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S.F. writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida give birth to a beautiful screenplay 

Wednesday, May 20 2009
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In the new romantic road-movie dramedy Away We Go, SNL alum Maya Rudolph and The Office’s John Krasinski play an unexpectedly expectant couple roaming North America (Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, more) with the intent to nest, popping in on eccentric friends and relations (Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, more) and soaking up dubious lessons in modern parenting. Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes has the helm, but — for San Francisco moviegoers, especially — screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida are at the heart of the matter. We called the local literary couple last week to discuss their collaborative big-screen debut.

SF Weekly: When the two of you write something together, like for instance a screenplay, how do you work?

Vendela Vida: It's basically the way you'd imagine it on a sitcom, with us on the couch passing the computer back and forth.

Dave Eggers: I know that some screenwriting teams go off and work separately, but with us, probably 95 percent of it was written together in one room. With two people, it's a lot of fun. And a lot easier. You can really test out each idea — each line, even.

SF Weekly: In this case, do you and your characters have experiences in common?

Vida: We were aware that we were a couple writing about a couple. So we wanted some distance between us and them, to make their relationship less like ours. We're older and more settled.

Eggers: We really wanted Burt and Verona [Krasinski and Rudolph] to have a no-drama relationship. They're a unit. By necessity, a lot of couples in comedies are opposites. But we thought, "What if they're a unit, and have limitless respect for each other? Could it be done?" I think after the first draft somebody read it and said, "When are they gonna break up?" But they don't break up.

Vida: The same friend also asked, "Are they gonna get married?" Nope!

Eggers: So it's an interesting thing. Here's a couple that actually has to plan to fight more. It's so true to so many people we know.

SF Weekly: Verona and Burt travel to several cities and see several very different models of family life. Did you have the places in mind first, or the characters who inhabit them? How did that come together?

Vida: We did think about what kind of person we'd want them to encounter ...

Eggers: With Lily [Allison Janney] and Lowell [Jim Gaffigan], they came with Phoenix. It was all of a piece. ... There's a kind of mild, low-level parenting nihilism, so that desert landscape of Phoenix just fits. And Vendela as a kid had been to a dog track there.

Vida: That was my one memory of Phoenix.

Eggers: In Madison, it could be a lot of different college towns where that level of pretension could bloom. But Midwestern college towns don't get enough credit for their fertility for that sort of thing. And with Montreal, it's also that we started this in 2005. So at first there were a couple of instances in the script where they're longing to just leave the country and wait out the Bush years.

SF Weekly: How did Sam Mendes get involved?

Eggers: He found it about a year after we wrote it. To this day we don't know how it got to him. The way the film industry seems to work, you never know who's reading what you've written. But you never have to send it to anybody. ... With Sam, we know this guy's going to make something singular. He's not going to back away. You end up with a movie that has a very unusual shape to it.

Vida: I was surprised at how good he was with comedy. He was so specific about why and how things worked. He really had such a good comic sensibility. And he'd been in need of a change, artistically and emotionally. ... We were too. We'd been writing books with more intense subject matter. Dave had just done What Is the What and had been in Sudan, and I had my novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. We wanted a respite and a break and a fun collaboration.

SF Weekly: What did you learn from it?

Eggers: In our daily lives, we have a small publishing company. It's very collaborative, but it's with the same people we've worked with for several years — there's an element of familiarity there. When I publish my stuff, I'm involved with every aspect of it. In this case, as a writer, you only take it on the first leg. ... We share a real respect for expertise. A guy like Sam inspires confidence in everybody. It was fun to hand it off and say, "Surprise us."

Vida: We'd never heard Alexi Murdoch's songs before. We were just floored when that music kicked in.

SF Weekly: Can you talk about your influence, if any, on the casting, and its influence on you?

Vida: We wrote the script with Maya Rudolph in mind. We love a lot of things about her, and we love the way she looks.

Eggers: We didn't have any backup plan. I don't know who else would have done it. It just got more and more specific to her. ... And then we wanted Burt to be kind of tall and ungainly — not the coolest guy in the world.

Vida: They don't look like they've been perfectly matched.

Eggers: John just came to mind. In a way I think of him as sort of a Jimmy Stewart type. Tall, thin, reliable. But we didn't even know how funny he is as an improviser. He brought a lot to it. That's the beauty of casting. Everybody had improvisational gifts. We're not so precious about every word being ours.

SF Weekly: You're both place-sensitive writers. And that sensitivity is part of what Away We Go is about. Even though the film isn't set here, what contributions has the Bay Area made to it?

Vida: The Bay Area inspired a sense of home. People live here because they want to. The search for a right home is inspired by that. I grew up in San Francisco, so I'm lucky in that sense.

Eggers: So we were thinking of a couple that's opposite us. When I first got here, I knew this is where I'd stay. I think it's the best environment for writers and artists — it's very supportive. It's all about balance. I've lived in places where the balance didn't feel right. People who swear by San Francisco usually like that unique equilibrium, of culture and nature and activism and optimism. ... But what if there was a couple that hadn't yet found such a place? Where would they start and end up? Not that they would live here. They couldn't afford it. Maybe someday.

Away We Go opens June 12 at San Francisco theaters.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

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SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.

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