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John Krasinski on Adapting DFW

It’s a good indicator of how far the sitcom genre has advanced that John (Jim from The Office) Krasinski’s directorial debut — an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, currently in theaters — strikes one as a fairly reasonable idea. The show’s best moments, after all, do approach the squirmy revelations of Wallace’s prose. Vulture spoke with Krasinski on Friday afternoon, and he was just as amiable and puppyish as we’d hoped — even when talking about directing (and then discarding) Hideous Men’s rape scenes.

You have a significant moment in the film where a professor showing his students Nanook of the North instructs them to “watch the documenter, not the documented.” So …
Oh, my God, you got this one! Fantastic! Can you write every review of this movie?

So who is the documenter here? Unlike in the book, you’ve inserted the character of a female researcher (Julianne Nicholson) between the men and the audience.
She is definitely the documenter — she is documenting it through her eyes. And the whole idea is to question whose perspective we’re listening to, how tainted that perspective may be. As you find out in the end, it’s about the way our own experience colors information.

How did you cast this? Did any material/actor pairings jump out at you early on? For instance, did you read the “I love women” monologue and just go, “Will Forte?”
First of all, directing out of ignorance helps a great deal — you think it’s no big deal to cast a movie. Also, I was writing the script before I got the rights — again, super-smart! — and in writing it, at the time I was still waiting tables, I had a few actors in mind. And then I kept seeing these amazing performances, like Bobby Cannavale in The Station Agent, and mentally adding them to the cast.

Hey, Ben Gibbard is good! You might someday be credited with discovering him as an actor.
Yeah, he’s great, isn’t he? As for discovering him, well, I think enough people know who he is already.

And you gave yourself an interesting part [of a boyfriend whose departure forces the researcher to undertake the interviewing-men project]. It’s not a traditional plum part an actor would give himself in a directorial debut. But you kind of hover over the whole thing.
And the other thing is, I wasn’t even supposed to be in it at all.

No, seriously! There was a scheduling conflict at the last moment, and the actor — I can’t name him — couldn’t do it. We had two weeks left to shoot. So the producers basically decided that I should do this because I had read the book so many times. It was the most terrifying performance I ever had to give. It’s stressful enough to be a director and to see it on the monitors every day, watching these actors do this awe-inspiring work … and then you jump in and go, “I’ll take us home, guys!”

I feel like the central line in the film is the one Christopher Meloni delivers: “Men are mostly shits.” Do you subscribe to that?
I don’t, actually. I think the way he delivers it, there’s a pathetic quality in this character. We’re not inherently shits, it’s just our process of dealing. It goes back to the 1950s, the whole idea that you can never be vulnerable.

The book is rather explicit, but the film is kind of timid. There’s no nudity, for one thing. Someone like Neil LaBute, in your place, would have put some pretty explicit stuff on the screen.
My mom asked me not to. Just kidding! There actually isn’t so much explicit stuff in the book. And we had shot footage of the rape scene I’m talking about in the end. We were thinking about splicing it in, in flashes. But in the end, it was a letdown. You’re asking the audience to go on a cerebral journey, and human imagination is more powerful than anything we could show.

You’re entering an interesting company here, a subgenre of these small theatrical films where people talk to the camera. I’m thinking of Tom Noonan’s The Wife, David Hare’s The Designated Mourner.
My biggest mistake in the first draft was to try to make it “cinematic.” Open it up in a million ways. Open with the breakup scene. In other words, answering all the questions for the audience. And you know, it looked like any other movie. So I made a decision to make it nonlinear, because it reflected the book much better.

It’s funny — you’ve gone as far from The Office as you could get, but all this speaking to the camera … well, it’s the signature Office device.
Oh, my God, you made a parallel I’m comfortable with! I didn’t even see the parallel until I was done. I was scared people would think I was doing this only to get away from The Office, to be super-dark and cerebral. But you know, this is fine. After all, Brief Interviews is the book that made me want to act to begin with. And The Office is a job you don’t run away from — you beg for that job to come back year after year. So, hopefully, [my sensibility] is somewhere in the middle between the two.

John Krasinski on Adapting DFW