I write from the edge of Washington, DC, on a freezing day. I'm here performing a one-man play, The Tricky Part, which was developed from my memoir of the same title. There's an Obama event going on at a Virginia high school some blocks from here. A massive motorcade -- cycles, black sedans, police cars -- is streaming past my apartment window. It is the picture of momentum itself: wheels and steel and flashing lights, the gathering force of change, a traffic nightmare, a future president? The high school they’re headed to, T.C. Williams, was the subject of a feature film some years ago starring Denzel Washington as the coach of the school's football team, the Titans.
I'm watching all this, here at my computer, while struggling to write a script, a film adaptation of my book and play. The autobiographical tale is sensitive and complex and I am finding the task of transforming the material into yet another genre daunting if not impossible. This accounts for all the looking out the window.
Let me lay out the essentials. When I was twelve, a camp counselor molested me. Our illicit sex went on for three years. I grew taller and older while holding the boy inside me hostage because I blamed him for being bad, for doing wrong, for succumbing to desire. I couldn’t help it and it was agonizing. I got even older and started writing about what happened, became obsessed with remembering, with using language to seek meaning in the story. A day would arrive when I stood to face a pasty old man crumpled in his wheelchair, the counselor who'd wronged me when I was a child. The one who ignited my aching sense of complicity. I looked at that man, at his stained pajamas; his puffy cheeks and I felt my heart break. For the fragile human in front of me, but more so for the boy I once was. And somewhere in that breaking was the beginning of forgiveness. Somehow, because I'd spent so much time piecing together the narrative of my own life, I was able to see, to feel, how that boy was blameless and how forgiveness was the gift I must give to myself.
I've stood before countless audiences across the country and shared the story in the form of a first person, direct address monologue that runs eighty minutes. Twenty-eight pages. I've also rendered it in the first person in a three-hundred page book. I've been banging my head against the wall now for over a year trying to crack the movie version. Mucking about in the dicey material that already gave rise to memoir and play is causing me to question my sanity. I remember when my boyfriend popped his head in the office one afternoon many months ago to ask what I was working on. When I told him his response was: "Are you really writing a film about this? Haven't you had enough? My God, what's next? Tricky Part, the infomercial?"
I know what he means. At moments I feel it's simply wrong to keep tackling the same narrative territory. That I may well be drowning in the dregs of my own story. (It took me 10 years to write the book!) That if I were a real writer I'd be moving on to the next subject, the next piece of prose. That perhaps I'm trapped by some "Hollywood" dream of the kind of success a feature film (however modest, however "Indie") could bring. Or, my worst fear, that in the end I have only this one story in me. On the days I feel most insane about it I will often think of the poet Stanley Kunitz. He speaks of how there are certain events that burn at the center of our personal history, our beings, and that in one way or another we spend much of our life transforming them into myth, legend. One such event for him was his father's suicide. This hunted, haunted him and the question of it, the mystery, showed up in several ways in several poems throughout the years.
As difficult as the challenge is, as crazy as I feel about the endeavor and as much as I avoid it and look out the window, I admit that the creation of the screenplay has grown to engage me. I am an actor by trade and, though I work primarily in the theater, good cinema excites me. And I’ve come to realize that the questions at the center of the story bear continued exploration. Mike Nichols once said that a good story is about something but really about something else. In The Tricky Part that something else is the mystery of forgiveness and compassion, of how we let go of the past. The notion that what harms us might come to restore us. That stuff is bottomless, timeless.
As a theatrical event, The Tricky Part is akin to a gathering around the campfire while a fellow tribesman (myself) gives a carefully guided and sometimes humorous tour through the tricky story. And in the book there is that steady voice moving the reader in and out of not just action, but a host of internal feelings, revelations. The fundamental challenge of crafting the film is the loss of that first person voice. My initial film draft was chock full of voice over, precisely because I could not grasp how to let go of the narrator and all that lovely language.
When I took the first draft to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, a friend who read it asked, "Do you really want to make a good movie? You have to be willing to reinvent the story." She suggested I attempt a draft with not a lick of voice over. Since that moment I have come to see that transforming Tricky into a dramatic film is a continuing exercise of liberating myself from my own book, re-imagining my own story. In short, it is an adventure in fiction. An adventure both exhilarating and a good deal confusing. "Martin" of Denver has become "James" of Wyoming. And I've allowed, as I never would have in the non-fiction memoir, a collection of characters and events to emerge in order to fuel a new life, a new story that moves through the same problems and questions that live at the core of book and play.
It's odd to learn that, while extremely important, language isn't primary to the film. What’s primary is the task of creating a series of images, events and actions that pull the viewer through a sustained experience. From the first frame, the film needs to be like a piece of music. Unstoppable, inevitable. The story can't be put down, like a book. If your viewer isn't hooked, you're sunk. This is all obvious, I know, but I never truly faced it before and it calls for a very different, intensely compressed, naked sort of writing. The viewer's relationship to the screen is an entirely different one from that of a reader to the page. And it's very different from having a live performer describing, provoking, the interiority of the experience. The play could simply be filmed but this would hardly be the feature, the realization of the story in filmic form that I'm after.
The film has come to feel like some kind of haiku, each image and action economic, complex. Poetic. What was intensely interior in the other forms must become evident in pictures and action. For example, in the memoir, there's a scene where I, at long last, confront the old man in the hospital, the perpetrator or, in film-speak, the antagonist. In real life I brought a concealed tape recorder. I wasn't exactly sure why I brought it. To have a record? Because I thought I might freak out and forget everything that transpired? Because I thought I might be able to hurt him somehow with the evidence? Only months later did I realize that I would actually write about what happened and that the recorder would become a tool for the literary (not legal) action I would ultimately take. The cassette turned out to be a kind of weapon. The film director, Nathaniel Kahn, with whom I'm working has strongly urged me to transform the recorder into a gun. It will instantly make clear, he suggested, and externalize the anger and stakes driving much of the story. It will, Nathaniel believes, heighten the drama, the ultimate choice between revenge and forgiveness. I don't yet know if this is right but I am exploring it. I am creating, attempting to crawl into the skin of, a new human being, the protagonist James who is not Martin.
I think of something Orhan Pamuk said: "a writer will…over the years discover literature's eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people's stories, and to tell other people's stories as if they were his own, for that is what literature is."
Amidst the struggle and the terrible doubts about the merits of writing this film based on an old and very personal story, comes the possibility of discovering what's utterly new and ever human.
Martin Moran makes his living as an actor and writer in New York City. He has appeared in many Broadway and Off-Broadway plays, including Spamalot, Titanic, Cabaret, Bells Are Ringing, and Floyd Collins. He won a 2004 Obie Award for his one-man play, The Tricky Part, which New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley praised for the quiet victory of "rendering chaos with this kind of clarity." Moran continues to perform The Tricky Part all over the country.