TCR Talks with Max Gee, Screenwriter of Standing Woman

By Shelbi Glover

Adaptations are a daunting specter for a screenwriter. When done well, a film adaptation can cement itself as equally important as its literary counterpart; The Godfather, No Country for Old Men, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rashomon all come to mind. Then there are the adaptations that, for one reason or another, sour on screen and eventually fade into obscurity.

But Max Gee, a UC Riverside-Palm Desert alum, rose to the challenge with her recent short film, Standing Woman. Based on Yasutaka Tsutsui’s short story by the same name, Standing Woman is the harrowing and heartbreaking tale of a not-so-distant future—in which criminals and immigrants are punished by being turned into trees—and of a love that perseveres despite this dire consequence. 

Gee took great care in making sure it was a satisfying leap from page to screen—for both audience and author. TCR had the opportunity to ask her how she did it.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: You started at UCR as a fiction major then later changed to screenwriting. Was there a pivotal moment that inspired you to make that change?

MAX GEE: I had always enjoyed film and television, but before the MFA, I had never read a screenplay, so I didn’t know how they were formatted or how they worked. I had read a lot of novels, short stories, and plays, so I knew how to put together stories in those formats, but I didn’t know how to access screenplays. So I wrote a lot of prose growing up, and that’s what I had available to submit as a sample, which is why I started as a fiction major. I do still enjoy prose fiction. Being able to try out different formats was something that had really attracted me to UCR Palm Desert as an MFA program. I think it was in my second quarter; I took a screenwriting class where something just clicked into place. I realized this is where I wanted to focus. I had some very supportive screenwriting lecturers, especially Stu Krieger, who encouraged me to make that switch, and I haven’t really looked back. I write one piece of prose fiction a year, for an annual ghost story exchange at Christmas with a writer friend, which is to honor a British tradition, but apart from that, I now mostly write for screen and stage.

TCR: Can you explain how Standing Woman came together?

MG: In 2015, I was midway through my PhD, and I received funding through Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science to go to Tokyo to interview Japanese screenwriters about their process. I was based at Waseda University, and obviously one of the first things I did, on receiving my temporary student card, was check out books from the library. One of those books contained the short story by Yasutaka Tsutsui. The story really resonated with me; the concept of turning people into trees was such a strong visual that I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and I wrote a draft of the adaptation in one evening.

After a bit of polishing, once I was back in the UK, I thought Tony [Hipwell, the director] would enjoy it, so I just sent it over to him as something I thought he would get a kick out of reading. I didn’t think we would make it at that point, as I knew I would need to acquire the rights. Tony and I had known each other a while at that point, as we were part of the growing filmmaking community in York and had become good friends. We had always said it would be great to work together, but we had never found a film project that worked . . . until this one.

After that initial decision to make the short film, we were in development for two years before we acquired the rights, which was a major adventure in and of itself and an education in being tenacious. I think I wore the publishing company representative down in the end by sheer willpower and a deluge of emails.

From acquiring the rights, it took almost two more years before we started the shoot. This was due to a lot of factors, including perfecting the script, finding the crew and cast, developing the designs for the tree people, and making the builds. We wanted to do as many practical effects as we could on the short film. And then it was another year in postproduction, not entirely helped by the pandemic. So overall, I think it took five years from inception to finished film. In that time, I finished a PhD and started a job at the other end of the country, and Tony shot a feature and also started a new teaching job.

Standing Woman
A still from the short film Standing Woman. Photo courtesy of Max Gee.

TCR: Even though it was originally written fifty years ago, the story feels incredibly timely. Did modern events inspire you to adapt it?

MG: In 2015, there were a lot of things going on in the world that felt like they resonated with the themes of the short story. With the Brexit referendum and broader British and American politics at the time, as well as rise of authoritarian regimes and public surveillance, it felt not entirely impossible that a government could twist something around sustainability into a means of control. And as I said, this image of streets filled with planted people, slowly transforming into trees, losing their control and their personalities, becoming silent supporters of this regime, was such a powerful one. As was the idea of a writer protagonist, who can no longer write what they want for fear of censorship. I would hate to not be able to write what I wanted because I might get arrested, although this is the reality for some people right now. In the short film, our protagonist became a filmmaker, rather than a writer, as that suited the medium better. Tony and I wanted to draw some parallels with people who made propaganda films during the Second World War, who became victims of those regimes.

TCR: Did you speak with Yasutaka Tsutsui before adapting Standing Woman, and did he have any specific requests or stipulations?

MG: I didn’t actually get to speak directly with Tsutsui-san throughout the process. My correspondence was with the publishing company, Kadokawa. I managed to find someone in their rights division who offered me  the opportunity to write a letter to Tsutsui-san, as the amount we could afford to pay for the rights was very low, like laughably low, compared to what they were used to receiving. That letter had to be in Japanese, so a good friend translated my letter for me. Obviously he approved, although, at the time, it was a very nerve-wracking couple of months as we waited to hear back. Once the script was finalized, it had to be sent to Tsutsui-san for approval. So once again, it had to be translated into Japanese. That was actually a fascinating experience, as I have never thought about my own linguistic choices in such detail as when my friend, Miyuki Kamiya, who was also studying for a PhD at the time, asked me about the intention behind my phrasing to create an accurate translation. Again, Tsutsui-san approved the script, and we could start the preproduction phase in earnest. Once the film was completed, we also created a Japanese-subtitled version for the author.

TCR: The dialogue is very true to the short story, but a few narrative details—such as the film’s stunning ending—are changed. When adapting from story to film, how did you decide what to keep, what to cut, and what to play around with?

MG: I wanted to keep the core of the story, its themes, the undercurrent of nihilism, and the character dynamics. So those were the elements I preserved in the adaptation. But when moving from one medium to another, and in adapting for a new cultural context, things had to shift. In the short story, there is a meandering flow to the events and structure, which is quite Japanese in style, that I altered to fit with the British context of the adaptation and the faster pacing needed for a short film. However, Tony and I wanted to maintain links back with the Japanese source material, so we had Japanese actors and also used a Japanese composer, Sakiko Sakuragi, for the soundtrack.

I knew from the moment I started writing that Tom [the protagonist] would be a filmmaker, rather than a writer, because it was more effective for screen storytelling and allowed a slightly meta level to the film, which is similar in a way to having a writer in a short story. In having Tom be a filmmaker, this allowed us to convey information about the world in a natural and, hopefully, less expositional way. Tony and I really wanted to have that film within the film, Tom’s propaganda video, convey the cynical and satirical nature of the scheme while also being inspired by a lot of the anime we had both seen. I also wanted to give Mari a little more agency at the end of the story. After all, she is the one who is more rebellious and outspoken in the original story; her husband is more passive and tries to match the flow of the government. I thought the wound that she receives in the story, which has some pretty unpleasant connotations about what the men who hurt her might have thought they could do to her, was a vehicle for a final act of rebellion. As she loses her personality and sense of self, she carves the thing that is important to her, the reason she has gotten into the situation in the first place, into her leg as a symbol that will survive. It proves that she hasn’t given in, her rebellious spirit endures.

As for things that I had to cut in the end, there is a great, poignant section about what happens to the protagonist’s dog after it was planted, and discussion of how awful being planted was for the cats, that worked in the story and was in my first drafts of the screenplay, but by the later drafts, it felt too expositional. In the world of the short film, the audience just didn’t need that information. Then when we went into production, that brought other changes to the script. In the earlier drafts of the screenplay, Tom was British/Japanese and his wife was British, but on our budget and with our Northern location, we found it difficult at the time to cast a male British Japanese or Japanese actor. Tony and I did not want to cast an actor of another East Asian ethnicity as a Japanese character. In the end, we found a fantastic female Japanese actor, Yuriri Naka, who we cast as Mari, the wife, and so when casting our male lead, we tried to avoid perpetuating some stereotypes and found the wonderful Anton Thompson.

Image from Standing Woman
A still from the short film Standing Woman. Photo courtesy of Max Gee.

TCR: Did you do any work on set? What was that like?

MG: I wasn’t around for the whole shoot, but I did get to visit for a couple of days. I helped out with the art department, with the very glamorous job of using a hair dryer to dry the paint on the dog-tree’s ass. I was also on set for the day when we shot the interiors of Tom and Mari’s house. Which is when I was cornered by Bethan King, our production designer, and given ten minutes to give the couple a surname and decide on the date Mari is arrested, as it all needed to be printed on the arrest warrant she had designed. Nothing like being on set to think about the consequences of your writing, especially the details that might appear on camera, that hadn’t mattered as much in the screenplay. It’s eye-opening to be around aspects of the production, to see how the screenplay is used by other members of the crew; I think it makes you a stronger writer.

TCR: Standing Woman has screened at over forty film festivals, including BAFTA and BIFA. It lends to a very impressive poster! Is the festival circuit as exciting as it seems?

MG: This is a testament to the talent of everyone who was involved in the production. Their hard work and expertise has gotten the film recognized. But the circuit wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, due to the pandemic. A lot of our early screenings were in online festivals, although I have to [give a] shout out to the virtual environment created by the Fantasia International Film Festival, which was pretty cool. However, as the run went on and things went back to in-person screenings, the experience became more typical. As an introvert, getting out there and promoting the film in person isn’t an aspect I find easiest. But it has been great to meet so many other passionate filmmakers and to be able to see audiences react to the film. When I wrote it, I said I didn’t want a dry eye in the movie theater by the end, and we might not have totally got that, but we got close. I’m just pleased it has resonated with as many people as it has, and now [that] it’s been released on YouTube via Alter, the number of people who can watch it has increased.

TCR: Both Standing Woman and your other recent short, Terminal, deal with themes of government control, surveillance, and risk of dissent. Are these themes you plan to continue pursuing in your future work?

MG: It’s true. I’m like the most law-abiding, rule-following person, but I write about a lot of rebels and the dangers of authoritarian regimes and overabundance of surveillance. I love science fiction and how it allows you to shed a light on what is going on in the world and offer a warning as to how things might develop. Exploring what-if scenarios is something I’m drawn to; I’m not as drawn to showing the here and now, as it is here and now. So I don’t see myself leaving those ideas alone any time soon. Especially with the way the world is going right now.

Image from Standing Woman
A still from the short film Standing Woman. Photo courtesy of Max Gee.

TCR: What screenwriters, or other artists, have influenced your writing the most?

MG: I think the greatest influence on my writing and on stories I like came from novels I read growing up more than specifically screenwriters or filmmakers. I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid, devouring anything I could get my hands on. Then my BA was a joint major in English literature and history, so yeah, novels have had a serious influence on my writing, as those were the worlds I lost myself in during my formative years. Influential writers, in no particular order, are: George Orwell, William Gibson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen, Umberto Eco, H. G. Wells. Hmmm . . . screenwriters is harder. Probably: Hampton Fancher and David Peoples for Blade Runner, Chris Columbus for Young Sherlock Holmes, Diane Thomas for Romancing the Stone, Chris and Jonathan Nolan for Inception and Westworld. And then some filmmakers who I watched a lot of as a child and teenager: Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki.

I’m kinda disliking how it’s nearly all dudes . . . but that’s the way it is.

TCR: Alright—you have an idea for a new script. What does your writing process look like?

MG: I tend to start with a what-if scenario. Then the protagonist comes from that what-if—who would be the best, or worst, character to experience this what-if scenario? And then I am a major planner. I outline the whole plot first, working out the subplots and how the threads all connect. Then alongside the outlining, I also do a lot of world building; I tend to write things set in another world, whether the future, the past, or somewhere totally fantastical, so I need to know a lot about those worlds and how they will affect the lives of the characters. I like my scenes to take place in locations that have extra significance, if I can.

Then I procrastinate a lot, and I take long walks to try out different options, make playlists. Once I get to the actual scriptwriting stage, I like to try and get through a draft in a couple of weeks, aiming for around ten pages a day. So a feature can take two weeks, and you get days off for good behavior. I tend to write in cafes. Then I have trusted readers who give me nice, harsh feedback so I can do the next draft and the next until it feels done . . . if it ever feels done.

TCR: Favorite films of the 2020s so far?

MG: Everything Everywhere All at Once, Belle, Inu-Oh, Promising Young Woman, and Dune.

TCR: You teach screenwriting at Bournemouth University. What’s the piece of advice you give most to your students?

MG: Make sure character actions are motivated by their character, not by the plot. They should do things that reflect their personalities and shifts in personalities, not things the plot requires to happen. It’s something I used to—probably still—do a lot myself. As I also teach production design, maybe that’s had an influence, but I’ve also always been a writer who thinks about location. I’ve told a lot of students to think about where their story is set and where characters come from. Characters are often a product of their location. Also, I tell students to keep a list of things they would like to adapt. This is something I am asked a lot when working in the industry, so it’s good for them to be prepared. But this year, the question I feel I’ve asked the most is, “Why is all the cool stuff in season two?” That’s dangerous because if you are pitching a show, you can’t expect the audience to stick with it for season two—which might never get made—to experience all the fun, exciting aspects.

TCR: What does the future look like for Standing Woman?

MG: Tony and I have talked about ideas for a feature or a miniseries based in the world of Standing Woman. We’d follow different characters and explore more aspects of the environment, but that is still in the early, exciting ideas stage. Of course, we don’t want to work on it too much, as we don’t have the rights for a feature or a TV series . . . yet.

TCR: Are you currently working on anything that you’re really excited about?

MG: These days, I do a lot of writing that is also academic research. So this year I got to write a short screenplay in collaboration with an AI text generator, which was pretty wild as experiences go, but also fun, and it opened up ways of thinking that are different to how I usually process. I hope I get to make that short into a film.

Otherwise, I’m also developing a feature for the world of Terminal and writing a genre mash-up between folk horror and science fiction, which I’m really enjoying.

Shelbi Glover is currently pursuing an MFA in screenwriting through UCR Palm Desert. She recently wrote and directed her first short film, The Viridian Jewel, which will see a festival release in 2023.