Alex and Greg have a young son who prefers dolls to action toys. Claire Danes and Jim Parsons, are both exceptionally excellent as the parents who try to navigate parenting A Kid Like Jake as they confront the conversation of what’s best for their child.
The sensitive film began as a play written by Daniel Pearle who adapted it. We caught up to talk about how he reimagined it for the big screen.
I remember seeing the billboard in New York and now here we are in 2018. Talk about adapting A Kid Like Jake.
When I wrote the play, that was all I was thinking about. I was still in grad school and just so excited that I had a production. I thought the story, at that time, could live as a film but I wasn’t exactly how. It was always there in the back of my mind. Jenette Kahn had seen the play and I met with her after the production. She read the play and happened to be close friends with Jim Parsons. She was aware that he had just started his company and was looking for material to option. She said, “I think he’d like it.” He read it and liked it and that started the conversation for the adaptation and for him to star in.
The first thing for me was to ensure we were all on the same page. Jake is off-stage in the play, you hear about him, but he’s not a character and that was very deliberate because it’s all about these different adults, interpreting his behavior and projecting onto him. It was such a sentimental conceit and I didn’t want to lose that, but at the same time in a movie, when you’re seeing more than ten scenes and all these characters, to not see him at all would feel forced and contrived.
Jim and I and Todd Spiewak and Eric Norsoph, they were all on the same page. It was all about how to protect the intimacy of the story since it really is about a marriage and these relationships and how to open up the world, introduce these characters and make it feel like film and expansive, but not lose the delicacy of the story. That was the other aspect I was most concerned about.
Once we decided we were going to go ahead and do it, I was hired to write the adaptation. I started from scratch. I didn’t want it to feel like a play that had been grafted and I didn’t want to be labeled as a playwright would couldn’t write a real screenplay.
If I treat this as source material, how could this story be told as a film? The characters I knew very well and the situation I knew well, but structurally it was reimagined. Part of it was figuring out which characters off stage would now be on-screen. There were a lot of fun opportunities in seeing Alex’s and Greg’s parallel lives and when they are in their separate orbit. You don’t really get to see that in the play, so it was fun to fill things in.
There were some changes we made especially with Silas Howard on board as director, he had notes. I probably spent three or four months writing the first draft and then it took a few years to finance it, cast it and so on.
The other thing that was challenging for me was that I really like films with dialogue and I feel so much of the story is about the pitfalls of language and people struggling with the inadequacies of their own words and what that does. It was always going to be a film that was heavy on language, but I wanted to ensure we were telling the story visually and that was what I talked with Silas about.
On the subject of language, I enjoyed that scene where the parents are talking about Jake’s test score.
My day job was tutoring at the middle and high school level. There’s a lot of test prep so I was very familiar with the anxiety around test prep, but I wasn’t familiar with the fact that it went on at the kindergarten level.
When I was researching the play, I did a deep dive as if I were a parent with a kid in kindergarten. Most of the language actually came from various tests and it’s different from school to school, and the whole thing is absurd. Most of that research I had done for the play. In the play, we mostly focus on the private schools. In the film, they talk about gifted programs. I did a fair amount of research online and there are a ton of books out there, so it comes from reality.
It was timely in 2013 and it is in 2018. How did that factor in given where we are today with gender fluidity in children?
I think before writing the play, I had read an article in the New York Times about gender identity and how it pertains to younger children and how that conversation was happening. I thought that was happening. It was before Caitlyn Jenner, before Transparent, before a lot of these things had entered the mainstream of our conversation and consciousness.
It was amazing doing the adaptation. What was clear was that there were some language and terms that needed to be updated. Judy says, “Gender expansive.” That term didn’t exist in 2013, so it was just subtle things.
Scenes like the dinner date, that was reimagined for the film. I noticed, because of what has happened, the conversation would be different. It meant that it couldn’t be as new to them. They live in New York, they’re culturally and forward-thinking people.
How was the casting process for you?
Jenette happens to be close friends with Claire Danes and the subject came up and she had a similar experience. She was at the park with her kid and she saw a child at the park in a park and she wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl. She ended up talking to the boy’s father who said, “He’s a boy but he loves wearing tutus and dresses and we’re about to start kindergarten.” Then he said, he and his partner were having a hard time because he’d grown up in a time where he was bullied and he wanted to be safe. They decided not to put him in a dress at school. So, Claire was telling Jenette about it and said she had to read the screenplay that she was going to produce.
I was elated because I’ve always been such a fan of hers. She is fearless and she’s just incredible. That was a dream when I heard she wanted to do it.
Claire and Jim were attached when we went out to directors and that’s when Silas came on board. Then we went out for Octavia and she too is so incredible. She’s got heart, warmth and is perfect for that role. We got so lucky that she said yes too.
Alex is a complex character and you understand her mother bear protectiveness. How would you describe her?
She is incredibly loving and protective. She’s incredibly driven. To me, she strikes me as someone who took a while to land on motherhood as a defining role for her. She’s faithful and can do other things. So much of the movie is about separation anxiety. In certain ways, she and Greg have been in this environment where Jake is at home, he goes to preschool and he’s not being scrutinized and then they start applying to schools and this conversation about his identity happens and people start making judgments. My friends who have kids start talking about the trauma of outside opinion entering their world.
I think of her as loving but with her own blind spots. She wants to protect Jake from judgments and in that she ends up making decisions that she probably regrets. What was so great about Claire is you feel that. She also happens to have a kid of the same age so she can relate. She brought so much compassion to that character and it was great as a writer and satisfying to see what she brought to the role because she was so damned good.
A Kid Like Jake is on release