Australian author Max Barry specializes in eerily prescient corporate satire. Machine Man, his first book since 2006’s Company, was released last month to critical acclaim, and tells the story of a man named Charles Neumann who’s seeking to “upgrade” himself by replacing his body parts with cybernetics. The book has already been optioned by Mandalay pictures, which won’t be the first time Hollywood has come knocking on Barry’s door.
Finally, after a bunch of failed attempts and false starts, one of Barry’s novels will finally see theatrical release. Syrup just wrapped production in New York City, featuring a young Hollywood cast that includes Amber Heard, Shiloh Fernandez, and Kellan Lutz. It tells the story of a young marketing hotshot named Scat (Fernandez) who tries to make it big in the soft drink industry. We spoke with Barry about having his books adapted, the process of screenwriting, and the perfection that is Kellan Lutz.
You were recently in New York on the set of the film adaptation of your book Syrup. How long was the shoot? Syrup was shooting for five weeks, from early June to mid-July, and that was basically because they had the chance to get this actress Amber Heard. They grabbed her and basically based everything around her availability. So, yeah, it’s all wrapped now.
Given all the times people have tried to adapt your books without following through, it’s got to be unbelievable to have seen your book being filmed. It was. I was prepared for it to be partly great and partly terrible, because the idea of somebody taking my words and my characters and then trying to put them together into some different form—there’s a lot of things that can go wrong with that. But, man, it was magic. I thought it was just amazing how there were so many people who were very talented at different things, whether it’s sound or lighting or makeup or whatever, and they all knew exactly what they were doing. It really surprised me as to how much of what was going to end up in the movie was due to all of these other people. I had this writer-centric view of storytelling, where the writing was the center of it and everything else just kind of fit into the writing.
Screenwriting is probably the realm in which the writer is least important. You worked on the screenplay. What was that process like? Well, in publishing, the author is considered to be very important; everyone defers to you, and an author has complete control over every word that goes into the book. With screenwriting, it was really clear that I was basically there to do what people told me, and I had these inane calls with producers, where I’d have a draft for them to read, and they’d say they loved it but they wanted this scene to be in a café instead of a museum, and they wanted a dog in this scene, and the main character should be changed from a man to a woman, and they wouldn’t even say why they wanted me to make these major changes. It was a more positive process once we ended up with new producers and new people, luckily.
Kellan Lutz is playing the Asian character Sneaky Pete, right? That’s a pretty big change. It is. The director called me up—Skyped me up—and said he was thinking of casting a non-Asian actor as Sneaky Pete, and he asked me if I was okay with that. The thing with Kellan Lutz was that they had the opportunity to get him, and he’s a great actor, and it also solved a kind of screenwriting problem. The idea with the Sneaky Pete character in the book is that he’s using a racist stereotype to unease people, to get ahead, and that’s something you’ve got to do right, or otherwise it just comes off as racist.
And were you okay with them casting Kellan? Oh, yeah. I only got to see a little bit of what he does, but he’s an extraordinary human being. I mean, it’s hard to believe he’s quite real. He’s the idealized form of a human, you know? Like, if someone had to invent a human being they would carve Kellan out of stone. When you stand next to someone like that you feel like you’re this kind of poor attempt at a human standing next to the real thing.
What has compelled you as an Australian to almost exclusively write stories that relate to American culture and are set in America? I got into it by accident. I wanted to write a marketing satire, specifically Syrup, and I wanted it to be a big, over-the-top story. It just made sense to me that that kind of story should be set in a big city full of commerce and full of advertising. LA—being the global home of superficiality—was the perfect place for it. Then I got published in the US first, and I found myself in this slightly odd situation where if I wrote a story set in Melbourne, I needed to either take into account the fact that most of my readers were going to be American and not familiar with these places I was referencing and a lot of the language I was using.