Michael Maren on Taking a Novel Approach to “A Little White Lie”

It would be easy for anyone to think that they didn’t write a best seller of the magnitude of “Goat Time,” a once-in a-generation “Catcher in the Rye”-esque tome thought to have sent its author C.R. Shriver into hiding in “A Little White Lie” when its success created outsized expectations he couldn’t possibly live up to. In Michael Maren’s sophomore film, that surreal state becomes a little less abstract when you’re left to wonder if the Shriver (Michael Shannon) unearthed by Simone (Kate Hudson), a professor at a small liberal arts college hoping to save her school’s annual literary festival by making a splash, is actually the real deal when he doesn’t know himself. When her letter, one of hundreds written in search of the elusive writer over the years, reaches him in New York, he’s unclogging a toilet in his current occupation as a plumber, thinking Simone has the wrong person. Still, her words resonate and a paid weekend-long stay outside the city sounds nice, so even if he has to pretend, he decides to take her up on the offer.

Based on Chris Belsen’s novel “Shriver,” “A Little White Lie” sees Maren make the story his as much as Shriver takes the threads he’s been giving to weave a narrative of his own, settling into the 92nd Annual Acheron Literary Festival where being the guest of honor gives him the feeling that all writers may experience of being someone whom they’re not once their work is out in the world. Amidst navigating other writers eager to hand him their own manuscripts for him to peruse, such as a would-be memoirist Delta Jones (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a Rolling Stone journalist (Benajmin King) intent on landing the first interview with him in decades, and the freewheeling professor (Don Johnson) who hopes to get to know him a little better before moderating his panel, Shriver faces no more pressing questions than those he asks of himself, occasionally disassociating into separate personas, as the weekend unfolds and as he gets a greater hold on who he is, a missing persons case opens up regarding another author (Aja Naomi King) on the premises who mysteriously disappears after being last seen partying in his hotel room.

“A Little White Lie” finds the wry comedy in the variety of identity crises happening at the low-key book fair and as a former journalist-turned-filmmaker, Maren uses the opportunity to assert his distinctive perspective from those experiences when Shriver bears witness to how a story can take on a life of its own but at the same time gradually reveal things to its originator over time that they didn’t know about themselves. Recently, the writer/director spoke about what initially drew him to Belden’s book to bring to the screen, having to film in both sides of the COVID lockdown, and why Shannon proves to be an ideal fit for such an enigmatic character.

You’ve said this all started at a book reading. What sparked your interest?

For starters, the reading was funny, but more than funny, I found it really relatable as a writer, a journalist, and a filmmaker, the idea of somebody who accomplishes something huge and then becomes completely divorced from that. That you accomplish some dream of yours, something you’ve always wanted to do, something you work really hard on for a really long time and then you turn around and you see yourself, standing in front of an audience doing a read. I had this when I published a book 15 years ago. I’d worked hard on it for a long time and I found myself watching myself talking to all these people saying, “Who the hell is that?” And to some degree or another, I think we all go through that. We are aren’t necessarily the people that we are called upon to project when we’re in public.

Should I read anything into the fact that your previous film “A Short History of Decay” was also catching a writer at a time when they were uncertain about themselves or is this is just a coincidence?

I suppose that goes under the write what you know category. [laughs] Which is the advice that a lot of writers get. My wife Dani Shapiro is a novelist, and we exist in this circle of writers and wannabe writers. Also, my wife and I and another partner run a writers’ conference in Italy every year [where] we bring 40 writers over there and a number of teachers to spend this week talking about literature and reading and workshopping. We get hundreds of applications every year to come to this conference and we only accept 40, [but you see] the thirst, the hunger that people have to be writers — or screenwriters [which] I didn’t even get into [in the film], and you have in this writer’s world the people who made it, the people who are desperate to make it and the people who are in the middle. That’s one of the characters in my other movie, who makes it but not quite [where it’s like] “Hey, I’m number 14 on the bestseller list, but oh, God, I’m so jealous about the person who’s number two.” There’s that constant ambition that goes in to doing this kind of work and in the arts where the measure of success is so subjective and therefore I live in that.

If you actually stage your own writers conference, was it any easier to stage one for the film with all these fictional books?

That was a lot of fun. There’s an annual writers festival called the Associated Writers Programs [AWP] that draws thousands upon thousands of people who come every year, and that atmosphere was very ripe for creativity and comedy. We worked with a great production designer Derrick Hinman, who had to put this together on very short notice, designing the logo for the Acheron Writers Festival and making the signs. Some of the stuff you see there is actually real. We got licenses to use Writers Digest and some of the images of Joan Didion and things like that, and I actually had a chance to screen the film to our Writers Festival the last time we did it. They were rolling on the floor laughing. I think the film is very accessible and very funny, but there’s a lot of inside jokes that I threw in just for people who’ve been to these festivals. That group of writers, which coincidentally included Wendie Malick, who’s in the movie playing Dr. Bedrosian, that group really got it.

Was adaptation an interesting part of this, coming to it as a writer yourself?

Yeah, I’ve done that before as work for hire, but young writers often ask me — and they haven’t even written their book yet — “Well, [what] if someone wants to make a movie out of my book?” My advice to them is, “Take the option check and go away because somebody is gonna have to take your book and rip it to shreds.” There are just so many things in a novel that don’t translate to the screen. In terms of “Shriver,” Chris Belden, who wrote the novel, was very much in the “Yes, please go make a movie [camp]” and I changed a lot. I built in a whole backstory for Shriver that’s not in the novel, so the adaptation process to me is one of breaking something that exists into its component parts and then reassembling it in a way that makes sense for film. Often that requires inventing, and in case of film, you also need to think about budgets, so the number of writers in the book at the festival would have required a much bigger cast to do it, so I did a couple of composite characters and invented a couple, [though] the spirit of the book is very much alive there.

This really takes advantage of the cinematic tools available to you in terms of getting into Shriver’s head, whether being able to have him talk to himself or the uncanny quality of having the voice reading his book different from his own. What was it like figuring out how to bring the internal out?

I’ve done a number of interviews and you’re the first person who’s brought that up about the fact that the voice reading the novel is not his voice until the very end of the film. That’s actually the first time we hear the words of the new novel coming out of Shriver’s mouth and I did that very, very much on purpose. I’ve got a really fine actor named Jack Gilpin to do that voice and the voice was meant to be very far away from anything you see as the Shriver character — very mannered and patrician in the way it comes out, so the film creates this idea of the two Shrivers. The place where I think it becomes the most evident is in the point where he’s reading his earlier novel, “Goat Time,” a completely ridiculous title, to Simone, [played by] Kate Hudson and those words are not actually in the book. In order to get into Shriver’s head a little bit, I actually sat down one day and wrote about 50 pages of that novel. There’s no sense in the book what the novel is actually about, so I had to figure [out] what is the novel about? So I wrote it and I took an excerpt of that novel and had him read it at one point, and it gives you a sense of a person who’s split himself into two separate personalities.

It’s a brilliant bit of stagecraft to have Michael Shannon acting opposite himself at points. Were those a challenge to stage?

He was actually acting off of me on both sides of that, and I’m a terrible actor. [laughs] I did some Shakespeare in high school and decided that I was going to go in a different direction. But I wanted also to really feed him both ways in terms of the way he played those roles and when we stuck it together, it worked out really well.

What sold you on Michael Shannon to play the role?

I had a notion when I first read the book who would play it and honestly that would have been Philip Seymour Hoffman even before I started writing the screenplay and before he unfortunately passed away. But I couldn’t get him out of my head and when the time came [to cast], there was a sense of very few actors could do what he could do, but one of those actors was Michael Shannon and I think Shannon in some ways is even better. He’s more unlikely. Michael’s physical presence is considerable. He’s tall and carries a lot of weight with him when he says something, so playing this character, who at the beginning is very buttoned down and unsure of himself, is a character I don’t think we’ve ever seen Michael play and he was brilliant.

I wouldn’t have known this but from the little bit of research I did, but I understand this began filming before the lockdown and you had to reconvene a year-and-a-half later. Was there any retooling that you could do during that time that could actually benefit the film?

We had a better location than we would have had if we’d shot straight through because we ended up having to prep this film very quickly. Normally for a film that’s a 25-day shoot, you’d want to prep for two months. We prepped for two weeks. And I was prepping the film in New Orleans, and new producers came in really quickly and said, “No, we’re gonna shoot it in L.A., so I picked up my bags literally within hours of getting that news and was on a flight to Los Angeles with a new crew and a new [director of photography] I had never worked with before. The DP that I had actually storyboarded the entire film with was suddenly not available and I didn’t want to do a film that we only had two weeks to prep. So there were days on the film at the beginning where we would shoot a 12-hour day and then I would go out with my [assistant director] and we would be scouting that night. The hotel where we shot, we didn’t lock that location down until Saturday and we were shooting on Monday, so the production designers had one day to try to prepare those sets. We had a little breathing room at the end and we shut it down with eight shooting days left.

When we were able to assemble that very large cast again, some of the more bigger productions were able to start shooting earlier than we could, so Mike Shannon was available, but Kate Hudson was doing a show with Apple and they let her off for a week and Zach Braff was only let go for a weekend because he was shooting a film with Disney. Some of the other actors weren’t available at all, so we ended up having to take what was scheduled for eight days and shoot it in six and not only did we have to shoot it in six days, but they were six days that were abbreviated by the fact that we had to go through all these COVID protocols. There’s a big scene at the end that was originally scheduled for an entire day’s shoot, or the better part of a day’s shoot and we had to shoot that in three hours because it was four in the afternoon when we started and it was going to get dark.

There were bits and pieces that I was literally crossing out of the script saying, “I’ll figure out a way around this.” There was one scene that would have had all the actors present and we only had three at that time, so I had to work that out, but in the end, in the end, I think we have a really good film. There’s a game that people can play if they want, which was what was shot pre-COVID and what was shot post-COVID. One of the actors we had to put a hat on because the hair was longer than when we originally had him, but I don’t think any of that interrupts the flow. My wife who notices details, like when I sent her some pictures from set, she was pointing out stuff and I said, “Ah, forget it.” [laughs]

What’s it been like starting to see it get out into the world?

It’s not out there yet, but we’ve had some really successful screenings. People really respond to it. I have a hard time sitting in the audience with people watching the film, I sit in the back and slip out sometimes. But it’s a good feeling. You get a little bit of that imposter syndrome in there as well. Like, you watch the film and I see something new and I don’t say, “Oh yeah, yeah, we did that, didn’t we? Or maybe we didn’t.” I think people will like it, so I’m going to have fun and then it’s onto the next project after that.

“A Little White Lie” opens on March 3rd in limited release.

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