskey. I climbed up onto the back gate of the camera truck and hoisted my tired body up onto the roof of the boxy cab. Standing up there I could see everything. I could see everyone. But no Twain. He was gone. He had slipped off into the night, disappeared with his smoke-drenched jacket and quotes and magic. I climbed back down and borrowed a shot of whiskey and slept deeply that night.
That was a year ago now and I haven’t seen him since. No one has. Luckily, we managed to capture a few moments with him on set. Why he came I’ll never know. Why he cared enough to. Maybe just to make sure we didn’t botch the whole thing. Maybe just to keep us on our toes. I remember second guessing a directorial choice in the middle of the shoot, and when I asked Mark for his two cents, he said “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” It was a good note.