Culture

Starting Cheap with Jonathan Tropper: A 'This Is Where I Leave You' Q&A

Adam Driver, Corey Stoll, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman in ‘This Is Where I Leave You’/Image © Warner Bros.

Author Jonathan Tropper officially broke into Hollywood back in 2009, when he was hired to write a screenplay for a new film version of "Harvey," based on the Mary Chase play - for Steven Spielberg to direct. At the time, Tropper had already had four novels published, and the wave of his film career, which included options on several books, was surely cresting. But then Spielberg moved on to something else, and Tropper went back to the industry's version of treading water: writing on other studio projects, pushing forward a new novel, trudging along hoping for something to break through. Well, it's taken five more years, but that early wave is finally hitting the beach.

On Friday, September 19, "This Is Where I Leave You," which Tropper adapted from his own novel, will finally hit theaters. A killer ensemble cast that includes Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, and Dax Shepard plays out Tropper's dysfunctionally funny story of four grown children forced to reunite under their childhood roof after their father dies. Tropper's The Book of Joe, How to Talk to a Widower, and Everything Changes - plus his most recent novel, One Last Thing Before I Go - have all been in various stages of film development, and "Banshee," the Cinemax crime drama he co-created, is moving into its third season. But the release of this big-screen version of This Is Where I Leave You represents something monumental. "For moments I forget how long it took and how many hurdles there were to get the movie made," Tropper says. "Then I was in a theater the other night and I saw a trailer for the movie, and it hit me that I came out the other side."

SIGNATURE: What's the biggest difference between your approach to the Hollywood part of your career in the beginning and your approach now?

JONATHAN TROPPER: Once I had been published as a novelist, I was used to having a lot of control. I would write the book and basically it would get published the way I wrote it. The only thing I didn't have control of was the marketing and publicity. But when you get out to L.A. you realize writers on the feature side don't have a hell of a lot of control. You want to pick the project you feel you can write the best and you want to write well, but once you've written it, it's out of your hands. You can watch people make moves on it for years that don't lead to it getting made and you can watch it get paralyzed in the system, and there's almost nothing you can do about it. You just have to accept that there's a much longer road to success in the filmmaking world.

SIG: Novelists and playwrights who enter Hollywood later have the advantage of having this whole other pre-existing creative outlet that anchors them.

JT: Screenwriters get really frustrated by studio notes or producer notes, or the "meddling" in their work, but I get to go home and write a book by myself where no one's going to meddle, so I actually welcome the collaboration on the other side. Because I still have a place I can go where I'm king, I can take that in stride. Whereas if all you do is write screenplays and you're constantly at the mercy of executives and producers and directors and budgets, you almost never get to create something pure - you're constantly reworking it for other people's notes, ideas, thoughts, and visions.

SIG: Did the original deal for This Is Where I Leave You's film rights include you as the book's screenwriter? Was that hard to negotiate?

JT: In the past when books of mine had been optioned I wasn't yet a professional screenwriter, so I couldn't really insert myself in that way. But when This Is Where I Leave You was getting optioned I had already been paid to write another script. And because it was such an intimate novel there was interest in retaining the voice of the novel for the film, so I think people were pretty open to it. Also, as a fledgling screenwriter I came pretty cheap, so it wasn't really a huge gamble for them. The book rights cost them a lot more than what they paid me to write the script.

SIG: Are there literary or pop culture touchstones that have helped inform your own writing?

JT: There are novelists that have always inspired me - everyone from Kurt Vonnegut and Jay McInerney to Richard Russo and Michael Chabon. And as a screenwriter, for me it's been the movies of Woody Allen, Jim Brooks, and Cameron Crowe.

SIG: Do you write your novels with actors or personages in your head to help define the characters?

JT: I never do. It's very surreal. When I wrote [Leave You], I had very different pictures in my head of who these people were. But as they got cast, I started channeling these actors as I wrote the last few drafts of the script.

SIG: Do you have a Tina Fey story to share? Obviously, she's a very funny writer herself.

JT: One of the unwritten rules of being on set with actors is: What happens on set stays on set. Tina definitely contributed in that manner. There was a lot of improv and ad-libbing, and once she falls into the material she can always find a funnier way to say something. A lot of the stuff Tina and Jason came up with on the fly ended up in the movie.

SIG: Can you tease the scene in the movie that most makes you laugh?

JT: The scenes that take place when the family goes to temple together and the brothers sneak off to one of the classrooms - that came out very much how I pictured it in the book. It's both touching and an extremely funny series of events. It's a sequence I never get tired of watching.

SIG: Was there anything about the process of translating this book that surprised you?

JT: Now knowing what it takes to get a small, character-driven comedy made at a Hollywood studio, it boggles my mind that we got this one made.

SIG: So hard that you would never attempt it again?

JT: No, I'm actually trying it right now [laughs]. I'd like to think that there have been a few successes, and if this one is at all successful - they're not going to start making them by the dozen - but there'll be room for quality dramedies, a few a year, at each studio. I'll write some genre stuff, but my goal is to always be able to write this kind of stuff.

SIG: Is there another novel of yours that seems closest to a potential film at this point?

JT: The closest one right now is One Last Thing, which I've adapted for Paramount and J. J. Abrams. Of course you never know, but right now we are hoping to make that in 2015. There are negotiations underway that can't be commented on, but currently there is no official cast or director. I hope that will change.