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Shawn Levy’s adaptation of This Is Where I Leave You touts a ton of stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer and Ben Schwartz.
While some may say that the ensemble dramedy is crowded with too many personalities (as family reunions often are), author and screenwriter Jonathan Tropper still had to leave a slew of chapters on the cutting-room floor, including Judd’s (Bateman) eloquent streams of consciousness and his flashbacks to why he and his older, overachieving brother Paul (Stoll) have been adrift since they were kids (in text, it goes well beyond the fact that Judd used to date his wife, Alice).
“It was hard to get that right, tonally, to hit all the right emotional notes without being too dark. That’s something that isn’t in the movie at all, because it was tonally askew for what we were doing in the movie,” Tropper says of the sections that reveal how Paul stayed in his hometown instead of going to college on an athletic scholarship after he’s horribly injured while helping Judd.
And of the hilarious and heartbreaking chapters that take place completely in Judd’s mind, Tropper says, “One of the fun things about book writing, which is why I’ll never stop, is because you can indulge in all the flights of fancy and take on a dream sequence if you want to have a three-chapter tangent. You’re not limited the way you are in screenwriting. I feel very free to go off and try different things.”
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tropper about staying true to the beloved book, deciding against the use of voiceover and converting the entire family to Judaism to further humiliate his heartbroken protagonist.
What did you set out to do in this book?
I wasn’t trying to write a book about shiva, I was just trying to write a book about a man who is sent into a reexamination of his life. It started out with Judd coming home and finding his wife in bed with his boss — the premise of it was, if you’re a suburban man and you lose your wife, your job and your home, do you actually exist? It was just supposed to follow Judd as he figures out his life, after it’s been totally upended.
But I was a hundreds pages in, and the book just wasn’t exciting; I really liked the character, but I think I needed a further humiliation for him. So I wrote a chapter where he goes home for his father’s 70th birthday, and that’s where I began writing about the Foxman [changed to Altman in the movie] family. As soon as I started writing about his siblings and his mother, the book started coming to life. I had to come up with a plan: when you’re going through everything Judd is going through, why would you stick around that family for more than 20 minutes? I needed something that would keep him home for a while — a shiva. I just had to convert the whole family to Judaism, because they weren’t when I started writing the book, and then kill the father. So that’s what I did.
Of the cast, what is it about Jason Bateman that equates Judd Altman?
One thing Jason always has is an underlying intelligence that’s expressed through an acerbic wit. To me, Judd’s wit masks a broken heart, and what Jason does in this movie — which he really hasn’t done a lot in other movies, but he’s still the smartest guy in the room — is just play this heartbroken guy.
I was so excited about every new casting. Obviously, having Tina Fey play Wendy is a dream come true — Wendy has the most tragic story but the sharpest one-liners, and with Tina Fey, every line becomes sharper. I’m personally a big fan of Justified, so I was also really excited by Tim Olyphant. I think Adam Driver is extremely surprising, he’s really this juggernaut in the film and he brings this unpredictability and askew comic timing to everything he’s in. You just never know what he’s gonna say or do. And I mean, come on — Jane Fonda!
There are a lot of flashbacks and streams of consciousness in the book.
I can write pretty linear — one of the fun things about book writing, which is why I’ll never stop, is because you can indulge in all the flights of fancy and take on a dream sequence if you want to have a three-chapter tangent. You’re not limited the way you are in screenwriting. I feel very free to go off and try different things, which is what also made it hard to adapt. Even though people who read it think it might make a great movie, there’s so much there that doesn’t translate to the screen.
Like a lot of those adages that float around Judd’s head — how did you strategize weaving those into character dialogue without sounding preachy?
Even in the book, they’re just more like observations, and most of them aren’t in the movie because they’re not things people say out loud. Once in a while, there’s a way to weave it into someone’s dialogue.
Was there ever a discussion about using voiceover in some way to preserve those passages onscreen?
I was really against that. It comes up anytime you’re doing an adaption of a first-person novel. Voiceover to me should only be used when it presents something different than you’re seeing onscreen. But it becomes a crutch, and you have to be able to convey your story visually. If you’re using your narrator to do that, you’re pretty much writing your book in movie form. The whole challenge of screenwriting is to tell the story through action and dialogue. There are obviously exceptions where voiceover works, but I think if you can avoid it, you ought to.
What was the most difficult chapter of the novel to write? What were the most difficult ones to adapt?
The hardest chapters in the book were the ones that take you back to the relationship between Judd and his older brother, and the history of the damage between them. It was hard to get that right, tonally, to hit all the right emotional notes without being too dark. And that’s something that isn’t in the movie at all, because it was tonally askew for what we were doing in the movie.
To me, the hardest part about doing the movie was giving every character their due time. We have this large ensemble, and I really tried very hard to not have any disposable characters, so it’s about qualitatively portraying them three-dimensionally, in the amount of time given.
I learn a lesson with every script I write, and sitting on set and watching them act, you become really sensitive when you watch actors deliver your dialogue, that there’s a tendency to give them more to say than they need to. And I have pretty talky characters in general. I would sit there and realize it’s overwritten, so we’d trim it down. I learned that the more economical you can be with dialogue, the better the result.
Which scene were you most excited for the book’s fans to see?
The three brothers getting high in temple was one of my favorite parts in the book, and I was excited we were able to re-create that pretty faithfully.
What do you hope viewers take away from This Is Where I Leave You?
It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
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