How many of your favorite books have been turned into films? How many of those films have done those books justice? Capturing a reader’s imagination on celluloid is difficult and not without high expectations. Today’s guest blogger, Nathaniel Kressen is a Brooklyn-based novelist, playwright, and screenwriter that talks about writing cinematic stories and his desire to create characters that offer levity and darkness in their journey of self-exploration. His writing is inspired by good films and characters that display these essential qualities. Perhaps his own work will soon find a successful adaptation, bringing his own colorful characters to life.
Some novelists think of writing in terms of music. They hit the keypads, they breathe the rhythm of the words. At times, I’m one of these would-be percussionists. I can tell when an idea is working or not based on how it feels in my body. But more so, I’m a product of my generation. Having been born and raised in the era of films, I think of my novels cinematically.
My first novel Concrete Fever (Second Skin Books, 2013) follows a pact made between two young strangers to play out a fake romance over the course of one night and discover whether magic can actually exist. As I wrote the journey of Jumper and Gypsy, the locations within New York City became increasingly important. From a rooftop littered with broken possessions to a West Village stoop where a street intersects itself, from a midnight park overlooking the Hudson to a 5am graveyard where the wind sounds like voices, the backdrop of each scene informs the dialogue, the objectives, and the willingness of these two characters to reveal bits of the their true selves within the supposed game that they’re playing. As daybreak approaches and the line separating fantasy from reality blurs, they’re led to consider what is real, what is fantasy, and whether the dawn will bring with it a new beginning or a violent end.
An excerpt from CONCRETE FEVER [read the full excerpt here]
After months of delay, my mind was made up. I grabbed a white shirt out of the dresser. Fumbled with the necktie but eventually got it right. I slid open the closet and thumbed through my father’s old jackets, untouched going on five months. They looked like withered capitalist corpses, strung up one after the other. I chose one on the end. Simple, black, tailored. No idea if it would fit. I wanted it to hang loose, prove there was difference between the old man and myself. It shoved my arms drunkenly into the sleeves and pulled it over my shoulders. The damn thing fit like a glove. For a few minutes I fought gravity trying to pull on the matching slacks. To my delight, the waistband was loose. I pulled the worn belt from my jeans and looped it into the dry-cleaned suit bottoms, doubling an inch or two of fabric over itself. I took a sip of scotch, then another. I considered leaving a note but couldn’t think of anything to write that wouldn’t sound dishonest. I left the apartment before realizing I’d grabbed my keys out of habit. I stared at the closed door a minute, then entered the stairwell heading up to the roof.
The cinematic influences on my writing can likewise be traced to the narrative trajectory of Jumper. Throughout my youth I was drawn to films in which the main characters feel alienated from the world yet inexplicably empowered by some hidden ability, characters who know a path lies before them but cannot initially decipher it. I think this is why time and time again I returned to the film Good Will Hunting. It wasn’t just for entertainment’s sake, but rather for reassurance and inspiration as I developed my own creative voice.
In much the same way the reader meets Concrete Fever’s Jumper, the protagonist Will is at a crossroads when the film opens. He leads a relatively safe (read: unchallenging) working class existence but there’s a hunger in his gut that won’t let him rest. That hunger is manifested in his ability to comprehend advanced mathematics at a level beyond most experts in the world without ever having received formal education, yet this ability comes along with baggage. As his gifts are recognized and he enters a new world, he is not content merely working within the system; he wants to tear it down. He becomes fed up with anyone unable to work at his speed and routinely uses his superior intellect to make punching bags out of those who try to help him. At the same time, he engages in fist fights for kicks, constructs an elaborate lie to keep his loving girlfriend at a distance, and levels shrink after shrink brought in to determine the root of his antagonistic behavior. Finally, through the patient and equally stubborn guidance of a non-practicing psychologist named Sean, Will is able to drop the bravado and hostility to get at something real. At last, the path to his future starts to emerge before him.
Truthfully, looking back now, I realize even more so the extent to which this favorite film of mine continues to influence my work. The psychological warfare works so powerfully within Good Will Hunting because it is accompanied by tenderness and humor. Too often, I think, a film that follows a troubled character will go very dark very quickly, and it becomes difficult to empathize, much less enjoy oneself. Good Will Hunting however features frequent moments of lightness that offer a much needed counterpoint to the dark. It’s a hilarious movie and beautifully shot, and although we’re following one man’s path to redemption, it’s set within a world filled with equally nuanced characters so that it never feels like emotional cutting. Like a lot of films in the Miramax catalogue, Good Will Hunting is a dynamic and fully realized production, and it’s had a seismic impact upon the work I’ve created to date.
Nathaniel Kressen is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. He is the author of Concrete Fever and the co-founder of Second Skin Books, an independent press dedicated to crafting physical art objects out of literary fiction. His work has been featured by The Rumpus, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The L Magazine’s Literary Upstart, the No. 8 Cafe Literary Society, and Local Bozo; published by FLAUNT, The Papercut Press, Bushwick Daily, Vagabondage Press, The Good Ear Review, One Act Play Depot, and YouthPlays; and produced in NYC, DC, LA, and regionally in ten states and counting. He won First Place in The Relevance Group’s American Details Competition. He is a proud alumnus of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, and the Prophecy Productions Writing Lab. He is a Core Member of the Greenpoint Writers Group where he is presently workshopping his next novel. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
Cover and Illustrations by Jessie T. Kressen