A Writer and Filmmaker Bring "Alice" to the Screen

Staff May 10, 2006

Bay Area writer Elizabeth Bernstein adapted her short story, "Alice," into a feature-length screenplay for independent filmmaker Kia Simon, who recently shot scenes for the film with Rosanna Arquette as part of the seven-week Directors Lab at Film Independent (FIND) in Los Angeles. They offered SF360 a few insights into their initial process of bringing the screenplay to the screen.

Elizabeth Bernstein: There’s a newspaper column called "The Straight Dope" that runs in several alternative weekly papers. In it, people write in with obscure, seemingly unanswerable questions, along the lines of "Why is the sky blue?" Or "Why does wood have knotholes?" One day about three years ago, I was reading a column in which someone asked if it was true that a person with parasitic worms could sneeze one out through his nose. (The answer is yes.) The columnist went on to describe various kinds of parasitic worms, including one called Guinea worm. When it’s time for a Guinea worm to come out, it emerges through the skin in a blister. Long and thin and sometimes entwined around organs and tissue, the only way to get it out is by winding it around a stick, a little bit every day. The process can take weeks.

It was an image, I thought, incredibly rich for metaphor. If a little girl had a worm slowly and reluctantly coming out of her body, what might she be trying to say? What might be her complaint? So I wrote a short story about a little girl named Alice, burdened with this Guinea worm. Her parents, overwhelmed with the tasks of parenthood and narcissistic to begin with, turn the task of removing the worm over to Alice’s 12-year-old brother. The story traces the summer of the worm, and the collision course the forced intimacy sets the two kids on.

The story was optioned by independent filmmaker Kia Simon, and I’ve since turned it into a feature-length screenplay. Prior to working on this adaptation, I had never written in collaboration before, nor had I written a screenplay. As I turned the seven-page story into a 100-page script, Kia helped me to adjust my literary sensibilities to the screen. I remember the day we met to go over my draft screenplay for the very first time: she told me that the story and structure were all in place, but the character of Alice was underdeveloped. I was piqued: how could she not see my subtle art? To prove I was right, I went home and ran a report in Final Draft, selecting out Alice’s dialogue. Turns out, I had given her only about a dozen lines, and three of them were "I don’t care." (In my own defense, she did have lots of meaningful glances and deeply symbolic gestures.) It was in my collaboration with Kia that I was able really to adapt the short story for the screen, creating dramatic moments, cinematic tension and yes — even a little dialogue.

Kia Simon: I heard Elizabeth read the story "Alice" and saw it as a film: she described small moments of light hitting wheat-colored carpet, or a child filling in a whole page with a blue crayon, and the meaning behind those moments — ennui or frustration — came through clearly. I knew that I could communicate those moments on film.

But those small moments are just a part of what drew me in. It’s interesting to me that this is a story about a worm, but it’s also a story not at all about a worm. Underneath the literal tale, we find the real story being told: a dysfunctional family in suburbia in which the dynamic is twisted and the roles are reversed. This could be a quiet internal story, but the worm makes it cinematic.

The worm changes over the course of the film. It starts as a tiny bump poking out of an angry blister. As Joel slowly winds it around the stick, more of it becomes visible outside of Alice’s body. Finally, when Alice rebels against the turning of the worm, she reveals the worm that hangs from her belly. The transformation of the worm frames our story, and its progression places us in time.

I recently shot my first scenes from this film in a workshop setting, through the Film Independent (FIND) Directors Lab, with a talented cast including Rosanna Arquette and Alex Borstein. What I imagined when I heard the story the first time remains to influence every choice I made on that shoot. The film has a desaturated palette of tans and blues; it is hot, and light streams in from a cloudless sky. The camera moves languidly, as if it’s weighted down by the same pressures the characters experience. In the "worm turning" scene, the light comes in from behind Alice and Joel, emphasizing the intimacy of the moment and the growing tension between them. Through tone and camerawork and in the varied decisions that I made, I feel the film reflects my experience of the original short story.

For more information and to view the FIND scenes, visit