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Writer Susan Orlean and Producer Edward Saxon Talk About "Adaptation" and "The Orchid Thief"
by Rebecca Murray and Fred Topel

Chris Cooper stars as Laroche, the main character in Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief"
©Columbia Pictures - All Rights Reserved.

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• Meryl Streep ('Susan Orlean')
• Director Spike Jonze/Writer Charlie Kaufman


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Susan, what did you think when you got this script?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Actually Ed had given it to me with all sorts of preambles saying, "It's not exactly like your book. There are some characters in it who aren't in the book," and I thought, "Fine." And he said to me, "Read it and then just call us immediately."

I went back to my office and opened it up and on the very first page, I saw Charlie Kaufman as the first line of dialogue. I thought, "Isn't that the name of the screenwriter?" Then, I have to admit, I didn't actually read it; I just started flipping through [it]. I got to a point where I started seeing Orlean, Orlean, Orlean and I thought, "Wait a minute. Orlean, Orlean, Orlean?" I didn't read the script that night, I just flipped forward trying to figure out what this was.

The next day - I don't know whether I was trying to be cruel - but I didn't call. I think I was still at that point thinking, "I don't actually want my name in it. I don't understand exactly what's going on here, but it's fine, just take all the parts out about me." On the second day I called and proposed that. I said, "It's very interesting - very interesting, very different, just change my name." I thought they could leave the character and just give it a different name.

Why didn't you want them to use your name?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Well, I don't know, the idea of being portrayed as a drug-snorting [mess] just didn't square with me. Also, on another level, I thought, "I don't want to be a character in a movie." Even though I'm used to having my by-line published and so forth, it just seemed too public. It made me think I don't want to be that exposed. It wasn't even the idea that the character had unsavory habits, it was more that I was uncomfortable with just having my name being in a movie.

So what changed your mind?
SUSAN ORLEAN: First Ed said to me, "Everybody in the movie is using - I realize this is probably the way cops do it in interrogations - 'Susan' is going to use her name. Everyone else in it is going to use their names and we really want to be able to use your name." I said, "But I feel funny. Here I am using drugs and having sex with my subjects." He said, "Susan, look at Charlie. Charlie is masturbating through the whole movie using his name." And I thought, "You know, he's got a point there. What am I complaining about?"

Finally I think it was two things - one is that I fundamentally supported the project and I felt like this was a very adventurous, exciting effort to do something really special. I wanted to have whatever part I could play in helping that happen. It seemed like it was something that I'd like to do. Secondly, it was a little bit of the daredevil in me thinking, "Well, this is the ultimate E ticket at Disney World. This is the virtual reality ride of a lifetime, and how can I say no?"

When you optioned the book, you obviously thought the book could be done as it was. What was it that you saw in the book that couldn't be translated onto film?
EDWARD SAXON: We optioned a magazine article to start with and waited for Susan to write the book. The magazine article had this fantastic character, it was about the strange things that this one man would do about plants. It suggested a culture both in the Indian culture and the plant collector culture that we hadn't seen a lot of on the screen, and there was at least a crime if not a mystery. We waited for the book, and then the book was... You couldn't take a highlighter to the book and go, "There's our movie." That's when we hired Charlie Kaufman, who obviously had great imaginative skills. He hadn't had a picture made at the time, but we'd read his scripts. Between what we thought was still a fantastic book that needed a little glue to join it together as a movie - maybe a lot of glue - and Charlie's imaginative gifts, we thought, okay.

Do you think it was a faithful adaptation?
SUSAN ORLEAN: In spirit, yes I do, [and] obviously it's also more than that. But as far as capturing what the book ultimately was about, in fact the book isn't a linear conventional story. The book is not chronological, it's not really about this crime, it's using the crime as a way of looking at issues of passion and desire and how you figure out your life, so in that way it's very faithful. That's the irony, of course, that it is actually an extremely faithful adaptation of what the essence of the book was for me.

To your knowledge, are any of the events accurate?
SUSAN ORLEAN: In the movie? Oh sure, lots. The description of the way I went about the reporting was very accurate, going down to Florida, going to the swamp, and the scene in the swamp with Laroche getting lost. In fact, even the little detail of him doing the sundial was exactly, literally, lifted out of the book.

Did you ever imagine that Meryl Streep would play you in a movie?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Impossible - it almost seems like a swear word, that you would imagine in your own private fantasy who would play you. To say Meryl Streep, what arrogance to think that this person...this great actor, somebody who brings such intelligence and dignity to the roles... just seemed like something you would never even think about. It's almost comical to think about something like that.

How do you feel about the fact that she didn't want to meet with you while she was preparing for the role?
SUSAN ORLEAN: I wasn't disappointed. I was expecting that she was going to, so I had a little bit of that waiting for the other shoe to drop. I just kept thinking, "I imagine one of these days she's going to call." So I was surprised, but then I was also kind of relieved because I knew that it wasn't going to be an impersonation, that the character was going to be based on the script and the book, which I know she read, rather than some superficial observation of me. And also, it left me with a little bit of small amount of privacy, not that my gestures or accent are so distinctive, but it makes it a little more possible to look at it and think, "Oh, that's the movie version."

How did you like her performance?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Oh, it's fabulous. I love it, I really love it. I've seen the movie three times. The first time it was hard for me, I was just nervous watching and then it was too weird to kind of experience it. Then the second time I was able to begin seeing the movie. I saw it last night for the third time and I thought, "This is great. This is great." Some of my favorite moments are tiny, tiny actor-ly moments of hers that are so brilliant. So I really enjoyed it [and] I think it's terrific. I also think it's absolutely authentic, you believe her as a writer. I think it can be really hard for actors to play people in a job in movies, a lot of times you don't believe millionaires that they would ever do that job. I thought she was great.

What would you have done if Susan hadn't agreed to allow her name to be used in the film?
EDWARD SAXON: Persisted in getting the answer we needed, to get her name in the film. It would have been hard. It would have been a crying shame [and] we would have had to change it.

Have your colleagues or your husband seen the film? What do you think their reactions are going to be?
SUSAN ORLEAN: I don't know. It's funny because last night I had a screening for about 70 friends and it was my first experience of seeing it with an audience of people who know me. After the movie they were going, "Oh my God," and they were reeling. My husband has seen it a number of times and he loved it.

When I met Meryl Streep a couple of weeks ago she said, "This is going to change your life more than it's going to change mine." I thought about it and I thought, "How?" I mean to call her and have her finish the sentence. Last night my husband was sort of more tuned into some of the responses that way. Everybody loved the movie, but he was observing more of what he thought was the way people were reacting to the idea of me being in the movie and what that felt like, and how it could be a little jarring for a lot of people. I don't know, I sort of imagine that my life will not really change. I have a great life; I don't want my life to change.

Was there any point when you thought this isn't really about the book, it's about what goes on in Charlie Kaufman's head when he's trying to write a script?
SUSAN ORLEAN: Oh no, I felt the complete opposite. I think my book is a character in the movie, which to me is far more thrilling than if the book simply dissolved and became just source material. Instead, it's the protagonist in many ways in the movie. The physical entity of the book itself is there, which is very thrilling. I think it's beyond my wildest fantasy of my work being treated as something. It feels far more respectful and attentive to the work than I would ever have expected.

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