Memory to Memoir to Screenplay: Savannah Knoop on JT LeROY

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Savannah Knoop spent six years pretending to be the acclaimed and mysterious author J.T. LeRoy, a fictitious literary persona made up by her sister-in-law, the writer of the LeRoy books. After the exposure of the rouse, Knoop went on to craft her experiences into a celebrated memoir, which has now been adapted for the screen as J.T. LeRoy, starring Kristen Stewart, Diane Kruger, Laura Dern, and Courtney Love. 

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Knoop to talk about her experiences and the nature of storytelling itself.

John Bucher: One of the things that I’ve been fascinated with in your story is the nature of narrative and story itself, and especially how we build stories around ourselves. Can we talk about how we create narrative?

Savannah Knoop: I love that as a point and I so agree. I feel like this whole thing is like the experience that I lived through then I translated into memory, from memory into the memoir, and then in turn into a script. I think it is some exercise in narrative, and the translation of narrative through different forms, and it is some kind of celebration of human story telling, I would say.

It was sort of about writing on the page versus writing off the page. We are all writing off the page all the time, and where are the boundaries around that and how much can you write off the page into fiction before you start sort of messing with yourself and everyone around you? Where is that boundary? Where’s the threshold of that boundary?

John Bucher: I think it also connects with our deep desire to experience things, and you created an experience for people. You created an experience that others could intertwine their own narratives into the one that you were crafting.

Savannah Knoop: I love that. Yes, I think that’s very apt. Because the nature of the story is sort of mysterious. It’s so interesting when people watch the film because everyone has a very specific take away. And it’s like almost prismatic — it says so much about yourself and what you see in it. Or what you picked up in the experience.

I feel like there’s so much room in this story for everyone’s specificity of viewpoint. The story is told without judgment and maybe that’s part of why people pick up on different things, because you’re given room as a viewer to tease out what you’re interested in, in the story.

John Bucher: I completely relate to that and had that experience. I feel like one of the other reasons your story really resonated with me was this experience of recreating mystery in the world — it seems like this is a story we need right now. Can you talk about our relationship with mystery and why we need the unknown? It seems to me that JT LeRoy was a mirror that allowed us to look at ourselves and our relationship with mystery and the unknown.

Savannah Knoop: Right. I think at this point in time we are in with social media and God, and the media at large, where people are withholding information. I mean, I’m just going to say with social media, because I don’t want to get into the juggernaut of what’s happening in our country politically. But interpersonally, you’re told that withholding will not benefit you and so it’s good to expose yourself completely and as much as you can and commodify yourself for the benefit, we’re told of ourselves, but actually maybe it’s for the benefit of commerce or something.

I think that’s a kind of compulsion right now that we’re told that we have to do. It’s part of the commodification process. How many likes did you get? Let’s quantify it. Does everybody like it? It does feel like it’s connected to art-making specifically, too. You’re not rewarded for mystery or complexity. The role of an artist is to get at the nuances and complications of our human experience. We need longer form and fewer sound bites in terms of expressing ourselves.

John Bucher: You took this experience that occurred over a number of years and you encapsulated that in a memoir that has been further encapsulated into a film, and there’s certainly sacrifices that you have to make to get at the truth. How do you approach those sacrifices — having to compress time and events in order to get at this larger truth of what happened?

Savannah Knoop: There is just so much in the book that’s internal. And let alone in a lived experience. So, in terms of writing the script, you really just had to choose what would maximize or concentrate the emotional trajectory of the story and the emotional trajectory of the characters in the story. And so we often found that we were letting go of logistics.

For example, Savannah in the movie moves to San Francisco and the only people that she knows are Jeff and Laura, two people who served as a perfect shorthand for explaining how right and strong their connection together burned. When in fact the experience I lived through was somewhat different. I was in San Francisco already and I’d known Laura for years. But you have to find ways to maximize and crystallize these things because it’s so condensed in a visual form.

John Bucher: What is it like seeing an actor like Kristen Stewart embody you and your experience? It seems like this is an interesting artistic experience as well to watch yourself be reinterpreted. What was that like?

Savannah Knoop: Yes and especially when you’re watching the interpretation, it’s like she’s interpreting the character again. So, it’s an external performance of the performance. It’s just a strange experience.

John Bucher: If you could have audiences walk away from your story with one thing, what would it be?

Savannah Knoop: The film begins with an Oscar Wilde quote that basically says that the truth is rarely pure and never simple. I hope that this story is a testament to that complication of human narrative.

J.T. LeRoy will be released in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on April 26.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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