While interviewing Dave Eggers a quote my wife told me pops into my head, "An artist is entitled to whatever meaning you give his work."
As I prod at themes in Away We Go, the film he and his wife Vendela Vida wrote together, it’s clear Eggers is a little uncomfortable with my intellectualizing the generational implications of his work. His answers can be elliptical and, at one point, even impatient. I imagine most writers go through this; having to answer some annoying know-it-all critic who thinks he understands what your work is all about.
Or maybe it’s just the two hours of sleep Eggers is working on. He explains to me that he turned in his latest book at 2:30 that morning, grabbed a nap, then got up at 5 a.m. to get to the airport. He spent the afternoon working with kids at an Ypsilanti high school and now he’s giving up the little breathing room he has to do this interview before leading a Q&A with the audience screening his film and an afterparty with volunteers and donors.
He can be excused for a moment of impatience. The truth is, for 95 percent of the interview he’s as gracious and unpretentious a guy as you’ll ever meet.
Eggers is in Ann Arbor to screen Away We Go for a crowd of 700 at the Michigan Theater. It’s a fundraiser for 826Michigan, one of seven organizations across the country he helped found and support. It tutors and teaches kids creative literacy, attracting such alt-lit luminaries as Sarah Vowell, Ira Glass, and Sherman Alexie to its boards.
The movie deals with a pair of thirtysomethings who are expecting their first child and unsure of where and how they want to raise it. So they hit the road in search of a new home, encountering a quartet of cities and child-rearing scenarios along the way. As you might expect, there are lots of laughs balanced against a few heartfelt lessons.
Metro Times: So, let’s start with the no stroller thing? Even the trailer got big laughs. In the theater tonight, the scene killed.
Eggers: I’ve only seen it once with an audience, in White Plains, N.Y., and I had no idea there would be that fall down kind of laughing. No one knew it would work. … And you know, it’s funny because Maggie [Gyllenhall] altered it, she knew more about the Continuum parenting concept than we did. …We don’t work much with actors. This was our first time experiencing how an actor takes what’s sometimes a skeletal idea and runs with it and improves on it. Maggie apparently knew all about Continuum. ...We had some other three S’s and she changed it to "No sugar, no strollers, no separation," which I think is someone’s real philosophy.
MT: Did you know there’s a company in Florida that rents strollers to vacationing families called Away We Go?
Eggers: No. Wow. I don’t know if the movie’s going to be a blockbuster in central Florida or whereever that is but I wonder if they’ll view the film as an endorsement of their strollers?
MT: So, why make your first foray into film about two thirtysomethings looking for a place to call home?
Eggers: In 2003 I started writing Where The Wild Things Are with Spike Jones and we assumed that would be the first foray. I don’t think anyone predicted it would have this protracted process of getting out into the world. … Vendela was pregnant and she would have these hilarious stories about people approaching her but it wasn’t anything that either of us saw as a novel. We don’t write those sorts of novels, I guess. And we were both in the middle of very heavy things. I was coming off four years of What Is the What, so four years of the Sudanese Civil War. And Vendala was in the middle of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which is about identity and land rights and who you are and it’s all set in the Arctic Circle. …We both wanted something a lot lighter. The form that the movie takes now is heavier than we wrote it originally. Our first draft was wall to wall comedy with just a few touches of gravitas. And it had a different ending. It was more of a political movie because it was a reaction to the Bush years.
MT: How so?
Eggers: Well, we wrote it in 2005-2006 and we were furious about the direction of the country and so a lot of the idea was, "Can a couple raise a child in a rational way in this environment." Especially because of the global and national fog of paranoia seemed to trickle down into all these hyper-vigilant parenting methods. You know; no strollers and hold them close and don’t let them play in the park without an armed retinue, and so we thought the paranoia level had gotten way too high and in the end they (the characters Bert and Verona) leave the country. That’s their solution, to say: "Screw this, we’re out of here." So they moved to Costa Rica with friends, had the baby, and that was how the movie ended. And then it didn’t seem to fit as much as we were finally getting out of that era.
MT: Bert and Verona seem to represent the end of the Gen-X persona. They know who they don’t want to be — namely boomers — but aren’t quite sure who they do want to be. This search for identity tends to be occur in younger characters. Is 33 the new 25?
Eggers: I really don’t have much patience for the "I’m a mid-30s slacker, who am?" or "Life hasn’t given me enough." I react kind of strongly to that. We hadn’t really thought about it in terms of generation. These are two people who like their jobs and know what they want to do. They don’t have regrets. …
MT: I mean, the boomers have been very good at defining who they are. And Gen Xers, many of whom are in their 30s and early 40s, are still struggling to place themselves in a broader context, whether it’s as parents or citizens. The movie seems to capture that sentiment.
Eggers: You’re definitely right that they’re watchers, to some extent. I think we all do this to a degree when we have a kid on the way, we start examining and assessing other people’s child-rearing methods and family dynamics, and you think back on your own and you decide what you want to pluck from how you were brought up. But that’s the only thing they’re not sure about. They’re sure about each other.
MT: There is the scene where Verona asks, "Are we fuck ups?" That seemed to be an acknowledgment that they’re directionless to a certain extent.
Eggers: Yeah, that’s true. I guess I’m fumbling. That was kind of my life when I was in my 20s, trying to examine who I am and what it all means. But it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about things in generational terms. Honest to God, in like 10 years. We wanted it to be very specific and that’s why I think we had their friends in different places. It’s not just this mass of people kind of lost. Yeah, they’re probably are a bit old to be at the stage where they have a cardboard window, but, like in our house, we can’t get a lightbulb fixed. I mean, we know how to do it but we’ll leave things broken for weeks and months and that puts in doubt your basic competence. So, I guess we just identified with this idea of asking yourself, "when do we get to the point when everything runs efficiently?"
MT: Though it’s for very different reasons, Bert and Verona can’t count on their parents to help them. I get the sense that Away We Go is very much about parental failure, whether it’s intentional or not. Are you trying to say that eventually our parents will disappoint us?
Eggers: Oh God, no. I hope not. … Vendela’s parents live a few minutes away and are really involved and are the best grandparents ever. So, I think it was more a thought experiment: What if we didn’t have them? We thought of Bert’s parents as more of a stepping off point for the story. I hope we didn’t imply any grand statement about that generation or what they should or shouldn’t be doing, because I have no such views.
MT: I don’t mean it as a value judgment on the parents but rather that your parents will inevitably disappoint you, because of your own expectations, not necessarily because they aren’t meeting their obligations. It seems there’s a point where you have to stop assuming your parents will spot you and just be the grown-up, which can be a disappointing revelation.
Eggers: I guess so. I don’t think of it in those terms but it makes sense. I think Vendela might answer that differently because I haven’t had parents as an adult. I didn’t have grandparents that were around either. So I view any involvement as kind of heroic. ... Bert’s parents don’t have any obligation to be diaper changers.
MT: Director Sam Mendes is no stranger to the cinema of family dysfunction. What do you think he brought to the project, especially since Bert and Verona are pretty far from the angst-ridden characters he usually films?
Eggers: He pushed us to go deeper. We really wrote this to make each other laugh. He also shifted us away from our anti-war approach toward finding out who Bert and Verona are, deepening their relationship. Originally they were more of a unit and we didn’t really look at them as individuals. Sam may not have directed comedy on film but I guess he’s done a lot on stage. And he had just come off of Revolutionary Road and he had said he was a little scalded from that because you’re living in it and you’re married to the lead actress in it. I think he wanted a palate cleanser. … Sam definitely had a gift for comedy because every scene is a lot funnier how he directed it than how we wrote it. He gave the actors a lot of room, which I guess is the sign of a good comedy director.
MT: So, have screenwriting and movies become your new preferred form of writing? What does it offer that your literary work hasn’t?
Eggers: No. I like trying new things. I mean, I started as a painter, I was a painting major at the University of Illinois. But we’re book writers and we always will be. No offense to movies, but the reading experience is a more profound one. We don’t have any plans to write another movie, but this process was pretty painless so who knows? I guess we might do it again if it was this intimate. The whole process it was Sam, Vendela and me; that was it. There were no studio pressures or anything else. So, yeah, if someone said, "Hey, write another one" and it meant Vendala and I got to sit around on the couch making each other laugh — who’d turn that down? My last book took me four years and the one I just turned in took three. It’s a long haul. Writing a movie is a great process because it’s shorter and you write something and then other people do other things with it and it’s like a force multiplier, you just start something and then it grows exponentially. That’s appealing. But never as a substitute for book writing. We are totally sold, far-gone, evangelical about books.
MT: What do you think about Hollywood’s overwhelming desire to adapt, remake and recycle material?
Eggers: I think filmmaking people are respectful of books and they think, "Wow, that was a great book. I want to make it into a movie." I think it’s often a misguided notion. Very few books make good movies. Short stories make much better films than novels. But I think it comes from a genuine place. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I often like original screenplays a lot better. In Wild Things it was like adapting a short story since there’s only 200-300 words to it. I love when you can take a short story and really fill it out, like In the Bedroom or Brokeback Mountain. That’s the way to do it. You give a screenwriter and a filmmaker a lot of room to expand. You’re not compressing, like you are turning a 500-page novel into a 90-page script. I don’t always get the adaptation thing. It’s like someone saying, "I love this sandwich but I’d love it so much more if I was underwater in Greece." And I feel like, why don’t you just enjoy the sandwich? I know that’s a terrible metaphor. But for a lot of novelists a movie is great news. There’ll be more attention to their work. I mean, Andre Debus — In The Bedroom brought a lot more attention to him. And Annie Proulx. ... So, in that way it’s great.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Away We Go is showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.