The Independent Screenwriter: Jon Raymond
Portland-based Jon Raymond has four screenplay credits, all in the last decade, to his name, but his iMDB page only tells half the story. Raymond began his career and is still well known as a writer of novels and literary short fiction, and his film career has come not from the usual Black-Listed spec script but from adaptations of his work co-authored by a director/collaborator/friend, Kelly Reichardt. Two stories from his short story collection Livability, “Old Joy” and “Train Choir,” became Reichardt films (Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, respectively), with the two co-authoring their scripts. That work, and the Portland connection, led Raymond to Todd Haynes, with whom he co-authored the writer/director’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Raymond has sole screenplay credit on Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. And, this weekend, another Reichardt screenplay collaboration, Night Moves hits theaters. Interestingly, Raymond has resisted the urge to move to L.A. and put himself up for rewrite jobs, instead writing novels (Rain Dragon was published in 2012) and contributing to journals like Tin House and Artforum.
Published here for the first time, this interview with Raymond was done in the Fall of 2012, just as Night Moves was heading into production, for “The Independent Screenwriter,” a series on the working lives of screenwriters practicing within the independent — not Hollywood — world. (The first in that series, with Larry Gross, can be found here.) We talk about Raymond’s books, his collaborative processes with Reichardt and Haynes, and how life, not other movies, contributes to his screenwriting.
Filmmaker: When did the idea of writing for film occur to you?
Raymond: Writing for film and of filmmaking in general was something that was a part of the fiction I was writing back in 2000 or thereabouts. I wrote a novel called The Half Life that came out in 2004 that actually involves a plot line of two teenage girls making a movie together. That was a way of writing out some of my filmmaking ideas without involving a large apparatus and bunch of money. Then, kind of by serendipity, that book caught the attention of Kelly Reichardt, and it was through her that a different short story of mine became a film, Old Joy. That relationship with Kelly has continued on through a few other projects. So, my actual desire to write films and to be involved in filmmaking has really been a function of that friendship, that partnership. What had been a very vague fantasy has become a reality through her, really.
Filmmaker: What do you think inspired the film setting or the film characters in Half Life?
Raymond: Half Life was partly a book about friendship. I guess I was viewing filmmaking as a metaphor for friendship in general — the kind of shared fantasy life that brings people together. The idea of two people entering into this very bizarre shared imaginary realm always struck me as an allegory of sorts, I guess.
Filmmaker: Have you ever thought of doing a film of Half Life?
Raymond: Kelly used to talk about it sometimes, but if one was really going to do that book it would have to be a kind of a big-budget thing. That has never been within our resources.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your process of working with Kelly. Beyond just the source material, how do you work with her on the writing?
Raymond: It’s really evolved from project to project. With Old Joy, there is a story that existed that she was interested in turning into a film, and she did the lion’s share of adaptation. It took its own course very much through her willpower and imagination. That was a good experience and so there was another story I was interested in writing as part of a larger collection, and I wrote it very specifically with the aim of giving it to Kelly to adapt again. That became Wendy and Lucy. Again she did the lion’s share adaptation with my help. Meek’s Cutoff was a story that I was interested in, but I didn’t really want to write it as a prose piece. It was too large of a story. It would have entailed more of a novel [format] to really make it work in paragraph form. At that point I was pretty much convinced that Kelly could actually get things done, and I just did that one as a straight screenplay, obviously with lots of attention and editorial commentary from Kelly throughout. There’s a new film that’s gearing up right now, [Night Moves], that also did not pass through a fiction phase but just became a screenplay. In this case, it’s one that I got up and rolling and then it became more of a collaborative writing process. Kelly was more actively involved in the writing phase on this one, and we’ll share a writing credit on the screenplay. So each one has had its own course, but they’ve all been leading into a deeper sense of partnership on the making of it all.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting that you say the first one was a story that you didn’t think would become a film.
Raymond: Oh my god! Yeah. No one but Kelly would ever have possibly seen that as a feature film [laughs].
Filmmaker: When you wrote the story for Wendy and Lucy, did you talk to Kelly first about its potential as a film?
Raymond: Yeah, we had a discussion about it. It was like, “Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?” It was, and then I went off and did my thing.
Filmmaker: And then the next two you tackled in screenplay form first. By having seen your work adapted twice were you more acclimated to the screenplay form?
Raymond: Yeah and I think also the conversation with Kelly had progressed, in a way. I think on Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly might have preferred that it happened in prose. She likes having that prose to bounce off of even though there might be things that might not make it into the final script, or get changed or just interior things that one cannot really express in script form. I think she likes having that stuff out there as a kind of resource. With this most recent one, the idea was to go back to doing it in a prose form first but, again, it just kind of moved in a different direction to where it wasn’t precisely a thing I wanted to do in prose. For me, the movies with Kelly have a very strong relationship to the fiction writing that I do – they kind of come out of the same places. It just seems like certain stories end up having a better life on film than on the page at this point.
Filmmaker: The screenplay form versus the prose form — are you a different kind of writer in each? Does your practice differ?
Raymond: Well, yes. Prose writing is just so much harder and so much more demanding. To write a screenplay is such an abbreviated form of writing. It’s just providing a kind of template for a lot of other people to [add] their own creative life and creative contributions. Writing a story or a book – it’s much more akin to being the writer, director, stage manager, cameraman, costume designer: you kinda have to do all of it. And you have to create a flow from sentence to sentence and a logic from paragraph to paragraph. That remains one of the hardest things that I have found to do. Compared to writing actual prose, I think a screenplay almost barely qualifies as real writing [laughs].
Filmmaker: When you started doing things in screenplay form, did you look at other scripts as models?
Raymond: No, I have barely ever read other screenplays. They aren’t that interesting to read. Unless they become a movie, they’re just this kind of skeleton. I ended up reading a share of screenplays just out of friendship – to comment on people’s stuff. But it’s not like I’ve really gone back and read. The idea of there being a classic screenplay to go read just sounds almost absurd.
Filmmaker: I used to be a script reader for New Line Cinema, and I remember reading, early on, a script by Denis Johnson. It was a Jim Thompson adaptation but it still had, in the scene and character descriptions, his crazy voice. How much of your own voice do you try to get into the script? How much of what you consider to be your voice from your literary fiction do you try then get into that form?
Raymond: I don’t know. There’s not too much thought [put into] that. I don’t feel like there’s an effort to do that in any case. You’re just trying to get down what you’re trying to get down. The idea of stylizing it is way beyond my ability. It’s more like trying to get something practically down on paper.
Filmmaker: What kind of relationship do you have as a writer to the film’s production? Because you’re working with Kelly, you have to go into it knowing the kind of budget range the movie is going to be. When you write, do you try to be conscious of the means that the filmmakers have?
Raymond: Yeah, for sure. Some of our natural inclinations are toward the small scale anyway so it doesn’t feel like a particular sacrifice or anything. We definitely know they’re not going to be pyrotechnics [in the script] or anything. That’s a happy compromise to make – or just a happy limitation to have. It doesn’t feel like anything to strain against so much.
Filmmaker: Tell me about working with Todd Haynes. When you worked on Mildred Pierce, what was that like?
Raymond: That was a really super fun experience. Because it was an adaptation of someone else’s fiction, it took a lot of the stress out of it in a certain way. We decided early on to make it as faithful of an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel as we could so that kind of created a certain rulebook for us. It became almost more a problem-solving issue in many cases. There was a lot of invention to do and a lot of imagination to exert but having that third party in the room – having the James Cain novel – just drained any possible ego issues out of it. I felt very much like I was at the service of a kind of collaboration between Todd and James M. Cain. I was able to perceive [myself] just as a craftsperson trying to make it good.
Filmmaker: Was the form of that more of a traditional screenplay? The film was for HBO. Were you submitting drafts to them? Did you go through a more normal industry kind of process?
Raymond: I have a feeling [the Mildred Pierce experience] was not precisely normal. We definitely did show them drafts. It was almost frustrating in a way because you almost expect and want an antagonistic relationship with “the suits” and everything, but that’s kind of the fantasy, I suppose. With HBO, the people in charge are actually such intelligent and subtle thinkers that their notes always ended up just being useful. They genuinely wanted this to be a really quality project. In that sense, I think it was a very unrepresentative Hollywood experience. The notes that HBO offered were not aimed towards monetizing the product or something like that.
Filmmaker: Were you co-writing with Todd? What was the process?
Raymond: We figured out pretty early on that [the film] was going fall into a five-hour sequence. That just seemed intuitively how the book broke down. We kind of knew generally the in and out points of each of those episodes so we split them up and would bounce them back and forth. It was very much a mutual writing [process] on all of the pieces.
Filmmaker: What kind of software were you writing on?
Raymond: The digital stuff has made it so easy to just bounce stuff back and forth. We both have Final Draft. We only live a couple miles apart but still we would end up just sending things back and forth over email and talking on the phone about each new draft. There was lots of phone talking and lots of emailing and then an occasional read through with both us sitting there in Todd’s living room reading it out loud. In many ways, we could have been on different sides of the world.
Filmmaker: And now that all this work is done and it’s on your CV, do you get approached by other people to write scripts?
Raymond: (Laughs) No, not at all. Maybe like once. I think one time it happened. I don’t think people are like, “Yeah get me that guy who does the movies where nothing happens!” Kelly and Todd have both such auteur profiles that I think the screenwriter is very negligible in a certain way to the whole proceedings. So it’s not like I’m in my house waiting for some gold rush.
Filmmaker: As a writer, an artist, have these experiences got you thinking that you should explore the world of screenwriting in a more purposeful way? The essence of this series is the exploration of film writers’ choices about their relationship to the broader filmmaking industry. Has it been a conscious choice of yours not to explore this world more purposefully?
Raymond: It’s more like a passive choice not to. I don’t want to go do all the work that it will take to try to drum up screenwriting jobs. I don’t think I’m exactly equipped to do that. If they come to me and they’re interesting and I’m interested in doing them…. But, my real creative intentions are still around fiction. That’s where I feel like I’m most able to create something that I feel invested in and where I’m able to have the most creative control. I’ve been so lucky with these two relationships. They’re both really creatively satisfying. I think in some ways they have helped my fiction find a miniscule audience in the world. I will say that fiction and screenwriting scratch really different itches. I do love the kind of teamwork of filmmaking. It’s fun to be part of a group of people doing something. It’s fun to feel in some way needed by a community of people. It’s just a really precious thing to get to be a part of. But, no, I don’t have the desire to go and drum up more of it. If someone threw a really lucrative thing on my table, or a really interesting thing, I’d love it, but I just don’t know how to go about getting those things by myself.
Filmmaker: Has the film work spilled back into your fiction writing? Has it inspired you in a particular way?
Raymond: No. I will say that the filmmaking stuff is so psychologically rich, just as an endeavor. There are so many interesting personalities that one comes across. There are so many little ethical briar patches to walk through. I do feel that in some ways filmmaking has become a way that I just interact with a larger world. The people and situations that I encounter probably do filter back into the fiction just because I learn things about how the world works through watching a film happen. But it’s nothing very direct.