I’m sitting in a New York City coffee shop, waiting to meet author Nick Flynn. I arrived 30 minutes early to commandeer a prime seat but much to my chagrin, I find that every table is occupied, so I’m perched nervously on a bench in the back—sandwiched between two bathrooms. I’m about to interview one of my favorite authors to the soundtrack of grinding coffee, steaming milk and urinating patrons. Nice.
Perhaps the human hullabaloo is fitting, since we’re here to discuss the big-screen adaptation of Flynn’s 2004 memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.” The book is a series of vignettes detailing Flynn’s fatherless childhood, his mother’s suicide and his time working at a homeless shelter—where he comes face to face with his dad, striking up an unorthodox relationship. These aren’t new themes in Flynn’s writing: He’s explored them in his 2000 poetry compilation, “Some Ether,” as well as his second memoir, 2010’s “The Ticking Is the Bomb.”
Flynn agreed to let me pick his brain about lending his experiences to a director, screenwriter and actors for the film, "Being Flynn" which opens March 2 in select cities (the adaptation boasts an A-list cast: Robert De Niro as Flynn's father, Julianne Moore as his mother and Paul Dano as Nick). Even though Flynn isn't a complete stranger to Hollywood magic (he is married to actress Lili Taylor), he had plenty to learn from the process of turning his life in to a movie.
1. You’ll lose some say in your own story.
Flynn tells me he didn’t surrender as much as he thought he would: He was on set every day of the seven-week shoot this past spring. “Yeah—I’m now the executive producer,” he says. “I guess it just made sense, because I’ve been involved in everything.” Director Paul Weitz’s previous work, “About a Boy,” bears a striking similarity to the thematic material of Flynn’s memoir (a depressive mother, a fatherless son), so no wonder the two of them were on the same page.
And why didn’t the memoirist adapt the screenplay himself? “I’d worked on the book for seven years,” he explains with a shrug. “You just have to let go… you know it’s going to be another thing, somebody else’s vision. The book exists, and now there’s a film."
2. Your parents could be portrayed by A-Listers.
Flynn was “hugely excited” when Paul Dano’s name first came up for the lead (the “There Will Be Blood” star was eventually cast to play Flynn). Out of curiosity, I ask if Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore look anything like Flynn’s parents. “That’s very funny,” he chuckles. “I have a picture of De Niro with my father—we went up and met him, and De Niro read the book quite closely…” he adds as he scrolls through photos on his phone. “Ah!” he interrupts his thought, “Here we go!” He shows me the shot—a gray-haired man seated on the left, with a glasses-clad but unmistakable De Niro next to him. The men bear an uncanny resemblance.
I ask next about Paul Dano. “We hung out quite a bit because he lives in my neighborhood, so we would go get coffee and stuff,” Flynn recalls. “Just the way things work—him being a star, he’d have a car waiting in the morning to take him to set, whereas I would ride my bike. But we live like a block away from each other, so some mornings if it was raining or cold or the location was in Nyack, I would show up at his car, and I’d knock on the window and be like, ‘I’m the real Nick. I’m getting a lift.’”
3. You’ll have to relive the most painful experiences in your life.
I ask what was more difficult for Flynn—reliving the traumatic moments in his life while writing about them, or watching them on screen. “Well… it’s difficulties and pleasures coexisting,” he looks out the window for a moment. “It’s joy and pleasure… You reach a psychic breaking point and then you stop—it’s sort of like running a marathon. You just have to calibrate yourself in what you can sustain and what you can do and it was the same with the film. The most intense part of filming for me, probably, was seeing Julianne—the death scene.”
I questioned if he thought of that scene as cathartic, or if he disconnected emotionally. “Oh no, I was emotionally attached to it,” he says. “But I think emotional attachment—you shouldn’t mix that up with catharsis. They’re not the same thing. And even catharsis is a daily practice, it’s not a one-time event where you go through it and suddenly your life is really different. There were times in the beginning where I sort of didn’t realize what I was doing there—that I was there to have some sort of aesthetic response to it that I could give to Paul [Weitz] to help him make the film.”
4. You’ll have to accept changes to your work.
An earlier title for the film was “Welcome to Suck City.” “That did not play well in Paramus,” Flynn says (referring to a test screening with a New Jersey audience last summer). “So now it’s ‘Being Flynn.’” My expression betrays that I’m not a big fan of that change, and I ask him how he feels about it. He’s good-natured in the face of my frankness, responding: “I feel like that’s the title.” It’s also the title of the movie tie-in paperback edition.
5. You might end up with material for your next memoir.
On the subject of the book Flynn’s currently writing, which he’s mentioned intermittently during our conversation: “It’s the third in this memoir trilogy, and now it’s very much the snake eating its tail—it’s about making the film,” he says. “So the trilogy starts with ‘Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’ and goes into ‘The Ticking is the Bomb.’ It’s like three different versions of my family.”
As I turn off my recorder, Flynn perks up. “That’s it, we’re done?” he asks. We are, though I could’ve talked to him all day.
I hold up my copy of “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City." "This is my third copy," I confess. "I need to stop lending it to boys."
Flynn chuckles and cites an old adage: "Only fools lend books."