×

‘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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • T.J. Dillashaw, right, kicks Cody Garbrandt

    Disney Plans UFC Broadcast for FX

    UFC matches will return to FX  – but not on a permanent basis. ESPN has been showing preliminary bouts to UFC pay-per-view events for the last while on ESPN and ESPN2, and then showing the main card on its ESPN+ subscription video service. In September, the early lineup will air on FX, which the UFC [...]

  • George RR Martin

    George R.R. Martin Says HBO's 'Game of Thrones' Ending Won't Influence Future Novels

    Geroge R.R. Martin is sticking to his original plan when it comes to the future of “Game of Thrones.” In an interview with The Observer, Martin claimed that HBO’s controversial ending for the series would have no affect on the endings of the last two novels. “No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t change anything at all,” [...]

  • Listen: 'Pennyworth' Producer Talks Delving into

    Listen: 'Pennyworth' Executive Producer Talks Delving into Alfred's Backstory

    Bruno Heller may have served as an executive producer on the Batman-inspired series “Gotham” for the past five years, but it’s actually real-life people (not superheroes) that intrigue the producer the most. It’s for that exact reason that Heller’s newest series finds him exploring the origin stories of Batman’s butler Alfred in the Epix drama [...]

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content