During the recent Heart of Film Screenwriters’ Conference, which accompanies the Austin Film Festival, Senior Editor Roxanne Bogucka sat down with Morgan Upton Ward, screenwriter of RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS, based on the book of the same name by Beverly Donofrio.
RB: Alright, Saturday the 13th, talking to Morgan Upton Ward. What a distinguished name.
MUW: Thank you.
RB: So you, you are “the first?”
MUW: Actually I’m “the fifth”—
MUW: Yes, and the reason I use the middle name is sort of a way to be, to—my father and grandfather...
RB: Neat. So there’s a whole line of—
MUW: There’s a line of people with a boring name.
RB: It’s a very neat name, I have to say—this is a horrible, ripping stereotype, but I have to say that, when I met you, when I saw this name, I was not expecting—
MUW: (laughing) I get that a lot.
RB: —a guy in sweats and a hoodie, you know some guy who’d come, say, you know “Whassup!” You look a lot like I figured.
MUW: (laughing) If you would’ve told me that, I’d have shown up like that!
RB: Yeah, you could send in a buddy from school, say “Go be me today,” or something. Well, we better talk some business here so you can go to lunch. In the credits—I saw RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS Thursday—and I noticed that you write and executive produce?
RB: So what’s the day-to-day duty as an executive producer? What’d you do?
MUW: You know, it was... there were many producers, you know and it was... the people that did the vast bulk of the real producing were... not me. I was a producer and I was in the everyday decisions, but the thing is, I was there as a creative sort of bodyguard on the thing. So you know, it’s just that thing of watching and making sure that if Penny (Marshall, the director) needs anything that I’m there to talk with her about it, and that’s from pre-production to post. And that was sort of my job, sitting and shepherding the words and making sure that they were understood.
RB: That’s interesting. Last summer and spring when they talking about, there’s going to be a writers’ strike, and the writers want this and the writer want that—
RB: —one of the things I had read was that writers often weren’t permitted to even be on the set and I so—they often were like, “thank you, you’ve done your part, now go away,” and they wanted to be more around, and so when I saw that you had both screenwriter and executive producer, I thought “Cool. He was there.” You know?
MUW: I was there basically every day on the set with Penny. And she’s very, very writer, you know, she’s just incredibly friendly with the writer. She wants that relationship. She wants the writer on set. She wants... what she does is... because of the way she directs—she’s an actor’s director—while she’s working with an actor, if there’s something that the actor comes upon during rehearsal, she likes it to be incorporated into the film, but she’s very respectful of the screenplay, therefore she likes the screenwriter to be there so that she doesn’t change the words, or change the meaning without the writer.... she doesn’t change anything without the writer giving their permission. So she likes the writer to be on-set so that she can, if she finds something, if she finds a piece of gold, she’s not going to send the story rocketing into a direction that they’re going to all be sorry about.
MUW: —that’s why she likes the writer to be there—
RB: That sort of helps her to keep the story consistent with itself.
MUW: Yes. And she is able to do what she likes to do best, which is to direct the actors and so therefore somebody’s there to watch the story, to make sure that no one’s losing something by her doing her thing and that’s what she likes about [having] the writer there.
RB: So that’s a cool gig for you then.
MUW: Yeah it is. You know, the thing is, being on set is a time-consuming, agonizingly slow day-to-day process that—it’s tough. But the thing is, it’s wonderful when you’re given the opportunity to watch what they’re doing with what you took so much time to write.
RB: Your words made flesh—
RB: —so to speak. So then you were there to sort of shepherd the words—
RB: —and so I assume then that a great deal of what you wrote made it onto the screen, ’cause this is kind of a longish movie. I watched it and I think it came in at about two hours—
MUW: What did you think? You can be honest, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.
RB: Um. I thought it was very different from the book.
RB: And I, I, it was so different I thought, “Well I’m old, I forget stuff all the time,” so I actually re-read the book last night. And it’s a page-turner, you know, you can read it like that, in a night.
RB: I thought it was kind of different, very different from the movie, and yet it had that internal consistency that you talked about.
RB: Now how are these decisions made?
MUW: In terms of—
RB: To make things different from the book, like we’re not going to have this, or we’re going to introduce Tommy, or...
MUW: I’ll tell you what the process is. I’ll try to be as, you know, concise as possible. Jim Brooks handed me the book, and he said “What would you do with the book?” With Jim everything is an exploration of the heart of the piece. And we knew that the heart of the piece was a mother-son story, the heart of the book, but we decided that there really wasn’t a way to do this movie without getting both sides, so I went with Jason, and I went and hung out with him, and when you get his point of view it’s not a hero’s tale that the book is. It’s a very damaged, you know—
RB: Yeah, well I just read LOOKING FOR MARY, which is her second book, and she goes more into the fact that Jason is in therapy and their relationship is damaged and she returns to Catholicism—Wow!— and hopes that something will heal him too, so this sort of incorporates kind of from both books it sounds like in a way.
MUW: Well no in actuality the thing was... it was funny. The time when I went and met Jason, a lot of things hadn’t been spoken about, all these problems that he was having. And when I came back with Jason’s story, she was like, “Now you’re beginning to open up doors that are painful for me”
RB: “She” being Beverly Donofrio (the author).
MUW: But the amazing thing about Beverly is that she’s so into honesty, that she’ll tell you anything that she’s thinking and she can hear anything that’s the truth. And she’s so, when dealing with these things with Jason, when talking with Jason, I remember one of the funny things that he told me was that they, one night while she was leaving—she’d come to visit him and she was leaving—and they were having a good time, their relationship was great, because it was this relationship where he was the parent and she was the child. And she was leaving one night, and she’d been doing her therapy and the taxi had rolled up and she gave him a hug and she whispered, “I’m sorry for being such a terrible mother.” (whispers) And he was furious. That she had gotten off the hook for all those years by just apologizing. And it’s what really sort of sparked his coming to realize that he has real issues about this, and so it was he and I talking about how HE felt about the book, about his point of view of the same instances... And so therefore, if you were to view Beverly from the book, you could follow the book as it was and make a movie out of it, but the thing was, if you were going to tell the story that we wanted to tell, the story of two people, we needed to tell it as honestly as we could so you could understand where he was at the end of the movie. So that’s the basis of how the movie came to be different than the book. The present-day—everything, I will say this—everything that’s in that movie comes from those two people telling us that these things happened.
RB: Really?!?! The bra story?!?!
MUW: The bra story came from a bra story from Beverly. I did sort of embellish—
MUW: I should say that the journey, in the present-day when she was going to get Ray’s signature, comes from when she’d actually sold the book but she was going to get his signature for...
RB: The movie?
MUW: —the movie rights. You sound like you maybe, have you heard all the stuff before?
RB: No, no, but I know you get permissions...
MUW: So it was their journey. And of course it wasn’t on the journey that they come to this deep resolution between the two of them—
MUW: —but the thing is we did have to embellish some stuff as you always have to if you’re going to do a book. It’s very hard to put someone’s life into two hours, but we stayed as true as we could to their lives and their relationship, and I’m just babbling on here...
RB: No, it’s great. I’ve always wondered how are these decisions made. I strikes me that you have to be very brave to do something like this. In some ways it would be easier to write a story from the ground up. Because here’s a book, it’s popular. People like it. And you can’t just write it for this one audience, the fans of the book. You have to write it for more people than that, but then here’s this audience of the fans of the book, and they may come to see it and say “nyaaah!” you know.
MUW: Well we have gotten a few of these. And like you said, there are fans of the book. And the thing is—it’s funny. I wrote the first draft, and it was very, very true to the book. And we were having some problems with the direction of the piece. And I think that there comes a period of time where you have to honor the material and then there comes a time when you have to step away from it if the material is keeping you from what’s going to be the best movie, you know, underscore that. And the thing is, we kept trying to keep it honest and keep it about their real lives as best we could—
RB: But they never came to you and said “nyaah, nyaah” or anything about it? It sounds like they were... or were they?
MUW: Well, you know...
RB: “They” being Beverly and Jason.
MUW: Yeah Beverly and Jason. Well I think, I’m trying to remember. Beverly was amazing. Have you ever met her?
RB: No. I wish.
MUW: Yeah! She’s really just like that, she’s one of the greatest human beings that you’ll ever meet. She’s like everything that you’d hope she was. She’s really amazing.
RB: That’s nice to hear.
MUW: I love her. I love her. She was... I can’t understand how she did it. If I had written the book about my life I don’t know if I would be open to letting people look into other doors that I chose not to open for the book, and she did that and she was, I just, it’s so foreign to me because I’m sort of private, and she was...
MUW: Yeah, she was really really good with just letting us sort of open doors that...
RB: Which is really neat for you.
MUW: Yes it was but it was sort of daunting because when you’re writing for somebody who’s such a good writer, you’re terrified of letting them down at every turn.
RB: But you wound up presenting, I thought, a picture that was more flattering of Beverly Donofrio, or, it was less unflattering than the picture that she presented of herself in the book. She presented a picture of an extremely self-absorbed person, and she seemed really honest about, “Well. Here it is.”
MUW: You know here’s the thing that I found the most interesting about the book. The book is brilliantly structured. The book starts off with her dropping her son off at college. And presents, the first image you have is a woman who has succeeded, not only in life, but in child-rearing. And therefore, anything she does after that point is forgivable, because—
RB: It must be okay, her son’s going to college.
MUW: My son turned out okay. And we played with that structure, but after I’d gone and met with Jason, and not, everything wasn’t okay, you do have to sort of, I don’t know which one, it becomes difficult, which story do you honor? And we just felt like Jason needed to have his story told...
RB: And the book is what, 10 years old?
MUW: 12 years old, 1990 I think it came out, so—
RB: So there’s a little bit more truth to put in there.
MUW: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot more life to play with in between there.
RB: Okay, so what is next for you? Besides being, getting your Variety Ten To Watch Award. Why are you one of ten to watch, you know? Did they tell you?
MUW: (laughing) I don’t know. I hope they do.
RB: (laughing) Okay, you’ll have to ask when you’re up there.
MUW: I don’t know. You know it’s so funny, I don’t know what they based the decision on, but they chose me as one of the ten to watch so I mean I’m extremely flattered. I mean I’ve never won anything before, so...
RB: Well, great. Congratulations.
MUW: Well thank you very much.
RB: I saw this on your credits, I also so you did something called A PYROMANIAC’S LOVE STORY?
MUW: A PYROMANIAC’S LOVE STORY. Yeah.
RB: —and so that added to the fame and fortune?
MUW: Oh, huge fame and fortune, had to get a bodyguard after.
RB: So what’s the next project?
MUW: I’m doing a rewrite for Sony but then I’m going to do another project with Jim, Brooks, and you know, I think it’s just sort of been nice to push this boat off into the water and watch it sail away. It’s been something I’ve been doing for so long that I’m just sort of enjoying watching it go. And we’re just now sort of launching it, hoping that the champagne bottle doesn’t punch a hole in the side or we crash...
RB: Yeah, you’ve gotten to have such a cool experience in a way, because a lot of writers, they write this and then they’re disassociated from it after that and they have to move on to the next project, but you’ve been able to stay with RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS...
MUW: You know Jim Brooks has been, and Penny Marshall, wildly generous to me, and they really have given me an education in the process, from beginning to end, and included me even when it was probably smarter of them to keep me out. But it’s really just, you know at Gracie Films, which is Jim’s production company, it’s just the way they do all their movies, and Jim is really writer-based, and his M.O. over there is always to keep the writer involved from beginning to end. And it’s just been fantastic. I really love working with them. I’d love to do, you know, it’s the dream place where you want to work when you’re a young writer, and somehow they’re nice enough to let you do it, so—
RB: And you can’t believe they’re paying you for it.
MUW: I know! That is bizarre!
RB: Okay great. Well, congratulations on your award and thank you for your time.
MUW: Thanks a lot.