Adapting Zioncheck: a discussion with Phil Campbell

Phil Campbell, a writer and friend of mine, announced last week that Zioncheck for President, his memoir about an ill-fated Seattle city council campaign, has been optioned by Stephen Gyllenhaal.

Campbell and I talked at length several years ago — well before the James Frey debacle — about the care he took to get his facts right. So I was interested to read in the press release that Gyllenhaal is under no obligation to represent events as they happened.

This news got me wondering what kinds of changes the director is likely to make, and, more generally, what different expectations a writer might bring to a film based on his memoir and one based on a novel. Campbell agreed to answer a few questions.

I know you were careful to make sure everything in your book is accurate. How closely do you expect the film to adhere to the facts?

I did work really hard on the accuracy of the book, primarily because I didn’t think it would have been as interesting as fiction. In a novel, some of the same plot twists that occur might have felt trite or obvious. As a memoir, it’s an odd, intense adventure in the surreal world of local political campaigns, and it comes with its own unexpected subplot and climax.

I didn’t stipulate in my film contract with Gyllenhaal that he adhere to the strict facts of Zioncheck. I signed with him because he seems to really understand the spirit of the book, and he says he wants the movie to be as loyal to the book as a film translation can be. I understand, though, that some things will have to be amended, abridged, or cut out entirely.

The choices Gyllenhaal makes will create their own challenges. For example, to do a movie about anti-globalist Seattle, he’s thinking about a DIY-style, low-budget film, probably using digital technology. I think that’s a very smart move, because that’s in keeping with the story he just bought. But how, then, does he shoot a scene set during the 1999 WTO protests, the so-called “Battle of Seattle,” which was the first chapter in the book? The protests boasted fifty- thousand activists, not a moment you can recreate easily in a movie on a small budget. I’m sure he’ll think of something, but it illustrates the challenges he’ll face when it comes to accuracy.

Yeah, I can imagine that something on that scale would be difficult to evoke on a shoestring budget. And what about the smaller stories? Will you have to track down all the people you wrote about and get their approval for the film?

Well, there are some legal issues that crop up with this. As there were real people who appeared as characters in the book, there are issues as to how they will appear as characters in the movie. I’m concerned about this, because half the people who appeared in Zioncheck are friends of mine, and I don’t want people to be made fools of in the script when they were given nuance and complexity in the book.

So I’m personally contacting everybody who appeared in the book and asking them how they feel about appearing in the movie. I want to make sure people understand exactly what it means before they sign any legal waivers that a Hollywood attorney might send them.

How’s that going?

Slowly. I just went through my copy of Zioncheck for the first time in a year, and I wrote down every person’s name I found in there. It’s funny, because when I think about Zioncheck, I think of it being a simple story about me, my city council candidate, and one of my housemates. But when I actually looked for characters, I wrote down more than fifty names. It’s like Gyllenhaal bought himself something originally intended for Robert Altman.

Nearly everyone is saying yes, though, so this isn’t something that is going to slow down the film project.

What role do you espect to play as the film moves toward, and into, production?

I have no idea how much of a role I’ll have with this production, except for the conversations that I’ve already had with the people who appeared in Zioncheck. I’d like to follow the film scripts as they evolve, and I’d like to watch at least some of it get filmed, out of curiousity if nothing else.

Gyllenhaal has been extremely open to my participation so far, and may hire me on as a consultant at some point, to help him with the accuracy issues we’ve discussed. So keeping away may from the movie may be a personal choice. I’m working on a novel right now, and that’s really important to me, too.

Your press release said you’re fine with the fact that Gyllenhaal isn’t obliged to make your character look good, but that, if he “uses some of the more embarrassing scenes,” you reserve the right to “exit the theater during the premiere,” either to “take a lot of bathroom breaks, or strike up nervous conversations with the popcorn vendors.” Which scenes do you think would really make you cringe?

It has less to do with individual scenes than the entire concept of someone imitiating me on screen. It’s the creepiest idea ever. Especially with this book, where I focus on nearly all the mistakes I made in a four-month period.

I’m glad I wrote the book, but the experience of having people know all these things about me has already left me ambivalent. A few months ago, when I was still holding down a day job, a co worker read Zioncheck — she wasn’t a big reader, she just thought it was ‘neat’ that someone she knew had written a book, or something. Well, she completely misunderstood the book and the way I portrayed myself, made snarky presumptions about who I really was, and said some other things that were not very pleasant. At first I tried to keep quiet, but then I just let loose and shouted at her, in the middle of the office, for about two or three minutes. Dropped the ‘f-bomb’ on her, too, at least six times. I’ve never seen anyone so shell-shocked in my life.

I don’t even want to think about the kinds of assumptions people are going to make about me after the movie comes out. Or how I’m going to react.

At the same time, though, if Gyllenhaal is going to make a successful film, he has to tap the same emotions I did. He’s going to have to keep it honest and raw, and find the humor in all of it. It’s just too bad Steve Buscemi is fifty years old and not a spry twenty-eight, because I think casting a real Hollywood hottie like, well, Gyllenhaal’s son Jake, would be a big mistake.

About this novel you’re writing: a few years down the line, when it’s published, do you think your considerations will be the same as they are with Zioncheck if a filmmaker expresses interest in optioning it?

I probably wouldn’t feel the same way about it, because it won’t be about me, and it won’t have the same constraints or concerns as non-fiction. Also, maybe by the time I get published again I’ll have learned a few things about screenwriting and may want to write the script, unlike now, where I’m more content watching the process unfold from the sidelines.

The one thing I have learned from this process so far is just how unusual it is to have a director take such a personal interest in your work in the first place. If my subsequent books get optioned at all, the circumstances will probably be different — most of the time, writers option their books to a studio and correctly suspect that nothing will ever come of it. It’s a total crap shoot, and it’s a very, very bad idea to write a book with the intent of selling the film rights, so the best thing I can do is just focus on my own writing and not think too much about this sort of thing.

Image credit: Kathryn Rathke’s illustration of Campbell and mayoral candidate Grant Cogswell appeared in The Stranger.


Newsletter Signup

Subscribe to my free newsletter, Ancestor Trouble.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.