How to lose control creatively

Martin not slavish to his novella in 'Shopgirl'

Even though he produced, wrote and stars in “Shopgirl,” Steve Martin ultimately had to give up control of what he calls “the most personal” project of his career.

In “Shopgirl,” based on his novella, Martin plays the wealthy Ray Porter, who picks up Claire Danes’ much younger Mirabelle, a Saks saleswoman. For Ray, it’s merely an affair. For Mirabelle, it is something much, much more, and she ends up devastated.

The actor-producer-scribe leaves it up to his director, Anand Tucker, to describe why Martin has such an attachment to the project. “Steve spent two years thinking about it and then he wrote the book,” says Anand. “Then he spent two years before he wrote the screenplay. Then it was another two years before we filmed it, so he’s been with this a long time.”

Tucker praises Martin’s ability to compartmentalize. “When we worked on the script, Steve was just the writer,” he says. “When it was the shoot, he was just the actor. He trusted me to get on with it because the movie has to be a thing all its own.”

Martin was not slavish to his novella. For example, he changed Neiman-Marcus on the page to Saks onscreen. “Because Saks was available,” Martin offers.

Other changes were subtler. In the film, Mirabelle uses anti-depressants and suffers a major collapse when she stops taking them. “Actually, the difference between the book and the movie is that in the book that doesn’t happen,” Martin says. “It’s just a let-down.”

One character was cleverly added to the film but never shown. “This is my dirty secret,” confides Martin. “In the book, Ray does not see a psychiatrist, because the omniscient narrator can tell you exactly what he’s thinking. But in the movie I couldn’t do that — and I hated to resort to a psychiatrist.”

Martin agonized. “Ray didn’t have a friend. I can’t put him on the phone going, ‘Yeah, well, I’m thinking this.’ It would be boring. And Anand did a brilliant thing: Ray’s talking to his psychiatrist but we never cut to the shrink. I thought it really made the scene, it didn’t make it like a psychiatrist scene.”

Intriguingly, Martin found Ray a more difficult character to write than Mirabelle. “It took me a while to figure out why,” he says. “Because when I look at the opposite sex, I know what’s interesting to me. I’m listening, and I’m finding, ‘Oh that story is interesting,’ so I can write about a woman and go, ‘This is gonna be good!’ But when you’re writing about a man because I am one, I know the thoughts, the feelings but I don’t know what’s interesting. So it was really hard to kind of pick and choose.”

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