An incredible journey into the twisted mind of a once-successful novelist.
Adapted from Stephen Elliott’s true crime memoir of the same name, The Adderall Diaries is an incredible journey into the twisted mind of a once-successful novelist paralyzed by writer’s block and in the thrall of an Adderall addiction – who becomes fascinated by a high-profile murder case as a way to escape his personal struggles.
For those who are not familiar with Adderall, it’s a smart drug and cognitive enhancer that improves rational function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals, and in Adderall Diaries James Franco is sensational as a writer who is haunted by the memories of his own tortured childhood and his cruel, estranged father.
If there’s one reason to see this film, besides a first rate and highly imaginative adaptation from writer-director Pamela Romanowsky, it’s for the explosive and dynamic confrontation between Franco and Ed Harris, who plays his father who mysteriously resurfaces and claims that his son’s nightmarish memories were fabricated.
Elliott’s past is further thrust under the microscope and he embarks on a wild and wacky journey to separate fact from fiction, amidst a backdrop of self-medication and false confessions, and a twisted murder case with its motley crew of suspects.
Notes from writer-director Pamela Romanowsky
I hope something in this story speaks your language, gives you pause, or touches something remembered and tender in you. That is, after all, the carrot that keeps a filmmaker going through long nights and lonely patches, that someone watching will find themselves on familiar ground. Or on rocky terrain that makes you so angry you want to write me a letter about it. Either is great.
The journey of The Adderall Diaries begins with James Franco, who has been my fearless champion and loyal collaborator throughout the seven years I’ve known him and the three years it took to make this movie. We became friends in graduate school at NYU, along with producer Kimberly Parker and DP Bruce Thierry Cheung.
Three years ago, we had just finished shooting a truly ambitious omnibus project of James’ called The Color of Time (on which I am one of ten directors), when James asked me if I was interested in directing a feature.
The answer was an enthusiastic yes, and he told me that he owned the option for a book by Stephen Elliott. I said, “oh right, the guy who wrote The Adderall Diaries!” I had just read the book and loved it, and he generously offered his project to me to adapt.
How I came to read The Adderall Diaries a few months prior was purely coincidence. I live next to a great little bookstore in Brooklyn called Word (which you can see in the opening montage of the movie when James does a book signing).
The book was sitting there in the window with a rave recommendation from the staff, so I read it. And it stayed with me for a long time after, percolating in an intriguing and uncomfortable space in my heart.
One of the great strengths of the book is the same reason it was very difficult to adapt into a film: it covers a lot of ground at breakneck speed, and which ideas a reader relates to will vary a lot from person to person. For me, the hook was this: “We understand the world by how we retrieve memories, re-order information into stories to justify how we feel.” That’s what grabbed me, the idea we edit our memories to fit the identity we’ve written for ourselves.
I’m fascinated by memory. We all know that it’s fragile and malleable, but having that information doesn’t prevent us from basing a huge amount of our emotional lives on it. We understand essential information about ourselves- our story and character and our vision of the future- based on the things that have happened to us. And we hold onto those stories, somehow, incongruously, alongside the knowledge that most people don’t remember very well. In fact, it’s the memories we most often recall that we remember the least accurately.
Those foundational moments of a family drama, violent accident or break up we’re visiting over and over again, are shifting right under our feet while we try to build on them. At a wedding last summer, a friend’s mother told me that she and her twin sister had entirely different versions of their shared childhood. She remembers her youth as idyllic and sweet, but her sister remembers abuse and trauma significant enough that she’s totally estranged from the family as an adult. How can those two truths co-exit? And yet they do.
What I appreciate most about Stephen’s story is that it’s an opportunity to get at a heady concept like memory on an emotional level. Our own narratives are incredibly tender and personal, however edited they may be. Making this film has motivated me to look at places in my own story where I know I’m stretching the truth. Where have I exaggerated, trying to make myself look impressive or sympathetic? Would the villains in these stories tell a different version? How often has pain in my life been partly my own doing? And if it’s me doing the casting, do I really want to be a victim? Is there a more empowering way to frame my experiences?
These are the kinds of questions I’ve had the great good fortune to talk about throughout the process of making The Adderall Diaries. And if you’re in the business of psychological probing for storytelling, you will find yourself no finer home than the Sundance Institute.
The Sundance Institute
I was invited to be a fellow at Sundance’s screenwriting and directing labs at 2013, an experience that changed my life as an artist profoundly. Through those loving and relentless emotional rock tumblers, I chiseled my way through everything cool or convenient in my scripts to find the real heart of it. It was at the resort where I met three of the most critical mentors on this film. I met Michelle Satter, founding director, who would go on to read a dozen scripts, watch seven cuts and answer many panicked early morning phone calls with astounding grace and patience.
I met Robert Redford, my legendary Executive Producer, whose first introduction to me was a rehearsal of an S&M choking scene. He didn’t bat an eye at the content, but encouraged me to be rigorous and patient, and to not rush through intimidating beats. And finally, I met Ed.
Casting the film
Ed Harris was my dream actor for Neil from the first outline of the first draft. I never thought I would actually get to meet him. But there he appeared, walking through the mountain grass in a cowboy hat, all grin and electricity and bright blue eyes. As fate would have it, he was my advisor the next day, and the scene he was helping me to shoot was the heart attack scene. After the lab, I worked up the courage to ask him if he might be my Neil. It took me the next nine months to convince him, and I never once entertained a B plan. He had to be Neil, the perfect counterpart to James’ Stephen.
Lana proved the hardest to cast, because I never had face in my mind, perhaps because she contains more than a little of myself. I knew when I met Amber Heard, on my birthday in New York, that she was the one. Fate stepped in to confirm that when she showed me her tattoo, a Pablo Neruda poem that I’d written into the script at the time. The same poem!
Christian Slater and Cynthia Nixon were each introduced to me by the peerless agent Danie Streisand, and both names were met with the same thrill and disbelief.
Roger also took a long time to cast, but the answer was obvious in retrospect: Jim Parrack, actual decades-long friend of James’. Their brotherly love, rapport and competitiveness is as real off screen as it is on.
Each actor brings such different energy and contributions to the set, and it was a great and humbling privilege to work with such a dynamite cast. I learned to be prepared and supportive in a new way for each actor. In turn, they inspired me and brought their gifts: James’ steadfast partnership and improvisation, Ed’s commitment and generosity, Christian’s enthusiasm and sensitivity, Amber’s discipline and strength, Jim’s intensity and humor, and Cynthia’s craft and intuition. Together, they brought the script to life and made it a living, breathing thing.
Shooting the film
Ours was a relatively smooth production, but there wasn’t a moment where what I saw in front of me looked exactly like what I had in my head. And thank god for that. It was one of the happiest times of my life when I was on set, armed with a scene and an intention, throwing out my old ideas and making new vibrant ones with my actors and my DP. Some of my favorite moments in the movie were on set discoveries, born of last minute additions and improvisations. Christian’s testimony scene, for example, wasn’t written with the change from a full courtroom to an empty one. We shot Christian’s coverage first, and during a particularly emotional take, Juror Number Two fell fast asleep, snoring like a band saw and sinking the moment as we all erupted in laughter. We politely asked to remove background actors for the rest of his close-up coverage, and as I watched Christian deliver his monologue into the empty courtroom, I leaned in to whisper to Bruce, “what about shooting James’ side this way, too?”
My DP, Bruce Thierry Cheung, is an old soul poet born into the body of a hip young Californian. As a friend and as my right hand on set, he’s a delight and an absolute artist. Emotional and poetic were his marching orders on camera, and we had a tireless steadicam operator on set every day to help us. That design allowed for the opportunity to shoot two very different shots simultaneously, sometimes yielding great discoveries. When we were shooting Ed’s VHS tape monologue, for example, we had imagined the shot objectively, delivered straight into the camera and seen on the television set in Stephen’s apartment. Since we weren’t using the steadicam, we had it orbit slowly around Ed in the hotel room for a bonus shot. As it turned out, that bonus shot resulted in my favorite moment in the film, in which Stephen really hears Neil for the first time, which we see visually in the transition from objective to subjective space.
Cutting the film with my talented editor Marc Vives took twenty-four weeks and was the most challenging part of the process for me. It’s amazing to see how a collection of relatively small shifts can change the feel and momentum of the entire cut. When those pieces line up, you can feel it. The magic and spark that was felt on set finally returns a scene that felt dead for a long time. But it takes so many wrong steps and detours to find the right pieces in the right order.
Working on the score with composer Mike Andrews was a true pleasure. He doesn’t sample or use Midi, instead recording every cue live in his studio layer by layer. He uses a huge array of sounds- acoustic and synth instruments, ipad and computer programs, frayed cords, favorite pedals- each of which he gravitates to intuitively as he writes. My favorite moment was the morning I walked into his studio to see him playing a table full of crystal glasses filled with water, which turned out to be a “glass harmonica,” made in the 1880s, that he’d found at an estate sale. You can hear the sounds from that session in Stephen and Lana’s theme throughout the film.
It has been three years to the month from my first draft of The Adderall Diaries to our world premiere at Tribeca. I’m very grateful to the many hurdles and helpers along the way, and for the opportunity to share the film, at long last. I hope something in this story speaks your language, gives you pause, or touches something remembered and tender in you. That is, after all, the carrot that keeps a filmmaker going through long nights and lonely patches, that someone watching will find themselves on familiar ground. Or on rocky terrain that makes you so angry you want to write me a letter about it. Either is great.