the cut on tuesdays

The Idiot: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

Photo-Illustration: The Cut

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

Sandi Tan, the filmmaker behind last year’s documentary Shirkers (and the subject of a profile by Anna Silman today on the Cut), is at work on a film adaptation of Elif Batuman’s hit novel The Idiot. So on this week’s podcast, we got Sandi and Elif together in the studio to talk about the book, their work, and their plans. But first we heard the story of how they met.

Sandi remembers reading the novel The Idiot and loving it. She wanted to adapt it — even though she knew it would be a challenge. The overture she made to Elif was very true to the spirit of The Idiot, a book full of long, intense emails: She sent her a long, intense email.

Molly: What was your opening line? What was the subject on that email? Do you remember?

Sandi: Meet me at the sundial, or something. Which is a line from the book. Or maybe that was my end line … so I wouldn’t sound too insane.

Molly: You want to sound just insane enough.

Sandi: Just insane enough.

The sundial’s a deep cut from The Idiot — it’s the kind of detail you drop if you want to prove how closely you’re paying attention. So Sandi sent off a three-page, single-spaced email to Elif Batuman.

Elif: I got an email from Sandi’s company forwarding this letter that she’d written that was three pages long, and at the end of it she was like, “Also just watch my movie, and if you hate it, let’s just pretend that none of this ever happened.”

Sandi: I really was very thorough, because I didn’t want her to say no. So I didn’t give her a chance to … if she said no, she would seem very churlish.

Molly: So you felt confident.

Sandi: Well, yeah. I mean, because I knew that if she saw my film… I mean, the main thing was to make her see my film.

It worked. When Elif watched Shirkers, she saw a teenager who was just as serious and ambitious as she’d been — and someone who was now just as serious about reexamining her own past.

Elif: It was really watching Shirkers that convinced me. I just felt so much affinity for 19-year-old Sandi and her whole situation, and the clips of the original movie, they were more sophisticated than my sensibility at that time but so attuned to it. It just felt very miraculous.

I was watching Shirkers, and it was just about this older guy who saw it in Sandi and her friends — this energy that young women have that’s just this wild energy — and he sort of took advantage of that and then couldn’t deal with it and just absconded with it, and Sandi just got it back now.

Although in my case, nobody ran away with anything or took anything — it was all me — but I also feel that I lost some number of years.

Sandi: Bizarrely enough, it didn’t occur to me that that was the link. That was the connection between Shirkers and this. Why I was in love with The Idiot was that it was a book written by a person looking back on something she did when she was 18 — Shirkers is me looking back on something I did when I was 18. It never occurred to me until I was writing to her. Like, oh, ok! This is it.

So she wrote back, and it was like the most exuberant reply one could have. It was the most giving reply. It was longer than my email to her, which was very long.

To hear Elif and Sandi talk about writing, movies, #MeToo, and what they were like as teenagers, click above, and subscribe wherever you listen.

The Idiot: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You