Pamela Romanowsky makes her feature directing debut with the ambitious and evocative The Adderall Diaries, a project that’s based on Stephen Elliott’s bestselling memory. On the surface, the story centers on Stephen’s fixation with a high-profile murder case (Christian Slater plays the suspect) and the deepening rift between he and his father (the always effective Ed Harris). Amber Heard co-stars as a New York Times journalist who enters a relationship with Stephen,
During my interview with Pamela Romanowsky, she talked about the challenges of crafting this narrative which, in essence, used Elliott’s memoir as one of its foundations. The meat and bones of the story focuses on how Stephen, whether unwittingly or on purpose, has edited his own memories to advance his career or plainly ensure his own survival amidst past tragedies. The Adderall Diaries is a self-assured work from the first time director, and our discussion delved into her immersive journey with the multi-layered film.
One of the gratifying parts of this movie must have been collaborating with James Franco and Ed Harris.
Absolutely. James and Ed are two of my favorite actors in the world, so it was a huge privilege to have them in the movie and to be able to direct them. Day two of the shoot we shot one of the most important scenes in the film where Stephen comes to the hotel to confront Neil. It’s this intense scene – it’s at the midpoint of the movie and it’s the first scene with James and Ed. We haven’t rehearsed at all. I was incredibly nervous. I had talked to them extensively for the previous nine months and they’re both insanely talented. I knew that these two incredibly powerful people would come blazing into the scene, but I didn’t know what would happen.
I call ‘action’ and James knocks on the door of the hotel and from second one they were both so committed and full steam ahead. Their chemistry was so good and they both really went for it and the scene is phenomenal. So from that first take directing them, it was really just about small adjustments. Every single take was great and it was about finding the right timing, tone, and mood.
At the Sundance Lab I had a great acting teacher who’s named Joan Darling, she’s incredible. And she has this great saying that ‘a great actor is like a high speed train’ in that the most incremental adjustment in the beginning will change your course completely and you’ll wind up somewhere different. And I found that to be so true. The way that James is coming into that scene and changing it just a tiny bit – modulating the intensity – and just that one tiny change at the beginning – the effect ripples all through the scene and becomes magnified. It’s just fascinating to watch these choices impact the rest of the scene and to watch these two giants of acting react to each other and respond truthfully in the moment. It was one of my favorite days.
There are several narrative layers to the film. Was finding your way through the story an immediate process or did it grow and transform during the several years of developing the story?
It took me a long time to figure out. That’s exactly right. The Adderall Diaries is about a lot of things and the movie continues to be a lot of things which I felt was appropriate. The adaptation – either you’re on board with it or you’re not. The idea and the structure was Stephen was sort of the sun of his universe and there’s these five satellite relationships that orbit around him and it takes the spin out of each of these relationships to affect his course and to make him realize something about himself.
The challenge in adapting the book was the book had so much in it. It’s introspective. It has ideas and thoughts and interests. It doesn’t really have a plot. There isn’t a present tense engine (and) the character doesn’t really change. Obviously, that’s fundamentally opposed to what we love in a movie and what people respond to. The challenge for me was finding what relationships in his life I really cared about and how can I take the themes and ideas that I loved in the book and see them carried out in his relationships. The guiding force, the quote in the book that drew me to this movie was ‘We understand the world by how we retrieve memories re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.’
I love that idea and I think it’s so true and so human. I see it in myself. I see it in my loved ones. I see it in strangers. I don’t think there’s anything malicious about the way that we edit our memories. It’s just how our mind works. We’re storytelling machines. We’re problem solving machines and we need to understand ourselves. So we look into our history to understand who we are and it tells us who we are and how we fit into the world. I love this idea and I thought it was interesting to represent thematically. I knew the major conflict in the story would be between Stephen and his dad who have the same shared history but tell their history in such a different way.
They do argue about the details about what happened but they’re main conflict is about how they’re casting themselves in the same story. They can’t both be the victim and that’s a fundamental conflict.
Can you talk about the visual design behind your movie?
We shot the present and the past on two different sets of lenses but both are cinematic. Both are vintage lenses – lenses that give a surreal, less defined quality of the image. So Bruce Cheung, who’s my DP, was a classmate of mine from NYU. He has a really poetic and organic way of working that I love. We knew early on that a movie called ‘The Adderall Diaries’ was not going to be a static movie and there needed to be a lot of movement in it. But I also thought it would be too over the top to have a handheld movie and to sort of artificially put this frenetic quality to it.
So we opted to shoot (the film) with Steadicam and that allowed us to be reactive to a situation in a sort of organic way. I really love movies (where) the main character is the one directing – so the camera movements are very attuned to the emotion of the scene. When we were shooting Stephen’s coverage the camera is always reframing for what his attention is on. Which is often what he’s looking at or (when he) starts to drift away and all of a sudden violent and intrusively we’ll dip into the past.
Having that gentle yet constant movement was a big part of the visual plan.
A part of the movie also deals with how one processes and deals with grief and tragedy by carefully interpreting their own memories. Did this theme have a personal impact on you as well?
It would be impossible to work on something that long and have it be part of your daily life without it impacting you. Stephen isn’t editing his memories because he’s addicted to Adderall. He’s editing his memories because he’s a person. And that’s what we do. It’s about having a frank discussion about what in my life am I editing and why? It’s forced me to look at places I have resentment or distrust with someone. There are a couple of people who have said (to me), ‘Look this is who I remember things’ and they have a wildly different version of it. I think that’s really uncomfortable and makes me realize places where I have embellished and edited and why I’ve done that. It’s always about coping and needing to make sense of things and needing to move on.
I think most people are not a**holes on purpose. Most people don’t hurt other people on purpose – we mostly react. Most people are struggling with their own demons, problems, and obstacles and trying to love the people they care about and unintentionally hurting people in their journey to cope and understand and make them the person they want to be. Writing the story has allowed me to find some compassion, rebuild burnt bridges and understand relationships that have been painful.
Another interesting aspect must be the reaction from the people who’ve seen The Adderall Diaries and shared their own experiences with you.
That’s really the carrot that keeps me going. Getting to connect with someone and say ‘Hey, I also have this weird, uncomfortable secret I do or this strange thing that happened to me or this gnarly relationship that I don’t understand.’ That’s the point of making art – it lets you connect with people who feel lonely or misunderstood in the same way and find some company there. I love getting to talk to people about what they see of themselves in the story and because it’s about so many things it’s always different. A lot of people talk to me about their parents and their childhood and how they remember things differently.
Some people want to talk about their best friend and all the things that remain unsaid. People want to talk to me about lovers and how difficult it is to navigate all the subtext and history that comes with a romantic relationship. It’s not always spoken out loud but there’s so much . . . we’re shaped in these interesting ways by our paths and sometimes that comes out in intimate relationships. You sort of have to make sense of that and constantly reorient yourself.
One of the most interesting conversations I had was at a friend’s wedding. Her mom said, and this is even before I shot the movie, that she had a twin sister who has a totally different telling of her childhood. They were always in the same place, they grew up in the same house with the same parents. One of them remembered a happy childhood and one of them remembers a really abusive, traumatizing situation. She said, ‘I love my sister and I know she’s not lying and I know I’m not lying, I just don’t understand how we could have had such different experiences or how our memories could be so different.’
I was just so honored that someone was willing to tell me something that personal and share that with me.
Can you talk about having the music behind the film and your choice for the Chet Faker track at the end?
So Mike Andrews is the composer. He scored Donnie Darko which I love and which we used a lot of temp in the cut. When we started to talk about composers, I said ‘Can we just ask Mike Andrews first?’ I was bowled over when he said he would do it.
Mike is really extraordinary. He’s sort of this mad scientist/genius. He records everything live so working with him is very much like directing an actor. It’s a really generous thing to want the director to sit with you the whole time. I was so honored and pleased that he wanted to do that. Much like an actor I’d sit there, we’d go through a scene, I’m sort of holding the emotional road map for it and knowing where there’s a beast shift (or) when someone changes their mind. I like to mark them on my script just to have it. So often the change in the camera movement or the blocking will happen on the beat.
So (for example), on which frame is Amber Heard making this decision. We pinpoint that spot and then there’s something in the music that speaks to that. He’s very instinctive and he has a team of guys in his studio with instruments, chords, and pedals. He would start in with the sounds, shape it.
One of my favorite days is he came in with a glass armonica that he got from an estate sale. It looks like a tray of wine glasses – they are all tuned to a different note and you play it buy rubbing a finger around the rim. It (was used as) the Stephen and Lana theme and you hear it in every scene with them and it changes during the course of the movie. It sounds kind of like strings but it has this really vulnerable quality to it because you can hear the little grooves of his finger slipping or catching – it’s always imperfect and it sounds very romantic but there’s this fragile tone to it so it ends up with sort of a melancholy tone. He’s amazing to work with.
With the Chet Faker song, a great music supervisor named Kasey Truman who works at Chop Shop – she would send me music throughout the long editing process. There were so many cool songs that we ended up not using. There’s a Warpaint song that I really love – all kinds of cool stuff. We looked at 50 songs for the closing credits (and) I really like Chet Faker and it speaks directly to the theme and the tone of it is kind of light. I love it and I think it’s a great fit for the end title.
Moving forward where do you see your directing going?
Well I hope I have the great fortune to have a long filmmaking career and I hope to explore a lot of different things. I really admire filmmakers who have a lot of breadth in their body of work – Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, PT Anderson, and the Coen Bros. I think there are things that fascinate each person that are always going to come out in their films. I’m sure there are themes that will show up over and over again.
I really love slow motion because it allows you to see something naked to the present tense eye. You can see details that feel how the present can feel – it’s just a thing that cinema can do that other forms of art can’t. To expand a moment and lend it the weight it should have emotionally.
I love to explore memory. I love stories about misfits who find their people (laughs). I think these things will come up over and over again but I do hope I get to do lots of different kinds of work in film and television and to explore different kinds of worlds and themes. I probably won’t do a story about real people again in the immediate future because it has such a layer of responsibility and stress on it (laughs). I also like difficult to adapt books. I’m working on an adaptation of Rant by Chuck Palahniuk that doesn’t have a clear present tense narrative and it’s all about fractured time and compression. It’s a tough adaptation and I’m enjoying it but it’s certainly not an easy task.
Thank you so much for your time!
Thank you, I appreciate it so much. You were great to talk to!