Susan Kouguell Speaks with Desiree Akhavan – Writer and Director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Desiree Akhavan disscusses the adaptation and collaborative journey with her co-writer, Cecilia Fruguiele, of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the Grand Jury Prize-winner of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.


Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

In this powerful adaptation of the young adult novel of the same title The Miseducation of Cameron Post, filmmaker Desiree Akhavan brings to life teen characters in search of themselves as they navigate confinement in a gay conversion center in the 1990s.

We talked about the adaptation and collaborative journey with her co-writer Cecilia Fruguiele, who also serves as a producer of the film. The Miseducation of Cameron Post won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition).

ABOUT DESIREE AKHAVAN (Director / Co-Writer / Executive Producer)

Desiree Akhavan is the writer, director and star of Appropriate Behavior, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for Best First Screenplay at the Indie Spirit Awards. She’s also the co-creator and star of the web series The Slope. She lives in London, where she is filming a comedy series for Hulu & Channel 4 that was developed at The Sundance Institute’s Episodic Story Lab. She has a BA from Smith College, an MFA from NYU’s Grad Film Program.

ABOUT “THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST”

Based on the celebrated novel by Emily M. Danforth, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) as she is sent to a gay conversion therapy center after getting caught with another girl in the back seat of a car on prom night. Run by the strict and severe Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.)—himself an example of how those in the program can be “cured”—the center is built upon repenting for “same sex attraction.” In the face of intolerance and denial, Cameron meets a group of fellow sinners including the amputee stoner, Jane (Sasha Lane), and her friend, the Lakota Two-Spirit, Adam (Forrest Goodluck). Together, this group of teenagers form an unlikely family as they fight to survive.

SUSAN KOUGUELL: The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an adaptation of Emily M. Danforth’s young adult novel by the same title – which is over 400 pages long. Tell me about the adaptation and writing process.

DESIREE AKHAVAN:  I knew from the beginning that I wanted to focus on the last 200 pages of the book; it was the most condensed period of time with the most action. The mediums are so different; as a reader, the first 200 pages are the most interesting, but I didn’t think it would work for a film.

The process of adaptation was much harder than I anticipated. I just thought we would translate the book to the screen, but it ended up being like writing from scratch. What I learned was that it’s not just translating it, it’s reinventing. At first, we wrote a script that was very loyal to the book. And it didn’t work.  We felt we did a very good job of translating it to a screenplay, but it was very boring.


3 Essential Tips for Writing Adaptations


What we learned over the course of the year that we adapted it was that we had to whittle down what the inspiration was that we got from the book; what was the thing that we were hanging on to and what was most important, and how do we translate that onto the screen.  For both of us, it was the tone of the book; it was the comedy and the tragedy. That was such a vague, unspecific thing so we thought, how do we achieve that, getting you to fall in love with the ensemble of characters in that space, and then undercutting the frivolity and joy of the teen comedy but with the horrors when you mess with someone’s mental development and sexual development – what are the consequences?

KOUGUELL: Writing partners have various ways of collaborating. Sometimes writers will work together or write one scene and switch, and so on. How did you and Cecilia Fruguiele collaborate on this film?

AKHAVAN:  We were a perfect duo. She was my best friend when we were both twenty. I was studying abroad in London, and she was also studying abroad there from Italy. For 10 years we were each other’s biggest cheerleaders. I think the reason our collaboration works so well is that she understands structure, and we share the same taste. She likely is smarter and has better taste than I do, and in a perfect world I’d like to have her taste.

We’ve never had disagreements. She’s also quite good at structure, and I’m terrible at structure, but I’m good at dialogue and she doesn’t like writing dialogue that much. English is her second language. Also, she has no ego and I have a lot of ego; it’s crushingly large (laughs). So between the two of us, it comes together in a perfect way.

I love writing scenes of dialogue, but because this was an adaptation we started outlining, and then assigned each other scenes. I prefer her to write a first pass because I hate looking at a blank page. She says, “I have no attachment to it”–and then I rewrite it.

We also co-wrote a television series that will be on Hulu in October.

KOUGUELL: The novel is written in first person. How challenging was that to translate to the script and then to the screen?

AKHAVAN:  It was really tricky. We had to do a lot of rewriting in post. The first cut was an hour longer. Cameron’s high school life was 35-40 pages long. We condensed all of that into the opening montage and the flashbacks of Coley. Before that, it was very front heavy, and everyone watching the cut was saying, “I just want to get to God’s Promise already.” So, a lot of what we saw with her life and girlfriend, we learned in flashback.

We didn’t want to have a voiceover. We felt we had a strong idea of who Cameron was and her silence; she was an introverted character, and it was more about meeting the people around her, and her in relation to her environment.

As a writer, it wasn’t until I made a personal connection to the group therapy vibe, that it started to shine. I had spent some time in my twenties in a rehabilitation center for an eating disorder, and once I made the connection that I was making a movie about rehab, it started to shine, and the comedy came out. I felt really good about putting my own experiences in group therapy rooms and art therapy.

At the end of the day, I wanted to make a film about female desire; a lesbian coming into her own sexually. This is about a girl experiencing pleasure for the first time, and lust and desire–that’s what we see in flashback and through her eyes, and we (the viewer) aren’t sure if it’s her glorifying the memory or if that was the truth of it, but that’s her experience.

Everything I need to know about Cameron, I know from her desire. She doesn’t speak much because she’s trying to suffocate that desire.


Creating Compelling Characters: Asking Your Characters Why


KOUGUELL: You mentioned your love of John Hughes’ films.  Let’s talk more about that and how that influenced The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

AKHAVAN: I feel like everyone is talking about this film as an issues film, something so serious, but to me it’s a teen film. I loved The Breakfast Club and I loved Sixteen Candles, and to me, they encapsulated the drama and the angst of being a teenager and feeling like none of the adults in their life knew what they were talking about. You were kind of screwed and miserable, and also having the time of your life because you were old enough to be free enough. The best of times and the worst of times. To me, that was what being a teen was.

The film opened August 3 in theaters.

More articles by Susan Kouguell
Get FREE Screenwriting Downloads

Check out all of Susan’s Upcoming Classes!

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script (NEW COURSE!)
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into

Screenwriters University

COMMENT