Emma Bull and Will Shetterly: War for the Oaks screenplay

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

EDDI — Fairies aren’t real. They’re just–

POOKA — Fairy tales? Did you think the stories sprang from nothing? The people
of the Timeless Kingdom watched mortal Man learn to walk upright.

Excerpt from the the War for the Oaks script

Come in. Have a seat! Do try one of the bottles of Midsummer ale!

Now where was I was? Ahhh, looking at the recently released War for the Oaks script.

I was trying to remember before you came in when an early version of the War for the Oaks screenplay first showed up here at the Green Man offices, but it’s been long enough that I don’t clearly know anymore. I think it was when Will Shetterly and Emma Bull were still living in Minneapolis which means maybe a decade ago. I had read the original novel a decade before that, and seen the War for the Oaks trailer not long before Emma sent along the script. Hell, I’ve even ‘bootlegged’ both of the Cats Laughing CDs, Bootleg and Another Way to Travel where some of the songs in the War for the Oaks are recorded. We have online the twelve minute trailer that was done according to Will because ‘We were hoping we could use it to get more investors. Didn’t pan out. But at least we have a record of the work that so many people put in.’ And once a year about Midsummers Eve which is when the novel takes place, I re-read the War for the Oaks novel with renewed appreciation for what is without doubt one of the finest fantasy novels ever written. That doesn’t even touch upon the Eddi and Fey tour shirts I’ve been producing for some time now, or the still in production stage of an online version by us of ‘A Bird That Whistles’, the prequel to this novel. Suffice it to say that I, like many staffers here, absolutely adore War for the Oaks in all of its incarnations!

What? You haven’t read it yet so you have no idea what I’m babbling about? Sigh, your reading obviously has some gaps in it, so let me quote at length from the our review of the novel:

Three ways to tell that it just isn’t your day:
1. You messily break up with your boyfriend, a complete jerk whose idea of managing the band you and he both play in is to send you to flirt with club managers.

2. You tell the boyfriend where he can shove said band, and quit, taking your guitar and best friend, and splitting, thus causing the (merciful) dissolution of ‘InKline Plain, the most misspelled band in Minneapolis.’

3. On the way home, you’re waylaid by the creatures of Faerie, in the form of a shapechanging, smooth-talking Phouka, and a water elemental called a Glaistaig. They don’t want much of you, really … just your body and presence as the Seelie Court goes to war against the Unseelie Court, all to decide which band of mythological creatures gets to influence Minneapolis. Oh, and since the Unseelie Court will probably try to kill you, the Phouka will protect you. In dog form and in human form, he’ll live in your apartment, shadow your every step, and drive you near insane with his roundabout comments. And he can’t even make coffee.

What? This hasn’t ever happened to you? Then obviously you’re not Eddi McCandry, protagonist of Emma Bull’s classic urban fantasy novel, War for the Oaks. But before you start patting yourself on the back, glad to be out of a tight spot, read on.

All of the above does happen to our hapless heroine, and that’s only the first few chapters. Before the story is through, and the last song sung, Eddi will experience the wildest summer of her life, fall in and out and in love again, start a band that isn’t destined to be ‘just the world’s best bar band,’ and teach the creatures of Faerie a thing or two about messing with humans. Is it giving anything away to say that the band Eddi forms is ultimately named ‘Eddi and the Fey’ or that the Phouka you hate the most can turn out to be the best friend you never expected to have?

Now what we have here is an interesting question — can one take a novel which is adored by legions of picky fans and make a new version in the form of a script that both already existing fans and those not familiar with it will want to read? It certainly isn’t all that common that the script for a movie based on a novel is perceived as being as good as the source material. Diehard Tolkien fans generally dislike Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, fans of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel despise the film based (loosely) on it, and I fell laughing on the floor after watching a really awful animated film based on one of Terry Prachett’s Discworld novels. Only the Hellboy of recent film adaptations finds favor (generally) with the fans. Now the War for the Oaks screenplay is rather post-modern as only the aforementioned twelve minute trailer was ever produced, so the script isn’t even something fans of a film would purchase.

In order to answer that question, I needed to ask those who created the script. So off I went to the Green Man Pub in search of Emma and Will. Both were watching the Neverending Session cover a set, ‘Buckingham Palace / Dunford’s Fancy’, which one of the fiddlers says he learned from the Flash Girls, which you, dear reader, can hear on their latest CD, Play Each Morning, Wild Queen. (Emma is one half of the Flash Girls with the other half being Lorraine Garland nee The Fabulous Lorraine. Lorraine Garland is also a member of Folk Underground who sell one of the coolest band shirts I’ve ever worn. But I digress.) After the set finished, I asked them some questions, hopefully accurately transcribed here.

I know there are substantial differences between the novel and the script. From your viewpoint, does this make them different tales? Or variations on a theme?

Emma: Film wants different things than a novel does. In film, you can do a whole different set of things, based at least partly on control of time for the audience. A novel gives the illusion of controlling time for the reader, but it’s only an illusion. Obviously, unless you’re going to fall prey to the lure of the hideous, unspeakable voiceover demon, you can’t share a character’s thoughts with the movie audience. You’ve got to give them words, actions, and expressions, and let them figure out the thoughts from there. A different kind of fun.

But this is the same story as War for the Oaks. Same characters, with the same transformations that either get made, or fail to get made. It says the same stuff I wanted to say in the novel, only with Harold Perrineau playing the Phouka. (I wish.)

So was this your first script?

E: The version we used to shoot the half-a-movie/trailer was Will’s first screenplay. The version that Black Coat published is considerably not — I couldn’t tell you how many scripts came between the two, or even how many revisions the one that Black Coat published went through before they even saw it.

So what did you learn as a writer for doing it?

E: It’s hard to say what this one taught me. I have to say that screenwriting in general taught me a whole bunch of stuff — how to be incredibly terse without sacrificing meaning or emotion, how to structure stories as tightly as possible, how to think about fiction in terms of story and character arcs, how to outline (yes, really!), how to cut to the meat of the story and ditch the unnecessary transition… Just a whole bunch of stuff that I think has made me a better, smarter writer. We won’t know whether that’s really true until I get more of the finished product out there, but I think ‘De La Tierra’ in The Fairie Reel and ‘Joshua Tree’ in the Green Man anthologies show some of the effects.

Emma, How much does this script differ from the script that was used to shoot the trailer?

E: A lot. In fact, consider this almost a new script, except that it still adapts War for the Oaks to film.

Does the trailer form yet a third version , abbreviated though it be, of the tale?

E: Not sure what you mean by that. It’s the same events, since they’re the ones in the book. Since it was shot from that first attempt at making a screenplay based on the novel, it’s really just the picturebook of that first script, not what I’d call a separate version. That script was almost entirely Will’s work, and he was very respectful of the book — too much so, we both came to think when we began to re-write it a few years later.

Will, could you talk about the very first version of the script you did. Emma has just said it was too faithful to the novel. How so?

Will: Too much talk! Okay, and I think the scenes that were not in the book were added after we went to L.A., when we decided to broaden the scope of the story a bit. The Bodach was in the version we wanted to shoot. Changing the names to the Summer and Winter Courts came later. Stopping the action for explanation is even more intrusive in a movie than in a book. So we wanted to make concepts more immediate for the viewers who aren’t familiar with folklore.

That comment is key to the script. What Emma and Will have tried to do is approach with a fresh way of telling the tale of what happened to Eddi and the others involved in the fight for which Court would rule Minneapolis following Midsummers Eve. Major differences are apparent to anyone who has read the novel, i.e., the Seelie and Unseelie Courts have become the Summer and Winter Courts, keeping with her thinking now twenty years later, as notes Emma in her intro to the script, ‘We changed the names of the two fey armies to the Summer and Winter Courts… Seelie and Unseelie are traditional in Britain, but the Folk are in America now, after all. And we wanted the names to reinforce the character of the groups: one concentrated on growing, the other on dying, but each essential to the other’s existence and part of the natural world.’ What we have here is a master storyteller telling variants on a tale that she knows so well that she feels at ease to play with it. No, the basic tale is the same, but the details change enough that you really should read both.

Back to the original script for a minute. So why did Will write the first version and not you, Emma?

E: At that point, I wasn’t as interested in screenwriting; and as I told him when he proposed it, I felt as if I’d told that story already. But once we’d gotten more screenwriting experience, we both wanted to revisit that script and use some of the things we’d learned in the meantime.

By that point, we were collaborating on screenplays as a matter of course.

I don’t know about other writers, but I find it’s a lot easier to collaborate on a script than on a novel or short story. They need to be planned out in advance in a lot of detail, which means you’ve got a nice blueprint when you’re done planning that lets you and your collaborator divide the work up: ‘Okay, you write the argument in the train scene, and I’ll do the one in which they throw the bad guy out the airlock.’

There really is a trailer. It’s quite lovely. As we say in our review of it, ‘That’s right. Imagine, if you will, the movie version of War for the Oaks. Adapted directly from the book, and directed by Will Shetterly, with Emma Bull undoubtedly acting as a very close, very personal creative consultant. It was shot on location in Minneapolis, with a soundtrack provided by Cats Laughing, and the Flash Girls. When you consider how Hollywood traditionally and typically butchers adaptations, this must sound like some sort of blessing.’

Yes, it has songs from Cats Laughing and others on it. As Will said to me, ‘Oh, man. Let’s see. The two big songs at the beginning and end of the video are by Cats Laughing, but only ‘Here We Go Again’ is from the book; we just liked ‘Nottamun Town’, so we used it. Can’t now remember who did the opening instrumental; I think it’s the FGs. John Sjogren sings a piece of a trad tune to the sleeping Eddi, the name of which I really should remember, and which Emma would remember. . . . Marz & Menton are the duo in the party scene.’ When I reminded him of this comment laster, he added, ‘It opens with FMera from the Cats’ first album. Then there’s a little of the Flash Girls doing ‘Morrison’s,’ Cats doing ‘Here We Go Again,’ John Sjogren doing ‘Tom O’Bedlam,’ Martz and Menton doing some instrumental that escapes us, and ends with the Cats doing NottamunTown.’

If you’ve read the novel, you’ll definitely want to read the script. If you haven’t read the novel yet, my recommendation is that you do so before reading the script. Emma sort of agrees: ‘Depends on how comfortable one is with reading screenplays, I’d think. Anyone who’s familiar with the form ought to be perfectly happy reading the screenplay by itself (after all, we wrote it with producers who hadn’t read the book in mind). But screenplays don’t have a lot of stage direction, the way plays do; the writer leaves stuff like camera angles and motion to the discretion of the director. So it’s not meant to be the full movie-going experience. Bottom line: If you don’t read a lot of screenplays already, read the book first.’ Sage advice!

As Lorraine Garland says of the novel, ‘Love War for the Oaks. Writing well about playing music is as difficult as writing about having sex, much of the time it just sounds silly, it is very difficult to describe with of them, and make it real , but Emma Bull writes about playing music the way it feels when you are up on stage and captures all of the magic, the hope, the wildness and every dream you have ever had, and weaves around it a story so filled with adventure, magic, laughter, love and everything you have always believed was true that it no longer feels like fiction, but something that quite possibly, truly did happen. Maybe it did.’

Tor books re-released the War for the Oaks novel in a nifty trade edition with an introduction by Emma three years ago. That edition has a different version of the introduction here which Emma uses there as the intro to a short piece of the script. If you’re feeling like owning a hardcover edition of the novel, go to ABE as, though Tor didn’t officially release it, SFBC sold the hardcover edition that Tor produced. It looks like a regular hardcover edition lacking only a price on the dust jacket.

(Black Coat Press, 2004)

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