Hey everyone! Grab the Lapels is smack in the middle of their blog tour for Heather Fowler's upcoming release Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, and we're thrilled to be a part of it! Today, we bring you the exciting journey of watching one's novel being turned into a short film....
“BEAUTIFUL APE GIRL BABY Goes Hollywood:
Novel to Short Film: an Author’s Experience”
by Heather Fowler
There’s something amazingly special when your book, crafted in solitude, suddenly has actors filling the roles before the final, first copy gets released to the world. This was my experience watching a short film shoot for my forthcoming novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby (Pink Narcissus Press, June 2016). I suppose my work has flirted with adaption to multi-media formats for a long time. A short story about a girl stalked by her relentless ex-boyfriend is currently pending adaption for another short film, a different short story set in the French Revolution is in process for adaptation to opera, and I’m now an author who moves into writing for film and stage with more serious intent.
But before these last two years, it was me, my computer, and the moving canvas of my lonely imagination. I never expected to actually watch a shoot any time soon. When I did this April, I realized that having professional actors breathe life into one’s characters is awe-inspiring, particularly when they embody characters I’ve worked with for a long time, heard speaking, and imagined thinking. While it’s true that many who read Beautiful Ape Girl Baby in early stages had remarked, sometimes heatedly, “This should be a movie!” I hardly imagined this suggestion would come to pass with such alacrity.
In fact, when I first asked for help with a making a two-minute book trailer several months ago, it was a sheepish request to a talented woman friend who already knew her way around film. I asked her to make something, anything I could put on my website and use as a book promotion tool. “Could you just do something to showcase the blurbs, Lauren?” I’d asked. “The book has great blurbs. Something with the book cover and maybe some stock music.” From Lauren, I’d expected a “no” since she’s very busy, or maybe hoped I could convince her to see my request as a quick project she could put together over a weekend. But from the moment Lauren Rachel Berman, head of Divergent Delusion Productions, finished reading the book, she had other ideas.
I still remember the shock and dazed sense of wonder I felt when she first replied to the trailer inquiry, “I really want to film the scene with her and the two cops. I can't get it out of my head.” By “her,” she meant the novel’s protagonist, named Beautiful. Lauren then said, “I keep playing around with how I could block it and cast it and pull it together…” In what seemed a blink to me, Lauren then requested tear sheets about the characters, put together a film adaptation for the scene she envisioned, and planned to cast it immediately. “I’ll send you the good audition reels,” she told me, pretty much assuring me I didn’t want to see bad ones.
The scene she wanted to film is from early in the book. On the tear sheet for Beautiful’s character went as follows:
Female / Principal / Caucasian / 18 - 30
Beautiful Ape Girl Baby is the heroine/anti-heroine character from Heather Fowler’s soon to release novel entitled Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. Innocent and worldly at once, she was raised on an estate by wealthy parents who hired friends to make her appearance as a strange, ape-like looking girl seem the epitome of female beauty. She is described as blue-eyed, walnut haired, and strong as a horse, with occasional bouts of lacked impulse control and violence. A confident woman, she enters every scene like she is the star. She perceives herself to be magnanimous and kind.
Scene description: In a confrontation with two somewhat rural policemen, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby at first wants to evade their arrest so she can continue on her clandestine mission to meet her mentor across the country and then cuffs them together and instead wants to provide them with co-counseling about the gay relationship she assumes she sees when one cop tries to protect the other.”
We lucked out and got several interesting actresses to send reels for this character, but while watching auditions for all the roles both at home in San Diego and with Lauren the week before the shoot in Los Angeles, I knew I’d been privileged to see something pretty rare for an author to have access to—the vision of seeing people engaging with fictive characters, acting out their dialogue multiple ways with multiple interpretations, and filming themselves doing so. I remember feeling completely fascinated by one audition for the role of Beautiful from a gorgeous Asian actress who showed a special talent of realistically kicking ass at the end of her audition reel. While we didn’t end up going with her since we were more delighted by the reel sent in by Marjan Elliott, who plays Beautiful in the film, it was great to see that the types of actresses attracted to this character were fierce as well as fascinating. I took no less pleasure in watching the men’s auditions for the cops.
But let’s talk shoot: April 10, 2016. That morning, surreal and floating with anticipation, I knew my book’s scene was about to become a visceral recording. I drove from Laguna Niguel to Santa Maria, California, early enough to hear the bird refrains ring louder than vehicular traffic. Before 8 a.m. I arrived on set to see actress Marjan Elliott get made up to play my novel’s leading lady.
The make-up artist, pictured above with Marjan Elliott, was the startlingly lovely and intuitive Denisse Moran. As you see from the photo, the make-up is light—it is after all, one of few scenes in which the protagonist, described as a beautiful ape woman, looks mostly human because the character has shaved her face to fit in.
Before the filming began, scripts were spread across tables. Soon thereafter, the actors playing the cops arrived, and the crew began to assemble. It was a divine moment when I realized my scene was about to happen.
I couldn’t have known, when I saw the device I affectionately refer to as “the clacker,” how intense it would be to watch take after take of this scene. But, an hour into the shoot, the sky let loose a torrent of rain and almost ruined it all. I kept thinking: “Oh no! They’d have to stop if this keeps up!” because I came to understand that while the production company could shoot in light rain, if the sky did not stop destroying the set, within a designated time frame, there’d soon be no shoot. You can see below the sky before the deluge.
It was particularly heartbreaking to think of the rain making all cease since the cop car, the stunt driver, boom microphone, multiple cameras, actors, director, more crew—so many people and things—had been gathered to make this happen on this day. But as the rain slashed down, as we ran for cover, my own review copy of the book in my hand had to be used as impromptu umbrella, and it seemed that destroyed review copy might be a harbinger for the rest of the day.
Still, even had we been unable to go on, I was aware that no matter what happened next, the first hour of the morning had been magical, and the beauty of seeing the early part of the filming was powerful. As we waited out the rain, the crew and I had the pleasure of watching Lauren Rachel Berman direct scripted reads and then off-book reads with the actors. In these moments, I saw segments of the story they hadn’t yet filmed. Again and again, the actors brought more to the read-throughs, engaging in playful exercises. There are no pictures of these private moments, but having seen them remains a favorite memory from the shoot.
Then, miraculously, what we’d seen as huge puddles and relentless rain transformed rapidly into warm blue skies. It was decided immediately: filming would recommence.
Throughout the segments shot next, Lauren Rachel Berman astounded me with the creative solutions she came up with for how to make the film true to the text.
Below you see the exchange where Marjan, a gorgeous woman with a delicate frame, as Beautiful manhandles the cop character called Vick, played by Jimmy Jones, III. While it’s easy to make a woman quite strong in a novel, to show it on film certainly needed Hollywood magic, showing me firsthand how superhuman strength in a book made the filming of such exchanges require intense conversation and blocking. You can also see that while the cameras make it appear that Vick is suspended in mid-air, a victim of Beautiful’s chokehold, to make it look effortless for Marjan, a step-ladder came into play.
Humorously, sometime into the filming of this scene, I remember being called upon as author to participate in a conversation that went something to the effect of, “How many hands does Beautiful have? In the book, she grabs a cop in a chokehold, holds a gun, catches a pair of cuffs, and while doing this, verbally perseverates on the difficulty of this situation. A little hard on an actress.” Well, the Beautiful in my mind has a thousand hands, I thought, amused, but clearly the one being filmed would need four or five to do things properly for the excerpt. Nonetheless, through some elegant decisions, Lauren made the scene work, adapting the script where we stood and getting the filming done. Again and again, the scenes were performed from different angles. Not only the cops, Jimmy Jones, III (Vick) and Dumont Darsey (Ed), but everyone affiliated worked hard in the hot sun. I have to say, it was exciting to see that the cops’ portrayals were just as intricate as Marjan’s.
Here’s Jimmy as Vick, hamming it up in a moment between takes with his gun and his megaphone. There’s something electric about a megaphone, isn’t there? I, too, wanted to play with it, though I never got the chance. That aside, at day’s end, I’d definitely say that while to watch the shoot of the heavy action segments with the cop car was fierce, it was the scenes shot later in the day in the ditch, where Beautiful acts as therapist to the cops, that revealed more of the true vulnerability and multi-faceted nature of the cops.
To see Marjan Elliott bring Beautiful to life and watch the cop actors perform all scenes Lauren adapted was completely special and otherworldly for me, but I felt equally indebted and impressed by the work of all the other generous people affiliated with the shoot who included: Jared Berman on the camera and acting as Director of Photography, Line Producer Jose Mendoza, Chase Rubin working as stunt driver, and Sam Caterisano as 1st Assistant Director and Field Mixer/Boom Operator. So, yes, writing a book may take an author a long time, working alone—but anywhere near Hollywood, film creation takes a proverbial village working together, and every hand participating in that action helps make the magic that creates the durable art.
For the sake of my work, for twelve hours, first in the pouring rain and then the blistering sun, the people who made this shoot happen did so with immaculate passion and professionalism, Lauren at the helm. That’s pretty humbling.
So, where’s everything now? The film is with an editor, soon to be scored, and we hope it will be made available for film festivals in the near future. It’s my hope that readers can get behind both the film and the novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, when they see so much going on with it, and help our efforts reach a wider audience.
If anyone wants updates for when they can see the film or other announcements about my work, follow my website, Facebook, or Twitter. And help this wild literary book with a strong female protagonist get an audience that will only increase with the film’s release.
The book is available for pre-order now.
Heather Fowler is a poet, a fiction writer, a playwright, and a novelist. She is the author of the forthcoming novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby (June 2016 release) and the story collections Suspended Heart (2010), People with Holes (2012), This Time, While We're Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Fowler’s People with Holes was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction. Her fictive work has been made into fine art in several instances and her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, is the winner of the 2013 TWIN ANTLERS PRIZE FOR COLLABORATIVE POETRY released in December of 2014. Fowler has published stories and poems online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, and had work appear in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, Feminist Studies, and more, as well as having been nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award, Sundress Publications Best of the Net, and Pushcart Prizes. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine.