In a true example of life imitating art, British author Toby Young managed to offend an Oscar-nominated director, a few producers and even the leading lady on the set of the movie adaptation of his novel How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.
But Young -- who can't help but laugh when rehashing outlandish stories about hiring a stripper for the office on Take Your Daughter to Work Day and, ultimately, being tossed aside after Vanity Fair was no longer amused with him -- still maintains that he's actually a very charming guy.
Young talked to us about getting kicked off the movie based on the book he wrote about his life, who he'd cast to play himself if he could choose anyone and why Kirsten Dunst thinks he's a demented stalker.
Cinematical: How similar is the movie to your book?
Toby Young: The film is loosely based on my book, rather than a straightforward adaptation for the screen. The central character has been renamed Sidney Young in the film and he's quite similar to me -- he's a young British journalist who edits a fairly obscure literary periodical in London and is offered a job at a glossy New York magazine by the editor-in-chief, which is exactly what happened to me when I went off the work for Vanity Fair. The film parts company with reality really in two major respects. The first is that Sidney strikes up an acquaintance with Alison, an American assistant editor at the magazine, played by Kirsten Dunst. She is an entirely fictional character ... the film is a romantic comedy. The second respect is that about four-fifths of the way through the film, Sidney decides to swallow his pride and play ball with this very powerful publicist who controls access to various A-list celebrities -- suddenly his fortune is transformed and he then goes on to enjoy some success. [Laughs] I mean, essentially, Vanity Fair chewed me up and spat me out, whereas the character of Sidney eventually works out how to succeed.
Cinematical: Does any of it still feel like your book?
TY: Some bits, certainly, are taken directly from my book and they're based on things that actually happened to me. I really did hire a Stripper-Gram to come to Vanity Fair on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. [Laughs] That scene is in the film. Many of the big comic set pieces have been faithfully reproduced in the film.
Cinematical: There are a few other differences, like the changing of the names. Since you'd already named all of these people in the book, why'd they go through the trouble to change them for the screen?
TY: Yes, the magazine is called Sharps and the editor-in-chief is called Clayton Harding. But it is transparently based on Vanity Fair and Clayton is obviously based on Graydon Carter. Actually, people writing about the names being changed have wrongly said that they've been changed for legal reasons, but changing the names of the characters wouldn't prevent the real-life people from suing the producers of the film-- they could easily prove that those characters are based on them. The reason names are changed, I think, is because the writer of the film just wanted to give himself more creative freedom. He didn't want to stick religiously to exactly what happened, to just the facts. He wanted to be able to weave a fictional story around the facts.
Cinematical: You were originally set to write the screenplay as well -- what happened?
TY: I was originally hired to adapt the book and I turned in a fairly exhaustive 32-page treatment ...
Cinematical: For a 100-page movie!
TY: [Laughs] Exactly. And I thought it was brilliant! To this day I still don't really understand why I was fired on the spot. I still think that the way I had prepared to adapt it would've worked just as well. But that's not to say that the producer hasn't done a very good job. I didn't change my name in my adaptation ... I didn't change any of the names. The producers could easily have done it without firing me. [Laughs] I think the producers felt that it would be better to have a more experienced, professional screenwriter to do it, rather than a novelist like me.
Cinematical: [Laughs] Give a guy a chance!
TY: You know, there's a saying in Hollywood: The first meeting is always the best. In my first meeting with the main producer -- he told me that he thought I'd written the Catch 22 of my generation and I was clearly such a brilliant writer, I was the guy to adapt it for the screen. And I was like, "The job is yours -- you're clearly a brilliant man for recognizing my brilliance." [Laughs] And the second meeting -- not only was it canceled three times, but when I eventually met with him, he actually didn't come out of his office. He sent his second assistant out to tell me I was off the project. I shouldn't complain ... after that, he was really great about keeping me in the loop. After he fired me. [Laughs]
Cinematical: Simon Pegg was cast as Sidney Young because they wanted to make the character more likeable -- when did you become so totally unlikeable?
TY: I think it's essentially a gag. I called the book How to Lose Friends & Alienate People which is a play on the title of the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. But because I called it that, I've been shackled with the reputation as someone who just goes around losing friends and alienating people. [Laughs] I'm frequently asked for my Top 10 tips on how to do that. The truth -- I'm actually a fairly charming guy. I only lost one friend by writing the book and, to be perfectly honest, he had psychological problems. [Laughs]
Cinematical: Everyone -- especially people who will actually be portrayed, however loosely, onscreen -- imagines who would play them in a movie of their life. How about you -- DeNiro? David Beckham?
TY: See I have to be careful with this question because we had a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival and I was asked by the various English journalists present how I felt about Simon playing me -- and he was actually sitting next to me at the time. I said, "Well actually, when I first learned Simon had been cast in the role, I have to say I was a little disappointed. I was hoping for Brad Pitt!" [Laughs] They all laughed, they knew that was a gag, but nevertheless, the next day it was universally written up as "Toby Young announced at the Cannes Film Festival that he was disappointed to be played by Britain's #1 box office star; would've preferred Brad Pitt." Then beneath that was a picture of Brad in all his pulchritude and a picture of me looking particularly hideous. [Laughs]
Cinematical: So would you have cast Simon Pegg if it were your choice?
TY: I think he's perfect -- we couldn't have hoped for a better male lead. I mean, he's certainly an extremely winsome guy in real life. It's impossible to dislike someone like him. But he's also a great comic actor and he has incredible timing. Some of the funniest scenes are scenes which weren't in the script -- they were scenes that were just made up on the spot.
Cinematical: Any chance you'll give the book adaptation screenwriting thing another go with your second novel, The Sound of No Hands Clapping? It is about being a failed screenwriter, after all ...
TY: Yes, I would love to and I think I could do a bang-up job. It's been optioned by the same production team that made How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, so it's whether I can persuade them that I'm the right guy for the job.
Cinematical: You had a very public back-and-forth in the media with the director, Bob Weide, mostly about why you'd been kicked off set. Care to give more details?
TY: On my first visit to the set, I took Bob Weide aside and gave him various notes on how I thought he should be directing each scene. And he was very good-humored about it, but he didn't particularly welcome my advice. He's an Emmy Award-winning director, he's Oscar nominated ... I've never directed anything. So the producer said to me, "Listen, if you have any more comments about how Bob's directing a scene, will you give them to me?" That evening, after Bob was shooting another scene, I sent him an email saying I didn't think the scene was quite right. I sort of apologized for not being more enthusiastic about what he was doing, and I said, "I find it very difficult to be on the set and not be the guy with the megaphone, given that it was based on my book that I'd written about my life." And he responded by saying, "There's a very easy solution to this." In other words, stay the hell away! [Laughs] After that I did stay away.
Cinematical: But there was also a lot of talk about Kirsten Dunst having issues with you being on set as well. What exactly happened there?
TY: I went down to the set a few times and on my first visit, I went up to Kirsten and said, "So, have you fallen in love with me yet?" Meaning has the character that you're playing fallen in love with the character than Simon's playing who's based on me. But she didn't get it. She didn't know who I was. She just thought I was some demented stalker, who had somehow gotten past security [laughs] ... she just looked alarmed. Then there was a scene with Kirsten and Simon and I thought it would be even funnier if Kirsten did something that she wasn't doing in any of the takes I'd seen. It wasn't really a criticism of her performance -- I thought the director was remiss for not having suggested this before. It was just an obvious way to make the scene even funnier. So I said it to the producer, and that conversation was overheard by Kirsten's assistant, who then passed it on to Kirsten, who asked Bob if it was really necessary for me to be on set on a daily basis.
Cinematical: Yikes. OK, so you're obviously very particular -- what movies do you like to watch?
TY: I really like the great screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s -- His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, It Happened One Night. Those are my favorites.
Cinematical: Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure movie?
TY: You know, I really liked Jeepers Creepers II. I don't think I've read a single rave review of that. [Laughs] Which I think is strange because the director's handling of the big set pieces was pure brilliance. I just thought it was a great film ... that director was seriously underrated.