Philip Seymour Hoffman as Richard Pryor: An Interview with Adam Cushman

I keep thinking of a quote, which for some reason I thought was attributed to David Byrne, but the internet tells me comes from Martin Mull. It probably doesn’t originally, but tell me if you’ve heard it before: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. You can take it as one of those anti-critic sentiments, that the act of doing the work is miles away from the act of writing about that work. Adam Cushman isn’t so sure. He is putting together a collection of pieces for Sleeper Celluloid—reviews of films that don’t exist. It turns out that writing about films that don’t exist is a lot like writing about films that do exist, though sometimes it’s funnier, and most of the time it’s much more honest.

Cushman has stories all over the place (including The Ampersand Review, The St. Petersburg Review, El Portal, and others) and is the author of the novel Cut (Black Mountain Press). He’s also a real-deal LA film guy, presiding over Red 14 Films, a studio that produces cinematic book trailers. In a fit of ill-advised corniness, I asked him to make his own dancing about architecture quote. He wisely refused. The other stuff we said follows.

ANDREW HOWARD: Sleeper Celluloid is both literary and speculative, but would you call it speculative fiction?

ADAM CUSHMAN: In all sincerity, I see these reviews as genuine film criticism.

AH: Is this a new way for writers or critics to convene with the arts they’re exploring?

AC: Sure, or to convene with anything they’re into at the moment. We’re also critiquing the critics.

AH: The internet seems to have become a factory for cultural reviews, from established traditional book and film reviews to countless grading episodes of shows that have been off the air for decades. Anyone can express an artistic verdict in a perfect 1000-word review. In this context, Sleeper Celluloid twists the idea of a review into something newercertainly funnierand perhaps even more valuable. Was there a particular catalyst for the concept of Sleeper Celluloid?

AC: It was that movie Tropic Thunder. There was a billboard on Sunset that I drove past every day for two months or so. Soon as I saw Downey Jr. as a black dude I’d giggle. Every time. It was funny to me because there was no disclaimer. So I was like, What if that happened in movies all the time? It used to happen in movies all the time. What if they cast, say, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Richard Pryor because he was right for the role, and no one questioned it. So I wrote that review. Then some writer friends took a crack at one. That’s pretty much what led to the idea for Sleeper.

But this is by no means a new form. My understanding is Borges originated this idea with his fictional book reviews. Such as the one about the guy who rewrites Don Quixote word for word, just better.

AH: You’ve corralled some very talented writers to contribute to SC. How do you go about working with authors? Do you guide them in any way or did these mostly come about organically?

AC: The guidelines are pretty simple. You come up with a movie, then review it as if it’s really coming out, or came out some time ago and maybe we didn’t hear about it. I encourage everyone to try new things. Some writers go for the traditional movie review. Jim Shepard wrote several IMDB synopses. Lucy Corin wrote a Netflix review followed by user comments. There are a lot of ways to approach this.

AH: These real fake movie reviews have a definite satirical edge. Some look at Hollywood formalism and its penchant for “message” movies (when Michelle Chihara’s casts Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead in Silver Linings Payback), and how it often gets those messages wrong (such as Roger Sollenberger’s skewering of Her through the lens of Kevin Smith). Others play at Hollywood itself, referencing such inside names as Alan Smithee, Bud Cort, and Herschel Gordon Lewis. None of the reviews, however, read like a series of clever name-drops. How important to you is an author’s understanding of film lore?

AC: It seems like this idea appeals to writers who are also cinephiles, and that normally makes for a funny review. There was one writer who passed on doing one of these because he felt so alienated by modern cinema that he didn’t think he could do the form any justice. My feeling was that’s partially why we’re writing these things. I asked him if he’d incorporate what he’d said into a foreword for the collection.

AH: You’re also a writer and a cinephile, which certainly appears in your work with Red 14 Films. Cinematic book trailers are a sign of a changing book market. Do you feel that change is primarily in authors or audience? What feedback have you gotten from the viewing/reading public?

AC: They proliferated because the market demanded video content. So in that sense the change in market affected authors and audience, although mostly it affected publishers. The problem is that demandwhich to my understanding began around 2004was met with no enthusiasm from the trailer makers. So there are still a lot of people who associate the term “book trailer” with a poorly made video, but that’s changing. There’s some really interesting work being done now and publishers are coming around to the idea that if they’re going to make a book trailer, they might as well make it good.

AH: Cut is profoundly disturbing, but it’s also filled with humor, pathos, andappropriatelycinema. Our narrator plays with the reader, viewing the world through a distance-making lens, referencing the proper score for scenes, all in a way that reflects how cinema influences our lives. Do you think cinematically when writing?

AC: For me there isn’t that much separation in any of it.

AH: Cut‘s narrative voice shifts to a disorienting effect. What can you achieve differently between first- and second-person narration? What guided that choice?

AC: The second person in this book is supposed to act like a chorus. When I started I was going to begin and end with it, but it started popping up again. It’s connected with Gabriel’s psychology. The things that are most difficult for him to reveal appear in the you sections.

AH: The Sleeper Celluloid reviews incorporate a wide range of acting talent. Especially Michael Fassbender. Any idea why he shows up so much?

AC: I hadn’t thought about that before. I don’t know. Probably because he’s awesome. The real-life figures who appear in Sleepers—whether actors, directors, producers—are often those the writer has enormous respect for.

AH: And of course, I should ask which of these you’d most like to see.

AC: The Boob Switch. Without question. I’d pay high dollar to see that movie.

Andrew Howard's work has appeared/will appear in Southwestern American Literature, Kaliedotrope, and Bluestem, and has been shortlisted for the Carve Short Story Prize. He currently lives and teaches in Washington, DC.