‘After Adderall’ director Stephen Elliott On
Courtesy Raindance Film Festival

Every writer dreams of selling the movie rights to their work, all the more so when a famous actor is putting up the money. But when Stephen Elliott optioned his memoir “The Adderall Diaries” to the super-prolific indie star James Franco, the dream became more of a journey down the rabbit hole. The experience is reflected in Elliott’s dream-like no-budget docu-drama “After Adderall”, in which the writer plays himself and slowly comes to the realisation that he hasn’t just sold his story, he has also given away the rights to his life. Some scenes are exaggerated, some are invented, some are verbatim, but Elliott insists that it’s an extremely accurate depiction of the experience as he lived it. “In a weird way,” he says, “fiction can get at the truth better than non-fiction.”

Shot in eight days for just $10,000, “After Adderall” has the look of a much more expensive movie, thanks in part to some well-known names in the cast (Elliott recruited Michael C Hall and Lili Taylor via friends in the literary world) and some experienced hands in the tech department, notably DoP Adrian Peng Correia and editor Michelle Botticelli. Interestingly, though, Elliott has no commercial plans for “After Adderall”, and aside from its current festival run, which ends in November in Key West, it’s unlikely that the film will see any form of distribution (“It’s basically a student movie,” he jokes). Instead, Elliott sees his film as a creative experiment. “It’s a really, really literary movie,” he explains. “It’s much more like a book than most movies are.”

Where did the inspiration for “After Adderall” come from?

I’d written a book called “The Adderall Diaries” after not writing for a couple of years. It was my seventh book. I’d got involved in the murder trial of this guy that had girlfriends in common [with me]. He’d confessed to eight murders; it was a very sensational, crazy murder trial. In meantime, my father had also confessed to a murder in his unpublished memoir – I had been looking into that for a long time and had not really been able to find out very much about it. The book was a combination of those two things, a very artful exploration of meaning and truth, and I was surprised when James Franco decided to option it. Although I didn’t think too much of it, to be honest, because I figured these things get optioned all the time and nobody ever actually makes them.

Did he say why he liked it?

He told me that he had found my book because I gave a lecture about it in one of his classes [at Columbia]. But he wasn’t actually there that day. Somebody had videotaped the lecture – he had seen the tape of the lecture, and that was why he’d bought the rights to my memoir. Which struck me as so bizarre: he bought it because he saw me talk about it. Not because he read it!

What happened next?

I asked James if I could write the script and he said, “Yeah.” So I wrote a script for him, and everybody on the team liked the script, and that was that. A couple of years passed and then I got a note from James asking me to meet and talk about “The Adderall Diaries”. I go to meet him and he’s not there, instead there are these two graduate students. That was the beginning of the weirdness.

 How weird did it get?

Well, a bunch of time passed, and they actually ended up making the movie. They shot the movie just a few blocks from where I was living. I went to go on set and they said no, I wasn’t allowed on set. Then they started test-screening the movie, and I was hearing from friends who were going to these screenings. I asked if they wanted me to see an edit and give them my feedback, and they said, “No, that’s OK.” Then I found out it was playing at the Tribeca film festival, because it was in the newspapers. They contacted me to ask me a question about the credits, and I said, “Aren’t you going to tell me that you’re playing Tribeca?” They apologised and gave me tickets to the premiere. I was so inspired by the premiere, and the kind of absurdity and the surrealness of seeing your memoir, your life portrayed on screen by these famous actors, that it got me thinking about questions of identity. Who owns your story, and can you ever be authentic when telling your own story? So I wrote the script for “After Adderall”.

 How long did it take? 

It took me two weeks. It just flowed out of me. I’d been working full time for a magazine called Epic and I had some money, so I decided just to make it. I shot it in eight days, on $10,000, and that was it. It was super easy. I didn’t have contracts with any of the actors because I never had any intention of selling distribution or making any money from it. Nobody worried about being ripped off because we were all not making money together. We made it, and it turned out great. It was an amazing creative experience, because once you take the profit motive out of a project it becomes really, really fun.

 

Does James Franco know about the film? Did you run it just past him? 

No, I didn’t. I’m sure he knows about it by now, it’s been around for a while and I’ve certainly not been hiding it. I’ve been promoting it. I haven’t talked to him in a long time and I’m not sure what his feelings are. It seems like the kind of movie he would like, but I don’t know, I don’t understand him at all. I don’t really know he feels about anything.

At the same time, it’s not an angry film – did you ever worry about people thinking you were bitter about the experience?

I definitely did not want my movie to be about settling a score or getting revenge, or anything like that. It just inspired me, so [Franco’s] movie was a gift, in a lot of ways. It sold books and I got a chunk of money. Not crazy money, but $85,000 dollars is a lot. The biggest part was that it inspired me to write this movie, and inspiration is hard to come by. Writing is not easy for me.

How have audiences reacted to the film?

It’s very easy to tell if it’s working or not, it’s very objective. If people laugh, it works, if they don’t, it doesn’t work. The response has been really, really good so far. Raindance is the first big festival that we’re playing at, so it’s the first time that any kind of real media information about the movie is getting out there. In all honesty, I don’t see this movie ever being distributed widely. Maybe more of a cult film, a ‘midnight showings’ kind of movie. I don’t think I’m even going to put it online.

 What do you hope for it?

Ideally maybe somebody will see it and they’ll ask me to act in their movie, or I’ll get to write for some other media projects. I’d love to do more film and television writing. I’m such an outsider to these worlds, even in the literary world. I’ve always just been an outsider – I just do these things and hope for the best, really.

 

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