Interview with OtherLife Screenplay Author Kelley Eskridge

First, and foremost, this interview is one big enormous spoiler for the movie OtherLife. If you have not seen it yet, please avert your eyes. Go see the movie. Then come back and read my detailed review of the movie and then read this interview. In that order. Ok? Yes, I know, that’s a lot of work. But you guys aren’t lazy. Get on it.

Ok so occasionally I get to talk to some really cool people. Ok, ok, it’s more like, occasionally I get up the nerve to annoy a cool human being and they are kind enough to humor a hack like myself and answer my questions. And honestly? That is the most fun I have out here on THiNC. Movie reviews and detailed movie deconstructions are fun. But they aren’t anything like a great conversation with a creative type personality. And in the past year I’ve been lucky enough to talk to some really crazy cool people, Eric Heisserer of The Arrival fame was fun, Mike Carey of The Girl With All the Gifts fame was a blast, Nathan Williams of If There’s a Hell Below, MacLeod Andrews and Evan Dumouchel of They Look Like People fame? All so much fun. And even the other day I had fun chatting with Radius writer and director Steeve Léonard… über good times.

But today? Today? I top them all with a conversation with Kelley Eskridge, the seminal mind behind OtherLife which we at THiNC. loved dearly… didn’t we? Yes class, we did. Well said. Anyway, when I first contacted Kelley, she mentioned that she had enjoyed my write up on the movie, which for the record, I don’t believe I sent to her… so good on you Kelley for digging! Anyway there was one interesting response there that I wanted to share:

Kelley Eskridge – “Thanks for the writeup! Really interesting to read. Love the idea of them showing her a tape of her being put in the cell as a way of persuading the audience (wish we had thought of it :)”

If you read my original discussion of the movie you’ll know that one of my beefs with the movie was that I didn’t mind a movie lying to me, but that it ought to convince me it was telling the truth first. And I hadn’t been persuaded at all that she was actually in the physical world.

Taylor – “Wait, were you joking about my comment about needing a shot of her finding a video of them putting her in the tank? Don’t get me wrong… it’s a great film. I enjoyed working through it and trying to understand the ins and outs of it. But that particular detail seemed pretty obvious to me. I understood your intent – but also knew you can’t side door the brain. So there had to be something missing.”

Kelley Eskridge – “Yep, I meant it about putting her in the tank. It’s a good idea. We had something in the original script that was oriented the same direction, but not as clear as your idea (and didn’t make it into the final pass).

So there you have it… Yours truly needs to become a screenplay writer! Or not. Every movie I was involved with would be like 4 hours. Hahaha, anyway let’s dive right in:

THiNC. “The initial idea for Otherlife, ‘A Virtual Reality Drug For the Brain’, where did that come from?”

Kelley Eskridge – “OtherLife is based on my novel Solitaire, published in 2002 by HarperCollins. Solitaire is a New York Times Notable novel, and was a finalist for the Nebula, Spectrum and Endeavor awards. Virtual solitary confinement with time expansion is the central plot idea of the book. The film story and the novel story — plot events, setting, etc — are quite different, which has always been fine with me. Most books do not adapt to screen in a direct 1:1 way. The central idea of virtual confinement, and Ren’s emotional journey are what I thought was important to carry over into the film.”

THiNC. “So yeah, I just got a copy of your book and am looking forward to reading it. I didn’t realize it was based on a book. Which is exciting to hear. Now, you wrote the movie’s screenplay with Ben and Gregory right? (Did you guys also work with Tommaso Fiachino and Lucas Howe? Sometimes I see them credited and others not) How was that? What was the working relationship like and how did you develop it together?

Kelley Eskridge – “Tommaso Fiacchino is the producer who originally optioned the book and has been the longest-term champion of adapting it and getting the film made. Gregory Widen did the original adaptation in 2006, at which point I took over the writing. Lucas Howe is a writer who did a single pass on the script in 2009 or 2010 (I forget) while I was occupied with another project. Ben Lucas did a final pass on the script to make it ready to film in Perth, and to scale it down in terms of overall costs.

“The credits vary depending on the website you check. IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes reflect the correct credits.

“Tommaso and Gregory worked closely to develop the screen story during the first round of adaptation. Tommaso and I worked closely on the remaining drafts. When the Australian producers picked up the script, Ben and I synced on our goals for the film, and he did the final pass.”

THiNC. “Say you’re are a hack of a writer, and you happen to have a short story (cough) that you want to transmute into a screenplay… like flax into gold. What’s your advice from moving from short stories to screenplays? Wasn’t your first credit an adaptation from a short story? Should I, I mean they, purchase Final Draft and start thinking 100% in dialogue?”

Kelley Eskridge – “It was my short story, but another writer adapted it, so I don’t have any direct advice. I wish it was as easy as buying Final Draft :), I’d be a more successful writer! And no, screenplays aren’t just about dialogue – they are about thinking visually and structuring the story for maximum engagement and impact. My advice to people like me who want to make the leap from prose to screenplay is to read a ton of scripts and blogs, join critique groups, take classes and practice like fuck. I highly recommend screenwriting classes from Corey Mandell.”

THiNC. “So much for that idea… hahaha. There were two timelines in this movie, one that was present and one that was future. One year into the future to be exact. One was true and one was false. From a writing (and if you were involved at all, the film making) perspective, how did you keep these distinctly different timelines straight? Danny is dead, Danny isn’t. Was it just an attempt to conspiracy theory Ren’s world more in the fake year ahead? I’m floundering here on the question – but it’s a great question dangit. hahaha.”

Kelley Eskridge – “The plot twist around the fake year was Gregory Widen’s idea, and is one of the big differences between the book and the film. I think it’s a great idea. Yes, the point was to propel Ren into active conflict. I also adjusted it to set up the idea that the drug can be more than a manufactured experience — it could be customized by the user to create a personal “perfect life.”

THiNC. “The most amazing thing about this movie is that it ever got made. Seriously. It’s an audacious story and an audacious script to try and make on a lower budget scale. What were your favorite portions of the script that were aha’s that seemed intriguing to you at the time? Wasn’t it M. Night who said it took him 50 odd re-writes before he realized Bruce was dead? hahah. Oh, sorry… spoiler alert.”

Kelley Eskridge – “I wrote to a $20M budget and the script had So Much Cool Shit in it. It almost got made about 7 million times over a 10-year period. We (the core producers and I) didn’t believe it could be made for a much lower budget until we heard some of Ben’s ideas. And we did have to adjust some parts of the story pretty radically in order to make it work. So some of my favorite set pieces aren’t there anymore. I would love to have seen those on screen, but I would rather have this gorgeous film with smaller-scale ideas than a film that tries to do big-scale effects for no money. You can always tell.

“My favorite part of the script has always been Ren herself. She’s smart, she’s complex, she’s driven, and she makes her own choices (and mistakes). She makes a pretty intense emotional journey in the film, and that’s what any good film is about for me as a viewer and a writer.”

THiNC. “The role of Ren’s father was interesting to me in that he had a significant impact on the story, but only a bit part. He was the initial creator of the idea and yet almost a recluse. His story is almost 100% hinted at. But it also drove many of Ren’s internal mechanics as well. Did he originally have a bigger part? Can you tell me more about him or the process around that character?”

Kelley Eskridge – “No, his part is about the size it’s always been. The story isn’t about him and the drug’s creation, it’s about her and what she’s trying to do with it (and how far she will go to make that happen). I’ve always thought of Robert as very interesting and necessary backstory for Ren. And as a woman writer, I think it’s way way way too easy for stories about women protagonists to get warped into stories about the men around them.”

THiNC. “The ending drug in the eye was actually my favorite right-hook from the movie. How did the ending come together, this idea of, let’s show him just how evil he’s being approach?”

Kelley Eskridge – “I wrote it and Ben beefed it up into a much more direct physical fight, which I loved.”

THiNC. “The movie is similar to others in the sci-fi world, what pedigree do you see it coming from?”

Kelley Eskridge – “From my book :). It makes me laugh that so many people assume we ripped off Inception, when in fact our script had been out several times by then to all the majors, and was prepared to go out again the week after Inception opened. For a year after Inception, no one would even read OtherLife. Sigh. Welcome to filmmaking.

“Having said all that, of course we all influence each other in films, including science fiction. OtherLife will always be viewed in context of Inception, Black Mirror, the Star Trek DS9 holodeck, eXistenZ, etc. A lot of movies draw from a common well of ideas: the point is to tell a particular story that explores some new aspect or consequence. It’s my hope that OtherLife will be part of this larger conversation.”

THiNC. “Do you happen to have any other screenplays in the works, or that you are assisting on?

Kelley Eskridge – “Stuff in the works, nothing in development at the moment.”

THiNC. “Were there any flaws or sticking points that you and the other writers just had a hard time solving or was it roadmapped early on?

Kelley Eskridge – “One of the big challenges was how to make clear that Ren was editing the experience in her mind the whole time, and that she was the only one who could do it. That challenge included finding a plausible explanation for why Danny dies but she doesn’t. This got iterated a lot over the years.”

There you have it. Pretty fascinating stuff. I’m loading up the movie to watch it again now that I’ve had this great conversation with Kelley. Really insightful chat. Hopefully you guys enjoyed it. Thanks Kelley!

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