Screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone On His New Book 'The Crossed-Out Notebook'
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A few years ago, the Argentine screenwriter Nicolas Giacobone won the Oscar for best original screenplay for the film "Birdman."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")
EDWARD NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) You wrote this adaptation?
MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) I did, yeah.
NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) And you're directing and starring in your adaptation.
KEATON: (As Riggan Thomson) Yeah.
NORTON: (As Mike Shiner) That's ambitious.
SHAPIRO: That same year, Alejandro Inarritu won for directing "Birdman." Now the screenwriter, Giacobone, has written a new novel called "The Crossed-Out Notebook," and it is about a screenwriter and a director. In this book, the director locks the screenwriter in a basement, holds a gun to his head and forces him to write a screenplay that will change the course of world cinema. When I asked about the parallels between his own life and the plot of the novel, Giacobone told me he wasn't thinking about Inarritu when he started writing. In fact, he picked up the pen after his father died, and he flew from New York to Buenos Aires to help the family.
NICOLAS GIACOBONE: And I was in mourning, and I opened a notebook and basically started writing. It all started with a screenplay that I should never have written, and I couldn't stop. Like, I wrote, like, nonstop for months. So the thing with the novel for me was I learned a lot about writing and the differences between writing literature and writing screenplays.
SHAPIRO: Can you give us one example?
GIACOBONE: Well, there is an extreme difference for me, which is when I write literature, it's all about, like, the sentence - like, you go one sentence at a time. And it's like you don't know exactly where you're going. With screenwriting, I think it's the opposite. It's like you need to structure a lot to develop characters, to know everything - as much as you can before you type the first word.
SHAPIRO: Oh, so you already know where the scene is going before you begin writing it.
GIACOBONE: In as much detail as you can.
SHAPIRO: The kind of pressure that the main character, Pablo, feels is existential pressure. It is like, write this or you'll be killed. You're locked in a basement. You're fighting for your freedom. I know the pressure that you feel writing a screenplay is not that, but are there parallels there?
GIACOBONE: For me, there was something that intrigued me, and from the distance, I thought he wasn't going to work that, which is to use the material, like, all the details of writing and the difference of writing as material for a novel. Like, I thought that was sort of weird, but I was excited about trying it and even making that novel sort of a thriller in a way. So...
SHAPIRO: A novel about the act of writing.
GIACOBONE: Exactly. What I tried to do is put it in this extreme form, where everything is life or death, and also the ambition of doing something that is going to change cinema history, to make it in this situation where, yeah, it's still cinema. It's still art. Like, nothing happens if you make a movie, and it sucks. I mean, it's just - it's fine. The world keeps turning (laughter). But when you are an egotistic and you truly want to create something that's unique that is going to be studied for ages, the pressure is immense because what you face, first of all, is your limitations. And it becomes, like, not a pleasurable venture.
SHAPIRO: Is that a pressure that you put on yourself when you're writing?
GIACOBONE: I think that perfectionism in that is, like, it's a mistake. I feel that we are basically imperfect. Everything we will ever do is going to be imperfect in a way. But at the same time, like, it's a contradiction because you have to do the best you can. You have to make sure that you're doing the best you can. There's nothing left there, that if you can fix a line, you can fix a word, if you can fix a transition from scene to scene or - like, you should do it. Just take your time. You should become obsessed with the thing. But at the same time, you have to know that it's going to be completely imperfect (laughter).
SHAPIRO: And hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time while you write.
GIACOBONE: Yes. Yes.
SHAPIRO: One way that your main character, Pablo, gets through it is by imposing a strict routine on his life in this basement prison cell, basically. Is that key to your process of writing, too?
GIACOBONE: Yeah, completely. That's completely autobiographic.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) That's totally autobiographical.
GIACOBONE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And the thing that I like about Pablo in a way that is scary but I enjoy is that he has this personality that I relate to, where he suffers the imprisonment. But at the same time, he's sort of accepted it. It's like, OK, I'm here. The only thing I have to do is write.
And for me, writing - it's a little bit of that. It's a realistic version of that. It's like I have to just stay home the whole day. I have this very specific routine. I have, like, different beverages during the day. In the morning, it's coffee. In the afternoon, it's mate, which is an Argentinian sort of green tea drink. Then I drink a little bit of whiskey in the evening. And sometimes, what I do is just - I have to be at home. The computer has to be on. The draft has to be open. But then what I do is, like, I'm going to just sit down and drink some coffee and read or something like that. I tell myself that I'm enjoying the morning. But somewhere, the need to write is there.
SHAPIRO: We never actually get to read the screenplay at the center of the plot. How closely did you map it out? Do you have a screenplay that the reader has never seen? Or do you have an outline?
GIACOBONE: No, I had one, but it didn't (laughter) - like, it - I thought it was better to sort of create the idea that something amazing can be done and not know completely what that's about. Leaving that hole there, like, makes you fill in the blanks and believe that it could be something amazing, you know?
SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about a section where Pablo describes the act of writing. And it's bleak (laughter). Will you read this part of the book?
GIACOBONE: OK. (Reading) If you reach the end of a screenplay feeling that writing it was easy, that there's no great secret to screenwriting, then the draft isn't worth [expletive]. You have to suffer. You have to beat your head against the wall. You have to feel like it's all for nothing. You have to look at yourself in the mirror and realize your face is idiotic because we all have idiotic faces - even worse, idiotic eyes. You have to laugh like crazy at least once a week. You have to cry. You have to read what you wrote and cry, not because the scenes are sad but because they are pathetic. You have to spend hours and hours imagining other possible professions. You have to spend hours and hours thinking up valid excuses, even if they are lies, to justify the failure.
SHAPIRO: It goes on and on and on (laughter).
GIACOBONE: Yeah (laughter).
SHAPIRO: There's pages of this list. Is this how you feel about writing?
GIACOBONE: I think of the novel as a comedy in a way.
GIACOBONE: And it's sort of like this exaggerated version of it. I mean...
SHAPIRO: I mean, I see a grain of truth in that. I've definitely had moments writing where I've felt some of those things.
GIACOBONE: Yeah. I mean, it's just - for me, like, writing anything, it's, like, what I enjoy the most - and even when I read novels - is, like, when you put yourself this mask, you know, which is a version of yourself, but it's distorted. It's not completely you.
And in a way, it allows you to be even more truthful than if you're trying to be realistic or write a memoir. Everybody's going to read this and know it's true, so I have to - and, like, you become more tactical than if you're writing fiction and from this sort of mask. And I tried to do that. I tried to put myself in that situation, where I was playing with things that had to do with me that are real. But at the same time, I was on this exaggerated level of fiction.
SHAPIRO: And did you send the directors that you have worked with an early draft with a letter of apology?
GIACOBONE: (Laughter) I sent him the book. I sent him the book.
SHAPIRO: You sent Inarritu the book?
SHAPIRO: What did he say about it?
GIACOBONE: (Laughter) I think he enjoyed it.
GIACOBONE: He had fun. I mean, we're working together in a new project, so I think...
SHAPIRO: Oh, OK.
GIACOBONE: So everything is cool.
SHAPIRO: Well, Nicolas Giacobone, it has been great talking with you about your novel. Congratulations.
GIACOBONE: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: The book is called "The Crossed-Out Notebook."
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDCHORD & G MILLS' "SUNLIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.