Cord Jefferson writes where it hurts with Jeffrey Wright-led “American Fiction ”

The writer-director says he sought to maintain the 'weird spirit' of the 'Erasure' novel with his adaptation, starring Jeffrey Wright.

<p>Courtesy of Orion Pictures</p> Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown in

Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Jeffrey Wright and Sterling K. Brown in 'American Fiction'

Laura Albert perpetrated one of the greatest literary hoaxes in recent memory: JT LeRoy, whose 2001 supposedly semi-autobiographical novel about his abuse as a young boy, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was turned into a film in 2005. The same year, Albert was as exposed as the person behind the persona.

Funny enough, Percival Everett’s prescient novel, Erasure, also came out in 2001. It deals with a frustrated Black writer who creates a supposedly semi-autobiographical novel under a pseudonym as a form of commentary on, and criticism of, the publishing industry. Only, the book, and the “author,” take on a life of their own. Sometimes, fact is just as strange as fiction. 

In American Fiction, the debut film from writer-director Cord Jefferson, adapted from Erasure, Jeffrey Wright plays Thelonious “Monk” Ellison who, after years of toiling away in relative but respected obscurity as a college English professor, JT LeRoys himself as Stagg R. Lee. He writes a gritty, “urban” with a capital U novel about Lee’s life full of all the clichés the predominantly white gatekeepers of the literary world crave — and, to his chagrin, the book becomes a hit. 

A massive hit. We’re talking a six-figure book deal, a prestigious award, and a movie adaptation. All the while, Ellison is resentful of his ill-gotten success, but an unexpected tragedy and the financial demands of an ailing mother (Leslie Uggams) leave him with little choice but to play along, even as the game gets hilariously out of hand. 

Produced by Rian Johnson’s T-Street Productions, American Fiction also stars Tracee Ellis Ross, Sterling K. Brown, Erika Alexander, John Ortiz, Adam Brody, and Issa Rae

Jefferson is no stranger to adapting work from another medium, having won an Emmy with Damon Lindelof for writing an episode of HBO’s Watchmen, based on the acclaimed graphic novel. But American Fiction was a whole new animal, starting with the fact that this was his first time writing a feature script by himself, not to mention this also being his first time as a director. 

Cord Jefferson discusses how he took satire from script to screen, worked with Jeffrey Wright, and navigating the art of making light of heavy topics. 

<p>Courtesy of Orion Pictures</p> (l-r) Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jeffrey Wright

Courtesy of Orion Pictures

(l-r) Myra Lucretia Taylor, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jeffrey Wright

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you go about adapting Erasure?

CORD JEFFERSON: The key with any adaptation is figuring out how to streamline and to turn something that is obviously just not cinematic into cinema. The great thing about novels that I love is there's a lot of interiority, and it gets discursive, and it goes off on tangents and allows you to really dig deep into character. Unfortunately, with cinema, you have to condense it. I would say that there's a lot of changes from the book to the film. That being said, there's a certain textual playfulness from the book. I think there's some experimentation and some surreality in the book. So, I wanted to find a way to cut some stuff to the bone in order to give us some time for the film, but also maintain that kind of weird spirit that the novel and basically all of Percival's novels have.

We screened it at the University of Virginia at the Virginia Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, and this professor came up to the mic. She said, “I've been teaching Erasure for 20 years. I want to tell you that when I heard that there was an adaptation of the book, I was terrified because I was worried that they were going to ruin it. I just think that you performed a magic trick because you have made a movie that feels like it's its own thing, but also feels like it still maintains the real best parts of the novel.” That, to me, was incredible, because anytime you adapt something, you're terrified that people are going to walk out of the theater grumbling, “Well, the book was a million times better, and this person ruined my favorite novel.” I loved this book so much. So, to hear an Erasure scholar praise the movie was a huge sigh of relief for me.

<p>Courtesy of Orion Pictures</p> Adam Brody and Jeffrey Wright in 'American Fiction'

Courtesy of Orion Pictures

Adam Brody and Jeffrey Wright in 'American Fiction'

Can you talk about your first time on set and what you were feeling coming in as a new director?

I was overwhelmed. A lot of this has been overwhelming. The thing that I was nervous about me working with Jeffrey was that Jeffrey's in [The] Batman, he's in 007 [No Time to Die], he's in all these Wes Anderson movies, he's in Westworld, he's literally in the biggest films and TV shows in the world. I was worried that I was going to step in there and he was going to be like, “I don't really have anything to learn from you.” That was absolutely the opposite of how Jeffrey behaved. He immediately wanted to work with me about developing the character, even before we started shooting. Jeffrey wanted to hear what direction I envisioned the character going in and just talking with me in a way that felt like, “Oh, he doesn't come in with any ego.”

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I hope that people walk out of the theater with a smile on their face. Despite the fact that this movie deals with serious themes like race and identity and sexuality — I understand that these are serious issues — I wanted to make something that didn't feel self-serious. We need to find ways to laugh, and we need to find ways to enjoy ourselves, and we need to find ways to poke fun at things because things are so serious right now. On the last page of the novel, there’s a Latin quote. The rough translation is, “I offer no hypothesis.” I've just put forth a series of scenes and characters and issues, and it's up to you to decide how you feel about these things. If I really wanted to keep with the spirit of the novel, then I think that I couldn't make something that was like, “Here's the moral of the story, here's what you should think when you leave.” My favorite art doesn't do that. My favorite art acknowledges that the world is a complicated, muddled place and that you need to make your own decisions about these things sometimes.

American Fiction opens in select theaters on Dec. 15 before expanding on Dec. 22.

This interview has been condensed for edited for clarity and brevity.

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