Interview with Vendela Vida

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Vendela Vida is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter. She is a founding co-editor of The Believer, an American culture and arts magazine, and is the author of several award-winning nonfiction and fiction books. In 2009, her screenplay with Dave Eggers was made into the Sam Mendes-directed film Away We Go, starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. In 2013, she was awarded the San Francisco Film Society’s Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant for Screenwriting to adapt her second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, into a feature to be directed by co-recipient Eva Weber. Vendela Vida spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about the art of self-adaptation, the beauty of Lapland, and her upcoming film’s progress. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.

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Sean Malin: In my interview with Eva Weber last year, she said that you and she would be taking a trip to Lapland together to prepare for Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. Has that happened yet?

Vendela Vida: We’re in the process of planning the trip now. Eva shot her short film Reindeer in Lapland, and I traveled there three times while writing the novel that’s the basis for the film. But we’ve never been there together and I think it will be important for us to see the same Lapland. We’re going to follow the exact journey that Clarissa, the protagonist, takes in the script. It’ll allow us to see where we want to shoot, yes, but I also think — and hope — that some of the challenges we run into might influence the script.

SM: There’s an amazing sort of meta-quality to this trip. According to Eva, you first bonded over the fact that Reindeer (2013) is set in Lapland. Now, you’re both about to take an actual journey to this place that people in the Western world almost never visit. On that trip, you’ll both be mirroring the trip of the protagonist of the book and the script-based-on-the-book that you wrote. I’ve never heard of anything like that.

VV: I love following the physical footsteps of a character. I do it as much as I can when writing. And I think for a script it might prove to be equally as important. We’ll find out! Last time Eva was in Lapland she was a passenger in a car that hit and killed a reindeer. She described the gore and terror of that accident to me, and it made its way into the script. I’m really hoping we don’t have a similar encounter on our journey, but I do want to make sure we convey how difficult it is to travel in Lapland, how far north it is, and how nothing is easy there. One of my goals as I rework the script is to make Clarissa more active than she is in the book because I think that’s important for the film. I want to show her struggle more, and so I plan on finding as many road blocks to her journey as possible.

SM: What were the driving forces that made you realize that the character of Clarissa needed to be a more active protagonist in the script than in the book?

VV: Eva and I were at Sundance’s January Screenwriters Lab last year with the script. It’s a really intense experience – over the course of several days you meet with five or six advisors for two hours each. One thing my advisors helped me learn – and I’m phrasing it that way deliberately because they don’t try to preach anything to you, but rather they help you figure out for yourself what the script’s shortcomings are – anyway, one thing they helped me learn was that there wasn’t enough drama in the script in its original incarnation. A lot of the tone and drama and struggle in the book came from the narrative voice, but obviously that doesn’t translate into film (unless you use a voice-over, which we didn’t want to do.) So Eva and I decided to make Clarissa’s character much more active in that she keeps making bad choices or having unfortunate experiences that end up making things harder for herself. Basically, the way I now think of drama is that you create a character, and then throw a lot of shit at them. Or reindeer. Or whatever can get in their way.

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SM: At the end of the Lab, you had a script and a director set. You mentioned by e-mail that you had news of producers helping to develop the project, right?

VV: The production company is called Fly Film, and they’re based in London. Since Eva is based there and the film will be shot in Scandinavia, we wanted to work with people who were knowledgeable about making films in Europe. The women behind Fly Film, Kate Ogborn and Lisa Marie Russo, have a history of producing fantastic films. There’s a part of me too that loves that between me, Eva, Kate and Lisa Marie, there are so many women working on this film. Especially because Clarissa isn’t the most conventional female character – she doesn’t always behave in a likable way, which is what I personally like about her. I don’t want her behavior to be overly explained – in real life, people can make somewhat reckless decisions when in the throes of grief, as Clarissa is – and Fly Film is very supportive of that. I’m very excited to be working with them.

SM: Have you found the process of adapting your own book to script form – being forced to “kill your darlings” for drama, basically – to be difficult?

VV: Definitely. My advisors at the Lab joked that they were going to try to get the book away from me because I was depending too much on it. Midway through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab I gave up and gave over my copy of the book to Marcos Bernstein, who wrote Central Station, among other brilliant scripts. Apparently he brought it to the meeting with the other advisors and held it up proudly and said, “Look, I got the book away from her!”

I think it’s a huge challenge for a writer to adapt his or her own book. You’re tempted to keep certain elements simply because you have memories of writing them or because of a reader’s response to a particular line. Or you just want to keep them because they have this Proustian resonance for you. If I was adapting a book by someone else and coming to the material without those emotional attachments, I imagine I would feel more liberated to add dialogue, change plot points, or compress a number of characters into one. I feel I can do that now with Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, but it took me a long, long time, and many drafts to free myself of the book.

SM: I find myself most attached to the title of your book because it’s so lyrical and poetic, and it sets a specific, aural mood. But I also find it difficult to remember…Will you be able to keep it for the film?

VV: We want to keep the title but we’ll probably have to fight for it somewhere down the line. I always like complicated titles. I was just at Sundance [Film Festival] and there was a film by Maya Forbes called Infinitely Polar Bear there. That is just a great title. My personal rule of thumb with titles is that, even if it’s a long title, as long as people can reduce it to one memorable word, it works. My first novel was originally titled Raft of the Medusa but the publishing house and other people weren’t crazy about it, and it was eventually changed to And Now You Can Go. I kind of regret that title to this day because there’s not one word that sticks out. Even if people couldn’t remember Raft of the Medusa they would probably remember “Medusa” or even “Raft” and that would be good enough.

SM: Why did you choose the second novel of your fiction trilogy – not the first or the third, The Lovers [2010], which came out right on the heels of Away We Go hitting theaters – as the first of your novels to be adapted?

VV: From its inception, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name was a very filmic novel. I’ve always wanted to see it on the screen. When young writers or students who are about to start a book ask me for advice, I tell them they can’t be ambivalent about their topic or their premise. I tell them they have to be so in love with a project because they will spend more time with it than they could ever have imagined. If you approach a topic with the attitude of “I’m kind of interested in this,” then no, that’s not going to work because you have to be fully consumed by it. It’s not enough to be kind of interested in something that will cause you much more heartbreak and self-doubt than you knew was possible. Not to mention all the time it will take – so much more time than you expected. Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is the one book I’ve written so far that I’m truly passionate about seeing on the screen – I would love to see the others onscreen, too, but not enough to really…

SM: Go to the Sundance Labs and be made fun of for clutching the book every day.

VV: *Laughs* Right, right.

SM: What about the films that have helped you sculpt the script for Northern Lights?

VV: All road movies have been instrumental—even ones that are very different in tone, like Flirting With Disaster [Russell, 1996.] In terms of mood and tone, I’ve been looking more toward Lost in Translation [Coppola, 2004,] even though Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is darker. I was just rewatching parts of Lost in Translation last night – I love that film so much. It’s dangerous, though, because some movies have a magic that you can’t explain, and I feel like so much magic happened with the filming of that movie and how it all came together. Magic can be difficult thing to aspire to – for obvious reasons.

SM: At The Believer, you’ve interviewed many people whose work has been translated to film or been highly in demand for adaptations; I’m thinking for example of your amazing interview with Joan Didion published recently in Always Apprentices [Vida, Heti, Simonini, eds., 2013]. How much do interviews like that and the work you do at the magazine rollover into your work?

VV: I love hearing about people’s creative processes. That said, I rarely follow anyone else’s advice or emulate rituals. I’m not the person that takes to heart another person’s routine of staying up until 2 or having tea at a particular time, or shooting a duck or inhaling the scent of an orange before sitting down to write – or whatever it is that works for other writers. But I still enjoy hearing about their processes even if they don’t influence me much.

When I was growing up in San Francisco, I never met a writer or an artist of any kind, really….my family wasn’t in the artistic world at all. With The Believer, I’m reminded of just how much work is involved in creating something and that there’s not some secret door that takes you to the finish line faster. No one says, “it’s so easy! I just sat down and wrote this book or this movie.” So it helps to know there’s not a secret code or anything. It’s really about sitting down to write on a regular basis and for long periods of time. It’s about knowing that some days will be harder than others. Sometimes you get lucky and you have a great day, and sometimes you don’t. But you still have to put in the time and get the words down, one at a time. It’s kind of amazing if you just write even 500 words a day, they add up to a book within a year. When you think about it that way, it doesn’t seem as daunting. In fact, I think that’s the only way you can think about writing — as composing one scene at a time until they eventually add up. Ideally, when they do add up, they create more than the sum of their parts.

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