Jonathan Tropper: The Novelist, the Screenwriter
ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT) TINA FEY, COREY STOLL, JANE FONA, JASON BATEMAN, AND ADAM DRIVER AS THE ALTMAN FAMILY IN THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.
This is Where I Leave You, at least in its original novel form, is not afraid to be dark. The narrator, Judd Altman, is cynical and angry: his father has just died and he recently found out that his wife and boss are sleeping together. He returns to his childhood home for his father’s funeral and is coaxed into spending seven days sitting shiva with his mother and three siblings: his older brother Paul who is married to his old high school girlfriend Alice; his older sister Wendy who is married to a personality-free banker; and his much younger, philandering brother Phillip. They’re all a little bit lost, and they all make some morally questionable (or just amoral) decisions.
The film version, which opened on Friday, is a little softer and sanitized: Judd, played by Jason Bateman, is not quite as bitter; his transgressions are not quite as harmful. But every change was made with the author’s blessing, for it was the author, Jonathan Tropper, who wrote the screenplay.
Tropper is not a newcomer to the world of film and television: he co-created the Cinemax show Banshee and is currently working on an adaption of David Menasche’s The Priority List for Warner Bros. “Novel writing, to me, is all about language: choosing your words, finding the characters within the words and just really agonizing over every word,” the native New Yorker explains. “It’s really crafting this whole piece from nothing. Screenwriting you don’t necessarily have to do the job of the costume designer and the prop master and the set designer. It’s more just about finding the visuals and finding these characters through dialogue,” he continues.
EMMA BROWN: A few details from the book were changed for the film. How did you decide which details had to be kept and which ones you didn’t mind altering?
JONATHAN TROPPER: It’s sort of an organic process when you’re adapting any book, not even just your own. You want to preserve the heart of the story and you want to preserve who the characters are, but film requires a lot of compression. My hope is that fans of the book who see the movie will not notice a lot of the compression. They might notice one or two big moments that I changed, and I could get into those reasons if you want to be specific.
BROWN: The changes I noticed were—
TROPPER: The birthday cake?
BROWN: The birthday cake; that Judd and Paul’s wife Alice don’t have sex; and Penny and Judd’s past.
TROPPER: [For] the birthday cake, [director] Shawn [Levy] and I were really determined that this not be a terribly broad comedy. We wanted to preserve the tone of the book—a mixture of comedy and pathos [with] a strong emotional heart beating underneath it at all times. What happened to the cake in the book you can get away with, because of the way it’s narrated—I never narrate the visual; it’s done in a suggested way. But in the movie you’d actually have to shoot a cake going into someone’s ass, and who wants to shoot that? Who wants to see that? But more than that, in the first two minutes of the movie, to establish that kind of physical comedy would be, in my opinion, setting the wrong tone for the movie. So we came up with something that was a little more somber and a little more quiet.
[For Alice], that just goes to making Judd as sympathetic as possible. Judd is the heart of the movie. In the book, I cross certain moral lines with characters, but in the movie we have to be with Judd and rooting for Judd the whole way through. The feeling across the board was if he took that very much further, if he seemed to acquiesce or go with it, we would lose the audience, we would lose the sympathy for him because now he’s betrayed his brother.
BROWN: Is Judd less likeable in the book?
TROPPER: No, because you can do it differently in a novel. Judd narrates the novel; we’re in his head. You’re hearing all his thought processes and you’re hearing him call himself out on his bad behavior. You don’t have the benefit of that narrator in a movie. What you see a character do, very often, becomes that much more important because you don’t have him editorializing it for you.
BROWN: Did you consider using voiceovers?
TROPPER: I’m really not a fan of voiceovers; I think they become a crutch. That might come because I made the change from novel writing to screenwriting, and I was very conscious of the differences in the two arts. The whole purpose of screenwriting is to convey everything through action and dialogue and not explanation and exposition. To me, there are movies where voiceover works really well because it does something more than exposition; it actually becomes a tonal element of the movie, but this would not have been one of those cases and I generally try to avoid it.
BROWN: People complain frequently that a film is never as good as the book on which it is based. Were you ever concerned about selling the film rights to your books?
TROPPER: Well, obviously it’s easier when I’ m doing the adapting myself.
BROWN: Was that always part of the deal?
TROPPER: No, it wasn’t always part of the deal. My first three books that wasn’t part of the deal. But my feeling is, your potential upside far outweighs the downside. Ultimately, they can’t change your book. Your book remains on the shelf the way you wrote it. If they make a great movie of your book, then you have the equivalent of millions and millions of dollars of advertising for your book. If the movie’s not that good, that doesn’t mean the book’s not good. It doesn’t change what you’ve already written. It has the potential to reach more people. And I’m generally somebody who hopes for the best. It’s not what one ought to do in my line of work, but it is what I do.
BROWN: Did you have a say in the cast for This is Where I Leave You?
TROPPER: No, the screenwriter rarely does. [But] I think ultimately we did arrive at the best possible version. It was a long and precarious process.
BROWN: What sort of image do you have in mind of each character when you are writing?
TROPPER: When I’m writing novels, even screenplays, it’s never an actor; it’s always this version in my head of who this character is. Once somebody gets cast, I have to adjust a little bit to who they are. Even Jason [Bateman], who I think is a perfect casting for Judd—there is no better actor for that role—I still had to go back through the script looking at the dialogue because then I heard Bateman’s voice, and I had to see what would work. But that’s just at the very end of the process.
BROWN: Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
TROPPER: The first thing that I remember was we got assigned to write a two-page science fiction story in fourth grade, and I turned in about 17 pages that was a complete amalgamation/rip-off of Star Wars and Jason of Star Command merged together.
BROWN: Did your teacher appreciate it?
TROPPER: I don’t remember, but I’m sure, she looked at it and went, “Oh my god, I have to read 17 pages of this stuff now? Didn’t he hear?”
BROWN: What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a writer?
TROPPER: I think it’s really important to demystify the process and to realize that the real difference between the ones who make it and the ones who don’t is perseverance—just sticking at it and believing you’re every bit as good as the guys who are doing it.
BROWN: What do you do when you get writer’s block?
TROPPER: One of the things I’ve learned once I got into television and I had 150 people waiting for a script, [is that] there is really no such thing. When you have to produce, you produce. I find the advantage to working on multiple projects—at any given point now I’m working on a TV script, a film script, and a novel—is that when one of them isn’t clicking at the moment you flip over to the other one and exercise a different muscle in your brain for a while.
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU IS NOW IN THEATERS. FOR MORE ON JONATHAN TROPPER, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.