'Eat Pray Love' Screenwriter Jennifer Salt Talks Adapting for Julia Roberts and Hollywood
By Zach Dionne Posted Aug 14th 2010 02:22PM
Before 'Eat Pray Love' could hope to recreate its mega-successful book run on the big screen, someone had to adapt the dang thing. That someone was Jennifer Salt (pictured above left) -- onetime actress in films like 'Midnight Cowboy' and 'Sisters,' more recently a writer on 'Nip/Tuck.' Salt, 65, has had uncannily similar experiences to those of 'Eat Pray Love' memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert -- embarking on journeys of self-discovery and even studying under the guru who taught Gilbert's guru. Here, Jennifer talks writing for Julia Roberts, transferring those oh-so un-Hollywood qualities of sincerity and spirituality to a major movie and meeting the woman whose work she was daunted with adapting.
How did you familiarize yourself with the book before adapting it, Jennifer?
I'd read it just as a reader. [Director] Ryan Murphy, as a friend, just said, "You ought to read this thing. It reminds me of you." I read it and loved it. So when he came to me saying we should co-write it, it was already something in my life.
Was the part written for Julia Roberts?
It absolutely was. Paramount had optioned the book for Julia and for us to write. We always had the knowledge this was a Julia Roberts movie for a big studio. So it always had to be a big movie. It was never conceived of as a little, artsy story.
Which, in spirit, the book kind of is. Or was, before it became massive. How did you handle that -- the intimate, personal story that had to become a major movie?
You know, it was just three years of ... [laughs] writing, rewriting, adjusting, fussing and ultimately you hope it works. There was a lot of back-and-forth about all of it, constantly. There is no one answer -- you just dive in and then you play with this scene and that scene and you end up with this movie.
'Eat Pray Love' struck such a chord because it was honest, genuine, spiritual -- all qualities Hollywood likes to skirt around. How did you stay true to all that while keeping the film entertaining, accessible, a hopeful blockbuster?
The simplest way was to look for all of the humor in it -- which is there, Liz Gilbert has an awesome sense of humor and irony -- and if we give that to Julia's character, but also to the story itself, it's one way to do it. We mined it for the humor. We also looked at how to go into the India sequence and find the commonality between the character and the audience, because not everybody's been to an ashram, not everybody wants to go to an ashram or has a relationship to what goes on there. We adjusted the character to be less familiar, so if she goes in with more innocent and unfamiliar eyes, there's more humor; we can relate to her more. We can see all the seriousness of these scenes, but we're seeing it as people who aren't overly familiar.
See the trailer for 'Eat Pray Love':
Did you meet Elizabeth Gilbert?
I had dinner with her once; that was the only time I ever met her. It was a really friendly, fun dinner. We really talked about the effect the book's success was having on her life. We got involved before it had become this worldwide phenomenon, before it had even come out in paperback -- before it had taken on this serious, life-changing aspect for women. So I know that I talked to her a little bit about certain details we wanted to add to the script, fleshing some of these characters out. She was very helpful in telling us what the iconic moments were, where she'd gotten the most feedback, because the book's fans are very passionate about certain things.
Big films take a long path from your script to what people see in theaters. Thoughts on the finished product?
I think it ended up amazing. I actually can't believe that it is what it is -- it's so close to the book in spirit and in the actual story.
Did you ever think, "Wow, that's actually Liz Gilbert on the screen"?
Yeah. It's so different, and yet it has all of her longing, her determination, her moxie and her humor and charm. It tells the story of this trip -- it's a big, long journey. It's told from an outsider's point of view, of course, it's not a memoir anymore. It's a big, sweeping movie.
So many women -- my girlfriend, for example -- had a deep, meaningful experience with the book. Was the film put together in a way that could foster a bond with its audience?
Yes, I think it captures that sense of women wanting to feel entitled to the fullness of their lives, and of the human need to believe in transformation at any point. The idea that you're never too old, never too settled, never past being able to transform your life. It's a human right, and we lose sight of that at some points in our lives. This movie makes you feel entitled to it, gives you permission to fantasize about it. It doesn't have to be literally what she did, but to just think in those terms.
What's next for you?
I'm adaptating a memoir called 'Foreign Babes in Beijing' along with two other writers. It's about the expat scene in Beijing. It's for HBO.
Watch our interview about 'Eat Pray Love' travel packages to Italy, India and Bali:
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