If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The author of French Exit on collaborating with Azazel Jacobs in adapting the book to film.
In Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a broke socialite who flees the Upper East Side to Paris alongside her adult son (Lucas Hedges) and dead husband (Tracy Letts) who, she claims, has taken the form of a cat. What starts as a broad comedy of manners reveals itself as a darker story that addresses mental illness and suicide with such a perfect tone of melancholy that it inspired me to book a ticket to Paris.
Novelist and screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s characters love to talk, and so, it turns out, does he. We chatted for a thirty-minute interview that stretched into an hour, dissecting the challenges of adapting his own novel for the screen, the effects of the pandemic on movie-going, the joy and frustration of collaboration, and more. This is an edited, condensed adaptation of our conversation.
Let’s get talking about the movie. I saw it at the New York Film Festival back in October, which streamed most of the films online because of the pandemic. But I remember thinking that I would really love to see this with an audience of people, just to get that sense of how everyone else is responding.
Patrick deWittGoing by the reviews, I think half the people would be applauding and half would be throwing things at the screen. Really bitterly divisive. I saw it at the New York Film Festival drive-in premiere. I was looking into the windows of the cars around me, and sometimes I’d see somebody laugh or yawn or whatever people do when they’re watching. But again, trying to deduce what the group felt was impossible. And at the end everybody honks, which I had never experienced before.
KFI went in knowing almost nothing about it. And I completely loved it. I was struck by how much I identified with Frances, even though she is really nothing like me. How did her character come to you?
PDIn the last four or five years I have been reading a lot of British fiction from the middle century. Typically, these are stories of highly intelligent and complicated women, written by highly intelligent, often complicated women. Frances falls neatly into that category. I’ve been wanting to write about the wealthy for a good long while for no real reason other than just wanting to do it. Fascination with the world of the Price family, fascination with a character like Frances. I have known people somewhat like Frances, not heiresses in dire straits, more just people who … you know, narcissism is an ugly characteristic, but there are charming narcissists and loving narcissists. And Frances is one of those people. Usually, it’s an expression of strength. Some people refuse to compromise. I have an admiration for people who live their lives according to their own rules and terms.
KFA few scenes into the film, Frances encounters a police officer who thinks that he’s in some way coming to her aid, and she makes it very clear that she has a different opinion of things. It’s the moment when I gave myself up completely to the movie.
PD I think typically somebody who comes from quite a lot of money would have an abiding respect for law enforcement or authority in all of its iterations. It’s safe to say that a moneyed New Yorker, if approached in a friendly way by a police officer, would probably be friendly back. But I wanted Frances and Malcolm to be both isolated in their bond and also a bit combative. Creating an anti-authoritarian streak, to me, was really funny, but it also fleshed out the characters. And you know, who doesn’t want to see somebody being not that friendly to a cop?
KFBoth the novel and the film are very funny, but at times the movie version is almost campy. Yet there’s always an undercurrent of melancholy. And it’s such a particular tone. How did you approach taking what you wrote as a novel and transitioning it to the screen?
PD Oftentimes, humor is just an Achilles heel. Maybe I shouldn’t pose it as a weakness, but it’s usually humor complemented by or hindered by a darkness or an ugliness or some sort of emotional complication. In longform fiction, I don’t think about it much; I just do it according to my preference in the way that you would cook something. There’s no language attached to the why of it; you just do what you think is best. Once you adapt something to a moving picture, and you’re dealing with the idea of an audience, you obviously have to change things. And this is something that I keep learning over and over again, and forgetting: just because something is funny, truthful, or effective in fiction doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to come to life on screen. I leaned heavily on Azazel Jacobs for the adaptation. He understands filmmaking in a way that I don’t. And he’s very generous with his time. His criticisms always come from a place of simply wanting the work to be the best version of itself.
KFComparing the novel and the screenplay, it was interesting to see the way certain things were shaded differently. In revisiting it, I was struck by how frequently it announces that it is about death.
PDI think of it as being overtly about self-murder, which hopefully isn’t giving too much away. People are calling the ending ambiguous, and I think that’s fair, but I don’t agree that it’s ambiguous. It’s just quiet. In the book it’s much more graphic, and it’s only one page that I’m talking about. I don’t really enjoy graphically violent writing. I don’t look to art for anxiety or ugliness. I just think that there’s enough of these unhappy aspects in the real world without artists bringing us bad news. This is an example of what you can show in fiction but perhaps shouldn’t show in moving image: Frances’s demise. And because Azazel felt the same way, perhaps even more so than I did, the ending was a collaboration in terms of what to say, what not to say, what to show, what not to show. The story is still true to its source, just a bit more opaque.
KFHer decision doesn’t feel tragic, though, somehow.
PDIt’s innately sad when somebody doesn’t want to stick around. Because you think of that person’s suffering, and if it’s somebody you care about, you think, oh, what a shame that person had to carry that feeling around. But ultimately, it’s a decision that we have to respect in our individual friendships. Somebody elects to leave, and that’s their choice. One can just hope that, ultimately, it was the correct choice for that individual.
KFIn many ways, I felt like it was a love story. There are lots of pairings in the movie, but in particular, I felt like the relationship between Frances and Malcolm, and also between Frances and Joan, were love stories. There’s a scene in the script that isn’t in the movie where Frances and Joan are talking about children and whether they have regrets of having had children or not. I loved that entire dialogue.
PDThat was all shot. If I made films, I would be the director who has a twenty-five-minute scene of people walking around a park and chatting about whatever the fuck. And that’s sort of how it exists in the book. That long walk with Joan and Frances is a scene that I wanted there in its entirety. But I also understand that you can’t necessarily get everything you want. It’s funny, being a parent really opens you up to a lot. I don’t think I could have written those scenes if I hadn’t had a child, which is something about the human equation, the emotional effect of being in debt to our children. The devotion is so deep, and it’s just innate. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my child. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that before. And we are helpless to change it. But part of making a film is just losing things. The sentiment is there. I did love to show these two somewhat cynical, worldly, funny middle-aged women just enjoying chatting and walking around Paris. I was endeared to them.
KFWe obviously have to talk about Small Frank. In the novel, we get a little bit more of his point of view, particularly when he’s running around Paris on his own. In a book, you’re able to tell us certain things that you want to just tell us or inhabit points of view, especially when one of the characters is a cat inhabited by a dead husband. What were your thoughts as you were trying to put that into a screenplay?
PDI was aware of that when Azazel read the rough draft before it was published. We were talking about all things that would be fun and, you know, “easy.” And then when we came to Small Frank, he was a little bit less enthusiastic or just started recognizing that this is going to be hard. I remember joking, “Okay, well, you’re going to have to rent the Eiffel Tower and find a cat that will jump off the top.” Obviously that was not going to happen. It was one of the problems to solve. I think that the Small Frank questions, to some degree, were solved by having Tracy Letts give voice to the character. He has such authority, and such a presence, even if it’s just his voice.
KFYou’re finishing up a novel now, but do you have any particular screenwriting aspirations?
PDThe novel is my primary interest, and I suspect it always will be. I do like the idea of adapting other people’s novels. I enjoy screenwriting. I also would like to tell original stories in screenplay format. It’s odd, because it’s so similar to the act of writing fiction, but also so very different. It’s such a collaborative medium. Typically, I just sit in the room alone, but now there’s a committee of people and a team that you work with. Everybody gets their say, and it’s frightening. But I think it’s good to let go of the work somewhat, and you’re working with people you admire. The work morphs into something you hadn’t anticipated.
French Exit was released in the United States on February 12.
Ken Foster has written about film, music, and literature for BOMB, Salon, The Village Voice, and other publications. His most recent book is City of Dogs, a collaboration with photographer Traer Scott. His work can be found online at www.kenfosterbooks.com.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.