Glasgow Phillip’s Tuscaloosa is the kind of book that eats at you like a bad dream. Chockablock with sex, racial tension, and festering family secrets, the slim but steamy Southern coming-of-age page-turner is easy to mock, but also awfully hard to shake off.
Published in 1994 to favorable reviews, but a small audience, it embraces the conventions of the Southern novel but also laughs at them. You can dismiss it as the precocious literary debut of a twenty-four-year-old Bay Area–raised Brown grad (who himself calls the book “little more than accomplished Southern voice fan fiction”) because, well, it kind of is. But just try forgetting it. You can’t.
In our skip-the-book-give-me-the-DVD age, though, there’s a more pressing debate at hand: What kind of movie would it make? My guess is a pretty damn good one. And it seems an especially good match for Phil Harder, the talented Minneapolis–based music video and commercial director who has adapted Tuscaloosa for the screen and intends to make it his first full-length feature film.
The film’s financing and cast are still coming together, but last night Harder and a group of actors assembled at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio for an animated reading of the script—the latest installment in The Screenwriters’ Workshop’s always-enjoyable ScriptNight series. Dave Salmela and band performed a suitably melancholic opening number as the actors, scripts in-hand, took to the spare stage lined with chairs.
Among the familiar faces recruited for the reading: Prairie Home Companion vets Tim Russell and Sue Scott; local theater fixtures Namir Smallwood and Marvette Knight; and Nicole Vicius, an LA-based actress who has had small parts in Half Nelson and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, and who made a very good case last night why she should be cast in the film. Reading the lead role of Billy Williams was TC-to-New-York transplant (and Josh Hartnett buddy) Sam Rosen, soon to be seen in two local films—the Wyatt McDill-directed Four Boxes with Justin Kirk and Nobody, set to shoot soon with Rob Perez at the helm.
Rosen’s Billy is a rudderless pothead and recent college grad who tends the grounds at the mental institution his father runs in 1972 Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and is haunted by his mother’s sudden disappearance with her female lover (the family’s black maid) when he was three years old. The script shuttles wildly between speculations about the women’s last days before they died in a mysterious fire, Billy’s growing love affair with a troubled young hospital patient, and also his awkward friendship with the son of his mother’s paramour.
Tuscaloosa the book clocks in at a scrawny 191 pages, its breathless pace fitting for a story whose narrator is hurtling headlong into a big ol’ mess disguised as liberation. The flip side, of course, is that there’s not a lot of room for exposition. When the biblical allusions and Southern stew of taboos start stacking up, you want to beg Phillips to let you up for air.
Oddly, all this bodes well for Tuscaloosa the film. Whereas most movies condense and compress the hell out of a book, leaving much of the subtlety and character motivation on the cutting-room floor, I think there’s a real opportunity to take Phillips’ poetic potboiler and give it some room to breathe. The work-in-progress script read last night still seems like a whirlwind (I suspect it will get a significant overhaul before it ever sees the screen), but the bones are there.
As a director-for-hire to the likes of Hilary Duff, Liz Phair, Prince, and the Foo Fighters, Harder has amassed a huge portfolio of music videos that moves easily between real and dream worlds. His Michel Gondry-ish fondness for low-tech-looking visual effects and his interest in regional texture would seem to be just the imaginative eye needed to translate Tuscaloosa’s comic-tragic dreaminess to the screen. Also working in the film’s favor? Its Minneapolis–based producer, Christine Walker (Factotum, American Splendor), who has a track record of working magic on a shoestring.
Could Tuscaloosa be that rare adaptation that improves upon the original? Possibly. In Phillips’ memoir which humorously chronicles his failed attempt to write a follow-up to Tuscaloosa, he recalls being interviewed by novelist Jonathan Franzen, who was trolling Stanford University asking the question, Do books really matter anymore?
At the time, Phillips was scratching his eyes out trying and failing to write a second novel and becoming more depressed by the day. Needless to say, he had some gloomy conclusions for Franzen: Books only matter if they’re on TV or made into movies. He was onto something. For Tuscaloosa, film is home.