Screenwriting teams share a lot of time alone together, working intensely. No wonder, then, that they often use the language of marriage to talk about their partnerships.
Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, though, had to plunge in on adapting Perrotta’s novel “Little Children” when they still barely knew each other.
“It was a fairly, ‘Hi, how are you, let’s sleep together’ kind of experience,” Field says.
Perrotta calls that instant intimacy “crazy,” but the process worked out for both of them. The script and film have been widely praised, and the two men have remained friends.
One reason, Perrotta says, is that the adaptation by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor of his book “Election” went so well.
Says Perrotta: “It really opened me to the idea that the best way to get a good movie was to get somebody who’s really talented and let them do their thing.”
Field credits Perrotta with coming into the process full of ideas about how to change the novel.
Perrotta says that over the last five years, as he’s worked on adapting his own fiction for film, he’s learned not to approach screenwriting “from a defensive crouch.”
Field surprised himself at the outset by deciding right off that one thing he wanted to keep from the book was Perrotta’s voice, in the form of narration, something he’d never been interested in trying before.
“It made sense to try to retain his voice, (A) because that’s what excited me in the first place and (B) because we needed some kind of framing device for what was effectively going to be a fable. A fractured fairy tale, but a fable nonetheless.”
Flattered, Perrotta really became sold on the idea when he realized that the voiceover would be funny.
“I think most of the laughs the movie gets,” says Perrotta, “are related to the interplay between that calm voice and the sort of hysterical action.”
Field credits Perrotta with a structural change, too. In the book, child molester Ronald McGorvey, who has the town in a panic, is introduced early. In the film, he makes his entrance later. “Let other people talk about that character,” says Field, “so that when the character appears we have an opinion about him, albeit a secondhand opinion, like most things in life.”
They also decided that when they did bring him onscreen, it was time to drop the narration, forcing you to “be with that character and lean forward in your seat and watch him,” says Field.
It ended up that the difficult part of their working time was not the creative part but practical things.
Perrotta remembers the awkwardness of being stuck. “You might get up and walk, chew your nails, scratch your head. Suddenly somebody else is there, and you realize we haven’t said a word for 15 minutes.”
And then there was the simple matter of meals. Perrotta likes to eat on a regular schedule, whereas Field can push through without a break.
“I’d need lunch but didn’t want to look like the weakling that needs lunch,” says Perrotta, who finally had to speak up and take a break.
“I’m like a union employee,” he says. “He works like an entrepreneur.”