The John Irving rules

Oscar watch: The author of "The Cider House Rules" talks about his Academy Award nomination, abortion and his strange fixation on oral sex.

Published March 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

John Irving's new book, "My Movie Business," explains how he wrote, rewrote and re-rewrote the script to the film version of his novel "The Cider House Rules" -- all over a period of a dozen years and with the involvement of no fewer than four directors. His book finally landed in the hands of Lasse Halstrvm, the Swedish filmmaker best known for "My Life as a Dog" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." The movie that resulted ended up as one of the year's sleeper hits and earned a surprising seven Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture and another, for Irving, for best adapted screenplay.

The book is an unlikely epic, following the father-son relationship of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the head of a Maine orphanage and an accomplished abortionist, and a seemingly unadoptable orphan, Homer Wells. (Larch is played by Michael Caine, nominated for best supporting actor; Homer is Tobey Maguire.) After Homer returns from his fourth foster family, Larch trains him to become a doctor, to make himself useful. But Homer eventually evinces a deep philosophical opposition to abortion; this leads to his setting off on a 15-year journey, during which he works at a New England apple orchard and falls in love with his best friend's girlfriend.

The film version is much smaller. The action occurs over two years; major characters are struck, minor characters are written in. Yet, in the end, the movie is as strong as the 1985 novel, less complex and rich in detail, but more precise and centered. "My Movie Business" details behind-the-scenes Hollywood machinations, but Irving's main concern is detailing how a book he was proud of became a film he was proud of. His unstated, but plain, point: Good stories are elastic.

The following interview took place on a Saturday morning in the restaurant of the Royalton Hotel in New York. Irving had just finished diverting his 8-year-old from Saturday morning cartoons with a story. From the start, chomping triangles of buttered toast and forking through a bowl of fresh berries, he was chatty and comfortable, so much so that the interview began without a question.


[Irving began:] I don't know anything about the Internet because I don't myself have a computer.


I still write longhand. In my house I have four IBM Selectric typewriters that I usually get from hospitals or offices that are discarding them. And I have four so that if one breaks I can use the other three for replacement parts. And in my apartment in Toronto I have two others. Altogether, I have six old IBMs, which I cherish the way that some people might collect Volkswagen Beetles.

Do you write longhand and type it in?

I write first drafts longhand. Once I have a first draft of something and it begins to move with a little more pace, then I go to the typewriter. There's a kind of comfort to starting something with a pen. I like pens, I like pencils, I like the crossing out of things, the changing of pen colors. I like leaving those traces on a page.

One of the aspects of working on "Cider House" that felt the most familiar was not the pre-production, or the stuff on set. It was as soon as the film was shot and Lasse Hallstrvm began to edit it, I felt that I was now in a realm that was closer to my day job.

You said in "My Movie Business" that you had very little to say about editing the first cut of his film, whereas there were so many revisions done on the screenplay.

I did have very little to say when the film was two hours and 17 minutes long. But most of the fine-tuning on the film happened after I wrote "My Movie Business." And I felt that the last four minutes and 20 seconds that we edited from that film was really crucial.

What happened?

We just shaved it: We lost a line of dialogue, we took out a music cue. It was all losing something. And from the time we screened the film at the Toronto Film Festival at the end of September to when the film opened, I just felt we made a quantum leap with it, in the way that only a last draft, last bits of fine-tuning that can do. It really meant a lot to me.

"Cider House" is being called the surprise candidate for best picture. Did that offend you?

No, I can't say that I was offended by it, but I was amused by it, because I have always had mixed reviews. I would say that by and large, the movie of "The Cider House Rules" had better reviews than the book did. But the percentage was right. I usually get about 80 percent positive reviews and 20 percent bad ones. But the 20 percent of bad ones can be counted on to come from an area of criticism which is opposed to the whole premise of what I do.

Which is?

My novels, and that film, are written deliberately -- negatively, you would say manipulatively -- to move you. It is my intention to emotionally affect a reader or an audience. And I'm unashamed in that intention. In fact, I believe that films and books that don't try to make you love the characters in them or feel pain at what happens are easy ways out of storytelling.

I think it's far easier to tell stories about characters who you have contempt for, who you are looking down upon, because it makes you look very smart to be superior to the characters who you are writing. And it makes audiences feel very smart to be superior to the characters that they're reading about or seeing on a screen. And there's no risk involved. You don't risk the accusation of sentimentality if you don't write about people who you want readers or an audience to love. It's my intention to make you love Dr. Larch, to make you hurt for him.

I said to Lasse Hallstrvm after the wave of reviews came in that he must have done a faithful job of transcribing me, because not only was he getting my good reviews, he was getting my bad reviews.

[But] I was not surprised by those nominations. Our exit polls prior to the Academy Awards were terrific. We were in a limited amount of theaters, but our audiences were getting better and better. In a time when films that had gone to more theaters were starting to lose some of those theaters, we were just holding strong.

And it's done what Oscar nominations can do, which is really extend the life of the picture. [The movie has made $40 million and continues to hover near the weekly top 10 box-office list.]

Absolutely. I didn't buy the predictions that we were a dark horse. I've been to a number of Academy screenings, principally Writers Guild screenings, and saw the response, and I knew that those were the people who were going to nominate me. I was surprised that Lasse Hallstrvm was not nominated by the Directors Guild. And I think that because of that, people were surprised that he got one from the Academy. It was an oversight, I think.

I wanted to talk a little about "My Movie Business." It seems to me a very unusual book, particularly for you ...

It's short.

Yes. It's got big margins, and wide leading.

It's the only book of mine that I've been able to read without my reading glasses.

One of the things that is interesting about "My Movie Business" is that it preempts a lot of the questions that people like me would ask, or answers those questions directly to a reader. Is that one of the reasons that you wrote it? And did you write it partly to expose the process behind making the movie?

It is a story about process. To me, it's a book with very narrow interests. Namely, it is a book about the process of novel-to-film. It is a book about origins of a story, sources of a story. Although the focus is largely on "Cider House" -- both the medical and historical background in my family and the history of trying to get that book into film -- it also goes full spectrum of my collective experience with the movies, which has more typically been not being involved, or involved to a limited degree.

I thought that it covered a fairly broad spectrum of what novelists experience with the film world, from the most commonplace of a first-time author getting an option for a film, being hired to write a screenplay, seeing the film not made and losing the rights to the screenplay and the novel like that. That is what happened with my first novel, "Setting Free the Bears." Hello, goodbye.

And that's the story that we're most familiar with, the movie that got taken away and never made, or taken away and made into a terrible film. But there's a great resolution to your story.

I don't think that there would have been if I hadn't had that experience with "Setting Free the Bears," because it was very educative. It certainly contributed to me not wanting to be involved making "The World According to Garp" or "Hotel New Hampshire."

But when I did agree to do "Cider House," I came to it from that background, realizing that you don't take any money up front, so that nobody ever buys the rights to the novel until the film's going into production. You don't take any screenwriting fee. If you're going to get paid, you get paid on the back end. And you insist on director approval, script approval, cast approval and that the director have final cut of the picture.

Further, the terms I had with the film's producer, Richard Gladstein, were spelled out even more clearly than that. The only people making creative decisions with this film -- and those creative decisions included script, cast and cut -- would be Richard, Lasse and myself. It was a three-man film.

Miramax is not only to be credited for making a film with this subject in the first place, but more important to me, they honored that agreement and had the confidence to leave us alone. They never interfered at the creative level, not once.

The first time that I saw it -- and I saw the film before I read the book -- I thought, "My God, it's an abortion movie." I'd read about a doctor and an orphanage, but I wasn't familiar with the abortion aspect. Is that something that you wish had played louder? The book was written in the '80s during the really heavy abortion wars, which seem to have tapered off.

I disagree. I don't think that they have tapered off. I think that the climate toward abortion is more volatile and divisive today. [When the book was published] a number of people -- friends of mine, feminists -- said to me, "It's kind of quaint of you to write about this subject now that it's resolved."

I said, "You think it's resolved?" It was, "Well, this book is good-hearted and it's pro-choice, but we've fought that battle and it's over now." Roe vs. Wade was a scant 12 years old.

Well, look at what happened during the Senate debate of the partial-birth abortion business, when Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, called for a non-binding vote among the Senate of who liked Roe vs. Wade and who would as soon be rid of it. And what was that vote? 61 or 59. It was fucking close.

It wouldn't have been that close in '85. And here we're going into yet another presidential election where the front-running Republican candidates are comfortable in their abortion policies. They are confidently anti-choice. I believe that the day a Republican is pro-choice, he's going to win by a landslide. I could vote for a Republican for president, but I could never vote for a candidate who was not pro-choice.

One of the things you know about "My Movie Business" that I complained about most of all was that the biggest loss from the novel was not the characters that I had to lose and their story lines, but what I call the passage of time. I thought it was a tremendous burden to make this film happen in two-and-a-half years, as opposed to 15 years. Something of the epic nature was going to be lost. But there was something that we gained, that even as I was writing "My Movie Business" I wasn't aware of. And that is that the emotional thing that when Homer comes back to the orphanage, the same unadopted kids are there.

And you're getting two sides, one of which is a warm, uplifting story about him coming back, and the other, which is very sad and terrible that it's the same kids.

It's also very sad and terrible that this young man has given up his life in a sense. There was an earlier draft of the screenplay that was too dark. We decided to end the film the same, with the kids going to bed, feeling secure that Homer was back. I had a scene that was tacked on, it was what happened after that scene, when Homer goes down the hall to his office and sits down, and there are his companions for the rest of his life, the old nurses.

There was a sense of this is what this guy's chosen. He's made a considerable sacrifice. There was that sense that you've confined yourself to spend the rest of your life in your aunt's house.

I need to ask my one crude question, because I know that you approve of the crude.

I love the crude.

As a child, I was scarred by the blow job scene in "The World According to Garp." Yet again, there is some pretty disturbing oral sex -- the photograph with the pony -- that is formative for Homer in the book. What is the connection? What is the fascination for you?

Do you mean the trauma of first sexual experiences?

I mean oral sex. Why is that something that you return to?

I just think it is some ... The younger you are when it happens to you, the more unlikely it seems. [laughs.]

The more ... It's not ... It is an extraordinary thing that people have thought of doing. And I think that the younger you are when it happens to you the first time the more shocking and surprising and exciting it is.

So much of writing is in not losing touch with what an experience the passage from childhood to adulthood truly was. Dickens always said that he was a writer because he never lost touch with his childhood. I think that the same could be said for any writer. I think that one of the issues that is responsible for the success of "The Cider House Rules" on audiences is Tobey Maguire. He makes a very subtle change from boyhood to manhood. It takes most of the movie for him to get to that point where he stops making these childish excuses. I'm sure the second time that he says, "I am not a doctor," the audience says, "Of course he is." You only have to deny something twice for the audience to say, "Oh, yeah?" You know, "I never had sex with that woman."

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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