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Nick Flynn: Dads, DeNiro, and Turning Memoir into Fiction


March 23, 2012

flynn.jpegPhotograph via flickr by bradsearles

Above: A post-screening Q&A after Being Flynn on March 7, 2012 at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, Mass. With author Nick Flynn, actor Paul Dano, director Paul Weitz, producer Andrew Miano, and moderated by Michael Patrick MacDonald.

By Liza Monroy

When I got tickets to see Being Flynn, Paul Weitz’s adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, in a benefit screening for the AIDS Service Center in New York City, I simply thought I was going to see a movie I wanted to see anyway while supporting a good cause by doing it. I had no idea the evening would turn out to be much more than that. Being Flynn is permeated by meta moments—Flynn’s real-life wife Lili Taylor plays a woman who works in the shelter with the fictional younger Flynn, played by Paul Dano, Flynn himself has a cameo—and ASC, an organization with which both Flynn and Taylor are involved, turned out to have that kind of a role in the movie as well: Flynn himself helped choose cast members to play shelter workers and guests out of a group of ASC clients who took a writing workshop with him. So many of the people in the shelter scenes are not actors playing homeless people, but rather people who have been homeless portraying their experience as drawn from the reality of that world. After the screening at the Cinema Village Theater, they discussed their experiences in a Q&A, revealing a whole other layer to the project, that in its creation this group was benefitted not just monetarily. Some spoke about not thinking they would be alive, much less in a movie starring Robert DeNiro.

Being Flynn feels more indie than Big-Hollywood-Movie: it is character driven, gritty, and compressed, wound tightly around its characters’ lives, especially the primary relationship between Nick and his estranged alcoholic cab-driving father, Jonathan, who thinks he is destined for literary fame. “America has produced only three classic writers,” he says in Being Flynn. “Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me.” But Jonathan becomes homeless and shows up one night at the shelter where Nick works, asking for a bed. Nick was 27 and it was his first significant interaction with his father. Nick’s mother committed suicide when he was 22, and she was his source of stories about him until that fateful night when Jonathan walked through the doors of Boston’s Pine Street Inn.

That’s the basic premise translated from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City to Being Flynn, but both the non-chronological memoir and the film, with its more classic story arc, transcend the high-concept coincidence to speak to larger themes of identity, lineage, family, addiction, and homelessness. The movie is pared way down from the book—several major storylines in the memoir, such as a long-term girlfriend whose family, by coincidence, knew Nick’s father, Nick working for mobsters and living on a boat—were eliminated in favor of a focus on the father and son, writer and writer relationship.

Flynn was born in Scituate, Massachusetts in 1960. His father’s absence during Nick’s childhood is beautifully portrayed in the film by a single scene, with Julianne Moore, who plays his mother, sitting with young Nick in the car, watching people get off a bus, waiting to see if Jonathan is on it as promised. He is not, and young Nick’s reaction suggests he wouldn’t have expected anything else. Nick, like his father but without the delusions of grandeur, wanted to become a writer, too. He focused on poetry first and held a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. before moving to New York to pursue his MFA at NYU. Graywolf published his first collection, Some Ether, in 2000. His poetic sensibility is evident, too, in his prose. Both of his memoirs utilize short, titled chapters, which are not chronologically organized. Fragmented stories add up to a larger picture; the threads interweave seamlessly, as if they arranged themselves.

I felt an instant connection to Flynn the first time I read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City after it crossed my desk when I worked for a literary agent in 2004. I too had a father who was alcoholic and homeless, and it’s not every day you encounter someone else who shares that experience. “If I went to the drowning man, the drowning man would pull me under,” Nick wrote (it’s a line that made it into the film). I had also resisted trying to save a troubled parent. Nick grew up in Boston and lived in Rome; I grew up in Rome and lived in Boston. I drank within the walls of the same Boston bars he writes about in the memoir, and started down a similar path with drugs before pulling back. The book spoke to me like an intimate conversation. Taking a one-night memoir workshop he taught at The New School in 2006, and meeting him there kicked off a series of Flynncounters over subsequent years around New York City, though I never told him of our shared father-narrative, figuring he must hear it all the time: “You seem like a regular guy, how’d you end up here? Where? my father asks.” My father too. My father too. My father too. What I did tell him was that I used a required assignment in the first-year writing course I teach at Columbia University as an excuse to teach The Ticking Is the Bomb, his second memoir. In a move I came to see as emblematic of the kind of person Flynn is, he generously offered to come speak with the class (an interesting audience for a memoir that is, in part, about torture, as many were former military who had served in Iraq; one had been stationed near Abu Ghraib).

The Ticking is the Bomb picks up from where Another Bullshit Night leaves off: Nick, now in his thirties and a successful writer, is coming to terms with the difficult decision of whether to become a father in the age of torture—the Abu Ghraib photographs have just been released, and Nick travels to Turkey to witness interviews with detainees. His subsequent book of poetry, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, continues on similar themes. His next book and third memoir, The Reenactments, is forthcoming in January 2013.

Having an off-the-page conversation with Flynn meant Skyping his cell phone from where I sat in a back bedroom of a house in Kansas while he was in a café in Wilmington, North Carolina, “trying to find places to write in a town I’ve never been in before.” His wife is on location, filming her first big role since the birth of their daughter, who is now four. We spoke about the process of seeing (and collaborating with) his memoir become a film, the moving ASCNYC benefit, and why his memoir trilogy is like Star Wars.

—Liza Monroy for Guernica

Guernica: For most authors who sell their film rights, their involvement ends there, but your experience was different. You were intimately involved in the creation of Being Flynn, including being on set. From initial interest to your creative involvement, how did it all come together?

Nick Flynn: The book came out in 2004 and somehow, right away, it got sent to people. I was doing a reading in L.A. These were the days when there were actually reading tours, before this new age set in, when they would actually send you to a few cities. Now it’s not quite the same.

My agent [Bill Clegg] had people come to the reading that were “in the industry”—one was an agent named Lynn Pleshette. We ended up going to dinner and one of the guys at the dinner was producer Michael Costigan, who was a good friend of my agent, Bill Clegg. [Costigan] and I hit it off. I didn’t know who any of these people were, I didn’t know if they had jobs, I didn’t know why I was at dinner with them. I knew nothing.

Michael and I kept talking over the next month and I guess I agreed to work with Michael. I’ve never signed any contract working with Bill. He just gives you back six pages of edits on your book and you’re like, “are we working together?” And he says, “Oh, yeah, we’re working together.” There isn’t anything written. There’s no paper trail whatsoever—it’s just an agreement. It works out fine.

It’s the same thing with Michael. I didn’t sign some contract, but he became the producer somehow. We talked about different directors and he knew Paul Weitz, and he thought that would be a good fit. Part of the reason was, of course he liked Paul’s work but he also liked that Paul was a screenwriter also, that he wrote his own screenplays. Michael thought that with a book like mine, that the film would actually get made in the end if the director was also a screenwriter, because they’re committed to it.

As the years tumbled on, it seemed like…at least we had that, because Paul really was committed to the screenplay. And that’s all we had. We didn’t have a movie, but we at least had a screenplay.

Guernica: How long was the process in total?

Nick Flynn: It was eight years ago, seven years to start shooting, to get greenlit. Though it even got greenlit once before, three years earlier. But then it fell apart for various reasons I can’t really go into, having to do with bad behavior on certain people’s parts, which is the usual thing.

Even when it starts filming…you think, it’s been greenlit, it WAS greenlit, they had a production office set up and it WAS filming, even then it fell apart. It can fall apart at any moment really. So it’s very unreal that it’s actually now [finished].

Paul and I worked together so closely; I’ve done a lot of work over the years collaborating. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people. It’s something I like to do. I think it’s important. I teach a class in collaboration at Houston, I’ve worked on theater and I’m really fascinated by how other artists do their work, or how a producer produces a film. I think it’s really interesting.

As a writer you learn from it. We learn from reading Hopkins but also from watching dance. The processes are similar. I really like the collaborative process and it helped that Paul and I got along. I was interested in making the best possible movie.

In representing the book, representing the reality of my father’s situation seemed important, what it is to be homeless seemed important, but certain things I could let go of. My brother isn’t in the movie. My girlfriend at the time—who turned out to know my father—that was in an earlier script but it took at least three quarters of the movie to describe that, and by the end people were just like, “wait, how does she know your father?” It’s just too complicated for a movie to have all the threads of it.

Guernica: How did you decide what to keep from the memoir and what to let go? How did you pare it down?

Nick Flynn: Paul had to find what resonated for him. He couldn’t put the whole book in so he found these certain threads. One of them—the writer thing—I don’t think in the book I talk about myself as much as a writer as he does.

Guernica: Right. That’s another thing about the book that’s left implicit: here’s the book so…

Nick Flynn: Yeah. Here’s the book so obviously I’m a writer. I somehow figured out how to write, because here’s the book, so I don’t have to tell you that. But he put some of my writing in, and has me writing it in notebooks, which is interesting to work against DeNiro writing. Which is in the book also—but [Weitz] figured out that structure. Then we had a whole thread of me living on a boat at a certain point, that’s when the budget was bigger. Now it seems ridiculous, to have a boat in the movie. It’s a whole other thing—it’s smart to contain it to just two locations or three, the childhood home, the former strip joint, and the shelter.

Guernica: In film it seems important to have these few touchpoints that keep coming back in the story.

Nick Flynn: I think three is a good number.

Guernica: Another thing that struck me is the movie is often very funny. There’s a moving, painful humor.

Nick Flynn: Paul and I talked about humor a lot. I think the book is funny—it depends on who you are. The humor is more toned down but I think Paul picked up on that. I encouraged Paul to develop that. He does comedy. That’s one of the reasons I thought it was a good idea to go with him, because it could be funny. If it was Darren Aronofsky, his movies are very dark and I thought that wouldn’t be the best thing for this, to put darkness on top of darkness. To have that tension as someone who has a facility with humor seemed like a good choice.

I would have made it into a musical actually, if I had complete control. (Laughs)

Guernica: Did you look at several potential Nicks or was there an instant connection with Paul Dano? Being acquainted with you it seemed there are some definite similarities in mannerisms. What was casting like, and was it weird to watch “yourself”?

Nick Flynn: The casting thing…it’s not best thing to talk about ex-lovers with current lovers. So usually we don’t talk about anyone else.

I had heard that Paul lives a couple blocks away from me in Brooklyn. He’s in his twenties and I was in my twenties. It seemed important for him to be that age. That was something important to me at the beginning: not to stereotype the homeless and to have the actors be the ages we were. I wanted Nick to be at that age where he wasn’t quite fully formed. Not that Dano wasn’t—I wasn’t. You’re still becoming who you are and there’s a certain vulnerability in that, you could probably be sucked into a hole at any point in your life but perhaps that’s easier in your twenties. At least that was true for me, to go down some very wrong alleys. The father, when he appears, could do some real damage psychically.

In my mid thirties, I was able to go to my father as an equal and not feel like he could destroy me. It felt important for the actor to be in his mid to late twenties, to have a sense … I don’t know if you’d believe that, say, Matt Damon is actually afraid of getting destroyed by DeNiro. He’s fucken Jason Borne. Or someone even more, somehow, seedier…James Franco or something. If he smoked crack you probably wouldn’t be that shocked by it. It’s not about James Franco, but just the characters he’s played before. You had to have someone with something to lose. Dano just seemed to have that in some way.

DeNiro had to be an actor who was in good shape so you’d believe he would pull himself out of the tailspin he was in, and not have the audience just be like, fucken help the guy.

It had to be some kind of manifest menace that was tangible.

Guernica: You can really see that in the scene where Nick and his friends help Jonathan move. Did Robert DeNiro meet your father? Do any kind of research?

Nick Flynn: We all went to Boston a month or two before the film started, spent a couple hours with my father, a couple hours at the shelter. Me and DeNiro and Weitz.

It did seem to be hugely helpful for DeNiro. I said, he’s kind of diminished now, he’s not like who he was, when he was homeless, it’s a totally different world. He is more someone you’d want to take care of, not someone you’d be afraid of, I don’t think. But it actually seemed to be very helpful to DeNiro because we went in and my father was just completely full of himself still, and not impressed at all that DeNiro was going to play him. He basically ignored DeNiro for an hour to talk about himself.

He got that he was the star; they were making a movie about him, not making a movie about DeNiro. So he was totally like, “yeah I’ll tell you about my life.”

Guernica: Did it reinforce his pre-existing ideas about being destined for fame?

Nick Flynn: Yeah. I think very little had shaken that sense of himself over the years, and now it’s in some way come true. So who’s to say he wasn’t right all along?

Guernica: I know. There’s such a strange, meta element to it all.

Nick Flynn: Twisted, very twisted.

Guernica: It brings up those ideas of maybe those things we believe with a passion manifest themselves.

Nick Flynn: And maybe it’s kind of true—who knows?

Guernica: In terms of seeing yourself transformed into this character, was there strangeness in that?

Nick Flynn: I think for the purposes of movie, he’s sort of reacting to the hardest moments from my life. I think Dano totally nailed it. Some people who know me think I’m a little funnier than that, which is okay with me (laughs).

I think from my interior perspective, he got it. I barely know how I appear to other people, but that’s how I appear to myself.

Guernica: That’s somehow even more amazing.

Nick Flynn: Some people wonder why the Nick character doesn’t slap his father or why he “takes it” or something, and I didn’t see Dano’s portrayal as “taking it“ at all, more like he’s containing this low-level rage. People read it that he should have been going off on DeNiro. That’s not how I read it. But I think that’s the great thing about it. people read it in all different ways, which is what we like about art, right?

It becomes a Rorschach Test for how people get to say, “well with my father I would do this.” And I say great, great, that’s what we like.

Guernica: How our experience informs our reading or viewing as opposed to what it is objectively in itself.

Nick Flynn: Yeah, it becomes more of an interactive and active experience. I’m really happy for the different interpretations of Dano.

Guernica: A side of the movie I don’t think many people know about that was prominent at the screening was the involvement of ASC and the casting of the real people actors.

Nick Flynn: I know!

Guernica: I even thought I was going to a screening that was just to benefit ASC, but without having any idea how involved this was and getting to hear from the real peole actors afterward—how did that come together with them appearing in the film? How was that experience and how might it have informed larger themes of homelessness and addiction?

Nick Flynn: The ASC people—that was a beautiful part of the film. It is interestingly not known by many people, that’s a whole huge story.

Guernica: It was so impressive and surprising, and I wondered why I didn’t know about it.

Nick Flynn: How they distilled those stories into one minute presentations about how they were involved in the film was so moving. That [The NYC screening] was really the best screening. I thought it was a totally amazing night. That was our last. I put together five benefit screenings around the country. They were very important to me. Very moving. That was the most moving.

For a couple years, I’ve been involved with this group…I’d done a couple of writing workshops with them and talked to them, I went to a reading they gave…somehow I had something to do with them getting a reading space at NYU, they claim I had something to do with it, I don’t think I had anything to do with it, but they gave me credit. They dropped my name or something. So I went to this reading and they started reading and it was so beautiful, they were so filled with this sense of themselves, where they’d come from.

It’s this thing my father has on this delusional level, this sense of grandeur, not grandeur but a very strong sense of who they are in the world, their worth as human beings. It was so profound knowing where they came from. They have a sense of who they are and their worth, that they’re worthwhile human beings.

They did this reading and we were beginning to cast at that point. I took out my phone and taped a bunch of the readings and that led to Andrew Miano, the day-to-day producer who is on set everyday, with these images. I think I emailed them to the director and to Andrew and said, you should think about these guys.

I was in the casting room with Paul [Weitz] and Paul is always messing with people in this great way. He’s very good with actors — Paul’s done acting, which seems so important to these things. He had me stand up and—there was a bootlegger scene in the film, we tried to shoot a lot of scenes in a short time and money was an issue. We had this whole scene with my father buying liquor from a bootlegger, and this guy was going to play the bootlegger. We were behind on the shooting and said ““et’s just eliminate bootlegger scene, get rid of that.” “OK, we can get rid of it.” because another scene was taking the energy. But [Paul] had me play, in the casting, my own father going to the bootlegger to get liquor.

I should have known what I was getting into at that moment. He had me stand up on the spot: “Hey Nick, go stand next to him. Okay. So you’re your father.” I was like, “What?” “So what would you say to the bootlegger, you don’t have enough money to get the bottle, the bottle is four dollars and you only have three. What are you going to say to him? You have to get the bottle.”

I’m not an actor in any sense, and I decided to start doing this thing, and I did that for a whole afternoon—mostly I was playing my father, which was so twisted.

Guernica: Did that have an effect on you psychologically? Or have you come to a point where you’re able to separate art and life, memory and reality?

Nick Flynn: I’ve come to a point in my life where I know everything has an effect on my psyche. You just have to recognize it. A lot of things about the movie were things one has no frame of reference for and will probably never happen again. It certainly hit me out of the blue to be asked to actually appear on camera while they do these screen tests that they send to the big eyeball in the sky that watches everything.

Guernica: Some executive back in Hollywood?

Nick Flynn: The person pulling the strings. Yeah sure, it was a the whole thing that was outside any frame of reference I had. Each one had its own strange emotional resonance for me.

Guernica: Has that changed over subsequent viewings of the film?

Nick Flynn: It has. First I lived the life, then wrote the book, ten years later after all the stuff happened. I started writing the book. That took 7 years, already distilled it, what fits into this book, it’s been aestheticized on some level. You try to keep visceral emotional charge but you’re also trying to fit it into something. You try to get both. Then seven years working on the scripts to make the movie, it’s a whole other distilling process. Things fall away, you highlight certain things.

First time I saw the movie over the summer I saw it in the editing room, I watched it a couple times. I went to LA to work in the editing room. I saw the first rough cut and it was a whole other thing. To have been on set for seven weeks, where everything’s shot out of order—the first day, the character shows up to work at the shelter. It was also the first day he goes to a twelve-step meeting. We shot them in the same day but it’s supposed to represent the two ends of the film. Then I was there for a purpose—to help edit and give feedback. There was a shift to the other side of the brain, to look at it as making something.

Then we sat down to see it in the order of the film. I found it incredibly moving, almost unbearably moving, the first time I saw it. I saw it five times that week you saw it. That [ASCNYC screening] was the fifth time. But I only saw the final version for the first time a week earlier

Guernica: At the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) screening?

Nick Flynn: Yeah. I’d gone the night before in New York to the premiere, but one of the things at a premiere I didn’t know was that everyone who has made the film who’s seen the film sneaks out and has dinner during the screening. So I went with them. I knew I would be seeing it in a bit. Then I enjoyed seeing it at these benefits. It was better to see it at these benefits because of the audiences. The first one in Chicago was for a homeless organization, then the second one in Chicago was for writers. It was interesting to see that people laughed at different points—to see what people got. Usually in the screenings, there were people I knew from different parts of my life.

I could just appreciate it as a movie. It was more detached, not quite as emotionally charged by the last one. There are still moments—I think Paul [Weitz] is very good for how he handles emotion. He does it in a way that’s mysterious—not on the nose. He’s not trying to direct you in how to fee. I admire that about his work. He’s a very emotional director, he handles emotion in a way I don’t see in many American films that are sort of ironic and cold. They don’t go there. I think Paul takes greater risks by going there.

Todd Solondz in Happiness—I had a similar experience with people laughing at really inappropriate moments in the film. I loved watching that movie because people didn’t know how the hell to handle it.

Guernica: I’ve read some critique by people who say this is a Boston story and it should have been shot in Boston. Why the decision to shoot in New York?

Nick Flynn: In the book, Boston is like another character. It takes up a lot of space. It’s really a Boston book—it’s contained there. I really don’t think there was room for another character in the movie. Like the Emily thing [girlfriend who coincidentally knew Nick’s father], it would have taken too much time to establish. Then you’re wrestling with the accents, some actor you respect is not doing a correct Boston accent…There’s nothing I could do, I’m not a dialect coach, but I know a bad Boston accent when I hear one. I was glad not to shoot in Boston for that reason alone It’s a whole other character.

Plus Boston has been done in a lot of movies lately. The Fighter did it really well, I think that even The Town did it decently—you really get a sense of this gritty Boston thing. Paul decided to make it more of a parable rather than about a certain city at a certain time. To make it more universal, which I think is a good—I like that idea. Paul tried not to have cell phones or computers in it; he tried just to make it general time.

Guernica: Is a movie adaptation of a memoir basically a documentary? It brings up interesting genre issues.

Nick Flynn: There is a certain documentary element to this film. Some of these homeless organizations we’ve shown it to are moved that we get the inside of a shelter right. That was where I was working the hardest—was in the shelter scenes. Being attentive to what was going on I gave notes when I could to help get the physics of that world correct. It’s very particular and has a reason for the way things work, and to portray that in order to release a hidden energy. Once you get the world right, whatever’s underneath it is going to get released.

Guernica: How was it seeing your wife give a hug to your younger self?

Nick Flynn: That was a mindfuck there—that’s really something. A real mindfuck there…I especially like the part where she touches Dano on the shoulder and says “how ya doin’, babe,” or something like that.

And he sort of jumps, he sort of leaps. It’s very odd. It’s doing something with time that I can’t even fathom right there.

Guernica: The present reality meeting the past fiction, but based on truth?

Nick Flynn: Everything’s sort of collapsing in on itself, the walls are all falling in on themselves.

Guernica: It would be fun to write a philosophical thesis about all this.

Nick Flynn: Well…I am. I’m writing this book, The Reenactments, about the film. I just got the edits back from my publisher.

This is the third one in the trilogy of memoirs. Another Bullshit Night and The Ticking is the Bomb and this is the last one. It’s tracing my family—from the actual remembered family, and through this lens now that they’ve become mediated figures, almost like made of pure light now, in this last one. Doing the same thing but in this way that’s sort of wonky. Re-enacting stuff. There’s like a hundred people—my mother’s standing alone in a room, yet I know there are a dozen people hiding behind the wall there. She looks like she’s alone, as soon as the camera starts they vanish. They crouch down and get out of the line of the camera. As soon as they say cut they all stand up again.

It’s very strange to be there to see it. I can certainly forget when I see the movie, I can forget—I know Tom is right there behind that wall, the set dresser—he can’t be far away because between every take he has to re-adjust something.

So it’s about that, the nature of translating this into film and all that sort of strange stuff about seeing these things.

The Reenactments comes out from Norton January 2013. I had been working on the trilogy and just realized that this is a—one of the panels of this so it sort of worked out.

Guernica: Did you always intend for it to be a trilogy?

Nick Flynn: Once it came out I realized it was—life goes on, the relationship with memory, and specifically with my father—The Ticking is the Bomb is about having a child—it fits in to the first one. So I always thought…I love trilogies—Star Wars. I did see The Ticking is the Bomb as The Empire Strikes Back. And this one would be The Return of the Jedi, I guess. (laughs)

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Spotlight image via Fickr by Hanibaael

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