SPOILER WARNING: This interview should be read after watching Away We Go. It explicitly discusses plot elements.
Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers are married and have a child. While they were pregnant, they wrote the screenplay for Away We Go—about a youngish insurance salesman (John Krasinski) and his pregnant longtime girlfriend (Maya Rudolph) traveling the country, visiting friends, and trying to figure out where best to raise their child—together, marking their first collaboration as screenwriters. They met with me at Dilettante Chocolates on Broadway last month and talked for almost an hour about collaborating on the screenplay, watching it transform into something neither one completely expected, and why the original ending of the film wouldn’t work today. PAUL CONSTANT
I saw the movie, and afterward I left the theater and I was walking down the street and I just burst out crying. And that doesn’t usually happen to me, so I want to ask why you wanted to make me cry?
I was wondering why. You know, some weddings don’t make you cry because you’re happy, but because there’s a sadness of sorts in ceremonies like that. I wanted to ask you if you felt sort of a palpable sadness in the movie, or were you shooting for that…
E: We never wanted the baby to pop out at the end or for there to be a wedding, especially because they’re younger and less settled than, say, we are. We always loved that moment at the end of The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross are like, “Wow, everything’s great now, we’re on a bus, we’re on our way to our future,” and of course they have no idea what they’ve just done. They’ve left one certainty for a more profound uncertainty, really—on the back of a bus in their wedding gear. So we really liked that, and Sam [Mendes] even turned it up a notch with [Away We Go’s] ending. It so happened with that day…
V: The weather turned completely [bad] the day before [they filmed the ending of the movie]. Actually, the weather turned when they started doing the trampoline scene. And it was a full-out storm when they got to the house. At first they were worried about it, but I think Sam was realizing it worked perfectly for what he was trying to capture.
E: So when Krasinski is trying to open that back door and it sort of flies open, that’s all natural, there’s no wind machine or rigging.
So if the weather would’ve been different, do you think it would’ve been a different ending?
E: I think if it were sunny, it would’ve felt like, “Oh well, everything’s good now,” but [now] you kind of think, “Okay, they’ve got this far, but who knows?” And I think you know that they’re stable and in love and that will help, but at the same time, there are still questions.
V: I think the weather that day and the house just fit so much more with that last line: “I hope so. I just really fucking hope so.”
E: But it’s all about Maya, like Maya just pulls this thing off and you root for her so intensely. She’s such a quiet sort of center of power and stability and emotion held back that I think whenever she does tear up a little bit, it just kills you dead. We were wrecked the first time we saw it. We were like, “Oh my god, look at that.” And I think that she’s so real, and that’s different than watching some actress with a capital “A” who’s like emoting for the screen for the hundredth time. I think it’s a little different and, you know, I like those guys, too, but it’s just something really powerful with Maya.
V: If it makes you feel better, Maya said the other day that house scene gets her, too. Like she can’t even watch it, she gets really emotional.
E: There’s a thing about that house…
Where did the house come from? Was it just a scouting thing?
E: We wanted a place that was just a ramshackle old place. It was originally in Arkansas.
V: We wanted a place where, when she says, “I can’t believe how beautiful it is,” half the audience will say, “Yes, it’s beautiful” and the other half will be like, “Really? That’s beautiful?”
E: The main thing is, this is just a side note, we wrote this thinking of Hal Ashby movies from the ’70s: Shampoo, The Landlord, and Being There, and all these sorts of things that we loved. They’re sort of real and gritty, and they don’t go looking for the Pottery Barn location. They go, here’s a place that people actually live, let’s film there. And we said that early on, and Sam’s an Ashby fan—he actually had one of the rare prints of The Landlord that exists—and then when we saw the locations of the house, the place where the characters are living.
V: The first house in Colorado.
E: That is intense.
V: And they don’t feel that it’s sad. It has a cardboard window, but it’s so perfect in so many ways. It was Jess Gonchor, who was the production guy, who got all the houses to look like real people actually lived there. We were so thankful for him.
E: And the place at the end had power lines running right next door. And you think most directors would easily figure out a better way to shoot, a different way to cut out the power tower, but Sam really embraced this idea of naturalism even though there’s some broad comic moments in the movie. Everyone lives in a real place, dresses in real clothes, and you know… It’s just so funny about how obsessed we got with the production decision. We know nothing about this, we don’t even know the terminology so well, but we got real obsessed with—what if it was real and it wasn’t some stagy thing decorated in Hollywood, and somebody’s decorated every room to the point where you feel like you’re shopping when you’re watching? I think that when people see that house they think, no, they’re not moving into Daddy Warbucks’s mansion, they’re moving into a real house that she lived in. There’s something about that that gets you.
I know you had input on the movie when you were working on it—what was your relationship with the movie? Were you there for some of it, or a lot of it?
V: We weren’t there for much of the filming.
E: What were you there for?
V: We were there for the scene at the dinner table early on.
E: We were in the house. We could hear it and watch it on the monitor.
V: I was there also for Miami. The trampoline. And the speech Verona gives when she’s talking about the orange tree.
E: But otherwise, we have a 3-year-old and we have day jobs. We were really happy, you know—we really like handing things off to people with a lot of talent. In our company, everyone has a great deal of autonomy. When you have a guy like Sam in charge, when you’re on set you only feel like you’re getting in the way. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, five scenes were cut that we didn’t even know had been cut. And the first cut we saw of the movie, we were like, “Huh?” But right away it was clear that it was the right choice. That’s the best feeling in the world. It’s like writing, when somebody takes a pass at something you wrote and they cut something out.
V: It’s very surgical.
E: It’s like achieving a liftoff that had been bogged down.
V: That said, we did do a lot of rehearsals with actors and Sam beforehand.
E: Every last word of the script, he went over with us. There weren’t surprises with the words. He is the greatest respecter of words and writers. I don’t think anyone could surpass him.
The ending changed pretty dramatically from your original screenplay. Did that take place during the filming or well before?
E: Well before. Our original ending was written during the darkest Bush years, 2006, and you know, we were so sickened by everything that we were doing as a country and with Bush. We had friends in Miami who were deciding to leave the country and move to Costa Rica. It was the right answer at the time, and then…
V: I think it ended with the little girl Annabelle saying, “I was sick of that place.” Even at the time Sam took on the movie, things were starting to look a little different. I think he knew that ending wouldn’t be so relevant by the time the film came out.
E: We’re optimists, so we figured there was no chance the Democrats are gonna lose this election. So if this thing comes out in 2008 and it’s this America-hating movie, you know, we like this country.
Something I wanted to ask about the process of the writing—[to Vida] your novels have thus far seemed to be more interior than [to Eggers] your novels. Like You Shall Know Our Velocity, there’s a plot. There’s a very different construction to both of your books. The movie seems like a really good blend of the two styles. Does one of you pull the other out of certain styles?
E: That’s a good question. What’s really interesting is that we both have a lot of dialogue in our books. Hers are finely cut gems of books, whereas I don’t edit as much as I should. Maybe not so much anymore. When you say Velocity, I say, “Yeah, it’s a book that I could go back and cut a few pages from, for sure.” The beautiful thing about a screenplay is that it’s just the dialogue. Really. It’s so skeletal. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Vendela’s dialogue, I’m jealous about it. With the screenplay form you don’t have to worry about painting every room and describing every moment; it’s so skeletal that you could really just worry about the engine of the dialogue.
V: I suppose the dialogue in a movie works a lot like a short story where it has to advance the plot a little bit more. In a novel, you can have bigger discussions and tangents, and in a movie you have to be more selective in a way. Not repeating the same conversation or having it go on too long.
E: It’s all about what you don’t do and how surgical you can be and how much you can get in one two-page scene. It really teaches you a lot about economy. I recommend screenplay and stage-play writing to all my students who want to write because I feel like you learn so much in the process.
V: It also makes you trim so much off from the beginning. I took a playwriting class, and what I loved about it is that plays always start at the last possible moment. You don’t have 30 years of the person growing up first before something happens. So I’ve always tried to do something like that with my books, and with a screenplay you definitely have to do it.
E: And whatever you trim, they’re gonna trim again. We found that our first draft, we had scenes that were like 14 pages long. And you’re not supposed to do that. I showed it to a very professional screenwriter who has written some amazing movies, and she said, “Wow, I really like it… long scenes.” It made us examine it.
Are you going to be working on other screenplays in the future?
E: We’re open to doing it. We don’t have something on the burner.
V: It was something we wanted to do together.
E: After this, we both had to go back into books we both just recently finished. Now we’re a little free again.
V: It’s tempting.
E: Very part-time. We find books to be a superior medium, right?
V: We find them to be a superior medium, but after spending so much time at home by yourself writing, to get to be in the living room talking about scenes that you’re gonna write with somebody else, somebody that you get along with…
E: ’Cause writing books isn’t always as much fun as we want it to be. You’re alone and you want to work something out, you want to throw yourself off a building, but you don’t. Some people might. Being in a room together and trying to make people laugh, trying to write a lighter piece of comedy—especially our first draft was all comedy. There wasn’t anything but comedy.
V: You wouldn’t have cried.
E: We were in the middle of the heaviest books. Vendela was in the middle of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, and I was in the middle of What Is the What. At one point she was in the middle of Lapland when I was in Sudan in the same week, and we thought, this is strange. And it extended to Sam, because he had just done Revolutionary Road, which was such a heavy thing—[Richard] Yates and his heirs and the people who love that book. It was kind of a cleanser you might say.
The movie does seem to start as a comedy, and the humor gets stripped away after the freak-out at the dinner table, which is great. It changed into something a little more personal. Did you intentionally strip out the comedy?
V: I think a lot of that came through during the filming. Like, I talked with Sam about how we tried to weave in the melancholy with the landscape and the music.
E: Alexi Murdoch’s music actually sets the tone and I think the gritty cinematography sets the tone, that this isn’t… you know, there’s a lot of comedies that look like TV or sound like TV, and I think they’re kind of isolating everything so you can hear the jokes and laugh on cue. This was about a whole canvas of scenery and landscape and the music and the feel. And when we first saw it we thought it was like a tone poem. We did have some intense stuff in the first draft.
V: They were having a baby. And they’re getting closer to the pregnancy, and the reality of having kids sets in. By the seventh or eighth month, it’s getting more and more serious. We were tracing that timeline.
E: When you’re having kids in your 30s, invariably you know people who haven’t had such luck getting and staying pregnant. It’s something on everyone’s mind of a certain age, and before you know it, you know 10 or 12 people who have miscarried and it’s pretty intense. We’re around this intense sadness that people are carrying around and this wanting, and you want for them, and you want them to have as many babies as they want to have, and you can’t believe the unfairness of… you almost feel guilty when you don’t have these difficulties. We wanted [our characters] to understand how lucky they were and how serious what they’re embarking on is at that point.
V: That said, I don’t think it’s so rare in comedies that there’s not some sort of conflict around the two-thirds-way-through point.
The framework of different locations also had something to do with it. They were visiting different people who had different stories, and the stories varied in terms of where they were in their lives. How did you organize that? It wasn’t a direct progression. It didn’t feel like they met people in various stages of where they were going to be, the obvious choice, when you’re structuring.
E: We thought about it. We thought, how methodical should this be? Should they get progressively better, progressively worse, progressively closer to themselves? We tossed that away and said, “Well, let’s not have us know who we’re gonna encounter next and why.” And that’s why couples are so all over the place and so different. On one level they just represent different ways of approaching pregnancy and child-rearing. I think that all parents start studying the parents around you. Study your own childhood. What do we want to borrow and what do I want to definitely not do? And you’re like, “Oh, I’m gonna steal that, how they do bedtime there.”
V: Or, “That book. Let’s get that book.”
E: Definitely not going to talk about sexual relations in front of my 2-year-old.
V: Or have sexual relations.
E: I think everybody does that to whatever end. That’s where they’re at.
You said that you wrote the character of Verona with Maya Rudolph in mind. I’m wondering how her being mixed race affected you—whether you talked about how you handle it or not in the movie.
V: We definitely made a decision that Verona and Burt wouldn’t talk about it especially. For them as a couple it wouldn’t be an issue.
E: They had been together for years, so addressing it would be (a) the less realistic move and also (b) the less elegant choice. And we thought… and this came up a lot with Maya, and Maya was like, “This is me. This is me with my husband. These things don’t come up. We’re just people.” And the fact of throwing a strong racial discussion into it was not her life. Maybe here and there people insert their ideas or you know, coarseness, for better or worse. Catherine O’Hara has one kind of coarseness, and LN has a really terrible, overly educated, under-understanding, horrible kind of attitude.
V: The third mention of race is when Tom is giving a speech at the diner and represents Rudolph with a cube of brown sugar. It’s just a small thing and she laughs. It’s a small thing. We didn’t know Maya before we wrote the movie. It was just an idea we had. We had always admired her comedy. I just love the way she looks.
The scene on the trampoline feels very ceremonial, like a wedding ceremony of sorts. Verona seems very accepting—she looks like she knows what she’s doing. She doesn’t seem like she’s afraid of commitment, she seems like she’s afraid of ceremony. But she goes into it. I was wondering if that scene was always there or if it developed in the writing?
E: I don’t know.
V: It’s Burt that initiates it. You know, she’s like, “Do you promise to”… you know. He says something serious and she says something light-hearted, but she gets sucked into the mood and does say these serious things and these committal things to him.
E: We were sort of determined that it not end with a wedding. We knew early on she didn’t want to get married. We’re not people who grew up or dreamed of some wedding, so we understand the impulse, which a lot of our friends have done, which is stay together but not get married. We sort of thought, “Why wouldn’t they and where would that come from?” The usual way is the guy is a commitment-phobe, and right or wrong Verona has a nuanced reason for it, ’cause some people would be like, “Come on, go to therapy, get over it, and get married.” But Burt just respects that and backs off. But I love John Krasinski—he just did something great. They created a moment that we didn’t even write as well as they did it. He says, “Well, then, marry me. At least.” And he jumps out like—I’m gonna get you at a weak moment. “At least.” Do the biggest possible thing that you’ve been avoiding, “at least.” He does it so well, and I think it’s his best moment in the movie.
V: Then he actually cries. I think that they’d been working together so closely in that scene that when she actually denies him, he actually felt it. Very intensely, in a way that surprised him and Sam and everybody.
I thought that Burt’s job was the sort of job characters are always running away from at the end of the movie. It was surprising to me: He had a job interview in the movie, but it didn’t seem to me like it was a better job.
E: We had all these little things that we went in with. He’s gonna have a job that not everyone would think is the coolest job ever. We thought, usually he’s got a business-type job or sales, and he really wants to, you know, decorate Fabergé eggs, and at the end of the movie he gets to do it. Ninety-five percent of the people I know aren’t artists and are happy doing good honest work, and we thought, “What if he likes his work?” And he does. The job interview was in the original script, and he and the guy interviewing him both have great respect for the job that they do because they’re giving people a peace of mind. Instead of the audience judging him for being an insurance salesman, you’re rooting for him.
V: We also wanted the film to be as credible as possible and be believable. In the course of a couple months, it would be completely apocryphal for them to get married, change jobs, find a place to live, have a baby. There’s already enough going on.
E: You know, his dad did the same work and they have a good relationship. We thought, we don’t need two artists in the family; she does things in an artistic medium. There always seems something creepy when every character in a movie really wants to be an artist or musician or a writer. Of course, writers are writing this so of course, “Anyone in any job would want to be me instead.”
V: The Burt character is someone who thinks it’d be really cool to be an astronaut, but he knows he not gonna be an astronaut.
E: The scene in the job interview, it comes out that he was a really good basketball player in high school and was All-American and the interviewer had seen him play—he’d seen him play at a NCAA game. Burt’s not the guy who wanted this, but he’s here. He’s a steady dude and we like that about him.
When you were striving for realism, to be a devil’s advocate, can I ask why? Do you think you have a movie in you that’s fantasy or action?
E: We originally had a number of unicorns in the first draft, and a griffin. It was an awesome ending.
Books intern Corey Kahler contributed to this interview.