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‘Sweetbitter’s’ Stephanie Danler on Importance of ‘Underwriting’ the Adaptation

When Stephanie Danler was writing her 2016 novel “Sweetbitter,” she never imagined the story would be adapted for the screen, let alone that she would be the one to do so. Inspired by her own experience working in a restaurant, Danler set out to create a female coming-of-age story about a young woman who moves to New York to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life, and gets swept up in a world of love, lust, drugs, alcohol and food.

“I love Anthony Bourdain and I love all of these chef memoirs, but they’re very masculine and aggressive and testosterone-driven,” she says. “I had never seen the more sensual aspects of that way of life depicted.”

Reimagining Restaurant Life

The novel version of “Sweetbitter” is composed of short vignettes, which moves the plot along at a clip. That style lent itself easily to the screen translation. “Usually when you’re adapting from a novel you’re taking 30 pages and trying to turn it into three pages of dialogue, but the book already moves at that pace,” Danler says.

The biggest adjustment came in the formatting. “An A story, a B story and a C story that all needed completion and are all related to each other and enhancing each other in 29 pages — that was crazy to me,” Danler admits.

In the novel, Danler could describe all of the emotions protagonist Tess (played in the series by Ella Purnell) was feeling in any given moment, as well as how she reacted, even if just on her face. But Danler learned early on that the key to scriptwriting was actually to “underwrite.”

“My inclination was to direct through stage direction,” Danler admits of her early pilot draft process. “Stu Zicherman, who’s my showrunner, really helped me hone this script. What I’ve learned now, having read 100 scripts, is that directions are for the director and the actor, and that’s something that’s hard for a novelist — that you are guiding them in a direction, but you’re not micromanaging every single detail.”

Creating a New Kind of Family

One of the key things Danler was adamant about translating identically from her book to her pilot script was the “family dinner scene” in which Tess, for the first time, observes just what kind of lifestyle she has walked into by taking a job in a trendy city restaurant.

Here, the book features what Danler calls “The Chorus” — snippets of dialogue to represent the collective group that she modeled after a Greek chorus.

“I knew that I wanted that cacophony and that fractured narrative where stories and sentences break off the middle, and thoughts aren’t always completed, and things feel like nonsequiturs, and yet it’s all telling you something about the people in the room,” Danler says of the adaptation.

As Tess takes that all in, the scene had to create a feeling of being “overloaded by information” and “battered around by this entirely new experience,” Danler adds.

When Danler first imagined the character of Tess, she was an impressionable, naive “blank slate.” But being overwhelmed by her new surroundings was just the “top note in the scene.” She also had to be willing and eager to absorb as much as possible, which becomes evident when she sits with Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) and learns how to taste wine.

“The moment when Simone starts speaking — in the book I believe it’s described as Simone slipping forward into the spotlight — that is a moment of intrigue and intoxication with a woman [unlike any Tess] has seen before — a woman who speaks so confidently and passionately,” Danler says. “[Tess] is sort of falling in love with Simone and discovering something so new.”

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