In the mid-1980s I studied filmmaking in college. My fellow students and I critiqued classic films (The 400 Blows, 8 ½, Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Days of Heaven) and worked on as many film projects as we could, all the while preparing to film our senior theses, using scripts we supplied, actors we cast, and film students as crew.
At the time, I had limited screenwriting ability. Robert Towne I was not. So when it came time to start my own project, I looked for an appropriate short story on which I could base a film. I kept coming back to Raymond Carver’s story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which I had discovered a few years earlier when I was a college freshman. I always liked that Carver’s stories were easy to read, if not always easily understood. They were populated with working class couples; men and women in trouble or denial, making bad choices, or living with the repercussions of those choices.
The story I liked best was “Why Don’t You Dance?”, about a young couple at a yard sale. When they arrive nobody is around so they browse the items set up in the driveway. Finally, a man comes out of the house and offers them a drink. Turns out this man is going through a divorce.
I always loved that this guy dragged all his furniture outside and arranged it as it had been in the house. The double bed with his and hers matching end tables. The TV in front of the sofa. It was the visual element of the props and location that I related to as a filmmaker. The odd character interplay was also a lure. The man plays a record and dances with the young woman while the young man drinks. Later at a party, the couple recounts the story in bewildered wonder, not understanding what it all meant.
To fully exploit my film after it was completed I needed the author’s permission. In the spring of 1986 I browsed reference material in the university library and found Raymond Carver’s address in Port Angeles, Washington. I sent him a letter asking him if I could adapt “Why Don’t You Dance” into a film.
A month later I received a response. Carver wrote that I could adapt his story and wished me luck. He also said that if I ever wanted to do anything commercially with the film I was to contact his agent.
I wrote him back and thanked him, asking if he would be interested in seeing a finished copy of the film. He replied a month or two later on an index card. He said he would be very interested and pleased to see the finished film.
Making a film is an arduous and expensive task. I cast my sister, Cynthia, and her new boyfriend, both actors, as the young couple. I found a seasoned actor at a regional repertory theater to play the man who was going through a divorce. In the fall of ’86 I shot the film using a student crew.
Over the next year, when I had time and money, I edited the film. After I finished it, I sent Raymond Carver a VHS copy of the film but didn’t hear back. Maybe he was just busy. I didn’t want to contact him again and be further disappointed with no response. I also didn’t want to hear that he hated my film or was in some way offended by it. I decided not to agonize over what the silence represented.
In February of ‘88 I went to work in Manhattan on a low budget feature film called On The Make. I was a second assistant film editor and assistant sound editor. There were interns working with us in the editing room. One of the interns was a film student shooting his senior thesis film. I discovered that he had also based his film on “Why Don’t You Dance.” It was beyond coincidence that two guys working together in the dank bowels of Ross-Gaffney Editorial on 46th Street would choose the same short story to adapt. I had to ignore any higher implications beyond serving to remind me that my own finished film sat languishing in a film can in my bedroom closet.
We compared notes. He was shooting on video; I had shot mine on sixteen millimeter color film using an Arriflex 16BL film camera. His rough cut clocked in at 20 minutes; my finished film time was 6 1/2. I had received permission from the author to adapt it, he hadn’t. I had cast my sister and her future husband; he had cast Eszter Balint, the actress best known for starring in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger than Paradise.
With up-and-coming film students nipping at my heels, I needed to take action. My next step was to find out who represented Raymond Carver and try to obtain commercial film rights to this story. It didn’t take much digging: she was a maverick agent who represented many of the younger, exciting authors of the eighties: Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, Mona Simpson, and Jay McInerney, as well as Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. Her name was Amanda Urban. Nickname: Binky. She was often mentioned when one of her authors was written about.
She worked at ICM, one of the largest and most powerful agencies in the world. I called her New York office on a weekday morning from the On The Make edit suite. An assistant answered. I gave my info and she told me she’d get Urban the message. I called again the next day and left another message. I was beginning to be the fly in Binky’s appointment book. She would eventually have to talk to me. That afternoon, after I returned from lunch, the assistant film editor told me Amanda Urban had called. I immediately called her office back. After being on hold for a minute, Binky came on the line.
I explained myself, how I had permission from Carver to adapt his film, and now was sniffing for commercial rights. The truth was I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my little film. It was my calling card, but I wanted it to have a life beyond an erstwhile film student’s reel.
“Oh no. No,” she said. “All those stories are sold.”
I couldn’t think straight. She was abrupt, imperious, and intimidating. I imagined McInerney on line 2 and Tartt waiting for her in the lobby.
“So nothing can be done commercially with—”
“Right. Is that all?”
I said yes and hung up.
That’s an approximation of our conversation. I had my answer: Raymond Carver, or rather his agent, had sold the rights to his stories, including “Why Don’t You Dance.” I wondered how many filmmakers had the same idea? And why weren’t we just writing our own stories?
I worked in New York well into the summer. I was living in Fairfield, Connecticut and commuting into Grand Central on the Metro-North commuter rail. Each morning while waiting for the train I bought a medium regular coffee and a glazed donut. Occasionally I bought the New York Times. One morning while reading the paper I came across the obituary for Raymond Carver. He had died of cancer on August 2nd, 1988. He was 50.
Turns out Urban had sold many of his stories to filmmaker Robert Altman, who adapted elements of them into his movie Short Cuts. It’s a long film, and difficult to watch. There is nothing joyful about it. The characters are unlikable, ditsy, shrill, and in many cases, mean. Carver wrote about hard-working people. Smart people with problems making stupid choices. In Short Cuts, Altman chose to connect these stories, letting his actors traipse around Los Angeles (anti Carver country), acting like shrieking morons in perpetual arrested development. Would Carver have wanted this?
Many of Carver’s stories have been adapted into films, some in other countries (Nos veremos mañana and C’était le chien d’Eddy anyone?), and many after Carver’s death, including “So Much Water So Close to Home” and “Cathedral.” And another version of “Why Don’t You Dance”, called …They Haven’t Seen This.
I had wanted to use Carver’s story because it was visual, short, a little weird, and, to me at the time, straightforward. He was just being nice when he gave me his permission. I’ll never know if he ever watched it. At 6 1/2 minutes I tried to match his story’s conciseness. He may not have agreed, but at 3 hours I don’t think Short Cuts was what he had in mind either.
In the end, my film’s biggest achievement was that it was finished. If Carver did see it, along with other short films based on his work made before his death, I hope he appreciated mine if only for its brevity and economy.
A slightly different version this essay originally appeared on Unreliable Narrator.