Adam Bertocci is an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter working in and around New York. He is a proud graduate of the film program at Northwestern University, with a surprisingly useful minor in English literature.
He has penned all manner of produced shorts, most notably the Mickey Rooney Christmas comedy Wreck the Halls; working under his own banner of Guy in his Basement Productions, he has written and directed a double-digit quantity of low-budget short films for the festival circuit.
Bertocci has been a featured speaker at the Anthology Film Archives and New York Comic-Con. His work as a screenwriter and/or director has screened at New Filmmakers, the Tribeca Cinemas, the St. Louis International Film Festival, LA Shorts Fest and the Rhode Island Film Festival. He has garnered press from Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, The New Republic, GQ, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Back Stage, Broadway World, Cinematical, the New York Press, E! Online, Maxim, IGN, the Chicago Sun-Times and Film Threat.
You’re a prolific filmmaker. You’ve written several screenplays. In addition to numerous articles and short stories, you’re perhaps best known for your book Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 2010 and is currently on its sixth printing. If you could only choose one, which of these creative pursuits excites you the most, and why?
I’d say that screenwriting still excites me most because frankly I still think it’s what I’m best at. I love words and I love to hear characters express themselves. I love the electric crackle of juicy dialogue. I still sort of struggle with writing prose, unless I’m just letting the characters yak… I find it’s easier to let them talk than to find my own voice, as illogical as that might sound.
Two Gentlemen was a nice way to sort of dip my toe into other kinds of writing while staying on safe turf. The annotations gave me a chance to try dry bits of wit, and the afterword allowed me the chance to share a more serious strain of non-fiction. (I’m told the publisher was a little nervous about whether or not I was actually capable of writing well in regular English, since all they’d ever seen out of me when they made the deal was cod-Elizabethan! I’m glad I could ease their concerns!)
Your career will likely always be linked to The Big Lebowski. Did you foresee that possibility when you were writing or in the process of publishing Two Gentlemen of Lebowski?
I’m deeply aware that unless matters change in the next few years I’ll be linked to Lebowski in my obituary and I’m kind of fine with that. Obviously, I try to shine a light on my ‘original’ projects as brightly as I can — but if for every thousand fans of Two Gentlemen, only one checks out the rest of my work, that’s still a bigger audience than the original work would have had without Two Gentlemen.
In any event, it’s not as if Lebowski takes any portion of my life or my time that I don’t invite it to. I view being a part-time professional Achiever (that’s the Lebowski equivalent of a Trekker, for those who don’t know) as sort of an amusing double life I lead; most of the time I’m just pushing along doing my own thing, but every so often I put on a costume (okay, a bowling shirt) and go out and sign books someplace, or give a talk or an interview or whatever. I’m like an actor playing the role of The-Guy-Who-Wrote-That. I suppose it’s the same for anyone who writes a nonfiction book on a very specific subject.
The Big Lebowski received mixed reviews when originally released in theaters and was not overly successful financially. Yet it is undeniably a cult classic. Why do you think this film resonates with audiences, and what aspects of it appeal most to you?
Well, for me, it all comes back to the language. I just like hearing people talk in these distinctive, off-the-wall kinds of voices. Not just in this movie or from these filmmakers, of course—I’m a big fan of Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody, for instance, and lately I’ve been rewatching Network a lot, a film that’s almost all talk.
I can’t speak with any authority on what I think makes it appeal to other people, and I suspect if you asked me on ten different days you’d get ten different answers; it’s a slippery movie that way, your perspective on it can shift very quickly. For the moment, I would guess that The Big Lebowski is in a certain sweet spot between mainstream comedy and off-the-wall art film; movie reviewers are of course very fond of terms like “quirky” and “offbeat,” but what else can you say, that’s what it is. You laugh, but at the same time you’re getting your brain tickled by something you’ve never seen before.
Your Overthinking Ghostbusters explores the various themes — religious, political and otherwise — of the 1984 classic. If given the opportunity to eulogize the recently-deceased Harold Ramis, what would you say to the gathered mourners?
Easy question, as I would actually be able to give them a Harold Ramis story! I was lucky enough to hear him speak, and meet him afterwards. As he signed my Ghostbusters DVD, I told him, “Thank you for this, and thank you for my childhood,” and I’ll treasure that memory (not to mention the autograph) for the rest of my life.
And so I would tell them that Ramis treated a fan with kindness for the twenty seconds they interacted.
And then I would show them Overthinking Ghostbusters and say, I hope this proves to you that I do a lot of research and I know a lot about this stuff.
And then I would say, in all the painstaking research I’ve done on this man’s writing, work, and life, I’ve never come across a single story of him not treating people kindly.
How has your writing evolved over time?
When I was in high school or college all I wanted to do was get laughs. These days I don’t mind going dramatic, or at least pursuing a style of comedy that isn’t just jokes. It’s harder to make people feel than to make people laugh, but I’m willing to make the effort.
How has your writing been affected by your experiences in filmmaking?
Good question. Well, I work as a video editor, and I think editing movies and documentaries has rewired my brain in a pleasant way that applies nicely to writing. I tend to be very concerned with pace and rhythm, and weighing out so much time for this scene and so much time for that moment; when I revise my work, the same parts of my brain light up that do when I’m looking through footage, and I tell myself, okay, we can link that moment to that scene, cut this, keep that, we need to focus on this character here, we need a transition there.
What if a studio were to come to you and say, “Here’s a blank check. Pick a book that you like, write the screenplay and direct the movie version for us.” What book do you choose?
Right now I’d have to say Robert Cormier’s Fade. It’s a young adult novel about a guy who develops the power of invisibility — which sounds trifling, I know, but it’s one of the darkest, scariest treatments of that topic you can imagine, and it’s chilling even by Cormier’s legendarily uncompromising standards. I’ve actually written a spec script of it already, just in case the wish you gave me comes true.
The funny thing is that the movie industry has already tried to get a movie of this book together. It’s been knocking around Hollywood since 1988 and no one’s been able to get it off the ground. Even Steven Spielberg gave up on it. Last I heard, the rights are with Richard Kelly’s company. I’ll freely admit that there’s no one in the biz who’d be better for it than the guy who made Donnie Darko. Maybe if he can’t crack that damn book, it really is unadaptable.
I also wouldn’t mind adapting a Shakespeare or two, but I wouldn’t use a blank check from a studio on that, no rights issues to work out!
What is your personal Mount Rushmore of movies? In other words, what are the four films that you feel are the best, or have been the biggest influence on your life or career?
In alphabetical order:
Dogma — This movie got me into Kevin Smith, who, shall we say, shares my love for dialogue-heavy cinema to a similar point of indulgence. I would say his work influenced me, but maybe ‘enabled’ is a better word. As for Dogma in particular, I left it with a private joy that other people had the same concerns and notions about God and religion and the spiritual world that I did. I’d never talked about it, I never had anyone to talk about it with. Dogma was starting conversations I wanted to have. I have since acquired what I believe is the world’s largest collection of costumes from the film; the jewel of my collection is Alanis Morissette’s gold dress from her initial reveal.
Ghostbusters — No surprises here. Leaving aside my fondness for it as a movie, you can learn a lot about screenwriting and storytelling from it. It’s the perfect mix of big laughs and an imaginative, exciting story, with the two bolstering rather than detracting from each other. Every single element comes together, and the film just makes it look so easy—the actors all but throw away lines that outshine the best jokes in lesser films. I could go on, but I suppose that’s what the Overthinking Ghostbusters project is for.
Rocky — You could do worse for a hero than Rocky Balboa, as fictional characters go. I love the gritty, natural, almost documentary-like cinematography and the sad, wise, desperate dialogue. All this and one of my favorite scores, too. For my thirtieth birthday I took a day trip to Philadelphia to run up the stairs. (Highly recommended.) But what I really take from this film, in terms of my own work, is to try to apply its ending to my own scenarios. Where possible, I like to see if I can have my protagonist find their own terms for a positive ending, take the proverbial third option. Rocky, the character, steps outside the victory conditions we were expecting and succeeds on his own terms; Rocky, the film, shows that that’s okay.
Star Wars — I figure every guy in a certain age range says this, but Star Wars changed my life, inspired me to become a filmmaker, blah blah blah. I can still point out the exact shot I saw on the big screen (in the 1997 re-release, I’m not that old!) that made me realize — hey, people got paid to work on that shot, that was a job held by regular joes, I want to work in the movies some day. My first terrible attempt at high school filmmaking was an overly-ambitious Star Wars spoof. I have George Lucas to thank for my choice of college, career, various ambitions, etc. etc. — I was lucky to really get into Star Wars at just the right time (eighth grade), when a young man’s mind is susceptible to influence.
You may be wondering why The Big Lebowski doesn’t make the top four. Obviously it’s had quite a hand in my career, but I could say the same thing about the first movies I worked on as a young scrapper. Of the two elements that went into Two Gentlemen, I would actually say that Shakespeare has been more influential to me than The Big Lebowski… but the ol’ Bard’s had a pretty mixed run in Hollywood.
If you could have any super power, what would you choose and why?
Assuming we’re sticking to the classic and familiar powers, mind control, in the Professor X vein. I suppose that being an artist is my substitute attempt to enter someone else’s mind, albeit less dramatically.
What are you working on now, and what do have coming up in the near future?
Right now is an uncharacteristically slow time for my normally prolific self. I’m pitching a novel to agents and a stage play around New York, and trying to get my new short film a festival premiere. And all this self-promotion is nice, and it’s very important, but it’s something a writer must do in addition to, not in place of, writing new material.
So as for actually working on something, I’m toying with a short film script about bridge-and-tunnel kids who miss the last train and get stuck on the streets of New York overnight, and with a cute little romantic short story about a twentysomething girl who moonlights as a party magician.
All of this is subject to change or implosion.