Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X hit at the exact right moment for me – I was feeling untethered and unsure of my place in the world around me, and here was a book very much about that same thing. Coupland’s been writing witty, incisive books very much of the moment for the last couple of decades, and recently made his screenwriting debut with Everything’s Gone Green, a movie that’s finally getting a US release.
Everything’s Gone Green stars Paulo Costanzo as Ryan, a guy who gets dumped and fired on the same day that his dad thinks he wins a five million dollar lottery, but got the numbers wrong. Ryan decides to make some changes in his life, and he ends up meeting the girl of his dreams, working for the lottery and getting caught up in a Yakuza money laundering plot, among other things. It’s a story that feels very Coupland, moving ahead at a leisurely, ambling pace with an eye for details and specifics about the setting, in this case the wonderful city of Vancouver.
Coupland came to town last week to talk about the movie, and I jumped at the chance to sit down with one of my favorite writers. Throughout the interview Coupland was tormented by a nostril hair growing sideways, tickling the inside of his nose, but he bravely pressed on.
This is your first script for a narrative film. Have you ever tried your hand at this form before?
I wrote this… God, it must have been 1999/2000. Which is a different place for me in my head. A friend of mine, Michelle, is a lawyer, and a client of hers defaulted and she won 50% of his company in Vancouver that makes these absolutely grade Z schlocko Czechoslovakian slasher films. She said, ‘Write something we can film for nothing in Vancouver.’ So I did. I gave Michelle the script and she said, ‘Oh, I sold the company.’ Thanks for telling me! But I put it into one of my drawers and in 2003 the producers cold called and asked if I had anything that I would like to make into a film. ‘Funny you should mention that….’ I sent it to them, they said sure, and I’d like to say they made it the next week, but I think it was three years. They had never made a movie before so it was a massive learning curve for them, which worked out to my advantage because I realize now that when someone writes [a script] even in the best of situations, whatever they write gets tampered with while the producers here, whenever they needed a change, they called me. With a few exceptions because of things like weather on the day of the shoot, they used all my stuff. I do wonder what it would be like if you sold a script and you gave it the obligatory second or third pass and then you were at the Cineplex three years later and in the interim 26 hands have molested what you’ve done and you’re name is still on it – what a horrible experience that must be.
Especially for novelists who get into screenwriting, since writing a novel is such a solitary pursuit.
Again, I got lucky. Part of screenwriting is less is more, sometimes, because the set director or editor can say, ‘Oh the writer is trying to micromanage us.’ And it’s dialogue, and dialogue is a pleasure. I don’t think I’ll be doing many more features. We’re doing a TV show –
JPod. That got picked up?
It got picked up for 13 episodes, one hour. We’re doing that right now. This is supposed to be my year off from books; I’ve been doing books since 1990. It’s like having a job without having a job, because up until now my days have been, by necessity, by myself. Just feeding the birds and squirrels. I thought I could go crazy doing this, so it’s nice to have a social life again.
There’s this lottery aspect to the film. The way you approach the lottery is interesting, because I’ve heard it said that the lottery is a tax on the stupid –
Or a surtax on desperation.
You seem to not be quite as damning of the lottery players as the machine surrounding them. What’s your take on the lottery?
The sports lottery, the arts lottery… I think they get one tenth of a penny on the dollar. On that level I don’t trust them. I’m not sure if we mention it in the movie, the biggest sales day for tickets is like the moment they announce the winners of the last one, because they need to keep the hope alive. I’m not a gambler – I go to Las Vegas and it’s like, why don’t you just take some money and set fire to it. I don’t understand the impulse. There was a huge scandal in BC about a month and a half ago where they looked at the numbers and it turned out that ten percent of all lottery winners were people who sold lottery tickets, which is just statistically not possible. Turns out what they were doing is that the way the screens were set up, it would show on [the lottery seller’s] screen as a hundred dollar win, and they would just say, ‘Oh bummer, you didn’t win, try again next time.’ It affected everyone in the culture, rich or poor, because it’s a very pan-social thing. So now they’ve had to rebuild the screens so that they flip out and show in large print so the elderly can see it too. And now lottery sellers make up one fraction of a percent of winners. It was such a scam!
Do you generally think the lottery is a scam?
I wish they would give more money to what they say they do. And the lottery is a metaphor for living where and when we do at this point in history. Living in Vancouver at the end of the 20th/early 21st century is a pretty good set up. It takes a lot to drop that football, and a lot that defines the era we’re living in – relationships with Asia, the post-industrial economy, this sort of eerie globalized amorality (I’m actually getting a sense of that in New York right now), a lot of the old rules don’t apply. And we have Ryan, who is sort of retrograde and still thinks the 20th century is the way things are. Everyone he meets is way, way beyond that. Someone at last night’s Q&A asked, ‘At the end of the movie, where are they driving to?’ And I said they’re driving into the 21st century, punching through the wall.
It’s interesting you mention defining the world we live in here and now, because so much of your fiction does that. But as you get older and find yourself living the life of a successful writer, how do you stay in touch with the elements of society that you’re writing about? I think you still capture the feel of office life perfectly, but it’s obvious that you haven’t had an office job in a long time.
I think for offices the dynamic never really changes. I had my share of job jobs back in the day. I remember when I started out, people were like, ‘Oh it’ll all just seem dated.’ And what’s happened now, of course, is that it’s not dated, it’s a time capsule. I think that if you’re not doing historical fiction, you have to be doing now fiction, and what is the now? What is the moment as it feels like where we live now? I never liked the Hardy Boys because they lived in a pretend city where no one had politics or religion, and they only ate ‘food.’ It felt dishonest to me. I think it’s almost a moral imperative that you shouldn’t write in an indeterminate present, you should write in the present that is.
But how do you find that present? How do you sniff out a world like the video game designers in JPod, and know that this will say something about the larger world?
That was actually a lot easier for me than MicroSerfs, because so many of my friends over the years coming off the art school track were fed almost inexorably into video game design. I don’t like playing games very much, but I like the making of them.
I like situations that are not very securely tethered to the world. I like systems in which the people participating are barely participating in reality, like they’re lost in their own bubble. When I look back at the books I’ve done, the characters all live in their bubbles.
As everybody gets older life becomes more insular, life becomes more about your immediate circle and it’s harder to keep up with what’s going on in the rest of the culture.
How old are you?
33, and I feel totally out of touch with the culture!
[laughs] In another era I might say yes, but culture is just thrown at you. We’re a lot more porous now, and culture just seeps into you. My parents are 81 and 71 and are very up on things now. I read a lot of papers, watch TV… you ever read John Windham? He’s a science fiction writer from England in the 60s, and he wrote this one short story – I forget the title – that’s about people from the future who travel here to, what else, correct a chronoclasm or something. You could always tell who they were because they would be dressed in the clothes of the day, but they would always get one thing horribly wrong, like the wrong shoes or tie or jacket. I guess I’m always looking for the people with the wrong shoes, or the strangely out of date or weirdly futuristic shirt or something like that. I think it’s just the way I am.
It’s interesting the way that, given time, the fringes always determine the center, not the other way around. Part of what’s freaking me out about New York this trip is that last night I went to St. Marks Books and everybody was happy and the streets were clean. There were no crazy insane people throwing poo in my face. I remember fifteen, twenty years ago, how medieval and gothic the whole scene was.
Especially that block.
I have to admit that, as the taxi was pulling in by that big sculpture cube in the middle I was wondering if it would even be there. I envisioned superstores…
There’s a K-Mart right there. And a highrise full of million dollar condos.
Really? Oh my God. All the crazy insane people throwing poo in your face were gone, and all the Laurie Anderson types, they were missing too. I don’t know if they moved out of the country or if they’re in Brooklyn or something. They were gone and New York seems to have defringed itself. Is it possible to be on the outside the way it used to be here? Are you from New York?
I am from New York.
What’s your take on it? We’re wildly away from the movie here.
I’m moving out of New York. For one thing, the city has outpriced me.
It’s so expensive.
There’s nowhere I can afford to live in New York that is still really part of New York. And there’s been another change – Alphabet City used to be edgy, but now it’s all condos. There’s something about that – the soul of New York City has changed. As someone who grew up in New York, that change is for the worst, but I guess for someone who is new here, this change – having a big city that’s so nice and safe – is great. And not to say this disparagingly, but New York feels a little Canadian to me these days.
[laughs] I am so fucking insulted!
It feels like Toronto, which is a wonderful city, but it has this feeling of niceness and safeness that I never associated with New York City.
I know what you mean. Did everyone turn into Soylent Green? Where did everyone go?
What’s really weird is that so many people have been coming INTO New York. In the film Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell proposes that it’s because of 9/11 – there’s this generation of hipsters who grew up post-Cold War who never had anything real happen to them. 9/11 is the realest event of their lives, and they’ve moved here to sort of be somewhere real. But they’re making this city totally unreal.
Where are you going to move?
I’m moving somewhere worse – Los Angeles. You know what’s interesting is that if there were two cities I could choose to live in without worrying about making a living or anything, they would be Austin, Texas and Vancouver. Vancouver’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and it’s so cool to see Vancouver play Vancouver in Everything’s Gone Green. The fact that Vancouver never plays Vancouver in movies is actually part of the point of the movie.
Seattle. Fuck. The thing is that we’re so sick of having to play Seattle, and to a lesser extent, Portland. My dad is a GP, and he has this office by where they shot this Ashley Judd movie and his block was three different cities. Enough is enough. Part of it is Michelle saying write something we can film here, and because I wrote it as a lark, I said, let’s not be Seattle. Let the city be itself for once. There’s a whole warehouse, and I’ve been there many times, filled with Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper boxed and license plates and all the things they use to make Vancouver different.
We did 19 days, which is crazy, and we had all the weather except for one day, and they used that to their advantage. I went to high school with the DP, everyone on the set I knew or was friends with, and everyone was so relieved: ‘We don’t have to change the license plates.’ And there was this prop palm tree that I wrote in as a joke – it’s real! Everyone was like, ‘Oh, that thing.’ And sure enough, they wheeled it out.
My favorite scene in the whole film was the beached whale scene.
That wasn’t a metaphor. That really happened. I wasn’t there that day, but Paul [Fox, the director] got it perfect, even down to the direction I was driving the car, which he couldn’t have known. It was the middle of a week day and I figured I should go look at it. There were people in business shoes coming down the rocks, and it was a strange and sacred experience. If it works as a metaphor, that’s fine. Most of the events in this movie, they’re things that did happen in real life, but strung together they make fiction.
I don’t smoke pot – it’s like country music or something, I just don’t. But because the original poster was supposed to have a marijuana leaf on it, we couldn’t do that. It got an R-rating… what? Pot is British Columbia’s number one industry, but it is an industry. There’s no tittering – it’s just like growing carrots, there’s no moral dimension. I find it funny when people find it exotic. This is a tangent, and I don’t know what it has to do with anything.
Well, it’s a good tangent.