“Hope Springs” for Spec Screenwriter

Vanessa Taylor never imagined her story would become a major film starring Meryl Streep.

In "Hope Springs," Kay Soames (Meryl Streep) attempts to bring intimacy back to her marriage of 31 years by ambushing husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) with a week of intense marriage therapy.

It's a gently humorous, often uncomfortable yet ultimately touching film about two people in love who have lost their way over the decades. Hardly the stuff of summer blockbusters according to Vanessa Taylor, who began writing the screenplay on spec when she found herself between gigs almost six years ago.

Throughout the various rewrites and stops and starts due to other job opportunities, Taylor never envisaged her story would eventually arrive on the big screen. Let alone star Streep, Jones and Steve Carell (as the therapist). If that wasn't enough, it reunites Streep with her "Devil Wears Prada" director David Frankel. "I never expected anything like this when I started writing it," says Taylor, who currently splits her time between her Los Angeles home and Belfast, Ireland where she is working as co-executive producer on HBO's sword and sorcery hit "Game of Thrones."

Having written and produced on television series "Tell Me You Love Me," "Jack & Bobby," "Everwood" and "Alias," Taylor is no stranger to the inner-workings of Hollywood. Popcornbiz tracked her down during a brief stopover in New York to chat about how hard it is to get a project off the ground, the box office power of Streep and the pleasures to be found in awkward silences. 

What prompted you to start writing the screenplay?

I had just finished one job and was casting about to see what I would do next. And I just started to write something I really wanted to write without any hope of getting it read, let alone made.

And why this subject material?

I had been very interested, just personally, about this question of, 'If you are in a relationship and it becomes distant could it become whole again, could you fix something like that?' So I actually was reading quite a bit of self-help at the time and I started to think about other people who may be asking the same question. And specifically people who are much older than myself and have been married for some time and I kind of wondered what that might look like.

Like if you had been married a really long time and were trying to become intimate again it would become strange – like you’ve been there being not intimate – and it would be so awkward. And I just kept thinking, 'Wow, how would that play out?'

How did you approach the therapy aspect of it?

My dad is a psychiatrist so I have been around it a bit. I guess I just figured that’s how you would do it if you wanted help. I didn’t know even what she would do in the beginning - Kay tries to help herself and she doesn’t have a huge amount of success.

Did you talk to your dad when writing this?

A little. We had some discussion early on about whether to paint this therapist as having a very distinct point of view – like he’s Freudian or Jungian or he’s some very easily defined point of view. And my dad said to me, 'Look, most of the time if you are a very good therapist it shouldn’t be that easy to define what you are doing. You should be collecting things from different schools of thought. And so if you are going to define a character that way you’re going to make it like a caricature.' That was his guidance.

Did you talk to or canvas friends who have had therapy?

I’ve seen different therapists over the years so I feel pretty confident that I understand how therapists sound. So I wasn’t so worried about the dialogue. What I was interested to know was talking to friends who have been married because I haven’t. So I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going far afield or saying things that were crazy when it came to people that were married.

There are a lot of awkward silences during the therapy scenes. Were they in the original script?

Definitely. I write in a lot of pauses. And sometimes I think actors and directors find that really annoying. Obviously they are liberty to discard them. What I am trying to do is make the reader feel what I am trying to express. I felt like the script was naturalistic and I wanted it to feel that way – sometimes you just sit there. And then you may feel stupid and say something and then nobody responds and then you feel stupid again.

I thought there was a lot of humor in that. Obviously people don’t talk in perfectly articulated sentences or topics. Especially people like the characters that are not articulate to start with or at the least not used to articulating their own feelings. I wanted it to feel a little bit chunky and jarred.

How did Meryl Streep become involved?

From the beginning [producer] Todd Black was like 'the way we do this is we get Meryl.' And then I think he was just persistent and patient - obviously Meryl has many commitments - and eventually we were able to get it to her and she responded. I think from the very beginning they wanted someone of her caliber and appeal to help get it made.

In what way?

Meryl has an audience. She is a star and can bring people to the box office. Having her on board made everyone feel a little more confident about making such an intimate story.

What made Tommy Lee right for the role of Arnold?

He is very masculine and I think men will see themselves in his character and relate. They'll look at him and think, 'Gee this could be me up there being tortured by my wife in a therapy session'

Were you on set for the filming?

Yes. I was there for one week of rehearsal and two weeks of filming.

What surprised you during the filming process?

As filming progressed I was amazed at how much emotion they brought to the script. So much more emotional empathy than I ever would have imagined. I don't consider myself to be an emotional writer and I really though the piece was more dry. And as we went through the process it was incredible to watch [Meryl and Tommy] really fleshing this story, this marriage, out. They had great chemistry.

Are you working on another script?

Not right now. I'm booked on "Game of Thrones" through mid-October and after that ... we'll see. Look, I've been very lucky with this project. I know that I am so spoiled and this will never happen again. I should just give up now!

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