Extraordinary Measures, written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, was inspired by the book The Cure by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geeta Anand. The film follows the story of John Crowley (Brendan Fraser), a man who defied great odds to pursue a cure for his children’s life threatening disease. Harrison Ford plays the unconventional scientist with whom Crowley battles the medical and business establishments. Extraordinary Measures opens today: January 22, 2010.
Jacobs garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Chocolat. Other films include The Shipping News, Flushed Away, and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. He graduated from Yale University, received the Curtis Literary Prize for his short fiction, and later earned a master’s degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Write On! speaks with Jacobs about his experience writing Extraordinary Measures and the creative process of adaptations vs original material. Jacobs also offers tips for creating characters based on real people, approaching the blank page, and more.
What led you to take on the adaptation of The Cure/Extraordinary Measures?
In 2003 there was an inspiring article in the Wall Street Journal by Geeta Anand about the Crowley family and John Crowley’s heroic struggle to develop a medicine that could save the lives of his kids, who were dying of a rare genetic disorder called Pompe Disease. The producers, Michael and Carla Shamberg and Stacey Sher, sent me the article as the possible basis for a movie. Harrison Ford was already onboard as executive producer and had a real passion for the project. I found the story compelling, but recognized huge challenges in turning it into a movie. There was so much technical information about science and about business—and so many events that would need to be compressed in order to tell the story in under two hours. I was kind of on the fence about whether to take it on, and Michael suggested I talk to John Crowley. I had a long phone call with John, and I was so taken with his energy and conviction and the power of his personal journey that I decided to take on the challenge of writing the movie.
How do you go about developing characters based on real people? Any tricks toward “getting it right?”
Well, the first thing is to learn as much as you possibly can about the real people. The Crowley family welcomed me into their home. I just hung out with them for several days, talking with each of them, eating meals with them, going to school with the kids. I learned a lot from them. It’s remarkable how they faced very grave challenges with such grace and resilience and humor. The sense of humor of this family was really something I wanted to get into the movie. (Megan, the little girl, is especially funny—she really just says whatever is on her mind—and was a fun character to write.) So even when I had to change or compress events, I felt a great responsibility to honor the spirit of the Crowley family.
As for the character of Dr. Stonehill (Harrison Ford’s character), there were actually several researchers on whom that composite character is based. It was necessary to take events that happened at different times and with different people and composite them into the character of Dr. Stonehill. I was very fortunate that Harrison was involved as an executive producer before I ever wrote a word of the screenplay, so we talked about how to design the Stonehill character in such a way that he would play well against the character of John Crowley.
Geeta Anand’s book was an indispensable guide for me as wrote my screenplay. Actually, Geeta was in the process of writing her book when I started writing my screenplay, and she was incredibly generous in sharing all of her research with me and sending me chapters of her first draft as she completed them.
So, in general, I think there are two imperatives, which are always in tension with each other: 1) Learn absolutely as much as you can about the real people and events of the story. 2) Don’t be afraid to take creative liberties in order to tell the story in an economical and entertaining way. You have to bold about compressing the timeline and compositing characters. The most important thing is to capture the spirit of the people you’re writing about: their emotional truth.
What was your favorite part of writing Extraordinary Measures? The greatest challenge?
I really enjoyed getting to know the Crowley family and doing other research as well, especially the scientific research. I’ve always loved reading science books for layman—to me, that’s fun reading, that’s beach reading. So the opportunity to go into a lab and learn from a scientist was really exciting to me. John Crowley has worked with a researcher named Hung Do, who was incredibly helpful to me in digesting all the technical, scientific aspects of the story.
Hard to say what the greatest challenge was. I guess it comes back to compression. If I told the whole story of the Crowleys’ journey, the movie would be 15 hours long.
How was it different than/similar to your other adaptations, such as Chocolat?
Every project is difficult in its own way. You are always making decisions about where to take liberties, what to invent—and what to delete. There are always parts of a novel that you love but can’t include in the movie because they don’t move the story forward. You have such a limited amount of time to tell a story in a film, you need to be very efficient and judicious about what “makes the cut.” You have to make similar difficult decisions in writing a true story. Obviously in the case of the true story, there’s a different kind of responsibility because you are telling a story about real people. Probably the most nervous I’ve ever been as a writer is when I sent my first draft to the Crowley family. I sent it to them on a Friday, and spent the weekend pacing the floors and waiting for the phone to ring. Finally John Crowley called me Sunday evening. He and Aileen loved the script and even read parts of it out loud to the kids. That meant a lot to me. The Crowleys never told us “you should show this” or “don’t show that”—but it did mean a lot to me that they felt the script captured the spirit of their family.
How do you approach the blank page?
With trepidation. For me, it helps to approach writing as a “job” rather than as “art.” You don’t wait for “inspiration” to strike—you just plant your butt in the chair and put in the hours. Moments of inspiration will come at unexpected times in the process, but in the meantime you just tackle all the technical challenges of working out an outline and telling a story. If you put in the time, moments of inspiration will sneak up on you. You might start out trying to solve one problem and then suddenly the answer to some other question arises or some unexpected opportunity whacks you over the head. Moments of sudden discovery are wonderful, but you have to be willing to just put in the time of mundane problem-solving in order to lay the groundwork for those moments of unexpected opportunity.
In what ways is your creative process different for original material vs adaptation?
With original material, you have no constraints. You can literally make up anything you want. Which is both a blessing and a curse. In an adaptation, you can take liberties, but there are certain constraints—you’re trying to hit certain notes, whatever it was that intrigued you or moved you about the underlying material. Again, blessing and curse. The underlying material is a gift, in that it gives you something to work from, you have guideposts. But the underlying material can also weigh you down if your attitude towards it is too reverential or slavish. You have to give yourself permission to make bold departures in order to make the story work as a movie.
How did you make the leap from literary fiction to screenwriting?
The skills for fiction-writing and screenwriting are very different, but related. It’s like the difference between playing the violin and playing the trombone. The techniques could not be more different, but in both cases you’re making music. Fiction-writing and screenwriting are very different ways of telling a story. Making the transition was harder than I thought it would be—just mastering the technical challenge of telling a story visually and finding economical ways to move the narrative forward.
Additional advice for writers?
Write stories that you a passionate about. If you’re writing a story that you urgently want and need to tell, you’ll do your best work. Of course there are times in a career that you’ll have to do a job that you’re not wild about, just to pay the rent, and that’s fine. But carve out time to work on that project that you love.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Actually I’m glad I that I DIDN’T know how difficult it would be—because that might have kept me from starting. I started with a great sense of optimism, totally underestimating how much struggle would be involved. And in retrospect, that’s a good thing. It’s great to start with youthful enthusiasm.
Tags: Author Q&A Brendan Fraser CBS Films Chocolat Debra Eckerling Extraordinary Measures Geeta Anand Harrison Ford Robert Nelson Jacobs Screenwriting The Cure Write On!