Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky, The Adderall Diaries stars James Franco as author Stephen Elliot, with co-stars Ed Harris, Amber Heard, Cynthia Nixon, and Christian Slater.
Overcome with writer’s block, substance abuse, fleeting relationships, and parental issues, Stephen Elliot hits rock bottom when his estranged father arrives and publicly claims that his son has lied about much of the childhood that energizes his writing. Amidst the chaos, the story revolves around complications in memory.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into writing and directing?
I’m originally from Minnesota. Went to college where I was pre-med with degrees in psychology and minors in biology and neuroscience; so I have a science-y background. It was interesting to work on this film because so much of it directly involves psychology. All of that study of memory, human behavior, and addiction actually came into play much later.
After college, I came to New York to study filmmaking, thinking it would be more of a hobby. I really just wanted to live in New York for one summer of my life, thinking I would then go back to Minnesota and finish medical school. But I didn’t. I stayed in New York and fell in love with filmmaking. I worked for a documentary filmmaker named Barbara Kopple (American Dream, Harlan County U.S.A.). She’s a really great filmmaker who taught me a ton.
Even though I didn’t stay in documentary film, I value that time watching her. A lot of documentary film directing is about gauging or reading the subtext to know how far to push people as well as how people can take or reveal information, which I still find very useful.
I had been making shorts and music videos but I decided I wanted to learn filmmaking in a more direct and formal way with real training, so I went to NYU to get my MFA. I learned so much there and it’s really a great program. In addition to screenwriting and directing, the conservatory program teaches cinematography, acting, sound, and film aesthetics. It was a very intense education that taught me most of what I know about filmmaking. I also met some really important collaborators, the first being James Franco.
He is a kindred spirit and we shared some similar creative tastes so we became friends and started working together, which is where The Adderall Diaries came from. He had optioned the book after reading it in a class at Yale. I think he had it for a few years thinking that he would write and direct it himself, but I don’t think he quite figured out how to adapt the book into a film. It’s certainly not an obvious adaptation.
We had made a short together that he had acted in, with similar themes of memory and how history impacts us in the present. After that, he brought up The Adderall Diaries, which I had read as a casual reader. I loved the book and jumped at the chance to adapt it and it took me about three years from the first outline to the film premiering at Tribeca.
Can you tell us about that short you worked on together?
My short is called Tar. It’s part of a collection, which is now called The Color of Time.
Ten directors each adapted a poem from a collection. It’s very experimental and as a whole, it ends up being about C.K. Williams, the poet. It was an exercise in group filmmaking, where each director can make a distinct story with the idea it could blend together. It was not meant to be a vignette like New York, I Love You.
The Adderall Diaries touches on a little bit of everything, including faulty memories, family troubles, and even sexual and drug addictions. How did you tackle this range of topics to create one coherent story?
Many drafts along the way. One of the biggest points of focus came from the Sundance Lab. They did the Screenwriter’s Lab, the Director’s Lab, and also the Sound Design and Composer Labs. In the summer of 2013, I did all of those Labs, which helped distill the screenplay that I had already been working on for a year.
The book is the kitchen sink of ideas, which includes internal and introspective looks at memories, unlike a present-tense story, and the characters do not get arcs the way they do in traditional movies. Most of my process was to figure out the heart of the story and then to dramatize those ideas and themes within the relationships in the story.
So I had to determine which scenes were important and which were the ripest with dramatic possibilities. Then, I needed to see how his relationships and struggles might play out in those scenarios.
The structure exists because Stephen Elliot is the Sun of his own universe and around him are these five orbiting, satellite relationships: his father, his girlfriend, his best friend, his muse, and his editor. It takes a momentous change in the dynamic in any of those relationships to cause him to change.
There is a quote from the book that I had pinned to my writing board whenever I would get lost in the writing process: “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.”
That, to me, is the heart of Stephen Elliot’s character. It’s both his drive and his obstacle. He’s obsessed with making sense of his past to make it into a story.
As a storyteller with a background in psychology, that’s something I’m really interested in. This story is a way to present that idea in a dramatic and cinematic way. The main conflict where this idea plays out is between Stephen and his father, who have the same, shared history, but with very different interpretations of it.
Something that I noticed in Stephen’s and his father’s writings was that it wasn’t the details of the memories, but it was the role that each was trying to cast themselves in within the story. They each really needed to be the victim, which is why they couldn’t align the stories.
It’s somewhat of an overly dramatic version of something we all do when casting light on other people.
With the memories involved, is this story considered fiction or nonfiction?
The book is labeled and considered by Stephen to be totally memoir. It is nonfiction. When working on the screenplay, it was very important to get things right.
As I started working on it, I realized that in order for the story to be both compelling and coherent, I was going to need to fictionalize and dramatize things. It became more about getting to the heart of the story and less about trying to get details precise. So the book is nonfiction while the film is more fictionalized.
Stephen writes prolifically and almost exclusively about himself. It’s interesting to see how he tells the same story many times in his writing, some versions fictionalized and dramatized while others are memoir. It’s really interesting to see how those elements shift when he writes fiction.
Both The Adderall Diaries and your first short Tar revolve around writers and their struggles. Do you consider yourself more of a writer or director?
I love both. I just directed something that I hadn’t written for the first time, which was fascinating. I’m less interested in writing outside of screenwriting, but I do understand that I need the map to make the film so they go together in the mind.
I don’t know that writing alone was the focus of the films as much as it was the focus on memory and how the past invades and changes our perception of the present.
I am very interested in movies about creative people in general, such as writers, artists, photographers, and musicians, but that’s not something that I want to exclusively make movies about. I am interested in the creative process. I want to know more about understanding and processing what’s happening to us as people so I certainly relate to that.
Have any of your thoughts on psychology or memory changed since you started working on this film? Do you personally feel any different since working on stories of memory?
Yes. Certainly part of the draw to making this film was the opportunity to talk about the difference narratives we have with people who share a common history. There are people who I have a story with and the way that they tell the story is very different than how I tell the story. This is an opportunity to shine a light in that dark corner of my own psychology to think about why we might tell the story so differently.
There is a lot of compassion there and this story allowed for me to make peace with people where I may have had some lingering resentment. I am now more compassionate as to why certain people did the things that they did.
I also have an agenda in the way that I’m remembering things. During my writing research, I came across narrative therapy, which is where you tell a psychologist your story. You tell them your life story and how you remember accomplishments, dreams, what your mom is like, all of that stuff.
Essentially, they’re looking at how you tell the story of you. The psychologist may respond, “I noticed you tell a lot of stories where someone of authority betrayed you. Are there people in positions of authority who have not betrayed your trust? Can you tell me that type of story?”
Narrative therapy lets us know that there is some inherent editing in the way we tell our life story. It’s interesting which parts we pick to be fundamental. The idea is that the way you tell your story depicts behavior and how you see yourself in the world and how you think you fit in.
If you’re telling stories where you’re always the victim, you will continue to place yourself in positions where you have no power because that’s the position you’re looking for and what you expect. I think that is both fascinating and motivating. Every story has editing and if the way you tell your story is helping you, then there is opportunity to start changing things.
That’s interesting both in terms of self-reflection and character. Are you currently or do you plan to work on projects where the characters are purely fictional?
Yes. Writing about real people was interesting but it was a huge responsibility. As a writer, you want to be understood and you want for people to connect with what you’re saying, but there is also a responsibility when having real people as the characters within your script.
I wouldn’t pursue that again without giving it a lot of thought. The next stories I write will most likely involve characters that are completely fictional.
In addition to Stephen, who is also a filmmaker and has his own interpretations of my film, every character in the movie—with the exception of one who is fictional—is based on a real person. We would be on set re-enacting a terribly traumatic event and it’s hard not to be weighed down by the fact that it really happened to someone.
What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?
Knowing when something is finished. There is a desire to get it perfect before you start shooting.
My big takeaway from this film was that that is not possible and there are also going to be so many surprises and gifts and magic moments that would happen on set. Many of those things would need to be figured out in the editing room, which was my second major revision.
Do you have any advice for upcoming writers?
Be patient and find people that will help you to create a network of support.
Focus on what feeds you, both within the scene and the images, as well as with what you’re working on. It’s really important to stay excited. Stay passionate about it and give yourself reminders as to why you love the material and why you need to tell the story.
This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.