You’re probably not supposed to walk up to the lead actor on a film set and poke him in the chest with your finger, but when you’ve lived with a fictional character in your head for 10 years and suddenly there he is all flesh-and-blood, sweatered-up, and Aidan Quinn-y, it’s a bit jarring – so you do what any rational person would do: Check to make sure he’s real.
Having your novel turned into a movie is a fascinating experience. When my 2002 novel Stay was being cast and the film locations were being selected I didn’t really figure into the conversation – which is why it came as such a shock, arriving on set in the far west of Ireland last summer, to find places that had once existed in my head had suddenly sprouted floors, walls and ceilings; places now inhabited by characters who seemed to have walked fully formed out of my imagination.
Sets based on fictional settings are strange places; strange because they are no longer fictional, they are factual, substantial and full of stuff that can be picked up and put down. The rural cottage the filmmakers used to house my film’s protagonists “Dermot” and “Abbey” (played by Aidan Quinn and Taylor Schilling) appeared totally lived in. There were no pressboard walls to separate the fictional world from some sawdusty backstage area where props could be stored and a rickety catering table set up. Instead there were worn wood tables, chairs with faded upholstery; there was a half-read book on a messy desk, cushions with the pressed shape of a back in them.
There’s a hint of Freud’s “uncanny” in the act of wandering through a cottage where a fictional character you invented now “lives” – it’s uncomfortably familiar and uncomfortably strange all at the same time. The difference between the familiar and strange having to do, in this case, with volume: In a novel an author might populate a cottage like the one belonging to my protagonist ex-professor with a few dozen things – a sofa, a bed, chairs, a bookshelf, a framed page of a medieval manuscript, a phone, the dog’s bowl, kitchen dishes – whatever it is the character interacts with usefully or noticeably in the course of the story along with a few crucial objects that might suggest “who the character is” to the reader.
Imagination comes alive
When I was in the process of writing Stay the cottage appeared in my imagination as a dimly lit arrangement of rooms in which objects manifested themselves as needed. If Dermot and Abbey were arguing (it’s a love story so they do that a lot) and Abbey decided she was leaving, a backpack would appear in my head, as would the dresser and the drawers she emptied her clothes out of. The actual film set – a cottage on the island of Lettermore – had all the objects I’d filled my fictional cottage with and about 1,000 more. The shelves were stuffed with hundreds of books I’d never fully imagined; there was a stained-glass lamp, ceramic figures, fossils; a frayed rug. There was a stunning painting of a horse and rider I had not conjured but which suited the character perfectly. This is perhaps where the idea of the uncanny feels wrong, because where in the uncanny one senses some kind of cognitive dissonance, I was lucky enough to have a director and set designers who really seemed to get the character and the place. Walking into that cottage wasn’t dissonant at all; it was actually more like arriving at some exotic and longed-for destination to find that it matched its postcard exactly.
So what do you do when the world inside your head suddenly appears outside of it? You act normal. You chat up the producer and the set designer and try not to get giddy because you feel like you made a whole world out of a few thin slips of paper. You walk around and do whatever the equivalent of poking the actor is: Run your hand over the spines of books, stroke the knit sweater hanging over the chair, test the heft of a paperweight, all the while trying not to fall in love with the character who lives in the cottage because of his taste in art, penchant for artifacts and shelf full of Seamus Heaney (because deep inside you know that that is creepily like falling in love with yourself). Instead you think about what this feeling is and how it’s been described throughout history: You try to remember if the Bible talks about “the word made flesh” or “the flesh made word”; you think about Freud, and then about the philosopher Derrida’s “undecideability” – his dismantling of dichotomies like the inside/outside one you’re struggling with here.