BEHIND THE MUSIC OF HIGH FIDELITY - AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN CUSACK, D.V. DEVINCENTIS, & STEVE PINK
“You don’t know what you want but you want it.” — Joey Ramone
Fans of Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity” talk about the book with the kind of reverence usually reserved for their favorite albums. It gave a voice to all us music geeks who are more confident about their superior taste than their ability to understand the opposite sex. As the story’s protagonist, Rob Gordon, puts it, when it comes to love and life, “it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you like.” The insistence upon pop music’s sociological significance gives the ideological backdrop for Rob’s emotional maturation. Any attempt to bring this story to the screen would succeed or fail based on the screenplay’s ability to project the prophetic and pathetic nature of that attitude. Luckily, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack do just that in their adaptation. Their Rob Gordon is someone we can relate to, laugh at, and cringe in embarrassment with.
D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack have been collaborating since they first met in high school. The New Crime theatre, which they co-founded in 1988, provided them with an outlet for their writing and directing aspirations. Together they formed New Crime Productions and co-wrote the company’s first project “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
This article came about when Erik Bauer (founder of “Creative Screenwriting” and an early mentor to POP!) asked this freelancer to name his favorite film of the year for his year’s best ish. And with the state of today’s current films, “High Fidelity” remains my favorite film released since 2000. This movie just knocked me off my feet because it hits all the right notes about our generation. You know and identify with these characters if you’ve ever been obsessive about music, movies, comics and anything else in pop culture. Yeah, what good is inspiration if you don’t use it? These interviews were conducted by me in late 2000.
How did you discover “High Fidelity?”
D.V. DeVincentis: I think Joe Roth brought it to us. Actually I read it when it came out. I thought it was a great book but I thought I didn’t want to be a part of fucking it up by making it into a movie. But then we found out that somebody already had plans to fuck it up so we thought, well, we should get involved here and do as best we can with it. Kathy Nelson, who ran the music department at Disney, read the book and thought, “Oh my God, these guys would be great.” She had done “Grosse Pointe Blank” with us and she told the powers-that-be about us and so it came to be.
John Cusack: I was aware of the novel, and Joe Roth — whom I had a relationship with from doing “Grosse Pointe Blank” — called me up and said, “How’d you like to adapt this book?” This book arrives on my desk and then a phone call from Joe Roth, “You wanna adapt this book? And I said, “Are you kidding me?” So Steve, D.V. and I adapted it from scratch.
What was the attraction to turning this book into a screenplay?
Cusack: The attraction was that it was such a wonderful, brutally honest book. It had a kind of honesty that was painful. I think when you get that kind of truth it makes you laugh, it makes you uncomfortable, and it rings true. I think that’s when you know you’ve sort of struck gold.
Can you explain how the three of you write together? Who starts the first draft?
DeVincentis: We work in every combination you can possibly imagine. Sometimes there can be one of us, two of us, or three of us in the room at the same time. It depends on who is available
But Steven and you usually get things going?
DeVincentis: There really hasn’t been a formula that has shown itself as being how we do it. It can be any combination.
Steve Pink: We all frame it together and we all draft it out in various combinations of people around doing it. Then we finish a draft, and it all starts over again.
The three of you seem to have one voice when writing. Usually it’s said that the more writers on a script, the more distorted that script’s voice will be.
DeVincentis: That’s true. I think that’s because we have hung out together and worked together for many, many years. We definitely have a common language, I would say. If I say something and it’s not funny to those guys, then I’m screwed, because it’s not funny. We do have times when it is funny to those guys, and it’s still not funny. (Laughs)
Scott Rosenberg wrote the first draft of “High Fidelity” and he was quoted as saying that you hated his script but never read it.
Pink: That’s actually totally inaccurate. First of all, just to be very clear, he didn’t do an original draft of the script that we then rewrote. He did a draft of his own. Then years passed and we were hired to do our own adaptation.
DeVincentis: And were specifically asked not to read his draft.
Pink: Ultimately, we were forced into a situation where we had to arbitrate for credit in defense of our draft. It was very clear that we needed to read his draft. And in fact, we invited Mr. Rosenberg to read our draft, to see if there was any creative contribution on his part, or if he felt that we had used any of his material. It was very clear that there were no similarities between our drafts in fundamental issues of tone, storytelling, device, and pretty much everything. Obviously we were adapting a novel, so the things in common between our drafts are the things that are common as to the novel itself rather than anything we created separately in screenplays.
DeVincentis: But the Writers Guild rules say if there are two different drafts on an adaptation of a novel, that the first writer hired gets all of the material that they used from the book to their side of the mathematical credit. It should be said that initially Scott told us that he didn’t really feel like he had contributed anything to the script at all and that he wasn’t arbitrating for credit; but then he changed his mind because there’s a lot of money involved. He was actually very honest about it and it’s cool.
Did you have a problem with the transition of locations from England, in the book, to Chicago, in the film?
DeVincentis: No. Because the central themes — which are obsession and lack of emotional development — are key in London as well as Chicago.
What’s the main thing you didn’t want to lose from the transition from novel to screenplay?
Pink: I’d say the voice.
DeVincentis: Yeah, the tone and the co-conscious — to use a word — willingness to prove one’s self-love while not recognizing really what’s wrong with oneself. Which is so great in the book; the way the narrator is conscious of his flaws but constantly turning to make excuses for them and live with them. It was something that was unique to the novel. That’s why we wanted to do it, and so we wanted to keep that in the screenplay.
What are some of the advantages of being an actor/screenwriter? Do you feel that you have more control over what your character is saying?
Cusack: The advantages are that as your writing it, you can envision playing it. So you can sort of fit your voice into the character. Every performance is a combination of your own personal experience and the character’s meaning. If you get your life and the character’s life to meet with a wide enough berth, you got something that’s going to ring true. When you’re writing that way you can say, “Oh no, no, no. I know I can make this work. I know I can do this.” And those are instincts as an actor. Where as a writer you might not know it, but I can say to the boys, “I can do this. I can kill this. Let me do this. I know we can make this work.”
You also managed to keep a lot of the book’s dialogue intact, but in the draft that I saw, you had problems finding a tone and shuffled the scenes a little. Was there a problem finding a balance?
DeVincentis: Yeah. And when that became a problem, we wrote a lot of original story to evolve past the book where we had to, or where it didn’t necessarily come together cinematically. But we could make it come together by adding additional scenes.
Cusack: In the book there are two aspects of the character: one is how he presents himself to the outside world, and the other is his inner monologue while he’s doing that. And the inner monologue, the painful confessions that he writes in the book, he doesn’t always share with the outside world, but that is the real heart of the book. That is where all the truth is, and that’s probably true for a lot of us. It’s easier to be much more honest with ourselves than to be honest about ourselves to other people. We tried to stay true to that inner monologue in the screenplays.
In the early draft I read from January 1998…
DeVincentis: Oh my God.
Pink: That’s almost obsolete. That was actually the very first draft ever delivered to a studio; that was the very first draft delivered to anyone ever. I would encourage you to read a final draft.
In that early draft, you had Rob speaking in voice-overs instead of the conversation approach; what led to that change?
DeVincentis: That was Stephen Frears’ idea, and an incredible ballsy idea it is. Because it’s something that can really go wrong, as it’s been seen in a lot of movies, but he wanted to do it. So we started to explore it, and it started to really payoff. John’s a great actor and if you don’t have a great actor doing stuff directly to the camera, you can be in real big trouble. But we were confident in trying it because we knew John could pull it off.
Was it hard to be intimate with the camera and speak to the audience directly?
Cusack: I sort of resisted it at first, the director camera. Probably because I knew how difficult it was going to be, but I sort of knew it was the right thing to do. You know, once you get into it, it becomes very liberating and you sort of feel like you wish you could do it all the time. I found it really enjoyable. You just treat the camera as another character or a friend. It was very difficult sometimes, maybe shifting in and out of the scene with other characters and talking to the camera, but that’s what the role required.
When you consider a role like “High Fidelity,” do you have to see yourself in the role, do you have to identify with the character, or is it more important what the story is saying?
Cusack: Usually I look at it first, sort of as a writer, like, “Oh, this would be a great script.” But when I read Nick Hornby’s book, I wouldn’t be in a minority when I say that most males between twenty-five and thirty can really relate to Rob. I think he really lays out some universal truths.
What did Stephen Frears bring to the story?
Pink: Well Stephen Frears is a genius when it comes to taking what we felt were really important moments that told the story and making them specific. He was able to key on what mattered. He would crystallize ideas to a point where they are clear to everyone.
DeVincentis: Most writers and directors are sort of afraid of the flaws of characters because they’re afraid… this is our hero and it’s not gonna look good if he does this thing or that thing. Can we make him a little more likeable and all that stuff? Stephen just loves flaws. He loves flawed characters. He is completely willing to go where a lot of people are not, as far as exposing those flaws and making something of them, storywise, and then coming back and redeeming somebody from those flaws. I think that’s key to all of his movies including this one.
Cusack: Stephen probably saw the book the same way we did - which was that the thing that was interesting about the book had nothing to do with England. It had to do with man and their relationship to women and their relationship to themselves. The things that were great about the book were universal, and I think that’s the way Nick Hornby felt. We had Nick’s full support. Stephen’s talent has to do with characters and insight, and in a painful truth that Nick Hornby writes about is what Stephen’s films, at his best, do. They reveal characters with a kind of honesty, sometimes brutal honesty, and that’s what makes good directing. I think he was a wonderful choice to do it, and I’m glad he did it.
Sometimes you get that feeling that Rob was telling the audience, “don’t judge me, judge yourselves.” Did you ever get that feeling?
Cusack: We were very fortunate that we got wonderful reviews for the film, but I did a couple of press conferences and things where there were a couple of people who said, ‘How could you play such a character who is so despicable and all that?” It’s very much in the minority, but I said, “I don’t know what makes him despicable.” Well he cheats on his girlfriends, and he admits that he does this and he’s selfish. He does all these different things.” And I said, “I don’t know, that seems pretty human to me. I guess, ‘Let thee who has not sinned cast the first stone.’ I think that he just admits what a lot us have done. Most guys that I know who have read the book, they go, “Been there; done that.” And that’s Nick Hornby. He just told the truth, man.
When you were writing script, was it hard to not rely on conventional devices of Hollywood Romance?
DeVincentis: Stephen is the one who pushed a much more non-conventional approach to the romance. I think our first draft was much more conventional as far as romance goes. But it’s more interesting than it is riskier. It goes back to the same thing about embracing flaws in characters. It’s much more interesting, but the payoff is so much better.
Pink: I think that’s key. In a way, it’s very much the same as every other romantic comedy when you take a step back from it and just look at its form and structure. It’s what he has to get through, emotionally, to get to this point rather than having a plane flying over that says, “Laura, will you marry me? That would be something else.
Are their similarities between Rob and Martin Blank from “Grosse Pointe Blank?” Both characters seem to be having an identity crisis, is this coming from personal experience?
DeVincentis: Well, we love what we call “the end game.” Which is starting a story with somebody who has a not-so-great way of living, and it’s just not working anymore and they’re trying to keep living that way. They begin to try and find a better way to do things. And with both of those characters, that’s true for sure. And it’s fun, both of those characters are smart people who continue to try and live foolishly.
Was it a different experience writing “High Fidelity” compared with “Grosse Pointe Blank?”
Cusack: I hadn’t adapted a novel before, and we thought that we had a cheat sheet. The book was so great, we always felt like we could go back to it every time we got into a rut. We could go back to it and we could find the answers in Nick’s book whenever we felt stumped. We’d say, “We have to go back and look in the book and see what we missed. What haven’t we done? Where have we deviated from where the book ran true?” It almost felt unfair. Because you had this great, great source material you’re working from. So you’re trying to do it justice.
In the book there was this key sequence in which Rob has a pathetic birthday and realizes that he isn’t close to anyone in life except Laura. Why didn’t you keep this is in script?
DeVincentis: We had a bunch of other stuff. Instead of having Rob become a DJ again we thought; if he lives life on the sidelines, what does getting in the game mean to that guy? Well if you live on the sidelines by hiding out at a record store, the risk of getting in the game might be to actually have something to do with creating some music, producing and releasing a record. That was more interesting turf to us than doing the birthday thing. The birthday thing great; it’s just that if we had executed the entire narrative as it is written in the novel, it would have been an HBO miniseries.
You also added the top five reasons about what he missed most about Laura. Why was that added to the film?
DeVincentis: Because it was nice.
Pink: It was nice for Rob to express in very plain terms what Laura’s best friend asked of him previously. Liz says to Rob, “Why do you want her back so badly?” And so we wanted to answer that question.
Was it hard choosing the music for the film? In the story, it seems to function to help the narrative of the screenplay as well.
DeVincentis: Yeah, a lot of it had to do with getting the world right. These guys listen to all kinds of music. Also their whole thing is how much more they know than anybody else about what good music is; so that required us going outside of all the things that everybody knows is good music and getting the things that you would know about only if you listen to things constantly. If you love the Rolling Stones but heard the records enough, you have to get something else.
Pink: I think D.V said something really smart early on; these characters know more about music than any of us. In a way, the music of the film has to reflect that. They have to bring music that we don’t know.
Because they know so much about music, do you think that they are hiding behind it from other things in life?
Cusack: I don’t know if they are hiding from life in music as much as I think it’s complex. I think they’re great fans of music, and use music as autographical markers of their lives, and I’ve never seen that in a film. The only place I’ve seen that in a film was in “Diner” where I could see how passionate people are about art and about music. I’d never seen that before. But on the darker side I think they use taste as a weapon. They use taste as a point of pride like elitism. “If you don’t like the kind of things we like, that gives us superiority over you.”
DeVincentis: That would be everything in their whole lives, absolutely. I think Dick and Barry are certainly hiding as well.
Pink: We show a small evolution. You see Dick kinda find someone and actually for the first time he has something besides the music store. They first make fun of him about it, but they kinda support that, too.
At the same time, it hurts them to see Dick with a girl.
Cusack: Barry is kind of like a juggernaut. He does change because he leaves the record store and joins the band. So he may not say he’s changing but he actually does something. That’s sort of what propels Rob in the third act to do something because Dick has got a girlfriend and he’s leaving, and Barry’s playing in a band. Rob realizes that instead of thinking about change, he should just start doing something and get out of his head.
When you were writing the script did you feel that Dick and Barry represented different sides of Rob?
Cusack: Yeah, in a way, probably. Nick Hornby could probably give you better answers than I could. When Steve and D.V. and I read the book, we immediately knew right away we were going to do it, and one of the reasons probably was that Steve, D.V., and I were all different ones of those characters growing up. We all knew Rob, Dick and Barry from Chicago. We knew Rick’s Record Exchange in Chicago and another record store we used to go to and that was our Championship Vinyl. I bet people in Seattle and in London and in New York… I think everybody knows those guys, and he really nailed it.
DeVincentis: I think they’re the Ghost of Christmas Past and Christmas Future for Rob.
That’s funny. I got the idea from your script that Rob’s old girlfriends seem to be taking him on a Scrooge-like journey.
DeVincentis: That structure revealed itself to us right after we started shooting, really.
Did you see John immediately as Rob Gordon? And once you saw him in the character, did you have to rewrite the dialogue to fit more the kind of guy that he is?
DeVincentis: I don’t think so.
Pink: The only thing that was great about John was that he became more and more Rob. He’s a great actor clearly and then he just kind of walked into the part and started being Rob. So the voice was clear. The cool thing about John, as an actor, is that he’s able to bring what seems like this really authentic way of viewing as a person. He brings a real credibility to all the characters he plays. He approaches things seriously; he has a great deal of capacity, and he thinks very deeply about things, and you see that in Rob.
In the book, Rob didn’t have sex with Laura after her dad’s funeral but in the movie they did end up making love. Why did you decide to change this?
Cusack: Very interesting; we went back and forth on that. I was a great proponent of that, because I thought it was real. In the book, he says, “The truth of the matter was (if I can remember) I didn’t care where Ray or Ian had been. The truth of the matter is that I wanted her on this day of all days because it was the first time since she dumped me that I was able to.” And it’s such a painful admittance. The great thing about Rob is that for all of his problems he has a wonderful courage about him to not shy away from the truth. We had a version where Rob, direct to the camera, said this in voiceover. What we found was that in the context of the film, it felt like too much. It was too cruel. Joe Roth, who was unbelievably supportive of the film the whole way, did nothing but help and support and cheerlead. He was the best. He said, “Look guys, for my money, that pushes it over the edge. It’s just too cruel.” And Stephen agreed. I was on the fence about it. Steve and D.V. agreed. So the decision was to change it. Joe didn’t tell us that we had to cut it or anything. He’s not that kind of guy. He really is a filmmaker’s best friend in every way. He’s a really smart guy, and if he gives a note there’s usually a point to it. Stephen felt the same way, and he’s not shy. I was on the fence about it, but I actually agreed and I said to them maybe that’s just too much.
DeVincentis: Well, they do make love in the book, but later.
Pink: In truth, I think we wrestled with it and we had it both ways, I believe. But there were certain points through the filmmaking process where we were approaching it both ways. I think it was just what film required.
DeVincentis: They make love after they get back together after the funeral. Hornby makes a point in the book of how they don’t make love because of this issue. And we made less of a point of that because it was a lapsing of time.
It seemed to me that this issue was one of the problems of the book. The problem with Rob is that he’s basically living for himself and at this point it felt right in the script that he should stop thinking of himself so much and start sharing himself with Laura, and that’s when he starts evolving.
Pink: Absolutely, that’s basically it.
This article is a copyright of George Khoury. It originally appeared in Creative Screenwriting’s January/February 2001 issue.