Elan Mastai, the man behind The F Word

Award winning novelist and screenwriter on making art a career

For Elan Mastai, ArtSci ’97, inspiration strikes a little differently than for most.
 
This time it’s in an 18th century schoolhouse “in the middle of nowhere.” The Queen’s alum novelist and screenwriter is isolating himself for the week to convert his first novel, All Our Wrong Todays, into a script for a film adaptation. 
 
“Imagine just taking the book and smashing your face against it over and over again until you hallucinate,” he said of this unique process. 
 
But adaptation isn’t the only thing that requires creativity. 
 
For most, finding inspiration involves a willingness to step out of their comfort zone. It doesn’t, however, have to be found in an 18th century schoolhouse, laughed Mastai. 
 
Being involved in the screen writing business since he was 25, Mastai is very familiar with adapting books into scripts. The only difference is that it used to be the books of others.
 
For Mastai, it’s all about “finding out what makes it tick, the basics of the character, the ultimate themes and then making decisions about what you can keep and what you have to reinvent.”
 
His standout work, the 2013 film The F Word, was the first time Mastai worked on a screenplay entirely of his own vision without commercial considerations. 
 
The result was a uniquely down-to-earth romantic comedy with witty dialogue and playful chemistry. The plot centres around the lead character Wallace, played by Daniel Radcliffe, as he tries to navigate his complicated friendship with Chantry, the woman he’s in love with, played by Zoe Kazan.
 
The plotline features well tread ground for a rom-com, Mastai admitted. It was one that he felt could be explored in a more empathetic and authentic way. 
 
“I like romantic comedies, but most of them are just so phony,” he said. “People don’t behave the way people really behave; our romantic lives are already full of comedy and drama just by us behaving like normal people.” 
 
The F Word received critical acclaim and won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Canadian Screen Awards. Ironically, Mastai’s biggest passion project ended up being what broke him into Hollywood. 
 
“In the early stages of my career — and I think this happens to a lot of writers when they’re starting out — I felt like, to succeed, I had to erase my personality,” he said. “But when you find your voice as a writer, you attract more talented people — people who don’t want to subsume your voice, but work it into a harmony.” 
 
Creative freedom has taken Mastai many places exploring many genres — he’s not only written scripts for romance films, but also action, horror, family-friendly and more. Meanwhile, All Our Wrong Todays is sci-fi realism. 
 
When asked his methods on bouncing between genres, Mastai replied, “I’m often writing the same thing. I think of genre as a cracked mirror, and each one is a way for me to explore the themes that fascinate me from a different angle.”
 
While on the surface, The F Word and Mastai’s 2012 crime thriller Fury seem nothing alike, the films share motifs of honesty, deception and emotional connection between strangers.
 
A lot has changed since then, thankfully. “If my work is going to stay vital, I can’t keep writing about stuff that happened to me when I was twenty,” he noted. 
 
But what about when you’re twenty? 
 
“I know that for other film students — or any of the arts, really — it’s very daunting thinking about how the hell you’re going to make a living doing the thing you love,” Mastai said. 
 
However, community can often make the difference.
 
“What’s hard to understand is that the people you meet at Queen’s are the people you’re going to enter the world with. And it’s going to be hard to find your place, but those relationships will be incredibly valuable and fruitful and productive in your career.” 

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