In It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the second novel by Ned Vizzini, a depressed teenager, Craig, checks himself into a Park Slope psychiatric hospital; the new movie of this seriocomic coming-of-age story, from Brooklyn’s up-and-coming husband-and-wife studio-indie writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, opens October 8.
Let’s start for a minute with the book—I’m curious about the decision to filter your own experiences with psychiatric care through a teenage rather than an adult narrator and protagonist.
I write young adult novels, and young adult novels have teenage protagonists—it’s one of the only rules. So you could say I made Craig Gilner a teenager for practical or even marketing purposes. But I found a serendipity in the fact that a today’s teens live like yesterday’s adults. The expectations that are placed on them are adult. Their need to have real-world accomplishments before they leave high school is adult.
How’d the movie come about?
The movie came about because Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden wanted to make it. They got their hands on the book and when I met them for the first time, they had questions that showed me that they cared about it immensely—questions about Craig’s parents’ names, for instance (which I had forgotten to invent). The cast came together in late 2009—they found Keir Gilchrist and loved him for Craig, and then Emma Roberts signed on and she had read the book when she was 14, totally aside from the film, so she knew where it was coming from. There were a few names discussed for Bobby before Zach Galifianakis stepped in.
How involved were you in decisions about script, casting and overall tone? How involved did you want to be?
Ryan and Anna adapted the script; Cindy Tolan cast the film. I got a look at the script early on, before casting, and loved it—I thought it captured all the key scenes from the book. In terms of tone, I brought in a song for the soundtrack, “Happy Today” by the WoWz, and one of my T shirts (for the band Drunk Horse) is worn by a character in the film. That was all the involvement I needed. When I saw the final cut, I was surprised at how much it felt like the book. Maybe I bled in there from hanging out on the set.
Since this is a book about a teenager, someone going through a phase of life where so much of character is wrapped up in sensibility (clothes, music and other touchstones)—and when, in general, so much of that must be determined by the memory and hindsight of the author—I’m curious how you felt about submitting Craig to somebody else’s ideas about what he’s like, and, especially, what he likes.
It can be such a rabbit hole with teenagers and taste. You try to stay on the cutting edge and you’re doomed to failure. I wasn’t too worried with Craig because I knew from the script that his emotional outlook was intact. That’s going to cut through whether he likes Vampire Weekend or Pantera. Keir Gilchrist is really into crust punk; he and I meet somewhere around Rancid’s self-titled 2000 release. What I was surprised by were the clothes: somehow the costume designers Kurt & Bart got Keir in these corduroys and green sweaters that I swear I owned in high school.
Would you say your writing has been influenced by movies?
I don’t think I’ve been influenced by movies any more than anybody else. I hope not! My friends agree that I have terrible taste in movies. I’m an Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fan.
What are your favorite literary adaptations?
I love Less Than Zero, primarily because I saw Bret Easton Ellis talk about it and he said that he was sitting through an early screening, 2/3 of the way through, when he realized that they hadn’t used anything other than his character’s names for the film. American Psycho I also thought was great. It’s tough not to mention Bret Easton Ellis here. He kind of dominates the field.
The translation of an interior medium (literature) to an exterior one (cinema) is the essential problem of adaptation generally, but especially for a book like it’s Kind of a Funny Story, which concerns self-consciousness and biochemistry, and takes place in large part within Craig’s funny, obsessive inner monologue. I’m curious to hear how you think film adaptations have handled this problem in the past—and how you think it plays onscreen here.
I saw some press on the film that said something to the effect that it breaks the fourth wall whenever it wants. That’s an accurate assessment. That, for me, helped make it feel like the book. It’s Kind of a Funny Story never struck me as an easy book to adapt for film because so much of it is in this character’s head, but by doing the inner-monologue cutaways, you get back in there. It’s a film that knows it’s a film just like Craig knows he’s a teenager.