John Searles wrote the book Strange But True in 2004 — and now it's been made into a film starring Greg Kinnear and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood breakout Margaret Qualley
Two summers ago, my boyfriend, Thomas, and I were stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, when my cell lit up with a number I didn’t recognize. Spam, or so I thought, before playing the message: “Hi, John! I’m calling from the wardrobe department on the set of Strange But True. We’re trying to determine what your character would wear in the scene you’re shooting with Amy Ryan this week. Give us a call back.”
Seeing as the majority of my voicemails are robocalls from a woman speaking Chinese, this message was more than a little exciting. Even so, when Thomas asked who called, I said in the most nonchalant voice I could muster, “Oh, just the wardrobe supervisor on the set of my movie. She needs to consult with me on my ensembles.”
Imagine the look you’d give someone you’ve known forever, who casually slips the words “my ensembles” into conversation for the first time. That’s the look he gave me. I was kidding, really, carrying on like Meryl Streep prepping for yet another scene in yet another movie. After all, Strange But True is a novel I published back in 2004.
The idea for the book — about a family who loses their son in a tragic, prom-night accident and the events that unfold when, five years later, his girlfriend claims to be pregnant with his child — came to me one rainy night while riding the New York City subway. Unlike other books I’ve written, the entire story washed over me in a rush of inspiration. Beginning. Middle. End.
When I arrived home, I dropped my umbrella, grabbed paper and pens, then locked myself in the bathroom, where I began frantically scribbling away in the tub. Three weeks later, I’d produced a very messy rough draft. Eight months later, a polished one. Two years later, I’d written and sold a screenplay of the novel to a film company with an impressive track record.
“We’re making this immediately!” the producers told me at our first meeting.
By immediately, I don’t think they meant more than a decade, but hey, I’ve since learned that’s how things go in Hollywood. When I returned the wardrobe supervisor’s call, we discussed my role in the film. I play an author speaking from a podium at a library event.
“This will be a stretch,” I told her, “But if I use the Stanislavski method, I believe I can pull it off.”
My joking didn’t interest her as much as my announcement that I just so happen to have a closet full of outfits an author would wear to a library event. Next thing I knew, I was packing sweaters, shirts, pants and shoes into my suitcase and heading off to the set in Toronto.
Of course, I’m not the first novelist to make an appearance in the film of their book. A Google search turns up many, from Amy Tan and Lee Child to Stephanie Meyers and Sara Gruen. Going further back, S.E. Hutton made multiple appearances in the big-screen adaptations of her novels, from a nurse in The Outsiders to a sex worker in Rumble Fish. Jaqueline Susan popped up as a reporter in Valley of the Dolls, as did Peter Benchley in Jaws.
But the record-holder? Stephen King. Having done a turn as a cemetery caretaker in Sleepwalkers, a minister in Pet Semetery, and nearly a dozen more movies and TV shows, the master of horror also turns out to be the master of cameos.
Curious as to what motivates filmmakers to indulge the film-star fantasies of writers, I asked Fred Berger, executive producer of Strange But True, as well as La La Land. His take: “It’s a great way to pay homage to the person that kicked off the entire journey. None of this would exist without them, so it only feels right to embed them into the film for all time. Also, readers love to see their favorite authors on the screen.”
As a lifelong book lover, I can vouch for that last part. I still remember the geeky thrill I felt spotting writers I admire, like Dennis Lehane chilling on a barstool in the background of a scene in Mystic River, and Kathryn Stockett rocking an impressive bouffant at a Junior League event in The Help. And since I know firsthand that the journey from “I want to be a writer” to “I’m a writer appearing in a movie of my book” is not quick or easy, it’s gratifying to see authors getting the attention they deserve.
For me, the particulars of that journey added an extra layer of resonance to my movie moment since, by sheer coincidence, the film began shooting on the anniversary of my sister’s death. It was her passing, after her prom 28 years before, that inspired me to write about the family in my book, never mind giving me the courage to move to New York in the wake of her death and follow my dream of becoming a writer. All that made the experience even more meaningful when I arrived on set to see my story being brought to life.
There was Margaret Qualley fitted with a costume to make her appear pregnant like the young woman in my book. There was Nick Robinson on crutches, looking like the brother of the boy who died in my book. There were Blythe Danner and Brian Cox as the landlord couple who give the pregnant girl a place to live. There was Greg Kinnear as the secretive dad and, my scene-partner, Amy Ryan as the embittered mom and librarian, who introduces a certain writer at a library event the night her son dies.
The wardrobe supervisor got right down to business, culling through my clothes and settling on a pale blue sweater, navy pants and loafers. Once dressed, she gave my look a once-over then said something to me no one ever did before: “We’re gonna have to tape your nipples. They’re aggressively pointing out beneath your sweater and we don’t want them to distract.”
As we ducked into the stacks of the library and she began taping away, I told her I’d keep this precaution in mind at future book signings. Once things were safely under wraps, the director positioned me at a podium in front of a group of extras, pretending to be readers, pretending to ask questions, while I pretended to answer. Though none of it felt pretend. Minus the wardrobe tape, it felt a lot like my life. I was ready for my close-up. Even if it wasn’t all that close. Even if I was just a guy in the background, who most people might not even notice, but who happened to be the person who wrote the book.
Strange But True is in theaters and On Demand today.