Bestselling author Augusten Burroughs has seen his memoir, Running with Scissors, ride the New York Times bestseller list for over two years; now, the book has been adapted to a film, starring Annette Bening as Burroughs' mentally ill mother. Burroughs was in Seattle recently to promote the film, and graciously sat down with Cinematical to chat about the book, the movie, and what's up next for him. Burroughs was impeccably dressed, soft-spoken at first but more animated once we broke the ice. He was by turns thoughtful, funny, and introspective, elegant and articulate -- as you might expect from a man who boiled and polished his coins to make them shiny when he was a child. The one giveaway to the inner nervous energy hovering beneath the calm surface was his nonstop nicotine gum habit ("Quitting smoking?" I asked upon seeing the skeletons of several packs of nicotine gum in the trash. "Oh, no, I quit years ago," he replied casually, as he popped a piece of gum in his mouth.)
Cinematical: Talk to me about the process of making the book into a movie. I know you were very creatively involved throughout, can you talk a little about how that all came about?
Augusten Burroughs: I first met Ryan in a restaurant in a hotel in
Cinematical: You didn't want it to be the kind of movie where it was, "Oh, look, how funny, his mom's so crazy!"
AB: Exactly. That's what I was afraid of. So I met with Ryan, and it turned out that he had a similar mother, that she had similar aspirations of greatness – she was a beauty queen as a teenager –
Cinematical: That'll screw you up.
AB: (laughs) I know! And she never lost that ambition for something larger. And the way that we responded to our mothers was similar; we kind of orbited around them, we sort of worshiped them. And he just understood the book in a way – like he'd written it. I just had a strong, gut feeling throughout that lunch that "he needs to have this."
Cinematical: And you were involved in that whole process of adapting your book into a screenplay?
AB: Oh, yes, constantly. Ryan would call me to read me two sentences. And then again when it was time to design the sets. He would call me and we would have these big discussions each time there was a new thing – we gotta think about the sets, we gotta think about the wardrobe, we gotta think about casting.
Cinematical: Was that part of the option deal – that you would be that creatively involved? Or was that just the dynamic between you and Ryan?
AB: It wasn't part of the deal, it was just the dynamic. He wanted me that involved, he reeled me back in. And he said numerous times, "I know this isn't just a movie, this is your life." So he took enormous care..
Cinematical: Whose idea was it that Annette Bening should play your mother?
AB: That was all Ryan's.
Cinematical: And did you agree with him on that?
AB: Oh, yes, immediately. I just wouldn't have thought of her, because it wouldn't have occurred to me that we would ever get her! I wouldn't even have thought of her. And then she said yes, and they all said yes, and then we had our dream cast. And it was all just very easy. We never had someone turn us down, we never had to go back and regroup to discuss casting, it was just done.
Cinematical: I read on your website that when you first saw Brian Cox as Dr. Finch, it was very stressful for you.
AB: Mmmmm. It was just – shocking. It was just shocking how much he looked like Finch. And it wasn't just the appearance, it was the demeanor, the big charisma, he just reminded me so much of Dr. Finch. He nailed it, this person he's never even seen or heard. It was very strange, just very, very strange. And Annette Bening as my mother too, that's another that was really odd.
Cinematical: When you saw the completed film for the first time, and you saw Annette Bening up on that screen as your mother, what was that like?
AB: It was hard. It was – I didn't expect, really, to be emotionally hit by it. I mean, it's my life, I lived through it, I wrote a book about it, I talk about it all the time. But it did hit me. It was very strange and sad to see her go through that. It was actually even sadder to me to see Annette with her real daughter, because she's such a good mother. Such a good ... mother.
(He pauses reflectively.) And you can just see they have a very close relationship There's no emotional ... starvation, there's no – Annette is very clearly not the Hollywood star at home. She's such a good mother. And that made me literally have to turn away, so that I wouldn't burst into tears in front of her and humiliate myself.
And of course, watching her play my mother. And watching my mother go through her nervous breakdowns again, on the big screen. Watching her, every fall, go through the same thing, thinking it's the last time, and having it never be the last time.
Cinematical: And what that does to you as a kid, to your whole sense of stability – because you can't have stability growing up with an emotionally unstable parent.
AB: Right, there's just nothing there, and what is there is just chaos. Your home life is hideous. It does a horrible thing to you, the baggage is there, still to this day. It becomes part of your fabric. I don't think I could get "fixed" from the damage; you just sort of learn to change your own behavior, to not be a puppet controlled by that string.
Cinematical: As I was reading the book, I wondered if, in a certain way, you're grateful for having had such a crazy childhood, because of the way it's shaped your life and who you are? Do you ever think, well, if I'd had a perfect Brady Bunch childhood, maybe I'd have grown up to be a boring insurance salesman instead of a writer?
AB: Oh, I am. I definitely am. And that has nothing to do with having a movie come out. I am grateful, because it gives you certain strengths and an ability to count on yourself. I learned important things to know, early on, about depending on myself. I always believed that things could be better tomorrow; in a way I guess it was sort of delusional. But it was also a good thing, because I would operate as if things were going to be good tomorrow.
Cinematical: When you started writing Running with Scissors, why the decision to write about your own life?
AB: That childhood was something I tried to run away from my entire life. I changed my name when I was 18, I moved as far away as I could get, to San Francisco, I never wanted to talk about it. As far as I was concerned, it didn't happen. I was never going to talk about it again, I was never going to live it again. But that's just not how it played out. I ended up getting very drunk almost every single night, and talking about it, and reliving it, and talking about it to people and not remembering it. The phrase "haunted by" doesn't begin to describe it. I was just disgusted by it. I felt dirty, I felt really defective, and filthy.
Cinematical: So you wrote it for yourself initially, as a therapeutic thing?
AB: Well, I had a book deal, it was bought, so you could say I wrote it for them. But I wouldn't have told them about it if it wasn't – it was just time. When I started writing it, it actually didn't go well, because I started in the wrong place. I started writing about my relationship with Bookman first, and that was just a disaster. It was just so upsetting to think back, just thinking about that – it was awful.
So I started from a different place, from a funnier place, and it totally changed the tone. Reading my journals from that time and seeing that there was humor in them. It turned out to be a great experience. I had no idea when I was done what kind of a mess I had. I had no clue what the publisher was going to think. If they'd picked it up and thrown it in the trashcan, I wouldn't have been surprised.
But they didn't, they loved it. And they decided to publish it in hardcover. I mean, we all knew it wasn't going to be a bestseller, right? There was no advertising for it at all. I mean it's a book that's got graphic anal sex between a boy and a man – we didn't need the marketing department to tell us that. But my editor published it in hardcover really as a gift for me, and I loved it because I felt like now I had it as an artifact, I could give it to my nephew and he would know his history. And then it started getting all these good reviews, and attention.
Cinematical: I wanted to talk to you a bit about your relationship with Bookman. You were sexualized at a very early age because of that relationship. And the way the initial sexual contact between you is portrayed is much different in the movie than in the book. It wasn't played quite as darkly in the film.
AB: In a much earlier version of the screenplay, he (Ryan) did have that scene much more like it was in the book – that dark triangle coming at your face – and Ryan, he said, in the end, I wanted the film to have an R rating and I wanted people to see it. And he thought that he could accomplish that without those graphic scenes, he felt he could achieve the "Um, wait a minute, this is a boy!" factor without being graphic about it. So that was a decision he made, and I was fine with that.
Cinematical: Your reaction to what happens in that scene, in the book, was much scarier and darker.
AB: There are at least five or six ways we could have made this movie: The relationships between me and Bookman, between me and Natalie -- and one is me and my mother. And that's the relationship he decided to focus on in the movie -- my relationship with my mother, and by virtue of that the other relationships get minimized. So yeah, that did happen. I actually think it's okay because the movie and the book complement each other. The book gives you much more, and if you go to see the movie, you can read the book and learn much more, meet characters in the book who were not in the movie.
Cinematical: Can you talk about Joe Cross, and how you feel about the job he did capturing you?
AB: Well, there's no mimicry because I'm a completely different person now than I was then. He read the script, and he read the book a few times. And his goal was to react to and flow with everyone and everything, while maintaining his core. He's very mature for an 18-year-old, very polite. He has certain qualities that would have enabled him to survive my childhood. I think he tapped into his own sense of isolation, of being away at college for the first time and being alone. And he really captured that. I mean, in a situation like that, like my life, you're either going to die or you're going to preserve yourself. And I think that sense of self-preservation in Joe comes through very well in the movie.
Cinematical: Do you have more stories to tell?
AB: I do, but I'm done writing about me. I'm writing this book about my father and then I'm done with that. I want to create worlds and characters and live in them.
For more on Running with Scissors, be sure to check out our review of the film.