Though most of author Jonathan Tropper’s novels have been optioned for movies, the first one to actually make it to the big screen is the one he adapted himself. Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, about a family brought together to sit shiva for their departed patriarch—and, yes, it’s a comedy—is directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper By the Dozen, A Night at the Museum) and features a stacked cast that includes Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, and Adam Driver. We caught up with the New Rochelle writer prior to the movie hitting theaters on September 12.
When you wrote This Is Where I Leave You, was there a glimmer of a movie in your mind, or does that not really enter into your head until after the book is finished?
Because my last few novels were optioned, I actually set out with the intention of writing a novel that could not be optioned. I really thought the format and the subject matter of This Is Where I Leave You would preclude any Hollywood interest. Once they optioned it, I just insisted on being attached as a screenwriter.
But This Is Where I Leave You isn’t the first script you’ve written, right?
After some of my books got optioned and the screenwriters failed to write scripts that got them made, I decided I wanted to get in there myself and see what was going on. I adapted one of my earlier novels, The Book of Joe. Nobody bought that, but on the strength of that script I got the job of writing a remake of Harvey, the Mary Chase play that was also a movie in 1950 with Jimmy Stewart. I wrote that for 20th Century Fox, and there was a period where Steven Spielberg was interested and wanted to direct it, so I worked with him for a while. Through that, I started to be able to get work as a screenwriter. The next job I got was writing This Is Where I Leave You.
You’re also a writer for [Cinemax TV series] Banshee.
I created Banshee, so I write that show. I never worked in television prior to that.
What’s the hardest: adapting your own novel, adapting a novel by someone else, or creating something from scratch?
Having done all three, I think for me the hardest is adapting your own novel. You live with a world for so long as it exists in novel form, and, when you write the movie, you have to challenge all the assumptions you’ve lived with and all the rules you made because they’re not going to work in the movie. But you don’t always realize that you’re stuck because you’re considering something in the book holy that is not holy. I’ll be stuck on a plot point and suddenly I’ll realize that I just have to make something happen three days earlier. In the book, it didn’t happen three days earlier, but that doesn’t matter. Sometimes, when it’s your own book, you forget to have that mindset.
I read somewhere that you did 40 drafts of the screenplay—is that true?
Over the course of five years. There were two other directors attached. It was not 40 complete, rewritten drafts, but there are 40 files of this script in my computer. Sometimes I did a pass just to punch up a certain character because we were going after a certain actor. Sometimes I did a pass because a new director came in. There’s a lot of polishing over the years to get it to the one that we made. When you’re writing a screenplay, there’s input from producers, the director, the studio, the actors. There are locations and sets that don’t match what you’ve written, and you’ve got to rewrite for the location. When it comes to writing novels, none of that exists. I just sit alone and write.
Did you discover anything about how humor works differently in a movie than it does in a novel?
Certainly every conversation you write in a book is much too long to put in a film. The humor has to come more from the rhythm of the dialog. You just have to know what’s going to play spoken out loud or visually versus what plays in a written narrative. Sometimes on set—this happens on my TV show, too—you see a character deliver a line you’ve written and you realize it’s not going to play the way you hoped in your mind it would, and then you just rewrite it on the spot. Or sometimes the actor has an idea that works better. Sometimes you can’t know it until you see it.
The cast of This Is Where I Leave You is full of amazingly talented actors. Did you have any input about the casting?
The decision ultimately came to the director, Shawn, and the producers. But Shawn definitely kept me in the loop on the casting. I always wanted Jason Bateman. Even with the prior director, we’d gone after Jason Bateman. I’ve wanted Jason Bateman for most of my projects.
Gifted ad-libbers Tina Fey and Jason Bateman
Would you say that, for the most part, they match what was in your head when you were writing the book?
No, they can’t possibly match what I pictured when I was writing the book. As a matter of fact, I recently read the book again, and found when I read the book I still picture the characters I envision when I was writing the book, who are not the actors.
The cast is full of gifted comedians used to improv. Did they do much ad-libbing on set?
Sure, especially with Jason and Tina. They’re really good at finding the joke within the written joke. Certainly, there was a good amount of ad-libbing. And after he filmed the written version and got what he needed, Shawn would encourage them to riff and try different things.
Was that weird for you as the writer?
No; it’s very exciting. They’re two witty, funny people and I still get to take credit for it.
The book takes place in “Elmsbrook, New York,” which certainly sounds like a Westchester town. Did any Westchester references make it into the movie?
We don’t make any specific Westchester references, but we did shoot sections in Rye and in New Rochelle. We used downtown Rye as one of our neighborhood streets, and we shot one of the backyard scenes right around the corner from my house in New Rochelle. We also shot at a synagogue in Rye. And it wasn’t her temple, but we hired Mia [Fram Davidson], the cantor from the Westchester Reform Temple, to actually be the cantor in the movie.
What did you think of the finished product?
I think it came out great. There are parts of it that are really the book come to life, and there are parts of it that are just its own animal. I grew up loving these kind of character-driven comedies, everything from Terms of Endearment to The Graduate to Jerry Maguire, but the studios kind of stopped making them. It’s just exciting to be able to do a comedy at a studio that isn’t very broad.
What’s up next for you?
We’re in the middle of shooting season three of Banshee. I finished writing the script for One Last Thing Before I Go, and we’re currently in the process of figuring out a cast and director. I’m working on a science-fiction script for Paramount—I wouldn’t want to say more than that at this point. And I’m trying to write my next book.