Jandy Nelson - 'I was constantly dazzled by Josephine’s visual Rhapsody'

10 Feb

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Jandy Nelson is a rare and heartfelt talent who has has taken the world by storm over the last decade with her YA novels 'The Sky Is Everywhere' and 'I'll Give You The Sun.' The first of her books to be successfully adapted to screen, 'The Sky Is Everywhere' is a story about grief and the human condition that floods its audience with hope for life beyond loss. We sat down for a brief chat with the the renowned author to discuss her story's journey and what its like to see your screenplay brought to life.

Screen Times: What does it mean to have touched so many people with the book and now with the film?

Jandy Nelson: It means everything. I mean, really, everything to me. The letters that I've gotten from young people and older people over the last ten years have been so meaningful. It means the world to me, and is really why I wrote the book. We're really thrilled and I just feel so lucky and grateful that this movie has been made. I cannot believe that it's finally coming out. It's been ten years of trying to get the movie made too. 

Screen Times: What was it like revisiting the story, from my understanding, this is your first screenplay?

It was a really great experience for me in a lot of ways. For one thing, it's wonderful to get to go back to a story, revisit it, and also change it a little bit. Change things that maybe didn't work for you. I’m the kind of author that could keep editing forever and write in the margins.There were things about the book that always irked me, that I got to change in the movie. So that was really wonderful. It was also a challenge trying to figure it out. How to make Lennie’s interiority - which is really what the book is, it's very much her interior life - and how to manifest that visually.

I think that was the biggest challenge and the most exciting challenge. When I was writing the novel, I felt like I really was in a place just personally where I wanted to explore grief and really get into it. When I was writing it I felt in so many ways like I was learning right along with Lennie. It felt like we were in it together. All the revelations about love and grief and joy and everything in life. I feel like we came through that together and I think going back to it, it was the same thing in every incarnation.

Like even meeting Grace (Kaufman) who is so wonderful as Lennie, she's mind blowing. I feel like she is Lennie. She is the Lennie that burst into my mind twelve years ago. She couldn't be more Lennie. 

Screen Times: The whole ensemble is just incredible. The character that most impacted me was actually Fiona (Cherry Jones). I know that the character draws on from your grandmother...

Oh completely, and my mother. I feel like she's a composite between my mother and grandmother and it was funny because in the house my grandmother did paint green women exclusively and, so does Gram in the movie and the book. I was just looking in my hallway where I have my grandma's paintings of green women and next to them I have one of Fiona's Grams paintings. It’s just wild.

Screen Times: What was it like working with Josephine Decker? She draws her influences from literature and from stage and you can see a lot of that. What was that whole treatment like?

It was the greatest thing in the world. Honestly, she's so brilliant. I feel like she has this really rapturous visual aesthetic that I adore. I feel like it was such an incredible marriage in a way, because with the material and her as a director we have these Lennie scapes in the script which are the forays into Lennie's imagination. What I had on the page that she turned into visually was so beautiful that I wept. The rose dancers around Lennie and Joe in the garden, I mean, it's the most beautiful thing in the world.

I was constantly dazzled by Josephine’s visual Rhapsody and I think it was really great for the movie, for the book and for the character, because that’s Lennie’s point of view. She also has this rhapsodic imagination and emotional life, and so I think it was a really good match because besides Josephine’s visual rapture, she's also great at getting to the heart of the characters in the story and the emotional heart of it. I feel very lucky. 

Left to Right: Josephine Decker, Margaret French Isaac, Jandy Nelson courtesy of Apple Original Films

Screen Times: I wanted to ask you about the way you write your books, am I right in understanding that you cocoon yourself in a dark room? Did you do the same with the screenplay? Or did you surround yourself with people?

I've only wrote 'I'll Give You The Sun' in that complete lunatic state. When I wrote 'The Sky Is Everywhere' I was actually in a room with windows and a desk. When I wrote the first draft of the screenplay I went away to a town in Northern California called Guerneville that has huge redwoods. That put me in the environment of the story, and that was really helpful as I would walk through the woods and see Lennie and Joe.

Screen Times: With your first experience of writing a screenplay now behind you, is it something you would like to do more of?

Well, I definitely liked doing my own work and I'm working on my second book right now - 'I’ll Give You The Sun' - as I’m currently doing something with that for the screen, but I definitely love it. I love writing screenplays and there's something for me that I just really like. It's almost more of a direct translation of what's in the story that's in your brain than writing a whole novel. There are books that I read now and think, oh my God, I would just die to adapt this. I know exactly how to do it and it would be so beautiful. So yes. I mean, I hope to.

Screen Times: You mentioned I'll Give You The Sun which was originally optioned with The Sky Is Everywhere over half a decade ago. What were the challenges of getting The Sky Is Everywhere to screen?

At first it got optioned by Selena Gomez and her mother which was interesting. We did that for awhile and they were great but it didn't really work out. Then Warner Bros bought it and I wrote the screenplay for them, and then this is the third attempt really? I was working with Denise Di Novi and Josephine got attached and then Apple and A24 - who have been the best - so I guess it was the third incarnation, but I’m so happy that it’s this incarnation. There were moments in the past where you get disappointed, but you just know when it’s meant to be.

Screen Times: Do you have hopes for what the film adaptation gives back to the book?

I hope people read the book. Obviously I would love that. Whether they read it before the movie or after the movie, I don't mind. I think that art takes many forms and they're all different. The book is really different from the screenplay on paper and the movie. All three I think of as separate things. I just hope it brings more people to the story and that would be my dream. I'm also thrilled that the film is seen globally. The book right now is being translated into thirty languages. It’s wonderful. 

Screen Times: I came to find your story at exactly the right time as I dealt with loss myself. I think the messages about grief never going away and being something that you just have to accept is so important. The positive is there's always someone looking out for you. They’re never actually gone and their spirit is always there.

I feel that. I feel that with this. My friend that I lost, that I basically wrote the book for. I feel like she's been overseeing the whole process of the movie, the book, everything.

'The Sky Is Everywhere' is now available in select theatres and streaming globally on Apple TV+..

Sigmund Judge
Sigmund is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of ScreenTimes where he began his Apple TV coverage in 2016. With an unwavering passion for Apple, storytelling and storytellers alike, he writes about Apple TV with a focus on the arts, development, tvOS, home theatre and accessibility. Sigmund also co-host’s Magic Rays of Light, a weekly podcast exploring the world of Apple TV and the many talents bringing our screens to life.