Leaving the Stage Behind: Adapting a Play for the Big Screen

 

IMG_7210Director Bret Fetzer brought the one-man monologue My Last Year With the Nuns to moviegoers with great acclaim. He reflects on his experience in this essay.

By Bret Fetzer
Photos by John Jeffcoat

Making a movie is like running an obstacle course, and the first obstacle in the path of My Last Year With the Nuns was obvious: I was crafting a film out of Seattle performer Matt Smith’s theatrical
monologue — one man talking for an hour and a half. While there are several successful films of someone alone on a stage talking, they’re mostly stand-up comedy, not long-form storytelling. Moreover, I didn’t want to just document a stage performance; I wanted to find a way to make this experience cinematic.

There were three examples I could think of: Spalding Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy, Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me, and Josh Kornbluth’s Haiku Tunnel.

 Director Bret Fetzer brought his one-man monologue from stage to screen.

Director Bret Fetzer brought Matt Smith’s (pictured here) one-man monologue from stage to screen.

Both Sleepwalk With Me and Haiku Tunnel tried to create a kind of hybrid movie, going back and forth between a typical multi-character scenario and the central character talking directly to the camera. But neither one quite gels, largely because in a monologue, a significant event can happen in a single sentence; but when you turn that monologue into a multi-character narrative, that event has to be a scene that can’t match the wit and concision of that sentence. The strongest elements of both movies were when Birbiglia and Kornbluth turned to the camera and talked. This convinced me it was crucial to stick to that.

Gray’s Anatomy is a more interesting case. Like Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy stuck to Gray’s monologue, but director Steven Soderbergh took Gray off the stage into a variety of odd settings—the one I remember most has Gray in a chair on some kind of conveyor belt, moving slowly across the screen. The result is visually intriguing, but doesn’t do much to support Gray’s voice; in fact, I’d argue the visuals work against the rhythm of the storytelling—and in storytelling, rhythm is crucial.IMG_7423

So I wanted to make the camera as nimble and fluid as Matt’s words. Matt talks about kids he grew up with, and the nuns and priests who made their lives difficult, but his stories are just as much about places: The shack where the newspaper boys played and fought, the church where Matt was a negligent altar boy, the ravine where secrets were kept and runaways hid, the classroom where a spelling bee became a tool of punishment. So I decided to make these places as significant as other actors would be.

Almost every time Matt’s stories shift to a new location, so does the movie—sometimes multiple times within each episode. These locations not only frame the stories (or perhaps “ground them” would be a better way to put it), but the shift from setting to setting gives the movie a visual rhythm that’s in sync with Matt’s verbal rhythms. I hoped the effect would be lively, playful, and perhaps give the audience the sense that they were entering into Matt’s memories as he told these stories. The reviews of My Last Year With the Nuns suggest that I succeeded in leaving the stage behind.

My Last Year With the Nuns is currently available via Vimeo-On-Demand at www.mylastyearwiththenuns.com.

Bret Fetzer has been writing screenplays, plays, and short stories for over 30 years. His plays have been produced around the U.S., as well as a production in Chile. His short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and collected in Petals & Thorns and Tooth & Tongue. He’s written film reviews for Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and Amazon.com. He has been the Artistic Director of Annex Theatre, the theater editor for The Stranger, and a vacuum cleaner salesman for the Kirby Company. He wrote the narration for the documentary Le Petomane: Fin-de-siecle Fartiste. He has previously directed a handful of short films; My Last Year With the Nuns is his feature-film debut.

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