It’s something every writer dreams about: having your script made into a Hollywood film.
On August 22, a brand new film hits the theatres. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), The F Word is a film with deep Vancouver roots.
Way back in 2001, local writer and Fringe performer, TJ Dawe was working a new script with his co-writer, Mike Rinaldi.
“We had the idea of a scene in which a guy and a girl meet and have a huge connection, only for it to come out much later in the conversation that she’s got a boyfriend, so the flirting that he thought was happening actually wasn’t, from her perspective. so… how do they meet? Does he see her at a bar and chat her up? I’ve never done that. Mike has never done that. We both felt we’d be instantly alienated from a character who did that on stage. Do we have a third character introduce them? I don’t know. I tend to pace as I brainstorm, and Mike’s apartment had fridge magnet words. and then it hit me – that’s how they meet! They’re the two people at a party who hang around the fridge and make poems. Someone’s always doing that. And it’s very easy to enter into conversation with a stranger in that circumstance. Mike liked the idea, so we went with that.”
The image of magnetic poetry, and two strangers who meet at a party while making fridge poetry, became the central image for Toothpaste and Cigars.
They debuted the first 10 minutes of the script at a cabaret in November of 2001, a couple months after they had started working on it. The script was finally finished in January of 2003, and then Dawe toured the two-person show to Fringes in the summer of 2003, starting with Toronto, and ending in Vancouver. It centred around Wallace, who develops feelings for Chantry, a girl he meets at a party. They have an instant and palpable connection–but Chantry has a boyfriend. They agree to be ‘just friends,’ but Wallace struggles with his feelings.
“A friend in Vancouver worked in documentary film,” Dawe tells me, “and loved the play. She offered to shop it around to her film contacts. One of them – Marc Stephenson – a Vancouver based producer – liked it and bought the option.”
The story still has a long way to go. Only one in twenty scripts, on average, that get optioned, ever get made. It was still a long shot.
The script was handed over to Vancouver screenwriter, Elan Mastai. “The film is in many ways different but emotionally it’s the same story,” he says. “The difference between adapting a novel is that with a novel you’re always paring down but with a play/short story you get to add – and it was like that with The F Word. There was a lot of room for me as a writer to add my own ideas. I took the play, expanded it and added characters.”
Mastai added and fleshed out characters that are referenced, but never appear in Toothpaste and Cigars, like Chantry’s boyfriend, Paul, and Wallace’s friend Adam, who is hosting the party at which they meet.
There are central elements that remain from the original play, however. One of them, is, of course, the magnetic poetry. “Very little dialogue from the play is in the screenplay,” says Dawe. “One of the few exceptions happens in the first scene, when the two leads have a conversation about the correct pronunciation of the word “forte” – and Radcliffe has said in multiple interviews that when he read that bit in the script, he thought “yeah, that’s me. I’d like to do this.” So I was mighty proud of that.” A third central element that was carried into the film was Fool’s Gold.
“Food gets talked about a lot in the play,” explains Dawe. “It was only later that we realized what a good metaphor that is for sensuality. It’s an acceptable form of sensuality between platonic friends.”
Fool’s Gold, for the initiated, is a sandwich made famous by Elvis. It is an entire loaf of french bread, slathered in butter, and then baked. It’s then sliced in half, and filled with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and a pound of fried bacon. It plays a very important role in the film.
“Fool’s Gold was something I had heard about years before from a musician,” laughs Dawe when I ask him if he’s ever tried it. “It came up in writing an early scene, in a conversation the characters were having about deep fried food. I googled it later, and then realized we could build on that motif by having the characters expand on the conversation later in the play. And then much later we realized we could have them eat Fool’s Gold at the climax.”
There were hiccups along the way. The film nearly got made with Casey Affleck (Dawe was not impressed), but filming was cancelled two weeks before it was set to start. But then Daniel Radcliffe signed on.
I asked Dawe what that moment was like. “That was pretty cool,” he replied. “It seemed dead in the water. And then the rights got released, this would have been late 2011, and suddenly it was in play again. I much prefer Daniel Radcliffe as an actor. He’s a much bigger star, so the potential’s there for more people to see it.”
Dawe and Rinaldi flew out to Toronto in September of 2012 to visit the set, and were offered cameos. If you look really closely in the bar scene where Wallace is trying to pick up women, you’ll see them in the background, as bar patrons. “When we visited the set, everyone was totally nice, and welcoming. Radcliffe introduced himself, and we shared stories of unrequited love. Zoe Kazan was very friendly too. the director, Mike Dowse, was warm and friendly and asked if we wanted to be in a scene, and we immediately said yes. it’s nice to have a one or two second bit of screen time, even if we’re the only ones who know where to look in that scene.”
“It almost died away completely,” adds Rinaldi, “but Dowse became attached, and then Radcliffe, both of whom we were super excited about. And it came together finally and became a movie. But I never really believed it was happening until that first day we stepped on to set. It finally became real that day, with all the trailers and extras and crew. Pretty crazy feeling for it to go from handwritten pages (we composed the fridge magnet poetry, and cut them up and rearranged them – and many of them are in the movie) in a little tiny bachelor apartment. Along with those first few lines that Wallace says to Chantry. And now to this thing that is so far beyond us, and what we ever imagined.”
The film debuted at TIFF last year, to critical acclaim, and was offered a distribution deal. It opens in theatres in Canada on August 22 as The F Word, and in the States as What If.
When I asked him what it was like to see Daniel Radcliffe playing the role he originated on stage, Dawe is pragmatic: “the movie preserves the central premise of the play, as well as the nature of the two leads, and how their relationship plays out. But I didn’t have the sense watching the movie that he was playing me, or that anyone who knew me or my work and didn’t know I was involved in the movie would recognize the connection. But still – I think he gives a fabulous performance that captures the vulnerability and confusion, as well as the joy at really connecting with someone that the play is all about.”
Wallace and Chantry get a happy ending, and so do Dawe and Rinaldi, for whom the journey has taken over a decade.
Perhaps a celebration with some Fool’s Gold is in order?