Philipp Meyer on Adapting The Son for TV

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Philipp Meyer has been busy the past few weeks. He’s been meeting with an unending line of directors, producers and cable networks who all want a hand in bringing his critically acclaimed second novel, The Son, to television. Meyer has enlisted the help of fellow novelist Brian McGreevy in navigating the perils of adapting his book for the small screen, since McGreevy had already successfully passed the hurdles in adapting his own graphic novel, Hemlock Grove, into the TV series of the same name. Meyer and McGreevy met while attending the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin, and even before Meyer completed The Son in 2013, he knew he and McGreevy would be working together to get it on TV.

American Rust, my first book, was auctioned by a big studio, and [they made] huge promises. They attached a director, they attached a screenwriter, I heard they even wrote a screenplay. Of course nothing happened, but I also had no input,” Meyer says. “99.9 percent of stuff that Hollywood picks up they actually have no intention of making it, and for the one percent of stuff that they do want to make, they have literally no interest in having the creator of the original material involved.”

It seems the only way to keep a hand in the adaptation of your own work is to do it yourself, so Meyer, McGreevy and fellow Michener graduate and author Lee Shipman are writing the screenplay for Meyer’s multigenerational Texas oil saga together. This is Meyer’s first attempt at screenwriting, and though the plot of the series will mirror that of the book, he says much of the dialogue will change. “I just felt like, okay, what is the point of this scene? What does this scene have to get across? What has to change, from beginning to end?” Meyer says. “The result of that was that all the scenes are entirely new. It just seemed like quoting stuff from the book was just not efficient.”

The trio began writing in September, after Meyer finished his book tour. The original plan had been to do a miniseries, since the 592-page book (which spans a period of roughly 200 years) would never fit into a two-and-a-half hour feature film, but it soon became clear that the story would fit best within the format of a traditional serial show.

“The arc of the series would have the same creative arc as the book, so it wouldn’t be open-ended,” Meyer says. “Whether that means four seasons or six seasons we’ll have to figure out.” More seasons means more storytelling options—and for Meyer it also means a chance to utilize some of the 4,000 pages of material that didn’t make it into The Son.

If Meyer and McGreevy have anything to say about it, the show will be shot in Texas. But that question, along with the issue of casting, is irrelevant until they’ve decided on a network and a director. “There’s an auction going on,” Meyer says. “Who’s going to commit the most money is not the entire story. Who’s the best home creatively, and who’s going to give us the most creative freedom and see eye-to-eye with us, in terms of what the show should be—[when we answer these questions], then we’ll make the decision.” As deliberately as Meyer and McGreevy are weighing their choices, the demand for the show is immediate, and Meyer and his partners are targeting a 2015 premiere. “You fight this battle, you fight this battle, you fight this battle, then you sort of hurry up and wait,” Meyer says. “It’s like making sausage. I never knew that there were so many moving parts.”

The process may seem all-consuming, but in the midst of constant meetings and screenwriting, Meyer has also started work on his next book, which he calls a “modern take on the old myths of the Underworld … a sort of modern Orpheus and Eurydice story.” Rather than historical fiction, the new book will offer magical realism, and though he’s hoping this book won’t require as much intensive research as The Son did, the stakes are high for his third novel. “To be honest, people still don’t really know what I’m capable of doing, because they’ve seen only two books,” Meyer says. “Novel writing is so much more intense than screenwriting. In screenwriting, the dialogue has to be perfect, but everything else, they’re just screen directions. Ninety-five percent of the artistic value of a film or TV show is the result of the actors, the director, the costume designer, the set designer, the director of photography,” Meyer says. “Two hundred people have to do their absolute best work in order to make a film or TV show good. The writer is one part of that. With a novel it’s just you.”

Following the critical and commercial success of The Son, and given the time that screenwriting and participating in the production of the upcoming show will take, Meyer would have license to be stressed about writing his third novel. He’s not. “It’s no different from being a pro athlete in some ways,” he says. “Like, you’re not really surprised when you win some championship, because you know how good you are. You know how good you are long before the world has any idea, because otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it.” When the bidding war began for rights to The Son, Meyer was excited—but not surprised. “There’s this false modesty that some writers and artists affect, but you can’t make it without going through a decade or more of very intense and painful rejection, and so, by definition, you get very used to the world’s conception of you and your work being very, very different from your own,” Meyer says. “So when the world’s reaction changes from negative to positive, you’re still in the habit of ignoring it, and I think you actually have to stay in the habit of ignoring it.”

This habit of trusting in his own work, and tuning out both avid fans and harsh critics, was one more reason to adapt The Son for TV himself. He, McGreevy and Shipman are hoping to encourage more authors to take control of putting their work on-screen. “It’s a super-obvious thing to do, but no one’s doing it,” Meyer says.

As enthusiastic as Meyer is about adapting The Son for TV, he’s quick to draw a boundary between his work as a novelist and the ephemeral nature of television. Regardless of what happens with the show, he says, “I wrote the book as a book. I wrote the book to last.”