The immensely popular 2002 novel The Nanny Diaries had two writers, so it's only fitting that the movie version has two directors. Husband and wife team, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who were Oscar-nominated for writing 2003's American Splendor, have adapted the book, which tells the story of a young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, who puts off some major life decisions by deciding to take short-term work as a nanny in the rare air of Manhattan's Upper East Side, where housewives carry business cards, children are treated as well-groomed fashion accessories and the husbands are rarely seen. I recently had a chance to speak with Berman and Pulcini about the special challenges of bringing this book to life as a movie -- anyone who's read it knows that it's a very interior, non-cinematic tome that even goes so far as to withhold the names of key characters from the reader. (Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti are credited as Mrs. X and Mr. X in the film) Here's the interview.
RS: Is this a world that you have first-hand experience with, or just a good story that came your way?
SSB: Well, we live in New York City. We live on the West side, we live across Central Park from the Upper East Side, which is really close, but like, you need a passport to get there. It's a whole other universe away. So, in a weird way, we were familiar with the world, because we would walk around and see women dressed in Burberry jackets with little dogs in matching Burberry jackets. We would see the world, but we were outside observers. It wasn't a world that we were intimately included in.
RS: So when you sat down to adapt this popular book, how much freedom did you give yourself to take it in new places, to make it your own?
RP: Luckily, we had a lot of freedom, because there had been other writers on the project before us, and the studio had come to the decision that it wasn't the easiest book to adapt. Even though it was immensely popular, it was very interior. It was very much a catalog of great details and observations, you know. So how do you open that up, cinematically? So I think they kind of welcomed our approach, and I know the writers have seen the movie and they're very happy with what we've done with it.
SSB: We tried to stay true to the spirit of the book, but we definitely wanted to find ways to make it more cinematic and to dramatize things in a more visual way. That's how we brought in all that anthropology and the Museum of Natural History and the dioramas and the Mary Poppins references. We wanted to open it up and make it, not like a novel, but like a movie.
RS: Talk about the dioramas a little more, where that idea came from -- did the art department dream up that idea?
RP: The dioramas came from the fact that in the book, she refers to them as Mr. X and Mrs. X and she kind of gives them case study names. And we thought 'how do we retain that?' What if she's a wanna-be anthropologist? And we kind of played up that theme by giving her this kind of clinical distance from her employers. She refers to them as Mr. X and Mrs. X and that led to this anthropological theme that we had, which led to the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History. So we thought that would be a great, kind of visual style to employ in the movie.
SSB: It was in the script -- it wasn't something that the production designer came to us with. In fact, it was in the script and the production designer came to us and started to complain and say 'How the hell are we gonna do this?' It was really hard. The museum allowed us to shoot -- we actually shot in the Museum of Natural History, everything except for the dioramas, because they're very old and you can't light them or it will ruin them. We could shoot around the actual dinosaur bones, but they didn't let us shoot the dioramas. We couldn't light them. We had to create the museum on a stage for the dioramas. Ultimately, my production designer was a genius and figured out a way to do it all, but it was definitely one of the harder things in the movie to figure out how to achieve.
RS: I would imagine one of the hardest things to achieve was keeping a balance with Laura Linney's Mrs. X character. Was there anything you didn't want her to do, for fear of her character becoming irredeemable to the audience?
RP: With that character, we wanted something a little bit different than the usual, self-obsessed, spoiled kind of stock characters that you see, and we wanted something very specifically New York, which Laura completely understood and nailed. You don't see that kind of woman very often, the way she plays it. And I the thing that was tricky was, how do we make her so unlikeable and yet sympathetic? That was a real acting feat of hers. You know, how do you pull that off? That's where a great actress steps in and figures out a way to do it.
RS: There's a scene in the movie where Scarlett's character references a 'Nanny's Code,' which I thought was interesting. Not saying 'I love you' to the kids in her keep, and all that. Is such a thing common?
RP: I'm not sure if it exists in the real world. I'm sure there are plenty of nannies that say 'I love you' to the kids they watch, and there are probably nannies that don't. But it certainly exists in the nanny genre. Mary Poppins -- I remember seeing that movie as a kid and being really upset by the ending of that film. She leaves them, and she's very cold. She won't allow herself, or at least she won't admit to herself, that she gets emotionally involved with these children. That's the mistake that Scarlett's character makes -- she allows herself to say 'I love you' and to fall in love with the child, knowing that in the end you always leave. So I know the code kind of exists in the genre of nanny films, and I would suspect it exists in the real world as well.
SSB: My nanny -- we have a nanny right now -- who watches our son and she's been doing it for about twenty years and she told me that it's incredibly devastating when you leave a house. You know, when you leave a job. It's one of the hardest things for her, to learn to keep that balance, and not falling so in love with the kid that you can't leave, and still doing a good job and taking care of the child. It's almost impossible -- it's a catch-22, the job of a nanny.
RS: Did Scarlett bring anything unexpected to the part? Anything that wasn't in the book?
SSB: Scarlett is incredibly funny. She's a natural comedienne, and I think that she brought -- I mean, the character in the book was really funny and self-depricating, and I think that Scarlett really nailed it in the movie and was really able to bring a lot of truthfulness and humanity and humor to the character. It's really funny, because I think a lot of people think of Scarlett as being in very glamorous roles. They think of her as being the woman on the red carpet, but I think in this movie she was really able to sell an ordinary young woman, who is insecure and unsure of herself and her future and kind of taking a break from figuring out her future by working for these people and throwing herself into their problems, instead of facing her own.
RS: How long was the first cut? Did you leave a lot of stuff on the floor?
RP: We definitely eliminated some stuff.
RS: The Alicia Keys stuff?
RP: No, nothing with her. It was more some fantastical things that we did.
SSB: Yeah, we had a big nanny fantasy sequence.
RP: There's one sequence where Scarlett flies over sailboat pond, and like in Mary Poppins she has a bag and she starts pulling things out of the bag, and she just keeps pulling out these endless umbrellas and throwing them to all the nannies in the park and they all float up kind of like a Magritte painting, you see all these nannies in the sky, floating above Central Park. And while it was a really beautiful image, it wasn't really welcome in the telling of the story. It was hard for us to let go of it.
SSB: I guess it was too late in the movie to take a breather and allow for a moment like that.
RS: So what's up next for you guys?
RP: We don't know -- we don't have anything lined up right now, and we're not quite sure what we want to do.
SSB: I don't know if the strikes is gonna happen or not -- everybody is freaking out about this strike. We have a few things, but we haven't really decided. I think we're gonna try to turn to doing something a little smaller, maybe. A little more along the lines of an American Splendor, or something like that. Go back to making a little more independent thing.