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The Geometry of a
Pittsburgh Love Story

The Geometry of a
Pittsburgh Love Story


Dodgeball director Rawson Marshall Thurber brings a bisexual love triangle to Park City with his adaptation of Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Though straight writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber made his feature debut with the goofy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, his follow-up is something very different entirely -- an adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Beloved for its forthright, literate presentation of a bisexual love triangle among college-age bohemians, the book languished in development until Thurber's radical adaptation got the green light. I talked to Thurber on the eve of the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival to find out how he talked Chabon into his revision, and whether he's worried about how fans might react.

Other directors (such as Alan J. Pakula) have tried to bring this book to the screen. One attempt, staring Jason Schwartzman, almost made it to shooting. How did you get ahold of the project?

I knew that it had been around for a while--I read the book in 1995 and fell in love with it. I wrote Michael Chabon a fan letter, essentially saying, "I love this book, I love your writing, and I'd love to take you to breakfast to talk about it." He's represented by the same agency as I am, so I flew up to the Bay Area -- where I'm from -- and we went to this local joint up there, had some eggs, and I expressed my passion for it.

Was he receptive?

You know, Michael Chabon is just about the coolest Pulitzer Prize-winning author you'll ever meet. He had tried to adapt it before -- it was the first script he'd ever written, and he kind of ran into a tree. I think the novel had gotten this rap for being unadaptable.

I know you had a very different take on how to adapt the book. How did you sell him on it?

I knew what I wanted to do, and I told him, "I've got a pretty radical take on it, and if you're at all interested, let me do a five-or six-page treatment. If you're interested in that, let's go do it, and if you're not, please say so, and I'm a big fan and I can't wait to read the next thing." I wrote it up and sent if off, and I never thought he would say yes, actually, but then he read it and he sent me an e-mail back saying, "It's great -- let's do it."

Let's talk about some of the big changes you've made in your adaptation. In the book, the main character, Art (played in the film by Jon Foster), is romantically linked to his girlfriend, Phlox, his best friend, Arthur, and there's interest in a third character, Cleveland. In your version, Phlox is now a supporting character and Arthur has been excised entirely. Instead you have promoted supporting charactersJane (Sienna Miller) and Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) to Art's love interests and they now form a romantic triangle. And you have changed Cleveland's sexuality from straight to bi to make this work. Why did you have to make so many changes to the book?

This is something that was front and center in my treatment: the novel works beautifully, but part of the struggle in adapting it for film is that the engine of the novel is a four-pointed "love rhombus," which isn't as efficient a shape as a triangle for cinema. Also, the novel is told in the first person, which is always inherently difficult to adapt. Art Bechstein in the novel is interesting because he's telling this story, because he's imbued by Michael Chabon's powers of observation and description. Were you to adapt that directly, you end up with a passive main character.

But why so many character replacements? Why sub in Cleveland -- a character who was previously straight -- for Arthur?

You know, that was really interesting to me: someone falling in love irrespective of gender. I found that fascinating. It was clear to me that Art loved Arthur and Phlox, but he did love Cleveland as well -- he says as much in the final third of the novel. It seemed more efficient to me to fashion a love triangle with both people, and I think, also, it would allow me to stay true to the tone, tenor, and spirit of the novel.

Had you thought about doing it the other way around -- replacing Cleveland with Arthur?

That's a really good question. Certainly, Cleveland brings with him more plot, in that he's mixed up with the gangster world, and certainly brings with him the whole third act of the novel. I thought to do it that way instead of the other way around gave it more drive.

Similarly, why has Phlox -- the female lead of the novel -- turned into a supporting role in favor of Jane, who plays a very minor role in the book as Cleveland's on/off girlfriend?

I think that Phlox still exists in a very similar manner to the character she was in the novel -- someone who's deeply passionate and wonderful. And I think that Art's relationship with Phlox in the novel is similar to what it is in the film, in that Art's not sure why he's with her, and she takes everything so terribly seriously. I think [Phlox's new role] was Michael Chabon's idea, actually, because I was going to have the drive of the narrative be between Jane, Cleveland, and Art, and I didn't want to lose Phlox.

In terms of Jane, I remember talking to Michael about it. I think he had felt that he didn't do all he could with that character, who was so great and had such a lovely introduction in the novel. I took some of those elements of Phlox and gave them to Jane and strengthened the character, and then repurposed Phlox.

There is a lot of controversy online amongst Chabon fans who've caught wind of all the changes. Was that on your mind at all when you were doing your adaptation?

[Laughs] You know, Kyle, for better or for worse, I actually didn't really think about getting beaten up one way or the other. My real goal was to make a film that felt like the novel did to me, and I think I've done that. In terms of the bisexuality, I did my best with it. Art, in the novel, was unsure of his sexuality. In the early bits, he had always worried that he might be gay and took it sort of sharply and never let anyone mock him for that. In the film you see a similar thing -- Art is unsure about whom he loves and why he loves, but it's how he loves that ends up being the important thing. If people come to the film expecting to see a direct transcription of the novel, this isn't the one for them, but if they're coming to see a movie that feels like the book and has that sense of memory and beauty and nostalgia, I think they'll be pleased.

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Kyle Buchanan