by Steve Desroches
It seems like every writer’s dream: write a critically acclaimed memoir receiving the respect of your peers and the literary world, and then Hollywood comes knocking with a check to buy the rights for a film adaptation. And it is a good thing. It’s something writer Stephen Elliott is glad happened to him. But the truth is, writers are the least respected people in Hollywood. And that town doesn’t care much for the truth anyway.
Well-known for his novels Happy Baby and What It Means to Love You, Elliott’s 2009 memoir The Adderall Diaries caught the attention of actor and filmmaker James Franco, who turned it into a film of the same name that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. Elliott didn’t like the movie. But it did inspire one of his own, After Adderall, a funny and surprising movie about the making of Franco’s film that screens this week at Waters Edge Cinema. Fellow writer Michael Cunningham called it “the most literary movie ever made.” It’s also, perhaps, one of the more honest films about about the truth and consequences of the film industry, as told from a New York perspective.
“In Los Angeles no one ever calls anyone a liar,” says Elliott. “But people lie all the time about everything. It’s not even in the vocabulary. There was this one guy who lied about everything, even when he didn’t have to. Even when it wasn’t to his advantage. There’s no parallels like that in publishing. The stakes are too small.”
Having a film made about your life can be nerve-wracking, but Elliott didn’t sweat it really. No one blames the writer if they don’t like the movie, he says. But what does happen is people take you to task for the things the fictional you does in a movie, even those things that weren’t in your nonfiction book, but were fictionalized in the film for dramatic effect. People blame you for those.
“When they were making The Adderall Diaries I wasn’t allowed on the set,” says Elliott. “I lived right around the block.”
Elliott created the perfect narrative on film for life as a writer, especially one that receives the golden bite mark of Hollywood’s attention. Big time stars and producers lavish praise, yet expect writers to work for free. A writer works feverishly to create the exact story they want to tell and big studios take a red pen to it all. And while book sales may jump, all the attention goes to the stars of the film. Elliott is the star of his own movie, along with Mickaela Tombrock, Bill Heck, Michael C. Hall, James Urbaniak, Ned Van Zandt, Adam Busch, and Lili Taylor, who is a familiar face on the Outer Cape. Making appearances as themselves are a host of writers who have had similar experiences with film adaptation, like Susan Orlean, Jerry Stahl, Derrick Brown, Evan Wright, as well as Provincetown writers Cunningham, Marie Howe, and Nick Flynn.
Elliott himself is well known to many in Provincetown, as he teaches at the Fine Arts Work Center each summer, and will again this week with his course “Writing from Experience.” And Elliott, be it in print or in film, knows how to tell a story based on experience. After Adderall is his third film, his first being 2012’s About Cherry, which he directed and co-wrote with Lorelei Lee and which starred Ashley Hinshaw, Dev Patel, and Franco. Comparing the filmmaking process that has a big budget or a small one, Elliott prefers the virtues of the latter, noting “it’s easier to make a movie with no money than not enough money.”
But what about Franco, Hollywood’s ubiquitous “It” boy, who one minute is getting his third MFA and the next is posting provocative selfies. He’s got a Banksyesque quality to him in that it’s hard to tell his level of sincerity. Is it all a spoof on the very industry he’s a part of, or does he really mean it all?
“I have no idea who he is,” says Elliott. “I made a movie with him. I just don’t know who this person is at all. He was charismatic and you felt he was paying incredible attention, and the next time you saw him nothing you said registered with him. I don’t know if he is a noble person. He says ‘yes’ to everything and he’s surrounded by people who clean up after him. He says ‘yes’ and then someone follows behind and says, ‘What he really meant was ‘no.’”
After Adderall will screen at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown on Friday, August 26 at 7 p.m. A Q & A with Stephen Elliott will follow. For tickets ($12 general/$8 members) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.FILM, or visit watersedgecinema.org.