Having filmmaker Charlie Kaufman adapt your work is asking for trouble. Gigantic, surreal, meta-contextual trouble. Just talk to Susan Orlean, the New Yorker journalist whose 1998 nonfiction book The Orchid Thief, about the poaching of rare flowers in Florida, was adapted by Kaufman in the loosest of terms, twisting and turning itself into the upside-down 2002 Hollywood satire Adaptation starring Meryl Streep as a criminally inclined Orlean and Nicolas Cage as both Kaufman and his fictitious twin brother, Donald.
But when Canadian author Iain Reid heard that Kaufman was interested in his 2016 novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it made all the backwards sense in the world. The book, which chronicles a disturbing winter road trip shared by a young man named Jake and his nameless girlfriend, is a propulsive and thrilling read, pivoting on a deliciously perverse late-game twist that has garnered as many devotees as it has detractors. For any cinematic version to work, its filmmaker would have to be as cerebral and idiosyncratic in their sensibilities as Reid himself.
“It is an internal, literary, weird novel. I didn’t see how it could be converted to any kind of cinematic work, but that was also nice because I didn’t have any expectations,” says Reid, calling from his home near Kingston, Ont.
As his agent shopped the novel to producers, Reid entertained a few potential suitors, some of whom he felt hadn’t read the book at all and were just looking to acquire something that could be turned into a cheap horror movie. Then Kaufman came along.
“We talked about the book, but also for an hour about books, music, movies. I’m sure I’ve been influenced by his work in certain ways that I’m not even sure of, but after talking with him, I felt comfortable,” recalls Reid. “There was no one else I wanted to do this.”
Although the pair talked for months about the project, with Reid offering his thoughts on possible directions but never wanting to intrude on Kaufman’s process, the adaptee couldn’t have exactly imagined just what the adapter would eventually deliver: a script that stays true to I’m Thinking of Ending Things’s core themes – the subjective power of storytelling, the regret of a life unfulfilled, the incongruities of relationships – that at the same time jumps off a narrative and aesthetic cliff in its final 20 minutes. The result is something spiritually close to Reid’s voice, yet delivered in the high-pitched tones of a Kaufman yelp.
“The script was thrilling to read, and I saw the story completely through his lens. I’d never read anything like it,” says Reid. “For me, the book more than anything is about questions, and that’s what the movie does, too. It’s not giving answers. One question leads to another. There are so many things that I read or watch that feel like I’ve seen it before, and it’s not asking anything of me. This is truthful and honest to Charlie’s vision. He does something like that not because he thinks it’s going to be popular, but because it’s something that he has to do.”
The resulting film, starring Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons as the central couple, premieres on Netflix Sept. 4, and instantly declares itself as one of the most interesting films of this most interesting year. Reid, who also garnered a co-producer credit for the film – highly unusual, given that authors are usually asked to sell their rights and then promptly disappear – mostly kept his distance during production, though he did spend three days on the New York State shoot last year.
“I was cognizant about not getting in the way,” he says with a laugh. “I had visions of backing slowly out of a room and unplugging some cord, and then the crew saying, ‘We just lost our best shot!’”
While Reid would have gotten a thrill out of seeing the film on a big screen – it is easy to imagine Netflix premiering the film, one its big fall offerings, at a festival like TIFF – the pandemic squashed any such plans. But perhaps a digital-only offering is for the best.
“You don’t want to ever think about your work with stuff going on in the world. It shouldn’t matter. But maybe one thing is that now there’s an element of audiences wanting something different,” Reid says. “Early on in the pandemic, we needed stuff that was mindless. But after a while, you can’t even face turning on your TV. I do hope that people are now looking for something that’s not just Tiger King.”
In the meantime, Reid, whose 2018 novel Foe is also making its way through Hollywood’s production pipeline, is working not on another book but a screenplay of his own.
“Two or three years ago, the idea of writing a screenplay never seemed feasible. The literary world is where I feel most comfortable, but I wanted the challenge,” he says. “It’s a little unsettling and a little philosophical, and I don’t know if it would fit into any one kind of genre.”
Someone get Charlie Kaufman – or maybe Donald this time – on the phone.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is available to stream on Netflix starting Sept. 4
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