Screenplays can be the foundation of many things, from escapist froth to rallying cries for social causes. But this year quite a few seem to be doubling as metaphorical couches, which is to say a space in which either screenwriters or those whose material they’re adapting (and sometimes both) can work through various personal issues.
For example, in the novel “A Single Man,” Christopher Isherwood reimagined his breakup with partner Don Bachardy as the death of a lover. Scott Neustadter did something similar with “500 Days of Summer” (which he co-wrote with Michael Weber), fictionalizing the heartbreak of his one-sided crush on an ex-girlfriend. Both Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” and the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man” draw from their writer-directors’ personal histories, while “Nine” reimagines Fellini’s semiautobiographically impressionistic “8 1/2” as a musical.
In the case of “An Education,” Nick Hornby (who remains best known as a novelist whose books have been made into such films as “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”) adapts Lynn Barber’s soul-baring memoir of her teenage seduction by an older, ultimately disreputable man. But to do the job effectively, Hornby found it essential to focus on aspects of himself that he saw in the story. “You have to dramatize what the material means to you and what’s going to resonate, and that’s going to be different from what it means to her,” he says.
Hornby, who had also come of age in 1960s England, even had to change the main character’s first name to Jenny to put adequate distance between himself and Barber: “It took me a long time to realize that there was a certain degree of personal identification there — the suburban kid longing for an escape into a more exciting world. I could relate to that. My novel ‘Fever Pitch’ was partly about that, and I started to think of this as a girl’s version of that.”
With “Funny People,” Apatow was hoping to revisit on film his early days as a joke writer for Garry Shandling, Dennis Miller and Roseanne and Tom Arnold when he decided to merge that idea with another.
I wanted to write about how much I loved these comedians, and I wanted to write a film about someone who gets really sick and then better but doesn’t learn anything in the process,” he says. “And then one day it hit me that maybe the two could be one.”
Apatow calls the result “a collage of real and fabricated ideas,” adding that “there’s the ring of truth to most of the movie, whether it’s how it happened or would have happened back in the day.”
His old buddy Adam Sandler plays the unregenerate comic, George, with what appears to be fierce authenticity, yet Apatow is quick to reveal who really inspired George. “Sadly, the personality who has the most similarities to George is me,” he says. “You’d like to think it’s someone else, but that’s the one dark corner of my personality. When we made the movie, Adam and I said this is who we could become if we went off the rails.”
For “A Single Man,” first-time writer-director Tom Ford had intended to use writer David Scearce’s adaptation of the Isherwood novel, attracted by such details as a conflicted lead character in transition (Ford was adjusting to life changes of his own, having recently left Gucci) and the way Isherwood incorporated Eastern philosophy. “Those larger truths were what drew me in the first place,” Ford says. “I also had to exaggerate and streamline. At first I tried to be very literal, but I had to learn that I needed to let stuff fall away.”
In the end, Ford injected details from his own life: the decision to make George’s character suicidal was inspired by a family member who had killed himself, the domestic scenes between George and his former lover echoed his own relationship and even featured Ford’s two Jack Russell terriers and so on. And while he worried that he’d veered too far from his source, when he gave Bachardy a scene in which he’d made Julianne Moore’s character Charley considerably more glamorous than in the book, Bachardy reassured him.
It turns out that her inspiration (actress Iris Tree) was that way, and Isherwood had camouflaged her,” Ford explains. “Don helped me feel good about it. And the first time he saw the film, he gave me this huge hug and said, ‘You’ve made it your own.
After a career of writing tongue-in-cheek caricatures, including sendups of personalities they’d observed in Minnesota (“Fargo”) and Texas (“No Country for Old Men”), screenwriting siblings Joel and Ethan Coen turned the spotlight on themselves for “A Serious Man,” about a devout Jewish professor unfairly singled out for cosmic punishment. Though the story isn’t exactly autobiographical, “The movie is largely set in places — both the suburban environment and the synagogues and the Hebrew school — that are very similar to the ones that we grew up with,” Joel says. “We wanted to examine the period we had direct firsthand experience in. Retrospectively, the childhood thing gave it a certain kind of kick, it had some special charge.”
But of all this year’s screenplays, none cuts closer to the bone of its scribe than “500 Days of Summer,” which recounts the deluded love of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and the havoc wrecked on him by the dissolution of their relationship.
Neustadter is up front about the inspiration. “Yeah, sadly enough, this was a real relationship in the real world that I went through,” he says. “The genesis of the script was I had been dumped. I was consumed by this thing. I was just trying to figure it out. That never happens in the movies, and I sort of realized that I had been looking at romance and love in this inaccurate movieish way and had a lot of growing up to do. That’s where it came from.”
Though he in fact melded two such failed relationships into a single script, the details were spot-on. “All that stuff about ‘The Graduate’ and listening to the Smiths was me,” Neustadter says. “I couldn’t see the difference between what I wanted the world to be like and what it was like. That was a scary disconnect.”
Once he’d finished writing, however, he began to have doubts about the material. “I didn’t show it to anyone for six months,” he says. “I was afraid people would make fun of me. I was afraid they’d say, ‘You can’t just write a long diary entry and call it a script.’ When I finally did show it to people, they said, ‘Hey, how did you know?’ as if I was writing about them, not about me.”
Some critics chide writers for using their projects as therapy to work through personal issues. But as Fellini demonstrated in “8 1/2 ,” those stories often resonate because they also put us — the audience — on the couch.