Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #33. "The Adderall Diaries" (2016)

Scene from The Adderall Diaries
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

The Adderall Diaries
Released: April 15, 2016 
Release Number: 33
Directed By: Pamela Romanowsky
Starring: James Franco, Ed Harris, Amber Heard
Plot: Elliot, a troubled former successful writer decides to write about a missing wife and the following murder trial of her husband.

It had been awhile since James Franco last worked with A24. The last time that they partnered up was for the Freshman hit Spring Breakers, which lead to one of his most memorable performances and established the brand of movies that the studio would continue to make. Three years and roughly 30 movies later, he returned for director Pamela Romanowsky's The Adderall Diaries, which is an adaptation of a novel that supposedly doesn't have much of a plot, and also became disowned by its author Stephen Elliott. With all of that said, it was a film that failed to have the hype or appeal of Franco's first or next (The Disaster Artist) collaboration with the studio, and may arguably be another one of the few weak spots of the 2016 output. It was always going to be a difficult sell, but the film still met the same fate as many of the DirecTV titles that preceded the film's middling reputation.

The story begins with the publication of Elliott's memoir, which was about his problematic past as a runaway who has a complicated relationship with his father. The subsequent book, "The Adderall Diaries," wasn't much of a hit - but still saw Franco become immediately intrigued with its potential as a movie. He bought the rights almost immediately, and Elliott became excited to be paid handsomely for it. Elliott had never been paid that much for any of his advances before, and he made sure to point out how shamelessly grateful he was, even if he always gave off the reputation that he might not love what it becomes. He endorsed the idea of art making art, and it's where Franco would go next in the eight years that he tried to option the book.

During his days at New York University, Franco worked with Romanowsky on the MFA film making program where they created a short called Tar for the compilation The Color of Time. The two believed that they shared a sensibility, though Romanowsky initially believed that "The Adderall Diaries" would be difficult to adapt. She spent two years writing the screenplay only to discover that a key tool to the film was its exploration of memory, and how feeble it can be from person to person. She also received personal attention from Robert Redford's Sundance Labs where they workshopped the script. It was also here that she got the chance to hear actor Ed Harris play Elliott's dad, whom she had always envisioned for the role. She fought hard for him to play the part, which ended up being successful.

From the beginning, Elliott was very helpful with Romanowsky's pre-production. He provided additional notes and videos to give her a sense of his character. In return, she asked creative questions like "What kind of place would you go on a first date?" His one caveat was that he knew that her version of the story, which she claimed was very interpretive, might not satisfy him so don't worry about his criticism. Whether or not this freed her creatively, she made major changes to the novel, specifically in moving from San Francisco to the more familiar New York City, which she had a personal and intimate relationship with. For instance, she shot the book signing scene at the bookstore where she first bought Elliott's book. While Franco would have scenes involving S&M, he used props that didn't harm him in any significant way. Also, the film was more based around the exploration of memory than the specific events.

The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of 2015. Shortly after, A24 and DirecTV bought the rights to distribution. It would be released On Demand almost a year later on March 10, 2016 and received a limited release almost a year to the date later. The one major news to come out of the Tribeca premiere was Elliott's personal thoughts, which he wrote for Vulture. He wrote extensively about how he felt that certain details were changed in egregious manners, such as the fact that he never boxed or wrote the memoir of 200 pages "in two days." He claimed that this writing schedule is impossible even for Jack Kerouac. He said that he would give a thorough account of what was wrong with the story, but suggested that it would involve doing the one thing he refused to do: watch it again. He was thankful for the money and didn't knock the production, but he remained critical of how accurate the final film actually was. And again, that was almost a year before the film's release.

To some extent, the critics were far meaner to the film than Elliott's outright dismissal ended up being. The film received a 21% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. David Ehrlich of IndieWire shared his belief that "The Adderall Diaries is about nothing but itself. It's not fiction, it's forgery. It's not adaptation, it's erasure." The few defenders tended to be like Gary Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that "The Adderall Diaries is a complex, absorbing, at times profound look at how we choose to remember our past." As a whole, the film's lack of praise was similar to its lack of response by audiences, who likely didn't even recognize that the film was out, or that it was under the A24 banner. It didn't have the spark of Franco's last collaboration with the studio, though it did also mark the first film between A24 and future Oscar nominee Timothee Chalamet, who had a minor role in the film.

The Adderall Diaries is another one of the many mediocre movies that A24 has released under the DirecTV branch. In a year that would see them take many risky chances, the choice to explore another crime drama seemed a bit played out, even with Franco's potentially captivating performance. It's definitely among the studio's lesser films, and one that likely got overshadowed by Green Room, which came out around the same time from the studio. But whatever the case may be, there was no preparation for the next film, which saw an Oscar-winning Greek director finally break out in America with a film that recontextualized the age old question: "What is love?" Director Giorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster would be his most successful film to that date, and proved that even the more cerebral films from A24 could leave a cultural impression, no matter what shape they ended up taking.

Up Next: The Lobster (2016)

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