JASPER JONES, BOOKS TO MOVIES: A Q&A WITH CRAIG SILVEY

I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to interview Craig Silvey this week. We met at Little Lefroy’s in Fremantle, a place I know well, for an informal chat covering the Jasper Jones movie adaptation to writing processes. Craig is a fantastic guy – warm and generous, despite being tired from weeks of film-related commitments – and I really appreciate him giving me this time. Jasper Jones is one of my all-time favourite books, so I admit it was a bit of a fangirl moment, but Craig had no idea … until I asked him to sign my book. 

I was also fortunate to attend an advance screening before the interview and in a word, it’s BRILLIANT. This adaptation had all the feels, all the chills, all the lingering thoughts that accompanied the book.

Monique: Tell me, Craig, how do you feel about your journey with Jasper Jones – from idea to novel, to stage adaptation to film?

Craig: I’m feeling very hopeful about the release of the film, everything has been very, very positive. We had a really good groundswell with booksellers and early reports were really quite strong. Things ticked along … you know, it’s a really strange trajectory (with Jasper Jones) because it’s never quite hit these enormous peaks and then drifted back. It’s had this very unusual endurance for a book. The support of readers and people getting behind it and word of mouth afforded us those kinds of opportunities. It kept it in people’s consciousness, I suppose. One thing kind of begat another. So yeah, here we are.

Monique: When you first watched the film, what sort of things went through your mind?

Craig: It’s still a little hard to distance myself from it all. When you’re that close to the sausage getting married, it’s hard to sort of sit back, it’s hard to absorb it and enjoy it as you might another feature film. I went from being uncertain, watching it on the monitor, to seeing the rushes, to seeing our assembled rough cut and commenting on that being part of that post-production process, to watching it get narrower and narrower in terms of crystallizing what would become our locked-off picture.

But, you know, it wasn’t until we saw it with audiences and we could see what hit and what missed, what people responded to, that was a really amazing moment, sharing it with other people.

Monique: The moment in the film where Charlie says ‘we’re fond of each other’ and the whole audience just laughed, it was a really a connecting moment. There was this wave of laughter, a really warm and fuzzy moment.

Craig: Oh great! I’m pleased that line worked. I actually had to fight for that word, believe it or not. I thought it was really charming and funny, but there was all manner of arguments. One word …

Monique: How much input did you have into the choice of actors?

Craig: I was part of that team that discussed it, but fortunately we all agreed on casting and very fortunately we got our pick. We’re really lucky with those who came on board. Toni Collette shifted her US schedule around a great deal to be a part of our film and I will be forever grateful for that. All our kids, particularly, I’m enormously proud of – they’re just a really wonderful group of people. I thought our casting was pretty faultless.

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Monique: Sometimes the actors say so much with their expressions rather than words, like the scene where Jeffrey is practicing martial arts the day after his parents were attacked. But words are our craft, so what’s it like trusting in that adaptation process?

Craig: It’s the beautiful thing about film and one of the things I really wanted to trust in was that those small gestures, those little moments were going to work.  Film audiences are really smart and they’re really savvy and they intuit things and so I was prepared for that. I didn’t want narration, I didn’t want to imbue too much of the script with the book. I just wanted to leave the small moments to speak to the audience.

Monique: What do you think people who haven’t read the book will get from the film?

Craig: I’m interested in the people who come to the film first and how they go with the story. I think we’re relying a lot on the legacy of the book and the fleet of really passionate readers that I’m blessed to have, but we’re trying to encourage people who have no relationship with the story at all to come out and see it, so I’m interested to see how they fare.

Monique: I read this quote the other day by Robert Holman: “The novel is more of a whisper, whereas the stage is a shout.” What are your thoughts on that?

Craig: Yeah, I can see that. The stage is a curious thing – it’s so visceral and it’s quite raw, regardless of how big the amphitheatre is or how bright the production, there’s still something very connecting and human about it. Gestures are just bigger, voices are more amplified and it’s a heightened experience, I suppose, whereas (reading) a novel, by its nature, is more intimate. It’s quiet, it happens internally, it’s something that you sit down and do privately. And no one else can see what you’re going through or what you’re conjuring on your own. It’s a really beautiful transaction. They’re very distinct.

It’s amazing the different iterations of this one story, with vastly different meanings. It’s quite beautiful, really.

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Monique: With all the focus on the Jasper Jones film, what does that do your other creative projects? Do you have any time for them?

Craig: Certainly not in the past month. I’m working on a screenplay at the moment, I’m writing another film and I’m going to work with Rachel again – it’s a Western, it’s set in WA. I’m a draft-and-a-half done. With film, you don’t really have much of a choice to have hiatuses – once it’s on, it’s on. There a fleet of people behind you, lots of investors. You can go from periods of inactivity to a flurry.

Monique: Is your creative spark very much there despite how busy you are? Does this ever feel like ‘just a job’?

Craig: It’s never felt like just a job, to be honest. I’m too aware of how lucky I am. No, I think the moment that work itself feels sort of prosaic or staged, then I’ve got to start worrying. If I’m bored or if I’m concerned about it, I can’t expect the reader to conjure much passion for it.

It’s on me to produce something that is compelling and interesting and the principle barometer for that is me. I’m hyper-aware about respecting people’s attention – not boring people or labouring points or whatnot.

I’m the harshest critic when it comes to books and films and stage productions, so I just have to apply the same to what I do.

Monique: Are you a perfectionist?

Craig: Yeah. Yeah, I suppose you could describe it that way.

Monique: So, when it comes to the writing process, are you a plotter or pantser?

Craig: I’d be a pantser, I think. But a very thoughtful pantser – sounds like a strange fetish. I think about things a great deal before I will commit them to the page. I’ll start with the spark of an idea or something that interests me, and then I’ll have enough material or enough substance there to feel as though if I embark on the story there’s going to be something to it, there’s going to be enough merits or meaning behind it.

But I won’t sit down and decide who a character is before I’ve fleshed them out or met them and spent time with them. I won’t decide what their journey is before I’ve given them the opportunity to go on it. I think it’s a dishonest way to write, a slightly cowardly way to write, to be honest. I think a story and the people within it need to guide you as much as you influence them. It’s kind of push and pull, I suppose.

Of course, there are the contrivances of writing and you’re aware that when it works the best is when you’re inhabiting a similar kind of hypnotic state that you’re in when you’re reading. You’ve got to try and will yourself into that place, that’s when it works the best.

It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at, everyone faces the same blank page, same terror.

Monique: Do you ever doubt yourself?

Craig: Over the last 20-odd years I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable of writing, I can do that, and that I’m doing it for the right reasons and tacking work in the right spirit. So I’m not insecure about that the same way that I was when I was first starting out, anxious to prove myself to myself, really. And that apprehension would occasionally infuse the writing itself.

One of the curious things about writing confidently is that you’re happy to admit to yourself that the writer is irrelevant. All that matters is the story and the characters that inhabit it, and what you’re trying to do there, and the author is largely extraneous. The personality of the author, it’s not necessary. What confidence has given me, curiously, is humility. The ability to step back and just focus on the fiction.

I’ve always been level about reviews. Obviously disappointing reviews are going to sting a little, but you can’t control the reception either way. My opinion of a book or film or whatever it is I’m working on is usually well formed before it hits the market. I’m aware of its failures, I’m aware of its strengths before other people get to have their say. I try to stay as steady as possible.

Monique: How have the advanced screenings gone?

Craig: Over the last few weeks I’ve really been quite overwhelmed with how passionate people are about the story and the amount of goodwill around in the room, it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I’ll always be very, very grateful for it. People are coming out to see this story in a different medium because it’s special to them and they want to celebrate the relationship they’ve had with the book. It’s been, it’s like a phenomenon. The collective passion for the story has been really moving for me to be a part of. It’s been a curious thing to deal with at times. It’s just been so lovely. I’m just dealing with how fortunate I am, how grateful I am to have this kind of response. It’s a very lucky thing for a writer to have, to have this community of people.

That’s saddled with the general anxiety of opening weekend and hoping that people will come out. We’ll see. It can be brutal, film. We’re very hopeful but we’re aware of how difficult it can be.

Monique: I’m biased, but I don’t see that for you. But as you said earlier, the world’s a funny place.

Craig: It is a funny place, yeah. It’s a big thing to ask people to leave the house, organise a babysitter, head out in the rain to spend a couple of hours with us. You got to make sure that journey’s worth their time, so it’s not a small thing. Every person who comes to see our film we are enormously grateful for.

Monique: And what will you do once all the hype has died down?

Craig: Well, it doesn’t look like there’s much time out in the foreseeable future. I’ve got to get stuck into the second draft of the Western and I’m pitching a TV show next week, and another film as well. Not much time for a break but that’s a good thing.


Readers, watch this film and if you haven’t, read the book. It’s fantastic. Here’s the film synopsis:

Adapted from Craig Silvey’s best-selling Australian novel and featuring a stellar cast including Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving, Levi Miller, Angourie Rice, Dan Wyllie and Aaron McGrath, JASPER JONES is the story of Charlie Bucktin, a bookish boy of 14 living in a small town in Western Australia. In the dead of night during the scorching summer of 1969, Charlie is startled when he is woken by local mixed-race outcast Jasper Jones outside his window. Jasper leads him deep into the forest and shows him something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community. In an isolated town where secrecy, gossip and tragedy overwhelm the landscape, Charlie faces family breakdown, finds his first love, and discovers what it means to be truly courageous.

Here’s the trailer: