New York Times and USA Today Bestselling novelist, screenwriter, writing mentor, namer, book critic, knitting addict and chocoholic
Friday, May 6, 2011
Sheila Weller Talks about Girls Like Us, the MOVIE!
Didn't you just love Girls Like Us, the groundbreaking bio of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon? Exuberantly told, this book explored the lives of three of music's most important women in a way that was so irresistible that I was carrying around my copy until it was dog-eared. Sheila Weller is equally amazing. The writer of six books, two of them New York Times bestsellers, she also writes about social history for Vanity Fair and is a contributing editor at Glamour. Plus, frankly, she's one of the coolest and most interesting people I know. Thanks so much for being here on my blog, Sheila.
I absolutely adored Girls Like Us. The women in the book were such heroines to so many of us. I've read that the book is now going to be a film. Will Joni, Carole or Carly be a part of that at all?
Caroline, thank you so much! I am so gratified by the nerve the book seems to have struck. As someone who has been a writer since --- well, forever (I've never done anything else!)..., this was the thing I did that I want on my tombstone. I often say, "I wrote a family memoir, but this book is even more autobiographical than the memoir." Because I used Carole's, Joni's and Carly's lives and songs to probe the common journey so many of us took -- the women of the '60s generation.
As to your question: The producers and the studio will certainly want to use their songs, so, yes, the three women (or at least their representatives) will be a part of the process. I hope everything goes happily and smoothly in that regard. It's certainly an opportunity for these amazing icons to be deeply known to younger generations. When you think about it (and I do think about this...), it's still (sigh) the guys who are "ageless" and the women who are..."older." Paul McCartney plays to rave audiences of kids in their 20s, and President Obama and his wife and the entire Kennedy Center sang along with him to "Hey Jude" to bring the last Kennedy Center Honors to a raving close. Keith Richards had a critically and commercially acclaimed $7 million # 1 bestseller memoir. (And Eric Clapton a few years before.) James Taylor (the "boy" among my girls) just got a prestigious medal of honor from the president, performed at the inauguration, just played Carnegie Hall to unbelievable reviews, and, in the documentary -- Troubadours -- in which he and Carole were featured,it was he who was hagiographed. Then there's Bruce, Mick and Sting. Not to mention Dylan! Yet these three women are absolutely every bit as significant -- and beloved. And, in turning the big ship of the culture and in taking personal risks to create, they did, and risked, more than the guys! (How easy was it to be a rock n roll star-and-songwriter in the '60s and '70s and have loving, supportive girlfriends who made your life easy? VERY. How easy to be a -- well, just switch the gender and answer the question.) So I'm so very excited that the book will be a movie, and that the movie will bring their magic, their guts, and their beautiful, culture-defining music music to younger people who don't know them well, and who, apart from Mad Men, didn't know how young women had to stumble and then push through in some pretty emotionally and socially crimped circumstances.
I want people who weren't even born when they were creating Blue and Tapestry and "You're So Vain" (and we're talking 39 and 40 years ago) to walk out of the theater singing their songs, and appreciating those songs' triumphs and costs.
Whom do you envision playing each--if you had your druthers?
Well, of course, next to goofing around on Facebook and checking my Amazon numbers, what is more obsessive fun than "casting" this movie?! I've had a lot of different casting ideas, but here is what I've settled on and I'm sticking to it. (Please understand: I have absolutely NO say in the casting. NONE. Nada, zip.) But, anyway:
As Carole: Michelle Williams. She has a gravity, a solemnity, which was an ineffable part of Carole's resonance and appeal. Like Carole (who was a wife to a difficult, haunted, talented guy, Gerry Goffin; a mother, and a bill-paying # 1 hit writer before she was out of her teens), sensible, older-than-her-years Michelle's love affair with the haunted and excess-prone Heath Ledger left her young with a child when he tragically died -- and wiser and more responsible than her years. She wears that quality of premature adulthood; you can't miss it in her. She's a terrific actress, and doesn't play characters who suffer fools lightly (because she doesn't seem to in real life). When she is shocked by her own naivete and heartbroken (to wit, the scene in Brokeback Mountain when she understands that her husband is gay), she never seems shnookered or should-have-known-better. We are on her side with her broken heart. As it was with Carole, whose love choices were often the Achilles Heel of her otherwise prematurely mature decision making and competence, Williams has an easily-empathized-with dignity, in her life and her movie roles, that makes us take her side. She is never frivolous.
I just -- dearly! -- hope she can play a piano, and really play it. Because, more than voice, that's what Carole is and did and does. Piano -- gospel piano pounding -- is her first language.
As Joni: Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is a huge star among young audiences, and, having just moved to Beverly Hills, she is obviously working hard to turn her music stardom into a film equivalent. Like Joni, she has written famously guessed-about songs about her boyfriends. She is tall, lean, feminine, projects charisma/exhibitionism AND shy, ladylike decorousness...that was Joni in the mid-late '60s and even early 70s. Joni is the easiest to cast, in that, as complicated as she was and is (and, man!, she was and is), on first interpretation, she fills the archetype of the lovely, sensitive, long-blond-haired girl singer (Maybe because she created that archetype), so "indication" of that now-well-understood type goes a long way; the idioysyncracies can be filled in. There are more obvious Joni's than Caroles or Carlys among young actresses today. (Amanda Seyfried, Mia Wiakowska, Jennifer Lawrence, etc.) I'd like Taylor Swift -- a superstar and a lovely girl -- to embrace her Inner Joni (and what girl singer doesn;t have one?), take a ton of acting classes, and run with it, providing the highest-glow wattage for the ensemble, which will shine over the whole project. And, for those who say: But Taylor Swift's a country singer..., well, she's actually from Pennsylvania.
As Carly: Evan Rachel Wood. Carly, in my mind, was always the hardest to cast. For Carly, one needs a long, lean, strong-featured actress who can sing really well (Carly has the classically best voice of the three) and who oozes sexuality, wit, and a certain wacky, highly privileged, genially neurotic, predatory mischievousness. Three things qualify Evan Rachel Wood for this unique mix of prerequisites: (1) her singing in Across the Universe; (2) her years with Marilyn Manson (high points, Evan, for relishing the public's "ewww"-ing of that unexpected love affair). And (3) her a-fucking-mazing performance as Veda (the snooty, scheming, sex goddess daughter from hell) in Mildred Pierce. Case closed.
The book tied together these three lives so brilliantly, but I'm wondering if the film will be structured differently?
Thank you. I think they want to keep the alternating, layer-like quality of the book, where the stories are woven together. The producer-director, Katie Jacobs (the showrunner and often-director of TV's often Emmy nominated and hugely successful House) was give the book, shortly after it came out, by her sister, MIT History professor Meg Jacobs. So, from the first, she saw it as social history, not just entertainment. So does Amy Pascal, the co-head of Sony-Columbia Pictures, who is overseeing its production at the studio. The third in the production team is Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. (Lorenzo is one of the most accomplished and successful producers in Hollywood. When you saw the red-carpet pictures of Angelina Jolie at the Salt premiere and there was this...unknown but self-possessed big guy...in the picture with her -- just the two of them: that was Lorenzo.)
But I'm most excited about the selection of John Sayles to do the adaptation. Aside from being the original American auteur and the most respected, puts-his-money-where-his-mouth-is independent filmmakers in the country, he has such a deep, personally experienced sense of and respect for the '60s and '70s (among many other things, his Return of the Secaucus Seven was the template not only for The Big Chill...but, in a very real sense, for Carole's Tapestry circle of friends; and he did girls-at-[Carly's]-Sarah Lawrence in Baby It's You). And his work -- films and novels (by the way, he has a huge historical novel coming out...now) -- is invariably about the intersection of social-cultural moments with complex human beings who let us see, and sympathize with, all sides of their dilemmas and choices. I'm thrilled that he is adapting. Thrilled and honored.
How involved in the filmmaking process are you and has it been any sort of revelation for you? Does it feel like a new story you are telling now?
I don't think I'm going to be very involved, alas. Sayles, Jacobs, DiBonaventura, and Amy Pascal:They're all real pros, the top of their fields -- they know how to make movies. It's up to them to consult me if they want or need. They know where to find me -- and: I'm pushy, so if things go too long without me being consulted, I'll find a way to knock on that door. Happily, I'm secure -- and they're secure --- with the fact that I did so much original, source- attributed journalism on these women's lives, we have that part under control. ("Life rights" permission/acqusition for "public figures" has a legally lower bar than for non-public figures.) (Music rights: now, that's are another issue... and I will breathe a sigh of relief once that's taken care of.)
Do you think there's an appetite for this movie?
This may sound self-aggrandizing but...I really do. There was a magic, sexiness, integrity, and historical significance about that era and these women and their music that hasn't really been tapped. (Lisa Chodolenko's Laurel Canyon didn't have the expected magic. Todd Haynes's I'm Not There was too abstract. In its own way, I think Factory Girl came close, but critics unfairly panned it. For my money, Across The Universe hit it out of the park, but the young people in the audience I saw it with made snarky remarks while I nostalgically sobbed.) When we lift the veil here and there and see bits and pieces of the specialness of that time -- in Carole's and James's phenomenally successful summer 2010 concert tour, for example -- it's like, "Why have we been deprived of this for so long??" When a great musician biopic comes along -- Walk the Line or Ray -- it's an emotional experience like little else; it's a high. If that movie presents not just an era and a rise to success, but also real characters the audience can approvingly root for (and, unlike Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, these women were non-drug-abusing, consistently productive middle class girls) -- then that's an added bit of popcorn power.
As I said, I think people will walk out of the theater singing.
Now: We just have to get to that part!
Thanks so much for talking to me, Caroline. Readers can visit my book's website -- www.girlslikeusthebook.com -- and / or its companion music / media site:
My l0th novel IS THIS TOMORROW (Algonquin Books) is a May Indie Pick! I'm also the New York Times bestselling author of PICTURES OF YOU (Algonquin), which sold to 6 countries, went into 5 printings, and was a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, a Costco "Pennie's Pick" and a NAIBA bestseller. Pictures of You is also a USA Today ebook bestseller and is on the Best Books of 2011 List from San Francisco Chronicle, Providence Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Bookmarks Magazine. It's also one of Kirkus Reviews Top 5 books of 2011 about the Family and love. I'm the recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction. I was a 2013 finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and a finalist in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship, four of my novels were optioned for screen, and I talked my way into writing the script for two of them. My essay, HIgh Infidelity, has been optioned for film. I'm a book critic for The Boston Globe and People Magazine. I teach novel writing for UCLA and Stanford online, do private fiction editing, and I am a professional namer! I live with my husband and son. Visit me at http://www.carolineleavitt.com.