From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Founding Father with foibles
‘John Adams’ screenwriter wanted humanity to show
When it came to penning the seven-part miniseries “John Adams,” screenwriter Kirk Ellis wanted to give the Founding Fathers life beyond the staid images on the backs of coins and bills.
In adapting David McCullough’s Pulitizer Prize-winning biography, Ellis tried imbue the real-life characters with real-life flaws and assets, instead of portraying them as romanticized heroes.
“David had already taken ‘em off the shelf and dusted ‘em, and we wanted to kick ‘em into the street and make sure that people understood that these were human beings,” Ellis said in a recent phone interview from his Santa Fe, N.M., home.
Of course, the epic but gritty series focuses on one America’s lesser-known Founders. Although he was elected the country’s first vice president and second president, Adams’ portly visage never appeared on U.S. currency until last year, when the U.S. Mint put him in the $1 coin series.
“Most people don’t know about John Adams. Their memory of our early presidency goes from Washington to Jefferson directly, skips over Adams,” Ellis said.
Still, the miniseries won wide acclaim and solid ratings when it debuted on HBO in March. It recently was released on a three-disc DVD set.
McCullough’s book helped many people become acquainted with Adams. It debuted in 2001 at No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for nonfiction hardcovers. It spent 68 weeks on the list; 2.7 million copies are in print.
Reading the biography was the beginning of Ellis’ education into Adams. Before, he knew of Adams only what he learned in primary and secondary school.
“When I read the book – and you’re always trying to read books for pleasure but when you work in the business as a writer you never can quite – I was a couple hundred pages in … and I thought, ‘Boy, this would be a great miniseries,’” said Ellis, who has worked on the TV projects “Into the West,” “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” and “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”
About a year later, Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, optioned the book, and Ellis, who had worked with Hanks before, met with the actor/producer.
“And that was the beginning of a process that I didn’t know at the time would take five and a half years,” Ellis said with laugh.
While the miniseries is an adaptation of McCullough’s book, Ellis said he sifted through a vast amount of research, then constructed outlines, wrote scripts and did numerous rewrites. The series’ $100 million budget then had to be secured.
“Adams left the most complete record of his life and thought of any of the Founders. Jefferson burned many of his letters; we don’t even know what Thomas Jefferson’s wife looked like. The same is true of Washington’s papers: Many of them consigned to the fire after his death,” he said.
“Adams kept every single page of every single thing we wrote and every single thing he received. And if you take the microfilm record at the Massachusetts Historical Society and stretch it out, it’ll go about five miles.”
Those records were invaluable to Ellis in crafting dialogue.
“Although we don’t know the words that John Adams used when he argued the case for independence on July 1, 1776, we know what he was thinking, because he wrote about it in letters,” Ellis said.
Ellis knew he couldn’t use all of McCullough’s book, nor could he tell a “cradle to grave” version of Adams’ 91 years. The first episode introduces 40-year-old Adams as he becomes the defense attorney for the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, successfully arguing the redcoats were acting in self-defense.
“People who have watched the show realized that from the beginning they saw this guy … who would stake his reputation, his financial wellbeing, his family’s future on his belief in adherence to law,” he said.
Lead actor Paul Giamatti was able to convey Adams’ complex personality: Brilliant and dutiful, ambitious and stubborn. Critics who faulted Giamatti’s grumpy performance or uncomely appearance should read the biography, he said.
“I think his performance is remarkable, in how many different dimensions he brings to that character,” Ellis said.
His respect for Giamatti and the rest of the cast and crew grew over the 108-day shoot, which included filming in Colonial Williamsburg, Va., and Budapest, Hungary. In Hungary, record high temperatures reached 107 degrees.
“Imagine 200 people on the crew working in an un-air-conditioned sound stage, with actors who are clothed in 18th century woolen clothing. So that’s difficult,” he said.
He hopes people who watch the series come to know Adams as a man of integrity.
“This was somebody who really put his sense of rightness and responsibility above everything else. And he really did live that life of duty and sacrifice that we talk about today in the political scene but don’t really mean. He meant it, and he lived it,” he said.