It seems everyone I encounter in literary circles has had a Cheryl Strayed moment, a moment in which something Strayed has written, as the author of Wild or as The Rumpus’ dispenser of hard truths – “Dear Sugar,” has deeply resonated. For me, it would have to be this “Dear Sugar” response:
“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
It’s a quote I’d passed along to my creative nonfiction students one semester with my demure modification, “write like a mother fudgsicle.” But that’s what poises Strayed’s work for maximum impact. She doesn’t modify or shy away. She tells it like it is. And Strayed’s circle of influence is rapidly widening as a result.
Wild will be making its big-screen debut in December with Reese Witherspoon in the lead, and producer Lisa Bellomo (How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog, Love in the Time of Money) has plans to render “Dear Sugar’s” anecdotes and wisdoms, chronicled as well in Strayed’s collection Tiny Beautiful Things, in animated short film. Bellomo’s team includes David Polonsky (Waltz With Bashir), Mark V. Olsen (Big Love), Will Scheffer (Big Love), and, as the voice of Dear Sugar, Alex Borstein (MADtv, Family Guy). Bellomo’s taken to Kickstarter this week to help fund the project. I recently spoke with Bellomo about her own Strayed moment as well as her campaign to animate “Dear Sugar.”
I know you felt connected to Dear Sugar’s direct-but-kindly responses, as so many readers did, before conceiving of this project. Was there one in particular that made you think: “This has to be a short film”?
Very early on I really felt like any one of the columns would make a great short film because each of them tells a complete and contained story unto itself. Once I made the decision to turn one into a short film, “The Baby Bird” column stood out to me as a strong choice for a couple of reasons. The first consideration was just a practical one. Animation is expensive, especially the specific kind of stylized animation I wanted to do. “The Baby Bird” is one of the shorter columns so it seemed like a good choice for that reason. But more importantly, after reading all the “Dear Sugar” columns, all of which are powerful and special in their own way, I really felt like “Baby Bird” completely captured the core essence of Sugar’s voice and outlook on life – which to me is that at any given moment life is both beautiful and tragic, but if one wants to live in a fully human way, one has to embrace it all, taking both the positive and negative experiences in one’s life and using them to fuel one’s drive to achieve, to love, and to live life to its fullest potential. Also, “The Baby Bird” contains what is still one of my favorite responses to a question. In frustration, the questioner asks, “WTF, WTF, WTF”? After a revealing reply that includes a traumatic story from her own past, Sugar ends her retort with the simple and bold statement, The Fuck is your Life. Answer it. I mean how awesome is that?!
How did the idea for the project evolve into an animated short film instead of live action?
I gave the book Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of many of the “Dear Sugar” columns, to the amazingly talented writers (and, I might add, amazingly lovely human beings as well) Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. They responded to the material immediately, so once they were on board we all started brainstorming about what form and style would best serve the tone, the honesty, and the poetry of “The Baby Bird.” The thing about all of these columns is that the narrative isn’t simple or linear. First there’s the framing device of the question and answer format. Then within that frame there’s a story within a story that Sugar tells to the questioner. And within that story there are often flashbacks from Sugar’s past, and then perhaps an anecdote from Sugar’s present, and then an anecdote that brings the story back around to the questioner’s particular dilemma. When the idea of animation came up we all thought that could be a really interesting approach because it would give us more freedom to move in and out of different time frames, different locations and different stories. This seemed like a better idea, rather than having to cast an adult Sugar and then a different actress for the child Sugar etc. We also thought it would allow for more palatable ways of illustrating some of the more graphic and painful moments in the story (i.e. sexual abuse) along with the more lyrical moments as well.
You have a fantastic animator on board in David Polonsky (lead animator for the award-winning Waltz with Bashir). What do you think his style or work in particular will bring to Dear Sugar?
One of the things I strongly respond to in Cheryl Strayed’s writing in general, and in the “Dear Sugar” columns in particular, is the raw honesty with which she offers her thoughts, her memories, and her “advice.” It’s that quality in the writing that results in a deeply authentic exchange between Sugar and her questioners. In Waltz With Bashir, David and his animation partner Yoni Goodman generate a similar feeling with the style of animation they created for that movie. That film also jumps back and forth between present day and flashbacks of traumatic memories from the past. The particular style of animation – which has a documentary feel to it – effectively captures the characters complex emotions, as they try to make sense of their lives. In that way it’s not unlike our “Baby Bird” story. Of course David will create a distinctive animation style for Sugar, but the Waltz With Bashir template is a good model for this project.
You also have the blessings of Dear Sugar herself, Cheryl Strayed. How did you approach her about this project and what was that conversation like?
A very close friend of mine posted an essay that Cheryl had written many years ago on Facebook. I read it and was floored by how fearless, and raw and heartfelt it was. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Cheryl’s body of work, so I spent the next couple of hours googling and finding out everything I could about her and the next few weeks, reading everything I could find by her including the “Dear Sugar” column. The great thing about the age in which we live is that people are fairly contactable. I went to Cheryl’s website and sent an email introducing myself and telling her how deeply her work affected me and that started a correspondence first by email, phone, and Skype, and soon after in person. The first time I met her in person was when she came down to LA to do a reading from her book Wild. When she heard the ideas we had for “Dear Sugar,” animation and all, she was completely excited by it and gave her blessing for the project. She really is as cool a woman in person, as you’d think she’d be given her writing.
You’ve produced numerous projects – How to Kill Your Neighbors Dog, Love in the Time of Money, HBO’s Getting On. Is this your first project to fund, at least in part, via Kickstarter?
I have many friends who have financed various artistic endeavors – documentaries, photography books, films – through Kickstarter and donated to a handful of campaigns, but yes, this is indeed the first time I’m personally trying to fund something through crowd-funding.
What do you think crowd-funding brings to a project potentially (besides, obviously, the funding itself) or how does it change the nature of developing a project?
It’s always tough to get something financed that is “challenging” because of its subject matter or it’s not commercial or whatever the case may be, so the more options that are available as possible funding sources, the better. Also I think as filmmakers you’re always hoping to retain as much creative control over your process as possible and that doesn’t always happen when you’re using more conventional ways of financing. So the ability to finance through crowd-funding allows for more artistic freedom to produce your project in a way that feels truthful to the material and your creative team. But I think with Dear Sugar there’s another thing that’s kind of cool about financing this way and it has to do with community. When I first started talking to Cheryl about the column, she said that she envisions the whole “Dear Sugar” dialogue as a kind of electronic town square because even though she provides an answer to a single questioner, since they are posted on the internet and other people can comment on the column, it really becomes this kind of electronic communal conversation. I love that image. In a lot of ways I feel like Kickstarter has this same concept at its core. A community of people coming together to support a piece of art in which they believe because of its point of view, or the people involved with it, or whatever. I think at its best, art is put out into the world so that people can both discover it, as well as discover a community of others who also see its beauty and worth.
If you could ask Dear Sugar anything, what might you ask?
There’s this great line from a Leonard Cohen song that goes “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I’m a real believer that life is a messy combination of light and dark, joy and pain. And that’s a good thing. Experiencing all of it – that’s what makes us fully human. But there’s so much tragedy in the world and in our personal lives, that sometimes it’s hard to hold on to the beauty of things too. So my question would have something to do with that. Something like: Dear Sugar…the world is exquisite and it is heartbreaking all at once. How, in the moments of suffering, do you hold on to the joy and let it propel you ever onward? I ask this of you Sugar because in your voice I sense a soul that has been through the darkness but sees the light… Warmly, Seeking balance
** Photo of Cheryl Strayed by Brian Lindstrom.