In 2015, Stephen Elliott sat in a dark theater during the Tribeca Film Festival and watched what was supposed to be the movie of his life. The film was “The Adderall Diaries,” based on Elliott’s 2009 memoir “The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Mood, Masochism, and Murder.” It’s a raw journalistic exploration of memory versus truth and how a young man deals with his troubled childhood, his time in group homes as a ward of the state and his damaged relationship with his abusive father. Dealing with addiction, writer’s block and the desire to experience pain and sexual humiliation, Elliott’s story is propelled by his research into the true-crime murder of a woman named Nina Reiser and her possible killer Sean Sturgeon, a man who Elliott associated with through underground S&M circles. Directed by James Franco, the film is widely considered a mediocre, trope-filled indie-movie version of the book (here’s our more positive assessment). So what do you do when the movie made based on the book based on the story of your life gets it horribly wrong? If you are Elliott, you make your own movie.
The literary memoir and film have long been cozy bedfellows with mixed results —2014’s “Wild” is a recent successful example. However, more often than not, powerful books are translated into sub-par films to cash in on their popularity. No author has commented more eloquently on the wondrous and ludicrous nature of what it feels like to get your memoir made into a film better than Elliot does with “After Adderall,” which is currently making the festival rounds.
A 77 minute black and white mediation on art, truth, and Elliott’s own self-involvement, the movie tells the story of Elliott’s disappointment with not being involved in the making of the movie of his life and his complicated relationship with his roommate Sarah, a jaded soul that likes to keep him locked in a cage and moonlights from her blogger job as a prostitute. The role of Sarah is played unsentimentally and beautifully by Mickaela Tombrock. A preoccupied and powerless Elliott yearns for her to humiliate him. When her boyfriend mysteriously disappears, the story veers into strange dreamlike territory. Similar to Godard‘s 1962 masterpiece “Vivre Sa Vie” (‘My Life to Live”), the verité style in which the film was made plays as much of a role as the story itself.
The Playlist recently spoke to Elliott a couple of days after the film played at Videology as part of the Brooklyn 2017 Book Festival. We spoke about “After Adderall,” Franco, and more.
The literary website and online community you founded, The Rumpus, has been gaining traction over the years, and in fact the inaugural debut of The Rumpus Lo-Fi Film Festival just took place in Los Angeles. What led you to the idea and how did it go?
It went great. We had over 100 people and it was a really positive community event. What led me to start a film festival was, when I started submitting my own movie to festivals, it cost so much money that I thought it was crazy. So I did an investigation into film festivals for The Rumpus, and after interviewing more than 150 directors whose movies had played at major film festivals, I found that many festivals, despite charging high fees for submissions, only play films that were invited or didn’t pay any fees. We did ultimately get into a lot of film festivals.
Have you ever met James Franco in person?
Yes. He played the male lead in my first movie “About Cherry,” which I co-wrote with my friend Lorelei Lee. It’s a $700,000 movie with a much bigger budget than “After Adderall,” but it’s funny because it wasn’t as good as this movie. I met him when he bought the rights to “The Adderall Diaries.” I asked if I could write the script for the movie, and he was really enthusiastic and said “Yes, absolutely.” I wrote it and was told that he and his manager liked it. Then things were just kind of sitting there.
I was inspired after writing that script, so I just kept going and wrote another script. I wrote it in December of 2010. Since it was taking so long to do the “The Adderall Diaries” —which I gave to him for very little money; I felt like he kind of owed me something— I asked him if he would be in my movie. I explained the movie to him and he was like “Let’s do it. I love it.” Then he tried to back out of it. Originally, I told him I needed him for four days but only got him for one. Then when he showed up, he clearly hadn’t read the script and had no idea what the movie was about even though we had this whole conversation.
I wondered if he actually heard anything that we talked about in those first meetings. I am not sure we did talk, in a weird way. Then he was interviewed on a TV show about “About Cherry” and he said he only had a cameo in it, which was weird since he’s in nine different scenes. Even though we only had him for a day, we shot a whole bunch of scenes with him. He definitely was not supportive of that movie or very easy to work with. but that’s cool. His time is a lot more valuable than my time.
In the NYMag piece you penned in April 2015 after seeing “The Adderall Diaries,” you wrote that you were “rattled” by the film. The main reason being that it got so many facts wrong. If you were just watching the film and the writer didn’t have your name and this wasn’t your life they were reinterpreting, would you have felt differently about the movie and of Franco’s performance?
Almost nothing in the movie is “true” in terms of both the source material as it was published, and my life as it has been lived. The movie does not resemble the book at all. After seeing it, I was inspired to make my movie. Inspiration is the most valuable thing. I lack inspiration most of the time, so I am so grateful for it whenever I get it.
What was the timeframe between learning that “The Adderall Diaries” was optioned, and when you learned you would not be allowed on set, be involved in any way, or be allowed to view any early cuts of the film?
Well, I didn’t actually think “The Adderall Diaries” would ever get made —most books that are optioned don’t become movies. In “After Adderall,” there’s a scene where I’m told over speaker phone by Franco that these graduate students that were in his class at the time were going to write and direct “The Adderall Diaries.” It’s a surreal moment in the film, because I thought that James was going to direct it based on the script I wrote for him. It pretty much happened exactly like that in real life. The only difference was that in “After Adderall,” one of the students puts a picture of Franco next to the phone.
Within a year of seeing it, my movie had been written, shot and finished.
The film manages to criticize Franco without coming off as bitter. Did you set out to get the last word?
I’m not bitter. I’m very glad Franco adapted “The Adderall Diaries,” even if I didn’t love the result. [“After Adderall”] is just a movie I was inspired to make. Having my memoir adapted into a movie gave me a lot to think about, and the way I explore those thoughts and feelings is through art.
There is a wonderful tenderness mixed with disdain between you and the character Sarah in the film, as both roommates and with the dominant/submissive dynamic. How was she cast for the role?
I was so lucky to find her. I thought it would take me a year to find the right actress, because it’s a really challenging role and there’s nudity. And it’s a no-budget movie. But a friend of a friend told me about a girl in her acting class and I invited Sarah to read for the part. I was kind of shocked. She just killed it. This is my third movie so I know how rare that is.
Both the BDSM and prostitution in the film are dealt with in a very unsentimental and abrupt way. Was that on purpose?
I guess so. Yes. I don’t have a lot of judgment toward sex workers. I was a sex worker in my twenties. A lot of my relationships are with sex workers.
Why did you make this movie and what do you plan to do with it?
I made it for $10,000, which I was lucky enough to have in savings because I was working full-time. I didn’t make it to make money. It’s just something I wanted to do. And because of that, it was a real joy to make. Everyone who did the movie was under the impression there is no money to be made, and because of that, everyone was willing to work for free or for very little because it was an art project. People just don’t want to be screwed over. What I realized making this movie that it’s easier making a movie with no money than not enough money. I don’t really want to make it available online. Maybe it will just be at film festivals or midnight screenings and have an underground life.
I noticed an early Hal Hartley influence in this film in regards to the deadpan communication style of the characters juxtaposed with certain elevated comedic occurrences. What are your influences for the film?
Hartley’s “Henry Fool” is definitely a major influence on me. But also Godard, in particular “Contempt.” And “Stardust Memories” by Woody Allen. Those are the movies I most enjoy, but I had been afraid to make movies like that. But this time, since it was my own little project and my own money, I didn’t care.
The storytelling lines between fact, fiction, reality, and surrealism all intersect in this film. Would you call this movie “your truth”?
It’s a reexamining, or reimagining, of a surreal situation, that of having one’s life made into a movie. There’s a personal truth to it, an honesty, but it’s still fiction.
Are you worried about Franco’s or the studio behind the film’s response to it?
Not really. I think James would like the movie if he saw it.
“The Adderall Diaries” has an impressive cast: Ed Harris, Cynthia Nixon, Amber Heard…
Stars are the biggest star fuckers. If you have one star, than all the other stars want to be there. Anything Franco does is going to attract other stars. They all want to be where other stars are. That’s why they are stars, because they know how to be in the right place with the right people.
Throwing that back at you —“After Adderall” has impressive actor cameos [Lily Taylor, Michael C. Hall, James Urbaniak] but also a host of writers that are currently considered to be part of the literary elite [Susan Orlean, Nick Flynn, Jerry Stahl, and Marie Howe].
Those are all friends of mine. Since it’s an exploration of memoir and who owns the story, it made sense to have all of these other memoirists in it commenting on all of our different experiences. Although they are my writer friends, I really don’t think of them as celebrities. It’s very easy to get a writer in a movie, because they are not much in demand. No one recognizes a writer walking down the street.
This is your third film. What’s next for you?
I really wish I knew the answer to that question.