Commentary: 'Norah' had screenwriter wanting to be 16 again

Characters' internal voices in novel posed challenges

Scafaria screenplay: Stories resonate with screenwriters for various reasons, but when something reminds them of their own youth that can be a strong motivation to start writing.

A case in point is Lorene Scafaria ("The Mighty Flynn"), who adapted her screenplay for "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" from the novel by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan. Directed by Peter Sollett ("Raising Victor Vargas"), the Columbia Pictures and Mandate Pictures presentation is a Depth of Field Production opening wide today Oct. 3.

Starring are Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena, Ari Graynor, Aaron Yoo and Jay Baruchel. It was produced by Kerry Kohansky, Chris Weitz, Paul Weitz and Andrew Miano and executive produced by Joe Drake, Nathan Kahane and Adam Brightman. Set in the world of New York's indie rock scene, it's the story of two young people thrust together for one sleepless but adventurous night who have nothing in common but their taste in music.

"I first read the book in galley form about four years ago," Scafaria told me, "and fell immediately in love with the characters and everything the book stood for. It reminded me of my adolescence and growing up in New Jersey in the shadows of New York City. I closed the book and wept a little. It made me miss New York. It made me want to fall in love again. It made me want to be 16 again. Now I realize I don't want to be 16 again, but at the time it was such a nostalgic book that I felt I had to do it. I got in touch with the producers over at Depth of Field, Kerry Kohansky and the Weitz brothers, and they became interested.

"They read other scripts of mine and then we all collectively brought it to a studio who became interested. Then our team suddenly realized there was another writer, another producer and another studio interested in it. So suddenly it was hand to hand combat for the script and convincing the authors, who of course had ownership of it, to allow us to be the ones to do it. They picked me."

That was four years ago. "I remember Rachel calling me and saying she was reading a script of mine and stayed on the treadmill for an extra 10 minutes because it was a really good (story and she wanted) to finish it," Scafaria said. "I was so pleased that they chose me. And then there was a long process of working on drafts. Pete Sollett came on board after, I believe, the second draft and I started working with him. It just seemed like a dead end road at this other studio. I'm not sure they knew what they had. Michael Cera came on board and that was before 'Superbad' had come out (last year). They fortunately let it go after about two and a half years of (being on the shelf) and Mandate Pictures picked it up and fast-tracked it. We were in pre-production within six months."

Asked about adapting the novel to the screen, Scafaria explained, "Rachel and David's voices are both so strong. They wrote alternate chapters. She had written Norah's chapters and he had written Nick's chapters, which is such a great device. But the book was so in these characters' minds that that was the biggest challenge (in adapting it), I would say. It was very internal and to be able to externalize their voices was certainly daunting and something I wanted to get right."

Initially, she added, "we started with heavy voiceover and overlapping time trying to remain true to that part of the book. I think it became a little too much for the film and we scrapped all of that and just allowed the characters to speak for themselves over the course of the night (as the story takes place). That was difficult. Also, it started in a very frenetic place. All the characters were colliding at this opening club scene in the book. Then Nick and Norah (after being thrust together) kind of make their escape and for the rest of the night they're getting to know each other and falling in love, which is beautifully written and certainly something I would have wanted to see."

What had to be done, Scafaria noted, was "to add certain elements to develop a bit more of a 'thrust' to the story. My task (was) to come up with ways of making it more cinematic -- things like Norah's friend Caroline going missing for the course of the night. That was a way to keep these characters who are certainly forced together from tearing apart too soon."

Scafaria really liked the book, she noted, "because it was so internalized you really got into the mindset of what it's like to be a teenage girl in this day and age. Norah's certainly a more complex character, I think, on the page and probably on the screen than Nick. I don't think that's the fault of anyone, but just the reality of teenage girls and boys (and) the distance between them."

When she was writing, she said, "I used to sit with the book and it's just got my chicken scratch all over it -- lines that I definitely wanted to draw from the book and things that I wanted to use. I wake up and pull a laptop onto myself as soon as I rise and sort of just keep going. My closest friends are other screenwriters -- Diablo Cody ('Juno') and Dana Fox, who wrote 'What Happens in Vegas' -- and the three of us like to get together at each other's houses and ask each other if things are funny or offensive or offensive enough. That's sort of become the process. It's such a lonely (and) isolated kind of job that you can remain trapped in your own head with choices to make forever.

"I found that opening it up to these very talented friends of mine and asking very small questions has made it so much easier. We sort of created a little bit of a commune. Dana and I bought houses on the same street and Diablo bought a house just around the corner. We force ourselves together all the time. All our dogs play while we play. We used to go out to restaurants for that, but we've sort of bagged that and remain in our bubble."

Focusing on the writing process, she added, "I certainly get to index cards eventually. I don't like to outline. I like to write the first 30 pages without outlining anything -- even in this case with an adaptation that obviously has a skeleton to it. But I like to hear the characters' voices before I decide where they go. So my goal is to write these first 30 pages and then look at that and see those devices (like) what can keep Nick and Norah together over the course of the night even when they're not getting along."

When Scafaria's writing, she explained, she isn't focusing on who will play these roles: "I think it's much (better) to absorb into who the character is itself before attaching a famous face to it. Every now and then someone's voice will start to (come) through and that may develop a little bit more. But I find these characters exist in my mind. I come to dream about them and they have their own faces and their own walks."

She's a writer who usually winds up working all hours of the day and night: "For the last four years I've really been strapped with work. I've been writing almost the same six or seven projects over (that period). Once you have some amount of success you want to pile as much as you can on your plate. I had no choice but to work around the clock. I think in the morning my mind is the most clear. Around 7 p.m. I start to realize I'm still in my pajamas and haven't eaten and have to make something of the second half of the day. I know people say it's not good to write more than four hours a day. That sounds nice. I look forward to writing four hours a day!"

Actually, Scafaria's likely to be working even longer hours in the future since she's now becoming a writer-director. "I set up a project at Mandate for my directorial debut," she told me. "It's called 'Seeking a Friend For the End of the World.'" The project's title is from a song she likes by Chris Cornell, who's best known for having been the lead singer and songwriter for the bands Soundgarden and Audioslave.

"He wrote this song many, many moons ago," she said, "and it inspired an idea about a romantic comedy, for lack of a better term, set at the end of the world, but really just focusing on the relationships between people when they realize that there isn't much time left for any of them. Our main character's a guy who's sort of living in the past when there's no future. It (was) a vote of confidence that Mandate has latched on to this idea of mine. I'm just starting to write the script."

As for the film's timetable, Scafaria observed, "I don't know. I want to get it right. This one feels really special to me. I think it's so easy to let it get too big. I think it should be a very intimate kind of story. I think my greatest challenge will be maintaining the scope of it. Of course, there's a very big backdrop (but) it's about these characters and (their) relationships so I think the tone has to be very precise. It's kind of threading a line between comedy and drama. I don't know what else to (call it) but romantic comedy -- in the sense that 'Eternal Sunshine' is -- where there's a world that's been created and it focuses on these two people. I'm so excited for it I can't wait."

Now that she's writing something she's also going to direct, is writing any differently than before? "Yeah, I think so," Scafaria observed. "It's definitely going to be different and yet, at the same time, I think as long as I let go enough in the beginning and allow the writing phase to be the writing phase (then) hopefully I can then have a more critical eye when I'm looking at it as a director. I'd like to keep those jobs almost separate until they're not. We'll see if those hats can be on (separately)."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.