Saturday, 28 June 2014

Interview with Jack McNamara About Adapting von Trier's The Boss of it All for the Stage

The mischievious 2006 corporate comedy The Boss of it All is one of Lars von Trier's less widely known works. Writer/director Jack McNamara has adapted the film for his New Perspectives company, and the production opens at the Soho Theatre next week, after an acclaimed run at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Below, I talk to Jack about the process of adapting The Boss of It All for the stage.
AR: When did you first see The Boss of it All and what was your response to it? What was it about the themes that interested you?
JM: I knew von Trier’s work pretty well, but this one was a step away from the others. It was less of a formal experiment. More a good old fashioned story. But the thing that excited me was the tone, I think. Just this sparse, clinical Scandinavian feeling. It seemed such an incongruous atmosphere for the setting of a comedy and that appealed to me.
The film’s central idea – of an actor hired in to pretend to be the boss of a company – almost seems like a classical theatre premise. It’s simple, obvious but full of possibilities. And in its own quiet way, it also manages to raise a major question, about whether leadership in our society is ever more than a posture or performance.
What was it about the film that made you think it would work as a play, and would be a good candidate for a stage adaptation?
The main theme is performance, and somehow this is more potent onstage than on film. To some extent film is photographing reality, or a version of it, whereas when I watch a play, I never stop thinking that I am watching something artificial, no matter how good it is. So exploring this story on stage was a natural fit for me.
What was the process of getting the rights from von Trier like? Was he open to the idea of a stage adaptation, or did he take some persuasion?
I was lucky in that the agent who manages his rights was so open, supportive and encouraging. It’s amazing how the wrong gate keeper can really stop a project from happening. She was encouraging; however we were aware that this would be the first Von Trier in the UK, so it was not a dead cert that it would happen. I had to write the first draft for approval before being granted the rights. I made so many changes and altered so many scenes and characters. I was a little scared to submit it, so when I heard he had OK’d it I felt tremendously relieved and grateful. A more precious person might have taken issue with some of what I was proposing!
Could you talk a little about the process of writing the adaptation? What were some of the challenges involved? Have you made any/many changes in terms of plot or structure? Did translating the comedy of the film into a stage context hold any particular difficulties or challenges?
I wrote out the finished film by hand to begin with, and compared this to the screenplay (both were quite different). I then put both of them aside and just started writing a play from scratch. I felt that by going through the rewriting process I had somehow done my homework, and now I could just get on with writing the play I wanted to see onstage.
One challenge with the play was how to move between scenes in an elegant way. So I came up with the idea of making the scene changes very visible and integral to the action. The actors move the set around and at one point a voice over comes in and applauds them for their hard work. It all added to its deliberate self-consciousness as a piece of theatre.
Tonally it was a challenge to get right. On one one hand it was a straight comedy, but it also needed that kind of von Trier mischief to it. I didn’t want to copy any of Von Trier’s tricks, so I managed to find my own way of gently subverting the action.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith
How did the process compare to other adaptations that you’ve worked on? How does adapting a film differ from adapting prose works, such as the DeLillo and Bellow texts you’ve worked with previously?
I think the material tells you what it wants you to do with it. With Bellow, it was just amazing language so I didn’t really get in the way of that. I just found a structure to try and help give access to the language. But with von Trier I felt much more freedom to actually create a whole new play, as the main point wasn’t the language but the tone, characters and story. Yet it would never work as a direct lift from the screenplay. It had to be completely reconceived as a new play.
Did you watch the film with the actors in your production, or has your work with them been exclusively based around your text?
No, we avoided the film. There wasn’t a ban on watching it but I didn’t think it would be helpful. I think actors need to find their own solutions to things. And the casting onstage is incredibly different. For example, the bad businessman Finnur in the film is a massive Viking of a man, whereas in our production he is played by someone trim, lean and mean.
Do you envisage adapting other von Trier films for the stage?
Only if one of them calls out to me! He creates brilliant worlds to play around in. But I wouldn’t necessarily want to compete with iconic images. That can be a burden. The Boss of it All was ideal. It was my anonymous little baby.

The Boss of It All runs at Soho Theatre from Wed 2 – Sun 27 July. For further information and to purchase tickets online:

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