ADOPT A HIGHWAY: The Rewards of Not Being Precious with Your Writing

Ethan Hawke as Russell Millings in the drama “ADOPT A HIGHWAY,” an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

by Carrie Harris (@carrharr)

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Logan Marshall-Green about his screenwriting and directorial debut, Adopt a Highway. The film stars Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke, Elaine Hendrix, Diane Gaeta, Mo McRae, Chris Sullivan, and Betty Gabriel.

In Adopt a Highway, Russ Millings (Hawke) has just been released from prison after serving 21 years for a third strike conviction for possessing an ounce of marijuana. As he tries to find his way in the world, he finds an abandoned baby in a dumpster behind the fast food restaurant where he works.

Logan was kind enough to share his thoughts on making such a character-centered film and on not being too precious about your work.

Carrie Harris: As a screenwriter, I struggle with wanting to put everything and the kitchen sink into my scripts. You kept a laser sight on Russell, and I really admire that. Was this a deliberate choice, and were you ever tempted to veer off and tell us about some of the other interesting characters you put on the screen?

Logan Marshall-Green: Yeah, so originally the film didn’t have such a privileged point of view from Russell as exists now. In fact, I probably cut 45 minutes off of what was the original rough assembly. Now, that’s not to say that at one point we meandered away from Russell, but we definitely gave a little more breadth to others’ point of view of who Russell actually is. And in doing so, it kinda took the wind out of the sails.

I went through a week-long exercise of just hacking and slashing anything I was precious about. You know, that moment as a writer that I loved ever since I typed it, or that moment as a director where, “Oh! Look at that perfect pull of focus!” Anything that I got too cute about, I decided, let me just see what happens if I remove it. Anything that would take movement out of his trajectory. And in doing so, I found immediately that’s what it needed to be. And I ended up that week taking 45 minutes out of it.

And the thing is, it took a week! I probably could have done it in a day, but it took a week, because everything I’m cutting out is gorgeous in its performance. From other actors, and also from Ethan himself. They’re beautiful. And so it took a week just to get over my ego. But it was probably the biggest hurdle, and one of the biggest things I had to learn as a first-time director was that, man, so much of the post is about surrendering ego. And I needed to learn that, and luckily, I had people around me who were allowing me the time to learn that. Jason and Ethan and everybody had a lot of patience with me and allowed me to be a first-time filmmaker, because you only get to be that once. Thank god.

Carrie Harris: Right. I think of my first book, and I think, “Never again.”

Logan Marshall-Green: Right. Never again.

Carrie Harris: Well, that’s really interesting, because one of the things I was thinking about as I was watching this film was that Russell is so fascinating simply because he’s not a talker, and even when he is talking, he’s often talking to people who can’t respond, you know, the baby, or his father who is no longer there. So he’s not having a back and forth; this is one way. So we don’t have that as an insight into his character. Instead, we get these deep insights into his character through these little montages where he doesn’t speak at all. Like at the carnival. He’s playing games and riding rides, but it’s like he starts to live. How do you get something so intangible on the page and onto the screen? Because it was kind of magic.

Logan Marshall-Green: You know, it’s there on the page, there’s no doubt about it. That behavior is written. It’s intended and that’s what we went after, and it’s what Ethan found himself and brought to the screen himself. But absolutely, it’s part and parcel of wanting to create a protagonist who does not operate out of ego, who does not compete for scenes, and is simply trying to find his way and not doing a very good job at it.

He also, remember, has completely missed the technology age. He’s playing catch up, not just in his life, but in conversations. He’s a Lennie Smalls. He’s touched, as Ethan and I kind of from the get-go understood. He’s not mentally handicapped. He’s just simply void of any male toxicity. Masculine toxicity.

Carrie Harris: Oh, that’s interesting.

Logan Marshall-Green: And is that a comment? Absolutely. What are we rooting for in our men today? What are we looking for in our men today? But more than anything, what are we looking for in our dads today? Because I wrote the damned thing about being a good dad; that’s how I started. I started with the first slugline, and all I knew when I started was that I wanted to write a story about a man who had found a baby and had no idea what to do. Because that was me.

Writer and Director Logan Marshall-Green on the set of “ADOPT A HIGHWAY,” an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Carrie Harris: Yeah, we’ve been there in our house, too. It’s that moment of abject panic, and you are simultaneously helpless but want to do everything.

Logan Marshall-Green: That’s right, yeah. And sometimes it’s just about holding your baby. Sometimes it’s about keeping your baby alive. That’s really in the end all you have to do is keep your baby alive. If you can keep your baby happy, confident, and empathetic, great.

Carrie Harris: Right. So there’s one moment in the film that really got me, where Russell almost says what he’s thinking. He’s sitting at his father’s grave, and he says that he struggles with himself, and you think, this is the moment. We’re gonna find out what makes him tick. But then it just kind of passes, and that’s all he can get out. And I felt like it really forced me to empathize or connect with him and figure out what I think he meant. Do you know what he meant?

Logan Marshall-Green: I do know what he meant, and it is intentionally unfinished, just like most of the film’s structure is based on unfinished things. One of the big things in my department meeting was the word “unfinished.” Because that is life. Our thoughts, our sentences, our relationships, our lives, our work is always unfinished. And I never see it represented. So, to me, I wanted to break all those rules, and I love that I’m being critiqued on it. I love that, because that means that I did it right.

I want you to meet the love interest in the third act, and not see her face as she’s just turning to look at him one more time. Because it’s unfinished. It’s intentionally unfinished, and for me, that scene was just kind of based on a scene with me finally going to my father’s grave, and I put all of this preciousness on it. I made a big moment out of it, and I expected it to happen in this cinematic, dramatic way, and all I did was sit there, and I didn’t know what to say. So I just took a nap. I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t the big, amazing movie moment that I’d had in my mind on the drive to Greenville, South Carolina to see my dad. It was just another moment, and birds were chirping, and that was it. And I didn’t want to make more of that.

For me, if you get the right actor, and you write the right character, that’s as much drama as you need. Someone who doesn’t know how to talk to their dead parent. And I love that Ethan does this little shrug in the movie that’s not written. He does this shrug like, “I don’t know. I came all the way here, and I don’t know what to say.” That to me is so Millings, and it’s so that moment, and I didn’t write that. That’s Ethan just completely in tandem with the character.

Carrie Harris: Well, and ultimately, it left me feeling hopeful. Like, even if these connections weren’t made, it was about trying. So I really enjoyed it, and I appreciate you talking with me about how you made it happen.

Logan Marshall-Green: Thank you so much. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and you took hope out of it. That’s all I care about. It should make us feel hopeful.

Adopt a Highway is in theaters, on VOD and Digital HD now.

~

Carrie Harris is a published novelist, game designer, and aspiring screenwriter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids and is probably drinking caffeine right now. Learn more about her work at carrieharrisbooks.com.

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