In the cinematic reimagining of Willy Vlautin’s novel The Motel Life, Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch portray Jerry Lee and Frank, two working-class brothers who hole up in a Reno Motel after one is involved in a tragic hit-and-run. The story, adapted for the screen by friends Micah Fitzerman-Blue and UCSB alum Noah Harpster, is a troubling and eye-opening tale about grief, guilt, and family loyalty, punctuated by strong performances and a highly stylized blending of live action and animation, which removes Frank’s dreams of grandeur from the stark reality of the mess he’s in.
This Monday, October 28, Harpster returns to his alma mater for a screening and post-film Q&A at Isla Vista Theater as part of the Magic Lantern Film Series. In a recent interview, I chatted with the screenwriter about the book, the movie, and the appeal of film’s tragic losers.
How/when did you come across Willy’s novel? What initially attracted you to the story? I just looked back in my emails, and I first mentioned the book to Micah almost exactly six years ago. I’d picked up the book because I saw Willy Vlautin’s name on it. He has a pretty great band called Richmond Fontaine. I read it on a flight and that was it. I found Willy via the Internet and we started talking. I told him his book was like Raymond Carver had written Of Mice and Men. I’m surprised he didn’t hang up on me. Willy is a badass. I recently visited him in Portland, and he took me on a drunken late-night tour of Powell’s — running me up and down the stairs, taking me through all of his favorite books. It was a night I will not forget.
How did you and Micah meet? Basically, we had mutual friends who dumped us on each other. They were sick of listening to the same pop-culture crap from both of us, so they set us up on a creative blind date. We shared a quiche and opinions on Chicago pre-Cetera. In other words: destiny. Also, we haven’t really heard from those friends since.
Had you worked together prior to The Motel Life? We worked on one project before The Motel Life that was an insanely stressful/horrible experience and were prepped to embark on what was sure to be another horrible experience when I read The Motel Life. So I guess it saved us? It’s been peaches since.
In your experience, how did adapting a text compare to writing an original screenplay? Did you feel an added pressure to do the novel justice? What’s great about adapting is that you have something to fall back on when you feel like you’re getting lost. You can go back to the source. You don’t get that luxury if you are writing something original.
And, yes, if the material you are adapting is good, which it hopefully is, then there is always an added pressure to do the work justice. I kind of like that. I come from a theater background, and that’s how it works in the theater. If it’s not working, it’s because you haven’t found it yet, not because the play sucks. Unless we all agree that the play sucks — then the play probably sucks.
At what point in the process did the animated portion of the film come into play? It was in our very first pitch to the directors. We lobbied pretty hard for it, and eventually they went for it. We always saw Frank’s stories not only as an escape, but as an offering to his brother. It seemed to us that animation was the way to reflect that to an audience and tie in Jerry Lee as the artist.
Can you tell me a bit about the casting? How did Emile and Stephen get involved? The directors really led that charge. They went after Emile. He read the script and was onboard from there. Then they read a lot of actors for Jerry Lee, but Stephen came out on top. They both are so good in the movie, I think.
Do you have a brother? If so, how did that relationship help inform writing for Frank and Jerry? I don’t have a brother, but luckily Willy’s book does a great job with this. There wasn’t a ton of work that Micah and I had to do when it came to translating the brother relationship. Willy always says that in writing the novel, he set out to write a book about brothers who never fight. That’s pretty telling, so we just tried to build on that.
I feel like the tragic loser is such a quintessential character in modern American film. As a student (or an adult), were there any films/characters that you recall fitting that description and especially resonating with you? Hmmm. Well, I would say I don’t care much for losers just because they’re losers … but I have a lot of love for a loser with conviction. A loser who refuses to stay down. Some of my favorite movies are The Big Lebowski, Harold and Maude, High Fidelity, Rushmore, Raising Arizona, and Stand by Me … so maybe you’re on to me.
What do you hope people take away from The Motel Life? Even if you weren’t dealt one…perspective and forgiveness can provide a damn good life.
What’s next? Our next project is called I’m Proud of You. It’s based on the memoir of a journalist named Tim Madigan, whose life was falling apart and then had it put back together by Mister Rogers. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) are directing. I’m Proud of You (like The Motel Life) has been a labor of love for us, and I feel incredibly lucky that it’s happening. We got to go to Pittsburgh and meet everyone from the Fred Rogers world. It was special trip to say the least.
Magic Lantern screens The Motel Life on Monday, October 28, at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. at Isla Vista Theater (960 Embarcadero del Norte). Screenwriter Noah Harpster will discuss the film and answer questions following the 7 p.m. showing. Call (805) 966-3652 for info.