I first met Marcy Dermansky, author of the recently released Bad Marie—a novel that features an ex-con femme fatale the French New Wave would adore, and which seems to unfold frame by frame—at a press conference for Gus Van Sant’s Milk. I was there covering the event for SpoutBlog, and trying to stay as far away as possible from the journalist groupies in the front row who were vainly attempting to maintain their professional veneers while obviously hoping to catch the eye of Sean Penn or James Franco. Marcy, film critic for About.com, happened to be sitting near the back with me, putting on no false airs whatsoever. We started talking and she told me unabashedly that she wasn’t there in any writer’s capacity. She simply wanted to see Sean Penn. And it’s precisely this refreshing mix of honest fandom with a driving curiosity to observe the behavior behind the tabloids that Marcy brings to her second novel.
Since we’re both authors who are also film critics I’m curious to know if you consider yourself an author first and a film critic second (or vice-versa). Or if you’re someone like me who uses the generic term “writer” since I don’t really make a distinction between books, critical essays, whatever I happen to be penning. To me it’s all part of the same cloth. How do you feel about all this labeling?
It’s completely different for me: writing fiction and writing reviews. My novels, Bad Marie and Twins, are 100% mine. I start with nothing, an idea for a first sentence, a first scene, and from there, I create something. A story. I invent characters who go on to become real people: talking, thinking, flawed, funny, horrible, wonderful people. Characters who will exist in my head even when I am not sitting at the computer, who talk to me when I am swimming laps. When my work is reviewed, I am sometimes stunned about what is said. In conversation on the Bat Segundo show, Ed Champion stated what he thought was obvious: that the baths Marie takes are symbolic. With every bath, Marie was being cleansed. That had never occurred to me. But of course, Ed was right, Marie was cleansed by taking baths.
As a film critic, I am always aware that I am writing about someone else’s work. The review may be mine, but the movie isn’t. I want my reviews to be good, of course. I take them seriously. I understand why film criticism is considered an art form in itself. But it’s not my art form. I think it’s a funny thing about labels. The world seems to require them. I often tell people I am a writer and film critic. They are two different things in my mind. So, the answer, finally, is that I love being a film critic but—if I am going to define myself—I am an author, first.
Bad Marie is obviously quite cinematic, a loving homage to French films. So why choose to place the story in the form of a book as opposed to a screenplay? Or is a screenplay in the works?
Bad Marie is a loving homage to French films. I am glad that it is obvious to you. With a leading man named Benoit Doinel and cat called Ludivine, clearly I was going for that affect. For a long time now, I have been crazy about French films—but I was also surprised to realize how much influence my favorite films had on my own work. In an essay for the PS section of Bad Marie, I said that the novel is my attempt to write a French movie—and that is true. I wrote a novel rather than a screenplay because that is all I know how to do.
I took a shot, once, at adapting my first novel Twins as a screenplay. I found the process wildly unpleasant. First of all, there is all that formatting. And then, there is the actual writing. For the most part, it’s dialogue. For me, a lot of writing is about rhythm: how a sentence flows, the repetition of a phrase. All of that nuance is lost in a screenplay. I do believe that Bad Marie would make a great movie and I have high hopes that that will happen.
Even though your protagonist Marie absconds with the French husband and two-year-old daughter of her employer—and childhood frenemy—she does so with a callous childlike innocence reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, which keeps the reader rooting for her. I know you had Mathieu Amalric in your head for Benoit Doinel, but how did Marie develop?
It’s interesting: I had real-life people in mind for many of the characters in Bad Marie: Amalric, as you said, is the model for Benoit Doniel; Isild le Besco was the template for French actress Lily Gaudet. But Marie is based on no one in particular. I like the comparison to Audrey Hepburn, because she is one of my favorites, and also because it is apt. I know people who loathe her character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but not me, never. I was always on her side. Madly in love. Holly Golightly in some ways is very much like Marie, all about pleasure. Alligator Shoes. Running away from her past. Putting her trust in the wrong people.
I am no kidnapper of children. I have no police record (though I did once spend a night in jail). But like everything I write, a lot of me snuck into Marie’s character. Taking baths, eating chocolate pudding, but most especially, the way Marie constantly marvels at herself out in the world. In my own life, I never take that for granted. Maybe part of me believed I would never get out of New Jersey.
You also seemed to have a lot of fun playing with the notion of fame by creating not just one but two movie star characters who Marie has never heard of. Though I’ve never spent time in jail like Marie I can relate to feeling out of the pop culture loop since I don’t watch television and rarely recognize reality TV or sitcom stars. To me that served as a terrific comment on our celebrity culture in which everyone seems to have his fifteen minutes of fame, thus the word itself is rendered meaningless. (Or is it just that we jaded reviewers are constantly looking beneath fame’s shiny veneer?) What was your thinking behind the creation of these characters?
I’m interested in celebrities, big and small. On Twitter, I notice constant references to characters on Jersey Shore. Someone named Snooki. I don’t watch that show. I would not admit to it if I did. I felt genuine sympathy for Lindsay Lohan when I found out she was going to jail. I didn’t think jail will be good for her or that society will be any safer in her absence. Actually, my sister suggested to me that Lindsay might be good in the role of Marie, and maybe she would be, but as I pointed out, she is too expensive. Insurance costs.
One of my favorite throwaway lines in the book is when Marie realizes that she has not checked her email in six years. She’s having breakfast in a French villa at the time, the guest of a minor movie star, and suddenly, seeing her picture on the Internet, beneath a story about George Clooney, Marie realizes how out of touch she is with the world. She compares herself to the first president Bush who did not know what scanners were in the supermarket. Marie does know, however, who Paris Hilton is. My copy editor has suggested taking out this pop culture reference—because Marie did not know the French actress or Eli Longworth with his Academy Award nomination. Paris Hilton, however, stayed, because as I wrote in the margins: everyone knows who Paris Hilton is. I think that’s true.
Whenever I watch a film I’m always thinking about what’s not on the screen. What was left on the proverbial cutting room floor that you wish could have been included in Bad Marie but couldn’t for one reason or another?
How is this for an arrogant answer: Bad Marie is exactly the book that I wanted it to be. Every scene I wanted is in there. Marie takes a bath. Marie goes to Paris. She goes to Mexico. Unlike a filmmaker, I did not have budgetary concerns. Many scenes did get deleted in the writing—including a sojourn in a farmhouse in Vermont where some bunny rabbits are sliced and diced, and an entire section told from the point of view of Ellen. I needed to write those scenes to get them out of my system, make wrong turns and bad plot choices. So that the final product can seem effortless. Inevitable.