By D. Dona Le
Orphan X, the latest novel by Gregg Hurwitz AB '95, will be published on January 19, 2016. The book is the first in the Evan Smoak series that Hurwitz is adapting for Warner Brothers, with Bradley Cooper producing (and possibly starring). Recently, director Colin Trevorrow finished shooting Hurwitz's screenplay, The Book of Henry.
Read our special Q&A with Hurwitz about both of these upcoming projects below!
Q. There's been a tight lid on details about THE BOOK OF HENRY, but can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the idea and the choice to explore this dark plot with child-aged protagonists?
A. I can't even remember the inspiration since I wrote the first draft—literally—18 years ago. It felt like this pure, rare thing where I just thought of this single mom and her two kids stuck in a near-impossible predicament. I will say that Henry's voice (Henry is the 12-year-old prodigy at the center of the story) came very naturally. Not because I'm a prodigy or anything close to it but because sometimes my characters are smarter than I am, even in real time. I can't remember ever hearing characters' voices that distinctly right off the bat.
Q. When you conceived of the idea, did you decide right off the bat that it would be a screenplay, or did you consider writing the story as a novel instead?
A. I knew it was a screenplay. I'm not really sure why. At the time I'd sold my first novel, THE TOWER, which I started as a junior at Harvard (I finished a really bad first draft in the summers before and after senior year, revised it in the following year, and got supremely lucky to sell it to Simon & Schuster). And I'd started MINUTES TO BURN, which was to be my second novel. So I'm not really sure why THE BOOK OF HENRY occurred to me as a screenplay, but it did.
Q. How did the script find its way to Colin Trevorrow?
A. THE BOOK OF HENRY was optioned by the great Jenette Kahn (maybe my favorite Harvard alumnus) and eventually got set up with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. One of the executives there has seen SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED and thought Colin might be great for it. I watched the movie and really loved it. The exec sent the script over, Colin dug it, and he and I sat down. We got along right away and it was all systems go. But Colin said to me, "Listen, there's only one way I wouldn't do this movie. I had a meeting with Spielberg about doing the next Jurassic movie but there's no way that would ever happen with me coming off such a tiny budgeted film, so let's not worry about it." A few weeks later, he called me and said, "Dude, I got offered Jurassic." He was so above-board about it and honest—and such a decent human—that while I was really disappointed to lose him, I was also genuinely happy for him since it was a pretty exciting opportunity. I remember before we got off the phone, he said, "Who knows, maybe I'll do Jurassic and then be able to come back and do this one and then we could get it green lit." And we sort of laughed because we knew that would never happen. It's like when you sit next to someone you really like on a cross-country flight and you get off the plane and say, "We should totally hang out some time!" But it never really happens. But in this case, it did. I had another director come on and fall off, Colin went off and made his little art house movie, and then we reconnected and the thing took off like a rocket ship.
Q. Were you on set for the filming of the movie? If so, what was it like to work with Colin / how much input were you able to have on the execution of your script?
A. I was included for a lot of the process—I was there for the table read, rehearsals, and about three weeks of production. It was great. First off all—top-notch actors, crew, brilliant DP, supportive producers, great studio in Focus, the whole nine. But I felt respected and a lot of that came from how Colin positioned me. As a writer himself, he understood the importance of having me there—and also how important to me it would be to be there for it. This was an original script too. I'd lived with it for 18 years, written countless drafts, and it had a really distinct tone, so I think that played a factor.
Q. Witnessing the creation of a film adapted from one of your novels versus a film of your original screenplay—does the distinction between the source material make you feel differently about these two types of projects?
A. Though I've adapted my books, I've never had a movie or pilot shot yet from them so it's hard to compare. But I will say that The Book of Henry felt (apologies for using this word) magical. Colin directing, John Schwartzman shooting, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris AB '85—the list goes on and on. And everyone honored the spirit of the material while bringing their own love and expertise to their role. As a writer, there is nothing more you can hope for.
Q. Writing a novel is a largely solo affair, subject to your editor's notes in the later stages. But film/TV projects involve so many people; is it a big adjustment to go from working on a novel to being part of projects such as V, THE BOOK OF HENRY, and upcoming, ORPHAN X?
A. Yes. Huge. But I like the challenge of collaborations with really smart people (show-runners, directors) too. Always fighting to raise the bar, make adjustments for budget/production—it's a whole new set of challenges. At the end of the day, a novel is 400 pages of final content. A script is 110 pages with lots of white on the page, and part of its function is to be a recipe for the movie, an invitation to collaborate. The key is getting the right collaborators. If you do, it's gold. If it doesn't, you spend all your time trying to protect the story. On THE BOOK OF HENRY everyone involved was trying to make the best possible version of this story.
Q. What was your inspiration for ORPHAN X?
A. I've done a lot of crazy (stupid?) stuff in the course of writing my thrillers. I've gone up in stunt planes, swam with sharks, gone undercover into mind control cults, sneaked onto demolition ranges with Navy SEALs and blown up cars. And it was from some of my conversation with guys in the shadow service that I hit upon this idea of the Orphan Program. It is fiction but there are certain counterparts to it in the intel community. I stole some of the notions and made them my own. But the real breakthrough was when I thought of my character Evan Smoak. I'd spent two years writing BATMAN for DC comics and by biggest interest was in how Batman has to sacrifice intimacy for perfection. And I wondered what that might look like in the real world. What's the real version of that—a guy who was snatched out of the foster care system at the age of 12, trained up to be an elite assassin, but still has a heart, still craves human contact. What if he left the program in order to help the truly desperate? But what he does means he can't ever have a normal life. There was something tragic in that—and new. We never get to see James Bond go home. But in Evan Smoak, there's a longing and wistfulness. No matter how bad-ass he is, he always has his face up to the window, an outsider looking in.
Q. This novel is first in the Evan Smoak series. With the upcoming film adaptation and Bradley Cooper attached, are you anticipating a book/movie franchise?
Q. Do you think the anticipated film adaptations of future installments of the series impact the writing of those sequels?
A. Well, a little. This is the first book of mine I've adapted before the book has come out (Orphan X launches Jan 19). And when I switched hats from novelist to screenwriter, I saw right away—"Well, this will never work. The first act is too long, and these characters have to be combined, and I can't use this plot thread, and I need to kill this guy," and on it went. So now that I'm working on the novel sequel, I'm playing in the same world but on a parallel track. Let's hope I have to deal with the complications of keeping these parallel universes going in different mediums. That would be a high class problem!
Q. What are some of the main differences between writing directly for screen (THE BOOK OF HENRY) versus adapting your own novel? Speaking of which, what's the most challenging thing about adapting a novel you've written into a screenplay?
A. It takes more sheer hours of ass-in-chair time to produce a novel. You have to do it all—direct, act, hair and makeup, set decoration. The book is the final product. There is nothing else. I'm not saying it's easier to write a great script but the time demands are different.
The most challenging thing when it comes to an adaption is the space — going from 400 pages to 110 with, as I've said, lots of white on the page. That means you have to kill a lotta babies.
Q. Given how prolific you are, can you give us an average of how long it takes you to complete a book, from idea to publication? At this point, do you have a structured writing process that you can share with us?
A. I write a book a year. I tend to write way out ahead of schedule so it's hard to gauge the exact time spent—for instance, I finished and sold Orphan X a year and a half ago and it's just coming out now. So I've been working on the sequel and another novel ever since. Now that I'm working so much more in other mediums (film, TV, comics) my time gets broken up a bit more.
My writing process is this: I get up early and write all day every day. If I'm not on deadline, I try to take part of the weekends off. At a minimum, I'm writing from 7am-5pm each day (with a break to work out, where I get some of my best ideas).
I have two big computer monitors. One holds the manuscript. The other holds the bullet points, loosely organized, of all my notes, ideas, scenes, snatches of dialogue, etc. And then both change and grow constantly as I write. I get an idea in the book, I add the fallout scenes into the "rolling outline." If I get stuck in the book, I go into the outline and whip the next run into shape a little more. The only difference is this—the manuscript is generally growing and the "outline" is generally shrinking. And then one day, the manuscript is 400 pages and the outline is 0.
And then I go drink a bourbon.