Flashback, throwback interview close-up. Glen Tickle had a chance to talk with David Paterson about his films, the differences between indie and studio projects, and which job is scarier — firefighter or filmmaker.
Playwright/Filmmaker/Firefighter David Paterson
From “Love, Ludlow” to “Bridge to Terabithia”
Interview conducted by Glen Tickle
For the last seventeen years, playwright/filmmaker/firefighter David Paterson has been trying to turn the book Bridge to Terabithia into a movie. In that time he was able to adapt his play Fingerpainting in a Murphy Bed into the 2005 Sundance Film Festival darling Love, Ludlow. The film played in a number of other festivals and has since found DVD distribution through Warner Home Video and through the Sundance Channel.
Many burgeoning filmmakers start their careers with a low-budget indie film along the lines of Ludlow, and hope their efforts are able to garner them enough attention to spark their big break in Hollywood. In David Paterson’s case, it was quite the opposite. While Love, Ludlow was finished years before Bridge to Terabithia, it was his deal to write the screenplay for the adaptation of Terabithia, and the resulting paycheck, that made Love, Ludlow possible.
David Paterson was not tapped at random to turn this beloved book into a film. His mother, Katherine Paterson, is the book’s author. David Paterson’s connection to the book goes far beyond just a mother and son relationship with the author. Ms. Paterson says she wrote the book “because our son David’s best friend, an eight-year-old named Lisa Hill, was struck and killed by lightning. I wrote the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that seemed senseless.”
Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of an unlikely elementary school friendship and the world the two main characters create and imagine. The character Jess and his new friend Leslie create the world of Terabithia in the woods near their homes. Terabithia is a world just for them where they rule as king and queen over all their imaginary subjects.
While the book doesn’t focus much on the specifics of the imagined world the children create for themselves, the film seems to be portraying it in much more detail as would befit an adaptation of such an internal book to visual media.
The effects in the film may make it seem like it belongs in a category with such films as the Harry Potter series and Chronicles of Narnia, but the story is more intimate and personal. It is a story about the relationship between two people and what that can mean to them and to the other people in their lives. This would put Terabithia much closer to something like Love, Ludlow than Harry Potter. Ludlow is about a woman struggling between her caretaker relationship with her brother and forming a romantic relationship with someone who her brother resents and sees as competition for his sister’s affection. So even though at first glance, it may seem Bridge to Terabithia is a huge leap from something like Love, Ludlow, if one were to look closer, one would see both stories are character driven, despite what the trailers for Terabithia would have you believe.
I met David Paterson at a screening of Love, Ludlow during last year’s New York Cinema Market. After the screening, he spoke about Ludlow’s journey to Sundance and how he managed to promote and market such a low budget film for so little money. The central theme to his advice: “It never hurts to ask.”
During production, much of the building material for sets was donated by a local hardware store that Paterson simply asked to donate materials in exchange for credit in the film. Also, the film features Twinkies brand snack cakes prominently, so Paterson called them up and asked for free Twinkies and got them.
Most impressive of all the free swag Paterson was able to drum up was his relationship with a company that provides promotional materials for businesses and really anyone who wants to promote something such as a small independent film. With a few phone calls, Paterson managed to strike a deal that set him up with boxes and boxes of Love, Ludlow shirts, hats, buttons, umbrellas, magnets and more. In return, all he had to do was chronicle the film’s journey to Sundance and other festivals in the form of a blog on the company’s website.
Another interesting aspect to both David Paterson and his work is he acts as writer/producer, an uncommon combination in a world of writer/directors. While a writer/director is really in charge of the creative process from writing through shooting, a writer/producer has creative control through writing, and then, managerial and financial control during filming while someone else takes the creative reigns. This combination is something Paterson says he “would only recommend it for true masochists.”
Fans of the book have expressed concern that the trailers for the film make it seem like the film strays away from the book, but it’s hard to believe that someone so involved in the creation of the book would stray too far from his mother’s original intent in the story.
There was a television adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia in 1985 which went largely unnoticed for reasons obvious to anyone who saw it. If anything, this version of the story only serves to make fans of Bridge to Terabithia more eager to see a proper adaptation of the book.
I had a chance to talk to David recently about his new film, the differences between indie and studio projects, and about which job is scarier: firefighter or filmmaker.
Glen Tickle: What was it like adapting a book written by your mother?
David Paterson: Well, clearly if I screwed it up, family holidays would be rather uncomfortable. But I had adapted some of her works to the stage in previous years and felt pretty comfortable with the adapting element.
Glen Tickle: Did you let her read any early drafts?
David Paterson: No. Why make her suffer?
Glen Tickle: The book is based on an event that happened to you as a child, correct?
David Paterson: Yes, it’s loosely based on my friendship with a classmate when I was eight years old.
Glen Tickle: The book is dedicated to you and that classmate, Lisa Hill. Is the movie also dedicated to her?
David Paterson: Absolutely, she is the catalyst for the film as well as the book.
Glen Tickle: How was the casting process for the roles of Jess and Leslie?
David Paterson: Traditional Hollywood casting/submission process. I originally passed on Josh Hutcherson, who plays the role of Jesse.
Glen Tickle: What are the main differences between the book and the film?
David Paterson: A great deal of the book takes place in Jesse’s head, which would not easily translate to film. I needed to create scenes that would deliver those same thoughts to the audience but in dialogue or interaction with other characters.
Glen Tickle: The book references the imaginary inhabitants of Terabithia, but the trailers for the film seem to show them in much greater detail. Is that just marketing, or is there more to Terabithia in the film than the book?
David Paterson: Terabithia is different for everyone who read the book. In the film adaptation, we define what Jess and Leslie create; but it is their creations, their world. The audience merely shares these visions with the two children.
Glen Tickle: Did you or your mother have much to do with the 1985 TV version of Bridge to Terabithia?
David Paterson: No. Next question.
Glen Tickle: From the time you started work on Bridge to Terabithia to now, you released Love, Ludlow, a film with a much smaller budget. How was working on Love, Ludlow compared to working on Terabithia?
David Paterson: You deal with the same crap on both levels; just more money makes bigger crap.
Glen Tickle: How do you feel about the trend in Hollywood to keep adapting children’s literature into films?
David Paterson: I saw it coming years ago, just nobody would listen. That’s why it’s taken me 17 years to make this film.
Glen Tickle: Do you have any plans to adapt your mother’s other books?
David Paterson: Yes, hopefully all of them one day.
Glen Tickle: Writer/Directors are common, but what’s it like having the role of writer/producer?
David Paterson: I would only recommend it for true masochists.
Glen Tickle: What advice would you give to someone setting out to adapt a book into a screenplay?
David Paterson: Honor the story. Respect the author’s original intent.
Glen Tickle: Which is more stressful: making a film or fighting a fire?
David Paterson: Fire – you always know how to fight it. Hollywood has no rules. I’ve never been scared in a fire, but LA terrifies me.
Glen Tickle is a writer and director from New Jersey. His first film, Several Ways to Die Trying, played some festivals and made him hugely famous in Cape May for about a week. More about him, his beautiful wife, and his films can be found on his website www.glentickle.com.