Ever see a project or a performance and think to yourself, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?!” Last last year, punk news outlets bubbled up with postings about a fellow who wrote a screenplay off of one of my favorite albums: On the Impossible Past by The Menzingers. What a concept! OTIP is a deeply literally, emotional ride of a rock record, and writer Adam Reiss took its core meaning and messages to develop a plot and characters for “On the Impossible Future.”
I read through his screenplay and immediately reached out to Adam, wanting to learn more about how he let his imagination run away with him to create a love story between Greg, a down-on-himself Philly boy and Casey, the spirited waitress who gives him something to live for and love, inspired by these songs that have come to mean so much to me over the years. I was also curious about the feedback he received to this project, knowing that fans can be pretty touchy about their sacred songs.
Talking with Adam (who turns out to be quite the intrepid world traveler) over the past few weeks was a treat — what follows is a lightly edited transcript of a Q&A. Check out his screenplay, or at least play “After the Party” real loud while reading this. Thanks to Adam for opening up to me and for The Menzingers for bringing us all together.
First off, how did you discover The Menzingers/On the Impossible Past? What spoke to you in their music?
I first heard the Menzingers when “A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology” came on my Against Me! Pandora station and I was into it because it kind of reminded me of old AM! But I didn’t get super into them until OTIP came out. I remember checking out the punknews.org stream (which, by the way, was terrible quality) as a casual fan, more curious than anything, and when I got to “Casey” I had a “woah, this is something special” moment.
I was 22 at the time, in my last year of college. It was an emotionally turbulent time for me and all of the themes of the album fit with what I was going through — feeling like good things only fall apart, getting high all the time, self-loathing, falling in and out of love, drinking a lot, going to shows, constantly wanting to escape to somewhere far away. “Casey” is probably my favorite track because it has all of those things and wraps them up in a way that is painfully romantic. And man, what a catchy chorus. Favorite non-OTIP track and criminally underrated Menz song: “My Friend Chris.”
When you first started working on this, what came easily? What was a challenge?
The easiest thing was probably creating Chris’s character. He’s such an outrageous person, always saying something vulgar — and he’s kind of a dick to be honest. But I’d like to think he’s a lovable dick and he serves to off-set a lot of Greg’s mopiness. I partially modeled him after a friend of mine, so a lot of writing his dialogue was just thinking “What would so-and-so say here?” Any scene with Chris was a blast to write.
The challenge was figuring out the plot. I really wanted to tell the story that I felt was in OTIP and spent a lot of time studying lyrics as if I was trying to crack a code, to decipher the plot secretly kept inside the songs, but obviously it doesn’t work that way.
My first draft was about 40 pages shorter than it is now and there just wasn’t much story there, I think because I was too focused on directly translating the album into a movie rather than developing a story. Subsequent drafts were each a bit better, but it took a long time for me to feel satisfied with the plot.
How often did you listen to the album for inspiration/what role did it play during the process of writing?
Man, I listened to the album non-stop. I’m honestly surprised I still haven’t worn it out yet. It’s one of those albums where I found myself putting on a specific track to listen for something in the lyrics/to get inspiration and then I’d find myself listening to the whole album all the way through.
Like I said before, I initially tried too hard to translate the album directly into a film. I really, really wanted a scene with Chris and Greg in a CVS parking lot, for example, but couldn’t figure out how to work it in. I also had Casey quoting Leonard Cohen in bed in one draft a la Sun Hotel. Eventually, I moved past trying to make “On the Impossible Past: The Movie,” and started using the album as more of a mood board, as a guide of overall themes and emotions, and that really helped me develop the plot a bit more.
Your description of this project sounds like it was a labor of love. How did you motivate yourself to keep writing?
I started the project in my last quarter of college and had to complete the first fifteen pages for my screenwriting class, so for the first bit (which sometimes is the hardest part, getting a creative project off the ground) I was lucky to have an entire class pushing me.
After graduation I moved back in with my parents and struggled to find a job. The pairing of these two things left me feeling pretty worthless. I used this project as something I could do every day, some semblance of routine that would also be rewarding and help me feel like I wasn’t just wasting my days as an unemployed piece of shit. And of course, searching for a job, I was hoping that the screenplay would be my ticket to my dream career — getting paid to write. Thinking “this will help me achieve my dreams” is a good motivator, turns out.
Which themes from the album did you want to focus on the most? What lines/verses really drove your plot?
Definitely the theme of having a relationship based on drugs, alcohol, and punk rock and then having things fall apart. In fact, seeing that written out, that’s basically a summary of the entire screenplay. Also, the theme of escape in various forms.
Going through the lyrics, I really latched onto every line about Casey (anything to do with a waitress, diner, most of the title track’s lyrics) and going to Mexico — and these were probably what made me feel like there was a story threaded throughout the lyrics, what made me want to dig deeper and feel like it was possible to write a screenplay based on the album in the first place.
How did you feel when this was done enough to share for public consumption? What’s the response been like?
I went through a lot of stages of loving and loathing this project over the past few years. I wanted to move past it and start working on new things, but I also just couldn’t let the thing go. So finally, it reached a point where I felt I absolutely couldn’t work on it anymore without getting outside feedback. I was too close to it and needed a fresh perspective. It felt like it was 90% finished and the last 10% couldn’t be accomplished without feedback (and feedback from strangers, people who don’t care about my feelings).
In that sense, posting this online and getting a response has been incredibly helpful (and cathartic). I’ve gotten a full range of responses, ranging from one guy who went through each song on OTIP and wrote about how he felt the screenplay connects to it, to a girl who told me the entire thing is extremely sexist. I’m nearly ready to work on my next (and potentially final) batch of edits using all of the comments and criticism I’ve gotten so far, which I’m pretty stoked about.
I’m amazed at how attached some people are to the project and I think that speaks volumes for just how meaningful OTIP is for so many people, which in and of itself is a heartwarming experience — to connect with people around a shared appreciation of art and to also feel like my work is having the sort of impact that inspired me to start this in the first place. Even people who have something negative to say, we can still find common ground with how much we love this album and usually something constructive can come from that. No one has just been like “this sucks, quit” and left it at that. Which is encouraging.
Anything else about what you learned as writer/listener?
I learned I really, really like vibrato in punk songs. I learned I love writing dialogue but hate writing action and descriptions. I learned to let go of my babies and cut scenes or jokes that don’t add to the screenplay even though I think they’re amazing. I learned Menzingers fans are super helpful and willing to go out of their way to connect with total strangers. I learned a lot of completing a project is just sitting down routinely and doing work. Even if it’s a little bit each day, that’s still progress. And recently I learned how to make small adjustments to make sure that women readers/audience members don’t feel demonized. All valuable lessons, I’d say.