Vendela and Dave Write a Movie
A pair of novelists take on writing the screenplay for Away We Go.
Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers share many things––a marriage, a home, a child, a commitment to social issues, a publishing company and magazine, and now a screenwriting credit. In their first film collaboration, Away We Go, Eggers and Vida have conjured up the adventures of Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a young couple who set out in search of a place to raise their soon-to-be born child. Along the way, they reconnect with a series of friends, each who provide a vision/nightmare of family life. In Phoenix, the pair meets up with Lily (Allison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), as well as their poor children, burdened with their relentlessly inappropriate mom and socially imploding dad. In Wisconsin, they drop in on Burt’s old friend L.N. (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton), an over-privileged pair whose boundary-less household only betrays how controlling they really are. In Montreal, they reconnect their college chums Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey), whose family of adopted children remind Burt and Verona about just how lucky they are to actually be expecting. In the end, the two find a home in a place they least expected.
Let’s start off with the obvious. How did you decide to write Away We Go together?
VENDELA VIDA: It started in 2005, when we were expecting our first child. We were spending a lot more time around the house than usual, getting ready and waiting for her arrival.
DAVE EGGERS: It was a good excuse to do nothing much. Pregnancy is the best excuse to stay home and putter around.
VENDELA: We were reading a lot of books about pregnancy and childbirth, and talking to friends with kids, and generally kind of observing parenthood through the eyes of people about to become parents.
DAVE: It was actually pretty formal. We were doing some home-studies. We’d call up friends and see if we could observe them for two or three days, and then we’d go over with some cameras and field recorders and set up a tent in their back yard.
VENDELA: No, but we were casually noting little things, like anyone does. We might see someone using a child leash at the park and think, Well, maybe we’re not so in favor of child leashes for our own kid. At the same time, we were struck by all the unsolicited pregnancy and parenting advice we were getting.
DAVE: We actually got one very strident manifesto from an acquaintance of a friend. She took the time to send this book to our friend, and then our friend sent it to us. This random person was really hell-bent on making sure we knew about this one pretty extreme child-rearing method. People get a little boundary-less.
VENDELA: So we started taking notes about the funnier aspects of it all. We didn’t really plan to write a screenplay. But we kept saying things like “Huh, that would be sort of funny in a movie.”
DAVE: That might have started with “vaginal flavor.” I think we saw that phrase somewhere and laughed for a while. There were so many things we’d never heard about pregnancy. That and “tilted uterus.” Some of these phrases just made us laugh.
VENDELA: We were also writing it during a different administration.
DAVE: It was such a dark time in American history and we were sort of overwhelmed by political paranoia on a national and local level, and at the same time there was a lot of paranoia in parenting with people’s fears about their kids. They seemed to be over thinking everything. So our initial impetus was to think about a central question, which was, “Is there any rational way to bring a child into the world right now? And can you live as a rational balanced person and is it necessary to go off one end or the other, either total neglect or total over thinking and hovering over your kids?” We were looking at all those extremes. So we went into it with a little more of a––not to say didactic––but a political slant at first, but then as were revising and getting closer to working with Sam [Mendes], the clouds were parting a bit in the overall political context so the story changed quite a bit.
Photo: François Duhamel
VENDELA: We originally had an entirely different ending, where Burt and Verona flee the U.S. to live in Costa Rica, a country that doesn’t even have an army. It felt like the right ending in 2005.
DAVE: The original ending had them saying “Screw this, let’s leave this place till the dust clears.” Some people thought that ending was a bit nihilistic. But we meant it to be sort of hopeful.
Right now it ends with a real sense of hope. Talk a little about why you wanted to make a screenplay.
DAVE: Neither of us had thought about it before. Then Spike [Jonze] asked me to help write Where The Wild Things Are. That was my introduction to the form, when I actually bought the software and started reading screenplays, trying to understand the structure a bit. And Vendela’s pretty incredible at dialogue, so I would ask her questions about lines, and pretty soon we were writing scenes for this other script.
VENDELA: It was also at a time when there was a new wave of adult comedies that seemed like a new start. When we saw Sideways and The 40 Year Old Virgin we thought there might be room for an adult comedy about pregnancy.
DAVE: And then Judd Apatow beat us to the pregnancy idea with Knocked Up. We actually heard about it right after we’d finished our screenplay. Someone said, “Um, you know Apatow’s making a movie about a pregnant couple, too?” That was kind of crushing for a few days. Luckily the two movies are different enough.
VENDELA: That’s when we took out the crowning scene.
DAVE: We had a 20-minute scene where we just stay on the crowning baby. Like Warhol’s Empire but with a baby’s blue head pushing its way out.
VENDELA: Generally our script started going in some less comic directions.
Was this always a screenplay, or did you have a novel in mind? Have you collaborated before? Dave, I know you’ve done a lot of collaboration, but Vendela, have you?
VENDELA: Other than working with the other editors at The Believer, no. But screenplays are more amenable to collaboration than, say, an essay or a novel. We never really envisioned the story as anything but a movie. From the start, we even had Maya Rudolph in mind to play Verona.
DAVE: We pictured her when we wrote her lines. We wanted someone who could do the comedy but also had a pretty deep well to draw on. We didn’t know Maya personally, but she seemed like she’d be perfect. And she was.
Can you talk about how you actually did it? It seems like collaborations all take place very differently.
DAVE: We did it the way you’d picture in a sitcom.
Like in The Dick Van Dyke Show, where they all just sat around an office cracking jokes.
DAVE: Yeah, we would mostly work in our living room, and switch off typing. One of us would walk around and talk, or maybe we’d be shoulder to shoulder looking at the screen.
VENDELA: It was pretty corny. We said that to each other a few times. “How corny is this situation?” Now that we have two kids, the days are wall-to-wall corniness.
DAVE: But we’ve been working together more or less for about ten years. We write alone, but we have these magazines that are housed in the same office, and we’ve always had friends working with us on those. So we’ve always tried to find ways to work with people we like. It’s good to work with people you like being around.
VENDELA: Most of the time we were just trying to make each other laugh. It’s different than a novel, where you write a chapter or a number of chapters before showing it to someone. Here we could just talk out a scene or a line and know immediately whether we should junk it or try to work with it.
Did you ever try to stage these scenes in your living room?
DAVE: Act it out?
DAVE: Um, no. I have no aptitude at all for that. And besides, I had been through enough table reads to know that things would change to some extent. So we weren’t overly precious about how we thought things should be performed. Actors will almost always improve on something you write––they’ll bring new insight into it, fix the rhythm, amend it in some crucial way.
As Burt and Verona travel about the country, they encounter couples that seem to exemplify different directions in or theories of child psychology. Did you base these characters on either real people or specific schools of thought?
DAVE: None of the couples they meet are based on anyone we know, thank God. In some cases, we might have taken someone we’ve met and then developed a facet of that person into a character. We don’t know an L.N., but we live in the Bay Area, and you can find bits and pieces of L.N. all over.
VENDELA: And there’s Lily. Everyone’s had the experience of feeling uncomfortable when a parent talks a little too freely around her kids. We thought, “What if we took that to an extreme? What would that be like?” And that’s how we came up with Lily, who has this insane mouth on her. And then we gave her the most delicate name we could think of. It was either Lily or Buttercup.
DAVE: At the same time, these are people Burt and Verona have had longtime relationships with, so we had to make them appealing in some way or the other. We had to take them down a couple notches from caricature, make them humans. The Continuum Method is something where L.N. and Roderick represent an extreme. I’m sure there are rational people who practice Continuum, but we wanted L.N. and Roderick to be annoying about it. In all cases, the idea was to make them three-dimensional characters, but also people who are capable of some pretty bad behavior.
VENDELA: I think one of the challenges of being a parent is—
DAVE: …is trying not to say “one of the challenges of being a parent.”
DAVE: Sorry. Go on.
VENDELA: You’re constantly questioning your ideas about how to raise your children – especially as they enter each new stage. We have two kids now and we even had different birth experiences with each of them. With our second baby, our son, we had a natural birth, with a doula and midwife, at a birthing center—it was a great experience and much closer to the type of birth L.N. and Roderick would advocate.
DAVE: It’s funny, because we don’t really agree with everything Burt and Verona stand for. Especially Burt. One scene that got cut from the movie has Burt with Verona at the doctor’s office. And he’s acting like he knows what he’s doing, because he’s gone to some pregnancy websites and he knows which end of the stethoscope to listen to. So when he says that doulas and midwives are just for clueless husbands, it’s supposed to be sort of a statement about his ignorance. He was actually more of a doofus in the first few drafts.
Had you thought about different theories of child psychologists?
DAVE: Not so much. And I don’t know if there is a theory for Lily. Is there is a child psychologist who advocates for kids’ constant exposure to their parents’ dark secrets?
I’m sure there is some place.
DAVE: None of characters are tied to any specific theories, but I suspect people will recognize that they know a Lily or they know a Roderick and L.N.
Formally the film has the shape of a quest, but at the same time, you could read the film as an essay in which the couple explores a theme, trying out one idea before moving on to the next.
VENDELA: Sort of.
DAVE: We actually made an effort to keep the film from being pedantic––“Don’t do this, don’t do that.” You look at Burt and Verona and you know they’re not some master theorists who know exactly what’s right. For them it’s more a gut thing––“That looks a little bit odd, maybe that’s not what we want.” But I think everyone does that. It’s a time when you look back at your own childhood, and you look at what you want to replicate and what you want to improve upon.
The theme about how to raise your children seems timeless. Were their stories, dramas, or other films that inspired you?
DAVE: Rocky Horror.
VENDELA: A timeless family story.
DAVE: Blazing Saddles. Saw.
VENDELA: All of the Saw movies. We went back to those again and again.
VENDELA: We were thinking in terms of comedies, watching a lot of Hal Ashby. So I can’t say there were a lot of other movies on the same topic that were instrumental to us. The mood and pace were more important to us than the idea of child rearing.
DAVE: With Ashby’s work, we looked at the way the fabric of the society at the time was so deeply woven into the story. He wasn’t afraid to make a movie seem like it was made at the time. Shampoo is about this hairdresser, but the political context is so prominent, too. So often in the 90s they seemed to scrub all that stuff clean so everything looks kind of generic.
Were there specific Ashby movies that spoke to you?
DAVE: We rediscovered a movie called The Landlord. It didn’t get much of wide release, but we thought it was sort of brilliant. And I’ve always loved Being There and The Last Detail. And Shampoo. And there were the movies of Bill Forsyth, like Local Hero, that I grew up with. I think I’ve seen that movie about thirty times. Those two guys [Forsyth and Ashby] were so smart and had such a charm to their work––you wanted to live in those movies. But they also, especially Ashby, had a lot of bite. Harold and Maude was very surreal in some ways, and in the wrong hands it would have become some horrible high-concept movie, but Ashby made it feel very human and believable.
Many of those seventies movies had a real sense of actual American place in them.
DAVE: That’s something we love about those ‘70s movies. Also the sense that tonal shifts could happen and it would be okay, it would be allowed. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite movies, and that has everything: broad comedy, surreality, violence, social commentary—and it’s all based on a true story.
VENDELA: I remember when we saw Sideways, there was the scene where they all go to Sandra Oh’s character’s house, and it was startling, because it actually looked like a real place where real people live.
DAVE: In a lot of movies, even drug dealers and bad guys live in beautiful lofts. Maybe the really bad guys live in slightly smaller or messier lofts.
VENDELA: So when we saw some of [cinematographer] Ellen Kuras’ test shots of the Colorado landscape, and the house Burt and Verona lived in, we were so happy. It all looked real, not idealized. And the whole movie is that way.
How important was it to shoot in real locations?
DAVE: We were pretty floored when Sam said he was going to shoot the Miami scenes in Miami, the Phoenix scenes in Phoenix. We were still fiddling with the script, and he was scouting real places, like—
VENDELA: —like a dog track in Phoenix, that was the surreal one. We wrote a scene that took place at a dog track in Phoenix, and then it was actually shot there.
DAVE: Ed [Saxon, the producer,] and Sam actually emailed us photos from their scouting trip, and seeing that place, that sad dog track, really made our day. It was just about the saddest place in the universe.
The film’s journey moves through a series of emotional tones, from satirical to serious to hopeful. Was that the arc you were looking for?
DAVE: It gets more real as it gets closer to the birth. I know that for me as a potential father it was harder to get a total grip on what was about to happen, especially in the early months when it’s harder for the father to feel things as deeply. You know, there’s nothing growing inside me. It wasn’t till I saw a sonogram that I was totally woken up. And it gets ever more real as you get closer––buying cribs and really thinking about the environment you’re creating. What’s the right rug? Isn’t there a draft in this room that could cause lifelong bronchial problems? Are we really sure there’s no asbestos in this place? And that’s their process too, that as you get closer to the birth, things for Burt and Verona get more serious. Munch and Tom make them realize how lucky they are to be in their position. In a lot of ways Burt and Verona are groundless and wayward, but at least they’ve been lucky to have a baby on the way. Especially since so many couples, like Tom and Munch, didn’t have that luck. And then Burt’s brother has a different, maybe even more serious, problem. That’s what makes the situation all the more fraught. Burt and Verona have to find a place right now. So the finding the physical place kind of mirrors their sense of readiness in general.
You started off this project with a baby of your own on the way. Do you feel that in the process of writing the film you learned anything new about it?
DAVE: We learned a lot about the process of making movies.
VENDELA: We were starting from zero, so there was a lot to learn.
DAVE: It was such an intimate thing, really—there weren’t that many people involved with the whole thing.
VENDELA: Just a few hundred.
DAVE: Okay, there were a lot. But it was small enough that we could be involved here and there.
VENDELA: We got to comment on some of the clothes for Burt and Verona. Not that we could improve on what John Dunn [the costume designer] did.
DAVE: I know nothing about clothes, but when he showed us what he had in mind for Verona, it was perfect, really. With everything, it was as if they’d snuck into our brains and stole every thought and picture.
VENDELA: I heard John Dunn talk about how he wanted Burt and Verona to look a little bit out of season everywhere they went. That was exactly right. It’s a subtle but beautiful addition to the film. Everything added so much to our skeletal ideas. The cinematography, the editing, the production design, the costumes.
DAVE: What was really weird was how in almost every situation, the sets––not sets; I guess they were all real houses––looked exactly as we had pictured them. It was eerie. Like when we saw L.N. and Roderick’s bedroom, with the big family bed and the seahorses everywhere, it was so weird. It was a snapshot in our minds, and Jess had just kind of grabbed it and there it was in real life.
VENDELA: The one thing that I was surprised by was the music. I had no idea what kind of music Sam was going to use, and I’d never heard Alexi Murdoch before. Right when that first song kicks in at the beginning of the movie, it sort of sets the tone. When we first heard that music over the scenes of them driving through Colorado, we got chills. And all the songs together help tie the film together. It makes it feel like a tone poem.
After all this, would you want to write another movie together?
VENDELA: Sure. I think.
DAVE: Yeah, we’ll probably try at least. We don’t have any illusions about the chances we’d get lucky like this again, to have Sam and all these people actually make a screenplay we wrote. But we’ve been taking some notes for a new one. We’ll see what happens.