EXCLUSIVE: We Had a Chat With Mark Z. Danielewski About That HOUSE OF LEAVES Script
Like many of you, I read Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves all the way back in 2000, shortly after its publication. The release of that novel - a modern-day horror epic featuring a Russian nesting doll-style structure, an eye-shattering array of typographical flourishes and a gleefully subversive undercurrent - generated a tidal wave of buzz that was impossible to ignore, and I was one of countless readers swept up in its mighty wave. For a year or two, House of Leaves was a constant topic of conversation. If you were there, you remember.
Flash-forward eighteen years, to last week. An old friend of mine popped up in my DMs, asking if I'd seen that Danielewski had written the pilot for a House of Leaves TV series, and that he'd tweeted out a link to the PDF of the script. It had, admittedly, been a few years since I'd given Danielewski's novel any real thought, but the moment I heard this I felt myself being sucked back into its weird, roiling undercurrent. A House of Leaves TV show? Written by Danielewski himself? And he was just giving the damn thing away?
I devoured the script, which turned out to be enormously faithful to the source material while, in typical MZD fashion, adding a whole new meta layer to the mix (the "reveal" that House of Leaves was not, in fact, a work of fiction, but a true story). It left me with many questions.
Lucky for me, I found myself contacted by a few fellow Leaves fans who were able to put me in touch with Danielewski's representative. Perhaps I could get him to go on the record and talk about how this script came to be, and what might happen next? Of course I leapt at the opportunity, and a few days later I found myself on the phone with an author whose work I have recommended more times than I can possibly count. Here's how that conversation went.
In all the correspondence I've had with your people, they only refer to you as "MZD". How should I address you in casual conversation?
You can call me Mark, that's fine!
Great. Now, you and I actually met about 18 years ago, on the joint tour you did with your sister, Poe, when she released Haunted.
You saw us on the Borders tour?
I did. In Dallas, Texas.
That was very cool. That tour was so unique, we were like, "Oh, well, we'll definitely do this again!" We had no idea what an opportunity that was. And who could have imagined, all these years later, that Borders would just disappear?
Right? Well, I remember two specific things you told me when we met, which I would now like to ask follow-up questions on nearly two decades later.
Well, at the time, I had recently become aware of the coded letter towards the end of House of Leaves, and I asked you if there were any other hidden, easter egg-style things in there that you could point me towards. You said, "If you really want to get to the heart of this novel, you need a protractor and a compass."
Were you just fucking with me, or did that actually mean something?
That's an interesting question. I'm trying to remember the frame of mind I was in 18 years ago. I guess the thing is, the book is so much about measurements, and how we negotiate spaces between each other. It sounds like I was being glib, but I think it was also in reference to that. It's about how we measure ourselves against the world, and how we measure ourselves within ourselves and the relationships between one another. So, it's a legitimate answer, but I also think I was being a little glib.
I accept this answer. It's fine. It's not like I spent weeks obsessing over protractors and compasses or anything.
Boy, was I a dick, huh?
Haha, no, no, this is a fair answer.
Well, I'll say this: one of the things I like is the circularity of it. This would've been in 2001, I suppose, because House of Leaves came out in the Leap year of 2000. I had already started work on Only Revolutions, so my intention towards circles was heightening, I suppose. That really helped birth that book, in a way. I think that's probably the most accurate answer, now that I think of it. Even though we were talking about House of Leaves, I was already immersing myself in the circularities and possibilites of Only Revolutions.
The other thing I asked was about the possibility of House of Leaves becoming a movie, or being adapted. You told me there'd definitely been interest, but you had no desire to see the novel translated for the screen. We're talking today because you've written the pilot for a House of Leaves TV series, so I guess I'm wondering: why did you feel that way then, and what's changed in the time since we last spoke?
Great question. That was a position that didn't change for nearly 20 years, and to be fair, I honestly don't know how much has changed. The thing I've always said is, "If you wanna see the movie, read the book." But the culture has radically changed. We were talking about a movie, something two-hours long. But once television shows began exploring episodes more as chapters than self-contained dramatic moments, it did open up to a new world and new possibilities. But again, to be fair, that's long been my mindset.
Then I went to the Phillipines on a literary conference, and at that time I was starting to get a sense that The Familiar would be paused after volume five, so there was a kind of openness then. It was wonderful that I got to go to Manila - even though Manila can be somewhat dangerous - but I was living this momentary sort of ex-pat lifestyle in this hotel, sitting by myself in an elaborate, empty rooftop restaurant having my breakfast and reading about all the violence that was going on in the country. And I was thinking about what would happen next, and then, quite serendipitously, this production company reached out to me about House of Leaves becoming a series. What would that look like, what shape would it take, and so on. So, I took a meeting.
I'm not gonna tell you who they were, but they were great guys! Very successful, a great team of people. I have to credit them for moving me in that direction. Unfortunately, the big streaming company that was involved was too resistant to giving up...let's say certain controls, at which point it went south. But during that period, I had finished volume six [of The Familiar] and it became clear I wouldn't be moving on to volume seven, and so - simply as an experiment - I decided to write what would become the pilot for this series. Which you then gave a very nice shout-out to!
All in all, though, it was very satisfying to me. I enjoyed looking at it, figuring out how you'd do it. Would there be a way to honor what I had said to you 18 years ago? I think there is. And at the same time, how forgiving can I be to myself all these years later, married and with a child, having changed my mind?
Well, you're absolutely right that the landscape has changed since then.
I mean, when you and I were talking, did we reflect - even for a moment - on the possibility that the book store we were in wouldn't even exist anymore in 18 years? That it would just disappear? It didn't even occur to us!
But, anyway, on something like this, I would want creative control. I would need to be a fundamental part of such a project. I also see it from a studio's point of view: they're not just gonna hand over tens of millions of dollars to someone who's untested in that industry, y'know? Ultimately, I would have to be paired with a collaborator who'd be esteemed enough within the industry that they'd trust us to wield a production budget of that size. Finding that collaborator is not easy. I mean, who knows if it's even possible?
But I am kind of delighted that there's now a pilot for a television series that doesn't exist, which is actually the most House of Leaves thing possible.
Also keeping with House of Leaves is the new meta layer you add onto the mythology in the very first pages of the script, where we're told that House of Leaves was not, in fact, a work of fiction, but a true story that you tricked the public into believing was made up. You're a character in the script.
Yeah, someone asked me about this. I think they were trying to be flattering, but they said, "You should play yourself!" But for this apparatus to work, I would definitely not be playing myself. I think the whole point is to look at what's really real about this project. It would be appropriately destabilizing if you were to realize the person [the show says] is me were not me, and what does that say about what we're watching?
That was something I really settled on and enjoyed. There's a lot of projects out there now that have ripped off or been influenced by House of Leaves in a way, where it's just empty hallways and the spookiness of changing rooms. But with this [approach] the question is, how do we reach into that deeper subject, that uneasiness of, "Where do our narratives come from?" That's always been at the heart of House of Leaves: which narrator do we believe? Which narrators do we decide are worthwhile? How do we find a narrative that can sustain us in a needful way, one that won't rob us because they're too false to hold up in the world we live in?
That's what the pilot sets up: that the book is wrong, that we actually have another source to examine in terms of those lies. Of course the pilot would be revised and sharpened and whatnot, but the main engine there is that House of Leaves, the novel, is put to the side. That opens up a whole new series of explorations and deviations from the book.
At what point did you come up with that hook?
I think that'd been in my head for years. I knew the biggest problem with [adapting] the novel was probably the fact that whoever might come along [to do it] would feel obliged to the text. I was like, "How can we preserve the text and allow it to live in its own way? How can we examine it from a completely different angle?" The integrity of the novel is built right into its title: House of Leaves. The significance and the impact of that last word will have to be measured out against any shift in media, so if we're gonna do a movie about it, how are we gonna re-address that?
Probably the thing that'd be most fascinating to me on a [House of Leaves] series would be, how could it expand on the concept of books? For instance, we could include the story of that Borders bookstore tour, and Borders going bust, and how books have become increasingly absent in our culture. There are many ways we could address the current cultural climate.
The way you're talking about this reminds me of what they did with the Dark Tower movie, which was intended as a remix of Stephen King's original mythology. That sounded like a clever idea upfront, but turned out to be...well, not the best move. You're selling me on this version of that concept, though.
The possibilities are exciting to me! At the same time, I wouldn't ever walk away from the original material. It would be an opportunity to see how something written in the book would appear when translated onscreen. Like, it gave me chills when I realized that, in [the pilot script], Will Navidson has been filming a scene - the one where he's drinking lemonade on the porch - over and over again. I'm not gonna tell you where that goes.
But still, there was this energy to [the pilot] that's similar to something that close readers of The Familiar might recognize: that there's this kind of coupling of universes from the different books. There are intrusions, like in the way [Zampano's collection of films] are discovered in the pilot. I've come to recognize that, culturally, movies and television are a way to increase people's awareness. I mean, you must have experienced something like this: you write a piece about something, and then months later someone else writes about it like it's brand-new. The way information percolates now is just so odd, and television's sort of a direct line to awareness.
Have you written anything further on this, or have you just written the pilot?
Well, y'know, I'd say I've created sketches of stuff. In fact, just earlier today I was thinking, "What if I just wrote the first season? What if I wrote ten episodes and then sold the remaining nine episodes on some kinda Patreon thing, releasing new episodes every two weeks just for fun?"
It'd still take an enormous amount of effort to write those nine episodes (and I don't honestly know if it'd be worth it), but it does seem fun to explore that idea, right? Like, "Here it is. Here's your television series, except you can't actually watch it. You have to read it."
You mentioned earlier that whatever streaming network you'd taken meetings with was unwilling to give up certain controls. Is this just about you being involved, or was it the challenge of faithfully adapting this material?
I'm up for the challenge. One of the things I've discovered as I've gotten older is how much I enjoy working with other people. As solitary as writing is - and it often demands that you find that solitude - it was a great pleasure working side by side with my sister [on the tour for Haunted]. And The Familiar was a wonderful experience, where I was working alongside a dozen people - engineers, researchers, artists. It was very satisfying working under that kind of pressure. I mean, you can imagine: we released five 800-page volumes in fives years. That was really exciting!
And so, when I met with the people at this production company, I saw that this could be a great team. Obviously there would be a lot of work and a fair amount of bruising, but there'd still be that exciting experience of, "Let's make this happen! Let's coordinate all these things!" Because, y'know, a lot of work goes into a series; it's not just the writing. You have to find a competent director to oversee that pilot and get the tones right, the cast has to be right. So many things can go amiss. To find those actors, to find those talents and then have them be able to align with your schedule in time to bring it all together...it just takes a tremendous amount of work, and that amount of work requires a team. I was up for it.
But what I'm hearing more and more is that these big streaming companies are starting to move towards becoming those awful studios from Barton Fink. They're filled with those ugly moments like, "Trust us, we'll take control of everything!" I'll tell you one detail: some of it was about subsequent production rights. They wanted to be able to do sequels or prequels without my okay. All I was asking in return was that I would have a say, so if I was against the direction they were going in they'd have to change it. And I didn't want to completely take away their right to that: if the series were to spawn something exciting, why not explore it?
But this is a larger question about how these companies are operating. They want to own all the content, and at a certain point they're gonna realize that [some people] aren't gonna be willing to give that up, and then they're going to settle back into where a lot of these movie studios are today, where they're a little bit more respectful of original material.
All of that said, this isn't to say that people aren't calling. And I will probably take some meetings.
I figured that dropping the script online like that was your way of gauging interest from fans, and maybe a way to drum up excitement in front of any networks that might be interested. Which made sense to me; I knew the moment I saw it that I needed to get something up on the site about it, because I knew other fans would be excited. Even then, I was unprepared to the popularity of that post.
Y'know, I'm very grateful for that post and, honestly, it's partially why we're talking right now. There were people that went on to write about it after you, but I thought your version really captured the spirit of it. It was really satisfying, seeing how many people downloaded it via Dropbox. We had over 10,000 downloads, which is not insignificant when you're talking about people downloading something [they have to read]. Lots of people have read it and read it quickly.
What was so pleasing to me was, the people reading it really seemed to understand the direction this would take House of Leaves. It would allow the experience of reading [the script] to become part of the series! From my perspective, you'd have to have a pretty fearless studio and a steady hand to engage that initial sense that you're watching a Ken Burns film or something. If you embrace that, it'd offer you all kinds of different materials that could be used [on the show]. I mean, we could interview you to talk about it!
We could use all kinds of footage and techniques. It'd cross all kinds of historical lines. You've got Zampano's story, but there's also Johnny in the '90s with grunge, but then you'd also have [modern segments] where people are navigating the idea of disinformation and fake news. Again, it's really about how we contsruct narratives out of our present day.
What you're describing is very ambitious. Not easy.
The primary challenge is finding the right collaborator. But I have no doubt that I could write this series, based on the experience I had writing the pilot. The foundation of the pilot is strong, and I could probably write all the episodes myself. But it'd be really cool to have a writer's room!
I forget if it was a comment in response to your post, but I saw someone asking, "What, is there gonna be an entire episode on echoes?" Maybe! Bring it on! Why not a whole episode on echoes? I mean, what would that even look like, if we were to dig into the sound design? It could be terrifiying, it could be informative, it could be present day, it could be past. That would be wonderful.
At this point we're just really looking for that team that you like, that you want to hang out with 24/7 to create something of quality, something of merit. And that ain't no easy feat. But I think all of this is doable.
Have you given any thought to how many seasons a House of Leaves series might run for?
I would imagine it'd be somewhere between three and five seasons, eight to ten episodes apiece.
I won't put you through the paces on this, but do you have actors in mind for these roles?
As fun as it is to think that way, for me it's more about finding the right team to make it work. Someone like [Game of Thrones'] Benioff and Weiss, y'know? Or Vince Gilligan and his team on Breaking Bad. I'd be more concerned about finding people for whom this material is just a burning passion, because you could use complete unknowns if you wanted to. This isn't necessarily a project that's built on a star power, which can be amazing but can also be trouble. It impacts budget, all kinds of things...
Availability's a big thing, yeah! But if you're providing material that's riveting, it shouldn't matter. Think about a great documentary, but turbo-charge it with a reality that takes it beyond the boundaries of what you're watching. It doesn't matter who's playing this character or that historian.
Obviously, casting Navidson and Karen and so on would be very important would be critical because they remain central - then again, everyone has to be great: Johnny and Lude, and everyone - but [more importantly], the Navidson Record has to have a movielike, cinematic quality so that when you move into those sequences you're experiencing that kind of lushness where it's at once seductive and appalling, as the shifts within that family begin to exert themselves, perhaps not only on that house but...on other structures outside the movie. Does that make sense?
Oh, yeah, sure!
(Laughs) That's me trying to tell you things without really telling you what's gonna happen.
I'll take it!
Special thanks to Dreebs Thornhill and Kevin Williams for help putting me in touch with MZD's rep, and a huge thanks to Mark for taking the time to speak with us about this. Stay tuned for more on a potential House of Leaves TV series as further updates roll in.
Header photo by Atelier Z.