Because my adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God will be released this August, I thought I would pepper the summer with three early adaptations I did when I was at NYU. This one is based on the poem “The Clerk’s Tale" by Spencer Reece.
Here's a conversation I had with Matt Rager about my adaptation of "The Clerk's Tale." Matt co-wrote the screenplays for my movies The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying—both of which are also adaptations. Also, check out the other two short films I adapted from poems, "The Feast of Stephen" and "Herbert White."
Matt: From a practical perspective, what were some of the concerns in making a film where nothing, essentially, happens—a film about the mundane boredom of a thankless 9-to-5 job? I think that it works excellently as the third of the three. The film’s stillness is enhanced by its coming on the heels of The Feast of Stephen and Herbert White. Simply by juxtaposing this film beside the violence of the first two, the Brooks Brothers immediately takes on a ominous aspect. Frankly, we're expecting someone to get murdered. But then nothing happens.
James: It certainly helped to pair this film with the other two shorts. It gains power from them. The previous films are dark and have such heavy material so that when you get to The Clerk’s Tale you are expecting it to be just as dark. I made all the films at different times, but there was always a feeling that they would work together as a trilogy—and I think they do, thematically and stylistically.
Matt: While the plots are vastly different from Feast of Stephen or Herbert White, I feel like the fundamental challenge is strikingly similar: how to translate, into film, elements that are grounded in the linguistic level of poetry. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” so much of the pathos comes from the mere fact of detailing the minutiae of working in a Brooks Brothers.
Mostly I talk of rep ties and bow ties,
of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,
of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,
of foulards, neats, and internationals,
of pincord, houndstooth, nailhead, and sharkskin.
The challenge seems to be to evoke both the visual lushness and the sense of despair at the same time. The camera itself needs to communicate elements of the poetry that the actors cannot articulate. It seems like the film does this through presenting the vividness of the colors and the richness of the fabrics juxtaposed against the intense quiet.
Similarly, there seems to be a sense of stasis—the fact that the entire film is contained within the mall, the long takes—that is subtly undermined by the camera work, as it wobbles slightly and fades in and out of focus. It seems to belie the mundanity of the everyday by suggesting an unsteadiness lurking just beneath the surface.
James: The Clerk’s Tale is the most staid of the three films, at least in its overt subject matter. Despite this lack of explicit dramatic action, there is a deep despair and intensity underneath the surface of the poem. But it is also difficult to trace that effect down to any single line—it's more of a cumulative effect. That's what I wanted to achieve in the film: a seemingly mundane atmosphere that will accumulate into a sense of weight and depth.
As far as the look of the film, I was very influenced by the cover of Spencer’s book, which is a Sergeant painting of a young man. I thought that it had the right qualities of stasis, sorrow, and depth. I looked to the Dardenne brothers for their fluid shooting and blocking style, although I eventually broke this up by using a very powerful zoom lens. In the opening scene, I played out a full scene of the Clerk fitting a customer. This scene was inspired by the section of the poem that describes the interaction with the straight and married customers. I didn’t want the dialogue to address these issues too directly—instead I wanted to feel the tension through behavior and shot composition.
All that happens in the scene is a man buys a suit, but the shifting focus and size of the frame makes it feel like something bigger is happening. The fluidness of the dolly combined with the rough feeling of the zooms and the shifting focus contrast and blend with each other in the same way that I wanted the material and staid surface to contrast with the depth of the character’s feelings.
Matt: The Feast of Stephen is entirely free of dialogue. Michael Shannon’s role as Herbert is incredibly compelling, but the viewer is trapped in his solitary world. The Clerk’s Tale, on the other hand, involves interaction between the two characters, both in terms of actual dialogue and in terms of the interplay between the two as they each go about their work routine, creating the feeling that the Brooks Brothers is a stage upon which the drama unfolds.
Both the poem and the film capture that strange intimacy that can develop between co-workers as you spend hour after hour together, but within a structured, formal environment with rules and regulations. The connection comes through the shared experience, which highlights the importance of those small gestures: The offered breath mint, standing shoulder-to-shoulder folding the clothes, the bittersweet routine of closing down the store. And then each passes into the night to their solitary lives.
James: If we look at that depth on a character level, it feels like the Thoreau saying, “Men living lives of quiet desperation.” Yes, there is desperation in the characters, but there is also strength. It was important to have both sides. I thought that the Spencer character (I called him Spencer in the film even though he doesn’t have a name in the poem, because his situation matches Spencer Reece’s situation so closely) regards the older employee, Ralph, with both skepticism and love. Ralph is Spencer’s possible future—Ralph has been working at the store for decades. He is a good salesman, but he seems lonely.
Ralph is also a supportive force in Spencer’s life. This is an aspect I got from the real Spencer, the poet: Spencer Reece had been a divinity student at Harvard and then dropped out. He had a minor breakdown and, to recover, he moved to Minneapolis and began working at a Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America. This job was his portal back into the real world, and Ralph's real-life counterpart was a positive force in Spencer’s recovery. I wanted to emphasize that aspect—the dynamic between the characters, as strongly as the sadness.