Visual Arts — February 18, 2014 11:05 — 2 Comments

An Interview With Caleb Powell

Caleb Powell is a writer, teacher and family man. David Shields, a well-known University of Washington professor, wrote, among others, the acclaimed book Reality Hunger. James Franco is a movie director, movie star and aspiring writer. Together, the three are making a movie based on a book Powell and Shields composed over arguments about art, family and their individual philosophies – the title of which is I Think You’re Totally Wrong. We caught up with Powell to talk about his relationship with Shields, the book, their movie and more!


Jake Uitti: In an interview about the movie, David Shields says, “James (Franco) pushed us very hard to explore incredibly difficult and fraught emotional territory.” Do you agree? What did this look like?

Caleb Powell: No. Anything Shields says is wrong. Seriously though, James pushed us hard, and had us change directions. And the result produced nakedness and that “exploration” of emotion. It was a good directorial move.

JU: Can you elaborate on this idea of nakedness? Or exploration of emotion? How did Franco go about doing this?

CP: It concerns revealing secrets, certain betrayals, and what sacrifices an artist would make for life and vice versa. Would you betray a wife, family, friend, editor, important business acquaintance, if it would help promote your art and career? Specifically, David and I, in writing the original book, came to agree that some of the secrets we shared should better be left out of the book. I felt to reveal them would enter Jerry Springer territory and even cheapen the book. But some secrets came out on camera, this created tension, but Franco wanted, even demanded, that we discuss these secrets on camera to create better art, to generate the discussion on this life/art dynamic. It worked in a strange way.

JU: How is the book different from the movie – you didn’t reenact the book did you?

CP: The book and movie overlap. First, the book: in September of 2011 David and I went into the Cascade Mountains and stayed at a friend of mine’s mountain home. We recorded everything and spent the next year transcribing hundreds of thousands of words into a sixty-thousand-word book. We filmed the movie outside Los Angeles at Lake Arrowhead in December of 2013. There was no point in pretending we were in Washington State in 2011, and this was one big difference.

David and I wrote a screenplay and prepared as best we could. James Franco gave us some direction, but also a lot of freedom, and it was a good mix. In preparing we knew we’d improv a lot. In the film we’d talk about things from the book, sacrifices artists make in life, our marriages and families, abstract art verses nature, atrocity porn, artistic jealousy, and we recreated these debates in the movie, using the screenplay as a guide, and would veer into new territory.

Many things had to be omitted. In the book David meets my entire family, wife, kids, and parents; my wife has a hilarious line in the book, for example, but it’s not in the movie. And there are scenes with people we met while hiking, dirt bikers, a couple chopping wood by their cabin, or us dining at a local small town café, that aren’t in the movie.

Another contrast, we were actively aware of making a book as we hike in the Cascades; say, and when we’re in Lake Arrowhead we’re conscious we’re making a movie. So, it’s a movie about a movie being made from a book.

JU: Are you interested – a fan, even – of Shields’ recent works, this untraditional way to compose a book? Or did he steal the idea from you??

CP: If I didn’t like and respect his writing I don’t think this project would have worked. I took three writing classes from him at the U.W. from 1988 to 1991, and interviewed him various times, we had a couple debates on Reality Hunger, and so my interest in Shields’ early and recent works functioned as a catalyst and a springboard for our book.

The idea was his, an argument about art and life in interview format, with the interviewer and interviewee switching roles.

JU: Did the book/movie become a “satisfying X factor to life” in the end?

CP: You bet. Part of the X factor we talk about is to not just tell stories or go on a soapbox, but have a purpose, whether in art of life.

JU: Do you lean more toward agreeing with Shields’ quote, “writing a book is as much an experience as falling in love”?

CP: Yes. Different than falling in love, but it takes similar commitment and passion.

JU: Who edited the book? How did you decide on that person?

CP: We both did. First it had to be transcribed. After we came back from the Cascades he was busy teaching and revising How Literature Saved My Life for publication, and thus I had it to myself. Over the next six months I transcribed it, trimmed it from three hundred thousand words to about a hundred thousand. Then sent it to David, and, as he likes to say, he “edited the fuck” out of it, to about seventy thousand words. At this point we just ping-ponged, and every now and then met and marked up a hard copy, always exchanging emails, this went on back and forth, until it was ready to submit, and now we’re waiting for our editor and final edits.

JU: Now that some time has passed, are there any parts from the book you wish you handled differently?

CP: Well, nothing major. There are a couple scenes I’d like to see in, and he wouldn’t, and vice versa. But for the most part we’re satisfied with the final result.

JU: What is still important about privacy?

CP: In context, an artist gives up some privacy, especially a writer. But it’s not that privacy is more or less important to a writer than a high school teacher or a carpenter, it’s just that writers have a different relationship to the private and public.

JU: When is the movie due out? How can people get copies of the book?

CP: If all goes well, Sundance in 2015, and the book, which originally was going to come out this September, has been pushed back to a release date in January, 2015.


Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.


  1. Nicole Hardina says:

    Nice interview! What’s the name of the book/movie, by the way?

  2. uitti says:

    Oh yeah, it’s ‘I Think You’re Totally Wrong’

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