Bill Bryson was recently in Brisbane to discuss A Walk In The Woods, a film based on this own book. I was fortune enough to host a Q&A with Bill at the Palace Barracks and I also sat down with him alone to talk about the movie. Here’s what he had to say…
Matt: How’s it going?
Bill: It’s going great. It’s nice to be associated with something that is very successful particularly since I didn’t have to put in any of the effort to make it so. I had nothing to do with the making of the movie and the happy consequence is that it’s easy for me to talk about it with great enthusiasm and I don’t have to worry about being falsely modest about it.
Matt: We all know you as a writer but are you a big movie person? Do you watch a lot of films?
Bill: I did when I was younger but as most people grow older, my attendance has fallen off. There are so many movies these days that star Liam Neeson and a lot of explosions and it’s just not for me. There are not enough small, intelligent movies around.
Matt: Were you at the Sundance Film Festival when this had its world premiere?
Bill: Yes but it was a kind of coincidence. We were going to be in Colorado anyway as we have a son that lives there. When the studio heard about that they suggested we come up to Utah and attend the festival. As you can imagine, it was a thrilling moment for me. I sat in this darkened auditorium with my wife on my left side and Robert Redford on my right side. I was thinking that life doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.
Matt: What did you think looking at the finished product? Did it turn out like you imagined?
Bill: Yeah. I was not worried. I had complete confidence that Robert Redford was going to do a great job but I was curious to know how they would do it and what sort of adjustments they would have to make to adapt a 150,000 word book into a 90 minute movie. I’m happy to say there wasn’t a single thing in it that disturbed or dismayed me. I thought they did an outstanding job.
Matt: During your early years as a writer, do you ever for a fleeting moment think that someone might want to make one of them into a movie?
Bill: I didn’t. Of all the books I’ve written, this is the only one that could possibly be made into a Hollywood movie. Most of the books I’ve written are non-fiction works to do with history and famous individuals like Shakespeare.
Matt: Who was it that first approached you about transforming A Walk In The Woods into a movie?
Bill: It was a man named Jake Eberts who was a close associate of Robert Redford. He approached me on behalf of Robert Redford’s company, Wildwood, which is his vehicle for buying movie rights and developing them.
Matt: I believe it took roughly 10 years for this film to finally make it to the screen. Is that right?
Bill: Yeah, it was a good 10-12 years ago when it all started. The original plan was that it was going to be a reunion movie for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It was going to be Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid hit the Appalachian Trail. I’m certain they would have made a great movie but I know it would have been a much different movie. Paul Newman is a wonderful actor but I don’t know if he could have played the Katz character in the same way as Nick Nolte.
Matt: You’ve mentioned that you weren’t involved in the filmmaking process. Did Robert Redford want to talk to you at least and try to get some information about you to help with his performance?
Bill: He met me once in London and I think he was kind of scrutinising me to figure out what kind of person he wanted to play. I have no idea what was going on his head though. Other than that, I didn’t have any real connection with the movie. I took the view that I write books, they make movies, and I shouldn’t get in their way. They made it fairly clear that was their attitude too.
Matt: Not only does your book describe your journey along the Appalachian Trail but it also provides a lot of educational information as well. How did you feel about the way that was balanced up in the film?
Bill: To go back to the point you and I were making earlier about the quality of movies, one of the things I admire about Robert Redford as a filmmaker is that he finds ways to inject intelligence into his movies and I think that’s part of this. The movie isn’t preachy but you come away knowing a little more about why we should appreciate places like the Eastern Wilderness of the United States and I thought on the whole, they slip that into the film fairly seamlessly.
Matt: Have your family and friends had the chance to see it yet?
Bill: Not all of them. They sent me a download that I could watch over the internet just before I flew to Australia so I could refresh myself about the movie and answer questions about it. I sat and watched it with my older son and I was gratified by the fact he sat there chuckling away. He really enjoyed it and admired it a lot. I dare say my other kids in England are downloading it and watching it. They were all eager to see it.
Matt: I see a character like Mary Ellen who is played by Kristen Schaal and I think “no way, they must be over-exaggerating how annoying she was.” Did you actually come across folk like that in your journey?
Bill: Honestly, the real person was just like that. She was the most magnificently annoying human being I’ve ever come across. It’s a funny thing because not one word of dialogue I gave to that character in the book is actually true. I’ve exaggerated and made her into this comic figure and I trust that most people can see what I’ve done. One of my proudest moments is when the real Katz read the original manuscript. He said that I had nailed her character and that’s exactly what it felt like walking with her for a couple of days.
Matt: I read a story yesterday where they were speculating that the movie might see an influx in the number of people trying to take on the Appalachian Trail. What do you make of that?
Bill: I know the people who manage the Appalachian Trail and they’re a little bit excited and a little bit worried about that. There are two different ways of looking at it. My feeling is that the Appalachian Trail is this wonderful resource. America is so lucky to have it. Like most long distance hiking trails in the world, they are underutilised. I think that more people should get out there and see them.
Matt: You’re here at the moment in Australia and showing the film to some audiences. What’s the response you’ve been getting so far?
Bill: Really enthusiastic which I’m delighted about. As I said before, I’m in this strange position in that I had nothing to do with the making of the movie so it’s only an emotional eagerness on my part to see it do well. I know that a lot of people have been involved in getting it up and running. I’ve also learned how hard it is for any kind of movie to get made. I’m just so pleased to see it paying off for them.
Matt: Normally when I’m interviewing filmmakers and screenwriters I can ask them about what film projects they have coming up but in your case, can I ask if you have any books coming up?
Bill: I really don’t expect I’ll ever be associated with a film again so this is a very, very exciting one-off for me. It’s been a treat to be exposed to this world but also alarming. It makes me appreciate the life of a writer and being in a more low-key position. It’s heavy duty stuff that people in the film industry do.
I’m going to return to writing books very quietly and I’ve got a new one coming out in October called The Road To Little Dribbling and it’s about me travelling around Britain again. It’s the 20th anniversary of a book I did on Britain called Notes From A Small Island.