There is Dave. And there is Vendela. And they are married. They have two kids. They write books—mostly. They also publish books (that is, other people’s, under their own imprints). They each have a magazine. His: McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Hers: The Believer. Then there’s 826 Valencia, a tutoring space they created in San Francisco where kids can come to get help with their writing. Since its founding in 2002, it has gone national, with seven drop-in centers around the U.S.
They do a lot, those two. When I accuse them of this, all I get is sass. “Ballroom dancing,” is Dave’s answer. And Vendela’s: “Snapping,” which leads to something Dave calls interpretive snapping, a not-so-unsuccessful example of which—complete with Dave singing—I still have on tape.
What they also do is write movies. Together. They are now the screenwriting team ofDave Eggers & Vendela Vida. Their first joint effort, a screenplay called Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes and edited by the estimable Sarah Flack, is scheduled for release by Focus Features this June. I just saw it. It’s plain lovely. It’s a really sweet, funny, and unabashedly sincere movie about love. (And, before everyone else gets to say it, Maya Rudolph is fantastic.)
When I met Dave and Vendela for lunch in San Francisco, I hadn’t yet seen the film. After we ate with the stunning San Francisco Bay just a couple of blocks below us, we went off to find a quiet place to talk about Away We Go.
NATHAN ENGLANDER: Where am I?
VENDELA VIDA: San Francisco, on top of a parking garage.
ENGLANDER: Yes, in your car. And you’ve given me the driver’s seat since I’m interviewing.
VIDA: Dave’s in the back.
DAVE EGGERS: We’ve got some serious stuff to cover—starting with hair. Should we do the first half about product?
ENGLANDER: You and I always talk curls. Product, or no product? It was on my list of questions.
EGGERS: Are you still using product?
ENGLANDER: I have a mild product in today.
EGGERS: It’s very natural. Your hair is working, even with the product. But the sweater’s not so good. You have to be at least 70 to be wearing a sweater with a zipper.
ENGLANDER: I have replaced all my sweaters with zippy-sweaters. I just love them. You can move the zipper and it’s almost a new look—
VIDA: Lower it an inch, and it’s a new sweater.
ENGLANDER: Sometimes jealousy does manifest as teasing. Anyway, get used to it. I’ll be wearing this sweater for the next 10 years. It used to be important in high school to have a different outfit every day. Now, I decide a pair of jeans are my favorite, and wear them until they fall off.
EGGERS: Vendela does the same thing.
VIDA: It’s because I went to an all-girls school where I wore a uniform every day for nine years. I’d wear the same uniform all week, and then my mom would wash it, and I’d wear it the next week, and—
ENGLANDER: Did you have an outfit to wear while it was in the wash?
VIDA: A nightgown.
ENGLANDER: [laughs] A nightgown? Really, that was your stand-in?
EGGERS: I’ve turned into one of those people—it’ll be five o’clock and I’ll realize I’m wearing the same clothes that I slept in.
ENGLANDER: So, let’s get to the movie. I kind of remember you saying you wrote this movie while you were in labor with your daughter.
VIDA: More during pregnancy.
ENGLANDER: That’s funny. I always thought you wrote it in the hospital, in, like, eight hours.
ENGLANDER: Because I always think everyone else can do stuff like that.
EGGERS: Everyone else can. But we didn’t.
ENGLANDER: What was the genesis of the film?
EGGERS: We were at home together a lot during the first pregnancy.
VIDA: We stopped being able to travel after a certain amount of time, and we were home kind of waiting for this event to happen. Even if it’s five months away, you’re still waiting.
ENGLANDER: Do you not usually both write in the house during the day?
EGGERS: We’ve had all kinds of different routines, and this happened to be a period when we were in the same space. And we were just laughing about so many aspects of the pregnancy that we’d never been warned about—a lot of disgusting things and a lot of comical things. And we started taking notes. At the time, I was still working with Spike Jonze on the screenplay of Where the Wild Things Are.
ENGLANDER: Is Where the Wild Things Are the first script you worked on?
EGGERS: Yeah. I had no experience at all, and, even during that process, it’s not like Spike and I used a guidebook or anything. It was really organic.
ENGLANDER: He just asked you to write it?
EGGERS: We’d been friends for a couple years.
ENGLANDER: From when you were a skateboarder.
EGGERS: From when I was deep in the skate scene and doing a lot of ollies and handplants and inventing lots of other names for my maneuvers.
ENGLANDER: That’s why we’re in a parking lot.
EGGERS: This is one of my old skate haunts, yeah.
VIDA: You don’t skateboard.
EGGERS: No, but I’ve picked up some of the lingo. But it’s not like I had learned much about screenwriting that was applicable. Because, again, Spike and I were sort of making it up as we went along. Vendela had a little playwriting experience.
VIDA: With plays, they start at the last possible moment, and that’s what I love about them. You just start with someone who walks into the room—something happens.
EGGERS: The real beauty of screenwriting is that it’s so skeletal. You know that there are going to be all these other collaborators who will fill it in for you. It’s like drawing the outlines of a coloring book and then handing it to a bunch of other people to fill in. I had seen actors on Where the Wild Things Are improve everything and improvise on top of what had been written to such a degree that I thought, Well, if we just put down what we know, just paint some of the funnier scenes that we’d heard about or experienced . . .
VIDA: I’d read in a pregnancy book that some men could tell when their women were pregnant just by the way they tasted during oral sex. I thought, That is perfect.
EGGERS: That’s how the movie opens—that’s right when my in-laws will walk into the theater . . . and out again.
ENGLANDER: I’m glad you could see the next question. I was thinking, Your family is going to see this! Have you ever written together before?
VIDA: We’d never written anything together. What was fun for me about it was the immediate feedback. Usually you have to write a chapter and show it to somebody to see if it makes sense, but when you’re working together you get that feedback right away. And the advantage of working with someone you live with is that they can be honest. We could just be candid and say, “No. Bad idea.”
EGGERS: Writing alone in a room should be fun—and every so often it is fun—but a lot of times it’s torturous.
VIDA: I don’t think it should be fun.
EGGERS: Well, you should enjoy the process of writing. And, so many of us, when we’re writing books, spend so much of that time thinking, I would much rather do anything than this. I’d swab the deck of a merchant-marine ship . . .
ENGLANDER: [laughs] I love that you got us to swabbing.
VIDA: At the end of a book, when I’m trying to finish, I think, I’m never doing this again—fully aware that I will.
ENGLANDER: Do you really have that feeling?
VIDA: Every time, I think, “Never again. This is it. It’s taken everything out of me. I’m never, ever going to do this again.”
EGGERS: For me, that’s how it is at mile 21, if you were to think of a book as a 26-mile thing. In the middle of everything, you’re breaking down and all of your organs are failing and you really just want to collapse into a bush. With the screenwriting, when it was the two of us together—we’d just have a blast the whole time and try to make each other laugh.
ENGLANDER: I declare that to be sweet.
EGGERS: And you think, Finally, it’s fun the whole way through. It was never not fun. And when we finished it, and it would still make us laugh when we read it, we thought, Okay, there’s something. When you wrote that fable for McSweeney’s, Nathan, Poor Little Egg-Boy Hatched in a Shul, it sounded like you were having fun.
ENGLANDER: Yeah, I had a good time.
EGGERS: We should all be writing screenplays and children’s books. I think we would have much happier lives.
ENGLANDER: For the small percentage of the population that won’t run out to see a film at the mention of oral sex, would you like to say anything else about what happens? About the couple you created?
EGGERS: We wanted to distance the couple as much as possible from ourselves. And so, even the stuff we went through that we thought was funny—there’s almost nothing in the film that we actually experienced ourselves. It ended up being a younger couple, a first kid. They’re unmarried, sort of living a grad-student life.
VIDA: As you can tell from my car, which is filthy, we don’t live a grad-student life. [laughs] And we carry everything around with us.
EGGERS: It’s not that dirty. If this were my car, then we’d really be suffering. When I drop off our 3-year-old at preschool, the teachers look at the car each time to sort of send me a signal.
ENGLANDER: Right: “This is not a healthy environment for a child.”
EGGERS: They don’t say anything. They just sweep their eyes over it with a look of revulsion. Anyway, this couple, they’re basically unhinged, untethered. They’re looking for a new place to live. They don’t know where they’re going to raise this kid, because they don’t have to be where they were—which is outside of Denver. It’s partly a road-trip movie. And it gives the audience the opportunity to see different methods of child-rearing.
ENGLANDER: So it’s an educational comedy.
EGGERS: It’s quite instructional. There’s a workbook that comes with it.
ENGLANDER: When I’m updating my blog, and telling people everything I know about you two, everyone gets so excited that—
EGGERS: You have a blog?
ENGLANDER: No, I don’t have a blog. It’s more of a pay-site. But everyone gets so excited when I tell them Jim from The Office is in the movie. I’d love to talk about casting. There are a lot of exciting people in this film—including the Hot Pockets guy. You’ve got Jim Gaffigan.
EGGERS: Is he the Hot Pockets Guy?
ENGLANDER: You don’t know that clip on YouTube?
EGGERS: What does he do?
ENGLANDER: He does this bit about Hot Pockets, which has about 70 million hits.
VIDA: He was really good in the movie.
ENGLANDER: Would you talk about the cast? It’s the guy from The Office, who everyone has a massive crush on—
VIDA: John Krasinski.
EGGERS: And Maya Rudolph. What was really funny was that we wanted the guy to be kind of tall and lanky, for some reason.
VIDA: We had this image of what they would look like when they hugged, and we wanted it to look unnatural.
ENGLANDER: Sandra Bernhard and Danny DeVito.
EGGERS: They were on our list, those two. But we thought of Maya Rudolph first. And then we were trying to think of a lanky actor. I watch The Office, and so Krasinski came to mind. Then, oddly enough, they did interview, or . . . What did they do? Audition?
VIDA: Audition, yeah.
ENGLANDER: Stop throwing that lingo around!
VIDA: We still don’t get that lingo!
EGGERS: So, we had always written them into it. Sam Mendes did audition other actors, but then they ended up casting those two guys. [laughs] Of course, we got cocky and thought that we had input with all the casting—
ENGLANDER: I was just going to ask you about how involved you were.
VIDA: Well, Sam was amazing about taking our suggestions and humoring us.
ENGLANDER: In my interviewing prowess, I cut you off right when you were excited about an anecdote, about getting cocky with casting.
EGGERS: After that, we would go back and forth on ideas, and Catherine O’Hara came up early as a mom figure. And then we started recommending friends of ours.
VIDA: And writing their names into the script.
EGGERS: And writing mini-parts and cameos for people that we went to high school with. After a while, I think the casting folks—the professionals—started not being so appreciative. But the process with Sam, it was the three of us without any other voices—
VIDA: Except when we’d read through the scenes with the actors. Sam comes from a theater background. He believes in reading through all the parts with the actors. I was surprised by how many things changed after one of those sessions. You’d think a scene was completely done, and then you’d hear Catherine O’Hara say, “Oh, that’s when I think my character decides this.”
EGGERS: Then you realize the actors have done more thinking about the characters than you have.
VIDA: And the ending changed.
EGGERS: The ending changed significantly.
ENGLANDER: You cut the house fire?
EGGERS: Well, we were going to burn down an orphanage at the end. End it with this chorus of screams. Very poignant.
ENGLANDER: So now a baby crawls out . . .
EGGERS: I guess the burning orphanage wasn’t Hollywood enough. So we had to change that.
ENGLANDER: So now Nicolas Cage rushes in and carries a baby out?
EGGERS: Well, that’s the alternate ending. It’s being tested on some of the focus groups. But, yeah, the ending changed.
VIDA: I’m just thinking about my parents seeing it, actually.
EGGERS: Because it’s filthy. We just got the rating. It was rated R. That came as a shock.
VIDA: Then we remembered it had the word cuntsucker in it.
EGGERS: Yeah, the word cuntsucker appears. But just once.
ENGLANDER: The Cuntsucker Proxy?
EGGERS: I think we must’ve made that word up, right? Nathan, have you heard people say the word cuntsucker?
ENGLANDER: No! No.
EGGERS: So it’s very shocking when it appears.
ENGLANDER: Oh, they’ll be saying it soon.
VIDA: Who, my parents?
ENGLANDER: [laughs] Exactly. They’re going to love the movie. And this interview.
VIDA: I will say, there’s one thing we thought about consciously . . . I was reminded the other day of how we consciously chose to not have the couple get into a fight three-quarters of the way through the movie, which happens in a lot of comedies.
EGGERS: I’m still shocked we were allowed to not have them fight. If we had a scene where they break up and get back together and there’s a baby on the way in two months, then you’d just want to choke them both. So we thought, What if they’re just adults? And they’re actually in love?
ENGLANDER: And then you have Sam Mendes directing.
EGGERS: Yeah, he was just coming off of Revolutionary Road —
ENGLANDER: Another comedy.
EGGERS: Yeah. [laughs] We didn’t realize it at the time, but later we realized he was really needing a palette cleanser after that experience, and wouldn’t it be nice to make a movie about a couple who is happy, and loves each other, and where somebody isn’t going to die a horrible, bloody death at the end?
ENGLANDER: Am I allowed to say this? You’re both finishing books.
VIDA: I just turned mine in this morning. I’m celebrating by sitting in a car talking to you.
ENGLANDER: Mazel tov! That’s exciting. And speaking of things-exciting, how much do you two talk about opening night?
VIDA: I’m going to see it this week with a preview audience in White Plains, New York.
EGGERS: I’m staying here. San Francisco is as far away as I can be while in the continental U.S. And I’m happy to have that distance between me and the screenings.
ENGLANDER: Do you feel as sensitive about this as you would about a novel coming out?
VIDA: I think I’ll feel a little more distance from it than I would from a novel, because a novel is just you—your thoughts on a piece of paper. Whereas a movie is such a collaboration.
ENGLANDER: So if they don’t laugh at something, you’re just going to say, “Dave’s joke.”
VIDA: Yeah. [laughs] “I didn’t write that. Not mine.”
Nathan Englander lives in New York City. His most recent book, The Ministry of Special Cases, was published in 2007.
Photo credit: Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers and the McSweeney's office in San Francisco, March 2009.