The Art of Adaptation

Erin Wilson, hailed by Variety as one of its "Ten Screenwriters to Watch," has a system for balancing a trio of careers: Don't do them all at once.
Writer: 
January 31, 2003
Wilson: Scenes for Celluloid. Photo: Chris Hildreth

As a Duke professor, accomplished playwright, and now screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson is the proverbial wearer of many hats. The thing is, she can only wear one at a time. "Some people are very lucky to write in the morning and interact in the afternoon," says Wilson, who, since the release of her feature film Secretary, has seen her calendar fill up with the phone calls and meetings typical of a Hollywood player.

Her work ethic is certainly paying off. Secretary, which she adapted from the short story by Mary Gaitskill, earned uniformly strong reviews, brought in more than $3 million in its first two months despite a limited release, and landed Wilson on Variety's prestigious "Ten Screenwriters to Watch" list." It's impossible for me to write and teach on the same day," she says. "It's even impossible for me to have this interview today and write. That's how compartmentalized I am. So I reserve days for interaction and days for writing. At this point, I only go out on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You know, you have to be strict if you're going to write a lot."

Not bad for a movie about the most uncommercial of subjects: the S&M-tinged relationship between a socially awkward lawyer named Mr. Grey (played by sex, lies, and videotape star James Spader) and his nervous young assistant (much-heralded newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal). The twist of the film--that the pair's interaction begins with spanking and ends with true love--not only changed the tenor of Gaitskill's story but also the trajectory of Wilson's career.

Wilson, who's been part of Duke's theater studies faculty since 1995, says she always knew she wanted to branch out from writing for the stage (she's had three works performed Off-Broadway in the last three years) to writing for the screen. She wasn't willing, however, to spend her time on a "spec script," the necessary tryout step most screenwriters take. "I kept telling my agent, 'I'm not going to write a screenplay until I have a director and a producer in place,'" she recalls. "He said, 'Well, you can wait your whole life for that.' I waited over ten years. And then, thankfully, Steve Shainberg came along."

Shainberg, a Yale graduate and director of TV commercials as well as features, was introduced to Wilson by a mutual friend on what Wilson calls "a work blind date." The two became fast friends and talked often about eventually collaborating professionally. When Shainberg decided to make a film based on Gaitskill's story, he knew he'd found his match. "I felt that the oddness of the story and the fundamental subject matter would just be up her alley," he says. "In retrospect, I look like a genius."

Initially, Wilson wasn't interested. "It's really not my aesthetic to be quite that stark and dark," she says of Gaitskill's style. "I don't like to write victim tales. And it could have been one, if handled incorrectly. Also, the short story isn't a romance. When I met with Steven, I said, 'What if she enjoys [the spanking]?' And he went, 'Absolutely!' So I went from saying no to saying yes to the project in that conversation."

In all, the process of honing the script took over a year and, by Wilson's estimate, forty-five drafts. "One of the great things about Erin is that, because of the way she works in the theater, she's very willing to rewrite and discover and toss things away and not get too attached," says Shainberg, who spent a summer with Wilson discussing the project before she ever wrote a line of dialogue.

" We were very collaborative," Wilson says. "We watched very intense love stories, like Last Tango in Paris, to see where they failed and where they succeeded. We called them 'film festivals,' and we'd sit in his apartment and watch four or five films in a row. Then I wrote it during the school year in my attic in Hillsborough. And he had a red pen, just like the lawyer [in Secretary], and he literally wrote notes all over it."

Some at Duke might be surprised to learn that such a frank, controversial film came from the pen of a faculty member.

 

Wilson acknowledges similarities between Secretary and her stage work, which includes Hurricane, The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, and The Erotica Project. "I am very interested in writing about politically questionable people and not judging them--allowing them to walk a fine line and embracing their political incorrectness and saying, We don't have to be nice and gentle and sweet to be good people. And love does not have to be tender and nice all the time to be real love. I've always been attracted to slightly off-kilter love stories and have always written with an erotic voice. So I was very pulled toward the story in that way. I like to juxtapose violence with humor, sexiness with sadness, which can create a dramatic tension within itself."

Though much of Gaitskill's story remains intact, Wilson took some dramatic license. First, she changed the protagonist's name from Debi to Lee. "I have to do that in order to write it," she says. "I can't write someone else's character." Also, since Gaitskill's story runs fewer than ten pages, Wilson fleshed out Lee's home life, giving her a boyfriend (besides the lawyer, that is) and a destructive self-cutting problem. "I wanted to give her a really thick background to come from, a real depth and pain, so that by the time she got spanked and fell in love with the spanker, we believed it and we bought it and we were with her."

Wilson says she's only read the original story twice. "I read it once when [Shainberg] asked me to do it and I read it once halfway through [writing] when I got stuck. Other than that, I allowed the impression of it to hit me, so that I could then crawl into it and make it mine. Otherwise, if I'm trying to be Mary Gaitskill, I'm not going to write a good screenplay because it's not going to be my voice. I had to really hijack it and take it over. While it's not polite, I think it's the best thing you can do. Because if you try to respect the story too much, you won't find it in yourself to write it."

Once on the Secretary set in Los Angeles ("It was like walking into a Disneyland version of my psyche"), Wilson, a former actress, had to relinquish control of the film to Shainberg. "Mainly, I just kept my mouth shut and watched them shoot the film."

Says lead actress Gyllenhaal, "On set, she was very careful about her boundaries and assuming too much power, so I think she had to sort of be quiet and calm. I remember the very first time she came to the set. We were shooting the scene where Mr. Grey breaks up with me, and I had to ask someone to ask her to leave, because I couldn't do it with her in there." What was Gyllenhaal afraid of? "Well, I guess any kind of judgment," says the actress, the daughter of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner (Running On Empty) and the sister of actor Jake Gyllenhaal (October Sky, Moonlight Mile). "I wanted to feel as free as I could, and the writer comes with an idea of this woman in her head and we're shooting this very complicated scene and I'm never going to be that idea. After I got to know her a little bit, it was easier."

Gyllenhaal, who earned an English degree at Columbia, applauds Wilson for "taking Mary Gaitskill's story and making it into a really political movie. She made it about people who are moved by stuff that everyone thinks is perverse and that they themselves think is perverse, but ultimately live happily ever after. They do things that a lot of people think are sexist, but ultimately they're both empowered. And that's the most radical thing that somebody could do. To say, 'What if a woman is empowered by something that nobody thinks she should be empowered by?' That's actually radical and political."

Not everyone is so enamored of the film, however. Gaitskill herself was quoted by Book magazine as saying the film version of Secretary is "vulgar and gross. I really don't see why anyone would want to see this movie." Gaitskill wouldn't comment for this story.

Wilson says the writer's reaction doesn't bother her. "It doesn't mean anything to me," she says. "And that doesn't mean that she doesn't mean anything to me, because I think she's tremendous. I purposely would not have wanted to become friends with her, because then I would have had mixed feelings about taking over her story. Honestly, it hurts my feelings, so obviously something in me wants her to like it, but I know very well that what I wrote is not really her story. Her story is the germ and the nucleus of the film."

Wilson says one thing she'll never do is use her classroom at Duke--she teaches "Dramatic Writing" and "Screenwriting"--as a laboratory for her professional work. "I've been in people's classrooms who did that, and I did not appreciate it. I thought it was self-serving." Perhaps the level of discourse is too different: "The students at Duke are so smart and so sophisticated and so brainy," she says, "that I feel like I carry on dialogues with them that I cannot have in the theatrical world of New York."

Shainberg, who recently gave her a script of his own to read, says he's noticed that her "critical eye has been remarkably honed by working in academics. She was giving me notes, and at the end I said to her, 'God bless Duke!' "

But some at Duke, in turn, might be surprised to learn that such a frank, controversial film came from the pen of a faculty member. "I remember shortly after Secretary opened down here," says theater studies chair Richard Riddell, "some of the students posted messages on the student listserv in theater, and one of them was very witty about going to this professor's movie and finding out that it was about spanking. Erin, I understand, thought it was in good humor. But behind that lies...not a shock on the students' part, but there is a conservatism that you find in pockets here at Duke, and that may have been growing out of that."

Wilson says she hasn't encountered any resistance from colleagues. "I don't think anybody at Duke would turn their nose up at my work for any other reason than not being edgy enough."

She does say, however, that students who enroll in her screenwriting course will not experience the typical writing class. "Because of her acting training, she's very comfortable having students do things you might not expect in a writing class," says Riddell. "She gets them up on their feet. They move around, using their bodies as a means of freeing them up a bit. Sometimes when Duke students come into the theater program from other departments much more geared toward analysis and intellectual discourse, there's a need for a transition moment to get to the point where their minds are open and creative and they're able to write. She's very good at establishing that kind of atmosphere."

For now, Wilson is spending some time away from Duke, pursuing the professional opportunities that have come her way since Secretary. She says she hopes to reunite with Shainberg for a film based on the life of Diane Arbus, the photographer who achieved renown for her work with sideshow performers and mental-hospital inmates before she took her own life in 1971. And Wilson has been commissioned by HBO to create, produce, and write a new television series, much as screenwriter Alan Ball did with Six Feet Under after the success of his American Beauty. "We reached an agreement so that she had the time to do that," says Riddell, who has granted her leave until next spring. "I know that she likes teaching at Duke very much. If Erin could have it her way, she would find a way to balance these two parts of her career. That's certainly our hope."

But Wilson's strict compartmentalization means tackling one aspect of her career at a time. Attempting both "would have been horrible for my students," she says. "I can't conceive how I would phone in a class. And I would have had to."

Even with her screenwriting career taking off, Wilson still cites being hired at Duke after serving as an adjunct professor at New York University as "one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me. I feel that I've struggled so hard in my career. I'm very capable of turning in and just writing. To have the opportunity to turn out changed my life and made my writing much more accessible. Sometimes tears come to my eyes when I think about how thankful I am that Duke rescued me from the life of a freelance playwright in New York, which is a nightmare."

But the question remains: Is Wilson first and foremost a writer or a professor? "I wrote a bio today", she responds. "And it was a dilemma, because first I wrote, 'Erin Cressida Wilson is a professor at Duke University and a playwright and screenwriter.' And then I went, 'All right. I'll try it the other way.'"

Which version won? "I like the other way better," she says with a smile. "Duke first."

--Karger '95 is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly and a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board.