John Estes
Stephan Lee
August 24, 2011 AT 04:51 PM EDT

For his feature debut, director-screenwriter Dan Rush built Everything Must Go around the central concept of Raymond Carver’s 1977 story “Why Don’t You Dance.” But Carver’s story, as Rush puts it, is “pretty dang short,” so he had to make some bold creative choices to beef up the narrative. (Some other notable Carver adaptations: Robert Altman’s Shortcuts and Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne). It’s a bold choice, generally, for any filmmaker to adapt Carver’s work. His stories typically center on disaffected, working class individuals in a gray-skied America; he writes with economical prose (kept even snappier with the help of editor Gordon Lish), and his characters rarely say what they mean. Rush spoke to me about the tall task of creating a cinematic arc out of a very short Carver story, and his decision to cast Will Ferrell in the main role of Nick Halsey. Everything Must Go is available on DVD Sept. 6.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the idea to adapt this particular story by Raymond Carver? It wouldn’t appear to lend itself well cinematically, at least at first.

I was trying to find something to adapt, and a college friend of mine told me to revisit Carver. So I started reading Carver again, and I read “Why Don’t You Dance?” in particular. I just thought that there was a really amazing visual that explained a lot right away: The idea of a guy living outside but living as if he were inside. He clearly made a choice that was against the norms of society, and it was this kind of reverse Rear Window effect. Right away, I started thinking how he became conflicted enough to make this choice. That developed the pre-story, and then once I figured that out, I thought about how this character would move on from this situation. The movie developed out of the initial image, which was a marker that I could put in the ground and work backwards and forwards from. It was a really interesting, inexpensive location to set a movie where I wasn’t going to have to deal with a massive scale.

Did you take efforts to preserve some of Carver’s hallmarks — like the really naturalistic, mundane dialogue, the working class characters, the subtle humor that you could almost miss if you don’t read it out loud …

It’s humor from pain, I would say. Certainly, there’s a theme of alcohol abuse in Carver’s work. That’s something that I think informs this character of Nick Halsey—that was always going to be one of the components. Also, I love how with Carver often not saying anything says a lot. I’m a big believer in nonverbal acting. I remember in “Why Don’t You Dance?”, there’s a line, the only reference to a wife: “nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.” That line says so much. I don’t think a lot of his characters are oversharers until they’ve had alcohol. There’s a pride to them, and for me, Carver’s characters are always striving to make a change. “Victory,” for instance, may not be about actual victory, but it’s about the intention. Which I think is tricky from a cinematic standpoint, you know? Because there was never a clear catharsis, I think, in his stories. But I think they’re about people  trying to make a better life for themselves.

The story is extremely short, so obviously you knew you were going to have to invent a lot. What went into that?

I wanted to build a group of characters who were all flawed in some way, shape, or form, and hopefully by talking to other strangers and other people with flaws, could move through their problems or at least talk about them. It was a little bit of a Wizard of Oz-type journey in which each person is missing something and hopefully somebody else can help them at least talk about it. I wanted to tell a story about real, flawed characters—not irredeemable characters.

Did you picture Will Ferrell in the leading role when you were reading the story in the beginning?

[Laughs] It’s weird because when I was writing the movie, I was sharing my office with a celebrity photographer. He put some of his favorite images on a bulletin board. As I would take my breaks, I would look over at this wall, and I would see actors, and sometimes I would try them on, you know, like a shirt. I would read a scene with dialogue with, let’s say, Dustin Hoffman was reading it or John C. Reilly. Frankly, I didn’t even dream that Will would be interested in something like this. When my producers and his team said that he would be interested, I kind of went back and reread the script with him in mind, and I thought, “This is really, really interesting.” Based upon his other work, I had a strong feeling that he could do it. Will has an inherent sympathy that could leaven the situation, and he has so much commitment to character. He can get away with doing a lot of bad stuff and still have our sympathy, and to me, that’s what’s interesting, I didn’t want a truly irredeemable character. I don’t like those kinds of characters.

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