Sweetbitter Author Stephanie Danler on Bringing Her Book to TV

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Author Stephanie Danler. Photo: Macall Polay/Starz Entertainment, LLC

Sweetbitter’s television adaptation gave the book’s author Stephanie Danler a chance for some do-overs. The Starz show is a faithful adaptation: “In every episode, there’s a scene that’s directly from the book,” Danler assures die-hards. But the show’s six-episode first season only pulls from about a fourth of the book’s material. Adapting it for TV (and even learning on the job how to write for TV), gave Danler the opportunity to change her debut novel about a back waiter’s coming-of-age ever so slightly. She added more scenes where her hero Tess could fumble around and adjust to New York City, added a black server to the restaurant’s cacophonous (and mostly white) ensemble, and cut down on one character’s philosophy references. Even Tess changed a little in the translation to TV: “Tess in the book is very blank and very passive but when you’re translating it to television, it’s about, who do you believe would get up in the middle of the night and leave, and you believe that they can survive in New York City? Ella,” Danler says, referring to star Ella Purnell. “But there were some very kooky, for lack of a better word, readings of Tess. I think there’s a tendency, especially if you hadn’t read the book, to play her quite ditzy, as we expect most 22-year-old women to be.”

Stephanie Danler is quick to admit that she frequently found herself feeling like Tess as she adjusted to the writers room. “I felt like [Tess] when I came into publishing, I felt like that when I came into television,” Danler says. “I pride myself on being a quick learner. I keep my head down. I don’t ask a lot of questions and I listen.” Danler told Vulture about her transition to TV, Sweetbitter’s female friendships, and why she can’t live in New York City anymore.

Writing for TV is different from writing a novel. How did you make the transition?
As a novelist, I’m obsessed with sentences. I’m obsessed with what language can do and surprising verbs and interesting syntax, and that matters literally zero percent when you’re writing a script. When you’re a novelist, you’re really playing God and you’re in total control of the action and the characters. I quickly realized that with screenwriting all you’re doing, really, is creating a document that’s a map for the director and the actors to hopefully find something sort of magical in the moment. It’s not a finished piece of work. It’s not the final say. It’s so fluid.

Was it hard to give up that control? Did you have to take your time with it?
It started the first day of the writers room, where we sat around and we went through the characters. These seven brilliant writers with so much television experience started to question every decision I had ever made, and I was like, Oh. Okay. This is gonna be very interesting. And, a week later, I was so relieved because what you give up in control, you gain in collaboration, and I was so in awe of everyone I was collaborating with.

How did you juggle reader expectations from the book while taking creative license with a new medium?
We were so true to the spirit of the book. I think that’s one benefit of having the author involved: We couldn’t stray too far from the mission. Maybe readers will take issue. I can’t tell them how to read or how to watch the show, but I made something consciously with readers in mind.

The relationship between Tess and Simone, a veteran server played by Caitlin FitzGerald, feels central to this season’s storyline. I’m curious about how you see the relationship, and the experience of revisiting it in a writers room.
I’ve been shaped by female mentors. I’ve always sought them out. I’m very attracted to strong, complicated women, which means that I was hurt many times by strong, complicated women. I find that those are the experiences that ended up shaping me versus whatever romantic entanglement I was in that month, and I wanted to see it on television because I often don’t.

I think we have a lot of great female friendship stories, but what this is, this mentorship, is a lot more complicated and a lot more toxic in a lot of ways, but also very pure. There’s something maternal about it: Tess is longing for a maternal figure and Simone’s longing to nurture. Because they are flawed humans, they can’t always reach each other, but something really pure happens in those moments of real intimacy when they both let their guard down.

As far as shaping it in the writers room, Simone in the book is a very cold figure and the writers were the first to point out that she wasn’t going to translate to television [very well]. She had to be a living, breathing human and she couldn’t make pronouncements as if they were commandments or “philosophy.” It just wouldn’t play. She needed to be vulnerable and she needed to come down to earth while still remaining elevated, and so what we’ve crafted, I think, is a much more fully fleshed out version of Simone than I wrote in the novel.

Their relationship calls to mind All About Eve, Damages, The Devil Wears Prada. What makes you think those prickly mentor relationships are less common?
I wonder if we’re shying away from showing the competitive nature. I think we do see a lot of women tearing each other apart in media, but I think that they’re more complicated than female friendships. Female friendships assume that you have each other’s best interests at heart and here, it’s not about equality. One is clearly the teacher, one is clearly the student, and that power dynamic can’t be disrupted. In All About Eve, they can never meet as equals. One has to be the teacher and one has to be the student, and the idols have a very hard time falling, most of the time.

You’ve called Sweetbitter’s first season “a three-hour prologue.” A lot of stories about women and coming-of-age pad the narrative with a murder or some type of scandal. Sweetbitter’s pacing is slower, about girl realizing that her life is exciting just because she’s living it.
Yup, absolutely. I’m so happy that that’s what you took away. When we only had six episodes — we were planning on ten — [showrunner Stuart Zicherman] and I talked a lot about what we could accomplish, and I did not want to cheat this experience and the awkwardness and the elation and the confusion of moving to New York City. I really skipped over it in the book, you know? By page 25, she has the job and these are her friends and this is going to be her life. I loved that we dwelled in uncertainty for more time [in the series] and showed, really, her loneliness and that this life didn’t happen overnight. Normally that would be the pilot episode: She’d get the job at the end of the pilot, but that’s not real life. You don’t just magically wake up and have a group of friends. You take missteps and it’s slow and it’s hard to place people and know who they are.

The character Heather, a black woman server, is an addition to the show. Can you tell me about bringing her into this narrative?
When I worked in fine dining in 2006, we had an entirely white front-of-house and I didn’t want to try to modernize it. I was writing about a period of time in which restaurants were cast much the way shows were cast. I think that divide is really interesting, because a restaurant is one of the most diverse workplaces that anyone could ever be in. You have immigrants that just arrived here yesterday and make minimum wage or aren’t here legally. You have every single color, diversity, ethnicity in the back of house. And yet, when you cross into the dining room, it becomes a different sort of theater. Over the years, I did work with many African-American men and women, but usually they were the only one.

When we came to the show, I was talking to Stu and I was like, This is a story. This is a really important story. And what does privilege look like? What does Heather look like next to Sasha, when Heather’s had the privilege of an education and money and parents that are still supporting her, and Sasha is limited because of his language and has no resources. He can’t get sponsored by Howard, he can’t get promoted. What gives us permission in this world to move? Is it beauty, is it money, is it education, is it just class, is it skin color? All of that’s in a restaurant.

Was there a role that was hardest to cast?
They’re all hard. I was so convinced about Caitlin [FitzGerald] from the very beginning. We saw so many women. It’s obviously very exciting for women in their late 30s to have a role that is written for them, in a time where I think a lot of actresses talk about how options wane during that period. There could have been so many versions of Simone. There could have been someone a lot more theatrical, a lot more sensual, but what I loved about Caitlin was her composure and the way she would be able to crack it. That’s a very talented actress that can be cold without pushing the audience away.

What did you see in Ella?
During her audition, she was doing an American accent. I was like, What is this little gypsy girl? What is this, like, orphan out of a Charles Dickens novel? So many women were playing Tess as naive and innocent and timid, and Ella brought so much natural energy to it. By the time we got down to the final six [actresses], she was standing out for her ability with comedy, for her quick-talking, sarcastic quippiness that the other girls were either scared to present or they thought that character wouldn’t behave like that, and it is very different than the book.

The restaurant industry, especially in New York, is going through its own #MeToo movement. As someone who worked in that world so intimately, what’s your observation on this?
I observe it as overdue. I think I wrote a book that came out in 2016 that showed the full spectrum of sexual politics in the workplace and that means consensual flirtation and drunken, regrettable sex and little bits of misogyny and also outright abuse of power, which is all real and the reason that we’re having this movement. Yeah, it’s overdue. This time period was 12 years ago and we’re just now getting around to seeing women as inviolable humans, as opposed to accessories.

What’s your relationship to New York City — and especially Williamsburg — now that you live in Los Angeles? Do the years you spent here feel very distant?
I don’t think it’s for me anymore. I think this city is for the very young and the very rich — that’s a Joan Didion quote, I didn’t invent it. I am young but I’m not very young, and I think New York requires a certain energy and stamina that I stopped being willing to give. But, at the same time, when I land here I still feel like the best version of myself, which I think is why people come here. I feel like the sharpest, smartest, most ambitious, most energized version. The problem is now I can only keep that up for four days versus 12 years.

Was there something specific that brought you to that realization?
Sweetbitter. I sold the book and I stopped working in restaurants and it was the first time I had ever not had two jobs. I always worked multiple jobs. It was the first time I had rested, the first time I’d ever had a Saturday off in my entire adult life — I loved working Saturday nights — and it felt like a natural end. I wanted to get out of here before the book came out. I think it’s nice to work outside the center of your industry.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sweetbitter Author Stephanie Danler on Adapting for TV https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/daily/vulture/2018/05/09/09-sweetbitter.jpg