Editor’s Note: This ran back in 2010 (when we used to have a scrappy little feature called Print to Projector), but since Naomi and Adam Scott are going to be adapting this, we thought it would be fun to look back at how Neil envisioned it as a movie back in the day.
This week, I am taking a little guest spot here in one of my favorite new FSR columns, Print to Projector. Because like Dr. Abaius, I sometimes read. And like Dr. Abaius, I also sometimes put down a book that I’ve just read — and somewhat understood — and say “hey, this should be a movie.” With that in mind, I would like to submit this entry…
Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
“When Mitch Hrlicka heard that his high school football coach had gotten another teenage girl pregnant, he was forty bushels beyond bamboozled.”
Those familiar with the name Chuck Klosterman may know him from his work at Esquire and Spin magazines, or even as a film critic for the Akron Beacon-Journal, a paper that resides about 40-minutes from Cleveland, where I grew up. You may also know some of his non-fiction work, including IV and his rock opus Fargo Rock City. For my money, there is no contemporary author or journalist who writes with such rhythm and wit as Klosterman. The man is without a doubt one of most energetic reads I’ve found. And he’s funny, ever-aware of pop culture and the right he has to stab it mercilessly with wry sense of humor.
Downtown Owl is his first fictional novel, but it is also a sort of sequel to Fargo Rock City. It takes place out in one of those ambiguous, nowhere towns of North Dakota, where culture exists in a bubble of sorts. It is 1983 and we are about to witness the lives of a group of people who live in a town with only 3 channels of television, and none of them know what’s coming for them. There’s Mitch, the backup high school quarterback whose main preoccupation is girls, the likelihood of the town’s two toughest kids ending each other in a backyard brawl, and why those girls all seem to end up pregnant at the hands of the school’s football coach. Julia, a new young teacher who is sorely out of place. Horace, a skeptical widower who spends his days drinking coffee and gossiping with other old men.
It is a novel that turns Klosterman’s ever-critical lens on characters he probably grew up with, characters that feel as real to the reader as they might to someone that lived in this fictional place called Owl. And while much of this book’s penetrating humor is derived from the observations of small town life in reference to wearing Waylon Jennings t-shirts and listening to the song “Superstar,” Klosterman also paints a very natural, compelling portrait of characters who are all alone. He also ends the book in a way that would knock it out of the park with just about any audience.
Like many great meditations on culture, a lot of what we learn about the characters in Downtown Owl is through internal dialogue and omniscient exposition. Without the use of a narrator, this might be hard to adapt. It would take a very strong writer, but it’s possible. In fact, I would argue that not only are Klosterman’s characters great as they are in the book, but there is also room for them to be fleshed out a bit. There’s room to not only do that, but to also keep the feverish pace that the author sets early on.
The Pitch / Writing / Directing
Chapter upon chapter, I found myself imaging this as a Coen Brothers movie. There’s something about the town of Owl that would feel so right in the universes they seem to be creating. Perhaps it is that it feels like a 1980s version of the environment in A Serious Man (only decidedly more Catholic and less Jewish). There is also a level of humor and an unironic wit to the book’s dialog that is perfect for the tone that the Coens have struck with their more suburban works. It would be a perfect fit to see them write the screenplay, possibly with a little help from Klosterman himself. They could then deliver a film that captures the town’s state of pop culture arrested development, moves incredibly well, and has an interesting aesthetic (few directors could make North Dakota look so good as the Coens). To me, this was obvious as I read the books. This book is rich with unique and interesting characters and situations that would be perfect matches for a Coen-esque romp through 1983 rural North Dakota. See — even that sounds fun.
I’m just spit-balling here, but I’ve got a few solid ideas for casting, keeping in mind the fact that I’ve already hired the brothers Coen to write and direct. I’ve mixed my Downtown Owl dreamcast with familiar faces from their work, as well as a few other perfect fits who would be new to the Coen fold.
Alison Brie as Julia: There’s something sweet and innocent about Julia, but also something totally neurotic and when she’s drunk, a little crazy. I can think of only one sweet, innocent, potentially crazy young actress who could be your high school teacher/unasuming center of attention: Community and Mad Men star Alison Brie. She’s perfect. Cast it right now.
Rachael Harris as Naomi: Memorable for her stern bitchiness in The Hangover, Harris would fit nicely in balance with Alison Brie as Julia’s Owl-grown lone friend Naomi. Slightly drunk at all times, always unhinged and needing attention, and hilariously always willing to give Julia terrible advice, Naomi would be a strong female sidekick.
Erik Knudsen as Mitch: Some of you may remember this kid from the short-lived show Jericho. He is the real unknown of the bunch, but also has the balance of nerdiness and potential cool that define Mitch. Mitch is a smart, good-hearted kid whose self image issues (and constant girl-centric mindset) lead him to some uniquely bad choices. I vote Knudsen, mostly because what I’ve seen of him (Jericho, Youth in Revolt) has been really solid.
James Franco as Mr. Laidlaw: This is perhaps my most bold choice. Mr. Laidlaw — the football coach and english teacher with the affinity for knocking up high school girls — is probably a much older character. But my instincts tell me that he could be mid-30s, and that James Franco could pull it off. He would have to be creepy, but somewhat handsome and dynamic. Otherwise how is knocking up all of these girls? Also, it would be a great stretch exercise for Franco, as Laidlaw is both (a) a real creep and (b) someone who is charming enough to get away with it. For someone more schlubby, Matt Walsh is an obvious choice.
Stephen Root as Horace: The book plays Horace as an older gentleman, well into his 50s or 60s. But I don’t see why this wouldn’t be a perfect dramatic role for Root. A little makeup and he’s immersed into a much older frame. He also has the inherent kindness that I believe we’d find in this somewhat crochity old guy. If forced to go older, I’d probably lean toward someone like M. Emmet Walsh.
Bonus: Brad Pitt as Vance Druid: In the book, there is a warn out former high school football legend named Vance Druid who becomes central to Julia’s love life. Even though he’s drunk, washed up and living in the shadow of an accomplishment that was driven by chance, there’s something warm about him. This is where the Coens would throw in Pitt. Why? Because he’s a dynamic actor, and this is something very different.
Who Owns It
To my knowledge and the knowledge of the Google, no one owns the movie rights to this property. Therefore it is fair game. If anyone from Mike Zoss Productions or Focus Features, the companies that handle the work of the Coens, gets wind of this, we could be in for something special.
The story may sound like something you’ve seen before, but I assure you that a film version of Downtown Owl would surprise you with its wit — and the way all of these stories converge and play out. If there’s anything Hollywood seems to love lately, it is the concept of unique, converging storylines that build to a surprising finish. And while a lot of the efforts we’re seeing make it to the big screen lately are sloppy and uninspired, there are voices out there who are telling these stories in a compact, interesting way.
Chuck Klosterman is one of those voices. And his book is a very funny, inspired effort that captures what is both interesting and excruciating about living in small-town North Dakota. Or more appropriately, small-town America. I don’t see anything wrong with a completely relatable, thoroughly entertaining story making it to the big screen. Do you?