In January 2010, Harper’s Magazine published T. C. Boyle’s stunning short story “My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain,” which traces the desperate acts and philosophical consolations of a middle-aged man who has become romantically obsessed with one of his neighbors, a widow with whom he and his estranged wife were once close. Boyle later agreed to let independent filmmaker Adam Hall adapt the story into a short feature, which Hall filmed in Sullivan County, New York, and premiered at the 2012 Woodstock Film Festival. Harper’s is pleased to be hosting the film on our website until the fall. We asked Hall six questions about the many choices that go into adapting literary fiction.
1. What made you want to adapt this story, in particular?
When you’re making an independent short film, the draw to get everyone involved has to be the story you’re telling. “My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain” offers a remarkable character study. Boyle’s protagonist exhibits a wide range of needs, and his story raises fascinating questions about fate and bad luck, and how these can be used to justify or blame one’s choices and circumstances. I was also interested in the dynamic of full-timers and part-timers in small towns — I had experienced a world similar to upstate New York as a kid going to small cottages and trailers in northern Ontario.
2. I’d like to focus on one section of the story and ask you to step through the key choices you made in translating it for the screen. How did you get from Boyle’s opening paragraph to the sequence that runs from the start of the film to about the 00:55 mark?
We shot the opening scenes very close to the way that they unfold in the story, and initially recorded narration to play over them. While we were editing, though, we found that they were best witnessed without commentary. Boyle has said that a well-written short story compresses the action while suggesting a larger picture at the same time. The opening sequence is meant to show Gary’s calculations. He takes a long look at himself in a mirror, drinks from his flask, and puts on his ski mask, then goes to Lily’s and climbs up on her roof. We wanted to highlight this series of conscious choices, and how that night was a catalyst for Gary.
Clark Middleton and I discussed extensively the motivation for his character’s decision to get up on that roof. We saw a character who thinks a big game but never speaks up about or acts on his thoughts. Everything comes too late for him. Climbing up on a roof like a peeping tom is something you might attempt as a teenager, not as a middle-aged married man.
3. As that sequence suggests, the protagonist does some pretty creepy things. Yet in the absence of a camera, Boyle’s protagonist, as the story’s sole narrator, can infuse these actions with a kind of self-justifying logic that makes them seem human and relatable, if not entirely sympathetic. As a filmmaker, how did you go about recreating that sense of humanity? Also, why did you give the character a name?
Naming the character helped me distinguish his filmed version from the character in the original story, and I also felt it would be helpful for the actor portraying him. Gary’s humanity results, I think, from Clark’s wonderfully nuanced performance. Clark brought real feeling to the role. My hope was that viewers would want Gary to overcome the pain he’s fighting through. Clark turned me on to an amazing film called Wanda, directed by Barbara Loden in 1970, which became a big inspiration for us. The title character drinks to suppress her problems, abandons her family, and goes on the run with a criminal. She makes bad choice after bad choice, but you still feel sympathy for her.
Clark and I spent a weekend last winter in Sullivan County, where we shot the film. On our last day there, in Monticello, a place of old diners, some strip malls, and a “racino” (racetrack/casino), we found a place called the Nugget. We went in, sat at the end of the bar, and took it all in. It was early in the afternoon, and the place was full of middle-aged people. Whitney Houston’s funeral was playing on every television, Top 40 hits were playing on the jukebox, and nobody was talking. Women were dressed up and drinking vodka or white wine; men in jeans and sweatshirts were drinking beer and playing the lottery. Everyone seemed to have come alone. I think we found Gary in there. As Clark said to me, these weren’t bad people, but you could picture them making mistakes out of boredom, fueled by alcohol. For the movie I imagined Gary starting his day drinking there, going home, and then after his wife fell asleep digging that ski mask out of the closet. It’s not wise to take personal risks after a long day at the Nugget.
4. The story and film both contain an interlude with a young drifter known only as “the kid,” who appears briefly and then vanishes from the narrative. It’s one of the most curious aspects of the story, and yet if I were adapting it into a short film, it’s the part I would be most tempted to excise, since although it comes to involve Lily, the woman whose roof the protagonist climbs onto, it didn’t seem essential to the arc of their relationship. What did you think Boyle was trying to accomplish there, and why did you choose to emphasize the kid over Lily’s tragic back story, which Boyle explores at length?
The skinny-kid scene is my favorite part of the story. Gary has just started to break out of his self-imposed exile from the winter — as he says, “We’re a community that forgets if not forgives.” But he’s also obsessing over Lily and believes that his accident was an act of love, and that if he can just see her again he will be able to convince her of that. What’s wonderful about this scene is that it shows Gary’s ability to protect another person and provides him with an opportunity to stand his ground against authority. And of course, in a cruel twist of fate, it also brings Lily to his house. This is as close as the universe seems to come to bringing the two of them together, and I think that’s why Gary takes action once again at the end.
I also wanted to emphasize the episode with the kid because it allowed a departure from Gary’s solitude and the attendant voiceover required to convey his thoughts. As much as I love first-person narration, I was excited to let the actors tell the story through dialogue; I thought they were all terrific in those scenes. And my favorite shot in the film is the handheld one that brings Gary through his house to the kitchen and then sits him back down in the wheelchair as he and the kid begin to talk.
5. The film did a beautiful job, I thought, of bringing out the mood and tone of Boyle’s story. How did you go about capturing and enhancing these characteristics?
Our main goal as a team of filmmakers was to capture the tone of the story. The title makes such a strong statement — I wanted the viewer to grasp viscerally the extremity of Gary’s physical and emotional pain. We begin and end the film with close-ups of his face for that reason. The first shot of him looking in the mirror is quite funny, as are many parts of Boyle’s story. At the end, we use a long dolly shot that pushes into a similar close-up, though, and it’s not funny at all. I wanted the audience to feel a despair similar to what I felt after I first read the story.
Music was also very important. One of the lines in the story begins, “While I was laying there, hidden behind my mask like a second-string superhero . . .” From that, I got the idea that when Gary takes risks it would feel correct for him to have his own superhero theme. To get the particular theme, I discussed with Jherek Bischoff, the composer, how Carter Burwell’s theme in Fargo starts very simply, then builds into something dramatic. Jherek provided us with a composition called “Closer to Closure” that had a similar feel, and that seemed to me to reinforce the stakes for Gary.
6. Reading the story, I imagined Lily and the narrator to be roughly equivalent in age and attractiveness. You chose a quite beautiful woman (Sayra Player) as your Lily, while Gary is perhaps not obviously in her league. Was this the way you’d envisioned them when you originally read the story, or were they decisions that presented themselves to you later?
Clark Middleton was the only actor I’d envisioned for Gary. In a way I think I’d been looking for a story good enough to allow me to reconnect with him. We met on the set of a movie I worked on called Live Free or Die; I recognized him as Ernie from Kill Bill: Vol. 2. (He and Budd (Michael Madsen) dig a grave and bury Beatrix (Uma Thurman) alive.) I’d kept tabs on his career since then and thought he was great in everything he did. He graciously agreed to play Gary, and became a true collaborator. Clark is also a talented writer and director in his own right, and runs a studio called Apartment 929. He helped us cast many of the other parts. I couldn’t have made this film without him.
I’d imagined Lily as totally out of Gary’s league. Sarah and I understood Lily to want no part of the world she found herself in; as a widow, she’s vulnerable, and her pain is amplified by the fact that people won’t leave her alone to grieve. There’s a shot near the end of the film in which she’s surrounded by a group of despicable men who are all using Gary’s actions as an excuse to try and impress her. Lily, like Gary and everyone else, seems trapped on her own spinning wheel of fate.
Read T. C. Boyle’s short story “My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain”
View the short film My Pain Is Worse Than Your Pain