Interview: ‘Water For Elephants’ Author Sara Gruen On The Film Adaptation And Her Cameo On Set

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Water for Elephants is a fantastic novel that draws audiences in to the beautiful wonders that the circus has to offer underneath its ragged drapes. It also stays true to the hardship and prejudice that workers used to endure with each traveling performance.

The film adaptation about a veterinary student abandoning his course work to literally join the circus premiered in 2011 and is now being released in DVD and Blu-Ray. The storyline touches on first love and tragedy and over all, really brings to stage the enlightening idea that ‘Life Is The Most Spectacular Show On Earth.’

To get a better look at the Old-Time Circus, I spoke with author Sara Gruen about bringing her research to the big screen, what she thought of Rob Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon taking on its lead roles and what specific scenes she had a cameo in.

Loved this book! Read it in two days. What inspired you to write it?

SARA GRUEN: I was two weeks into another novel and I opened up the Sunday paper and saw a vintage photograph and I was gone at that moment. I looked up from the paper and declared to my husband that this was it! [Laughs] That this is what I was going to do next. It was a vintage photograph from the 1920s and it was black and white obviously but it was by a camera that can produce negatives by 12 and 24 inches so it was with many, many people and just an enormous amount of detail.

Was it a circus photograph?

Yes! It was an Edward J. Kelty photograph.

Where were you the day you found out Water for Elephants was going to be adapted as a film?

I don’t know because auctions happen a lot and 99% of them never turn into film. [Laughs] So I didn’t actually get very excited about that. I mean it was nice because it meant that it was that much closer to possibly opening but I don’t think I really allowed myself to believe it until they actually started shooting it. Like, ‘Wow! That’s great!’

What was it like writing it? How long did it take you and what environments inspired you during the process?

I did a lot of research because I knew nothing about the circus, and especially the Old-Time Circus. So I was in Sarasota, [Florida] a couple of times and Baraboo, Wisconsin at circus archives and the Circus World Museum. I spent a lot of time speaking to retired performers and reading was one of my main things. I was just getting historical texts. I did that for four and a half, five months and then I actually had an eighteen week delay because my horse’s foot–I had to sit outside her stall for nine weeks and nurse her back to health and keep her company. And then she turned around and stepped on my foot and crushed it. [Laughs] It was a bad foot year all around! My foot elevated for nine weeks and I got to the point where I could write. I think I wrote it in seven or eight months in total. I had a few other little interruptions in there so at one point I got so desperate with writer’s block I started painting my room instead of writing and painting the living room orange and using my very best not writing techniques. So I got my husband to put my desk in our walk in closet. I didn’t have wireless at the time so that meant no internet. [Laughs]

That is some ridiculous writer’s block. [Laughs]

I took pictures of the Old-Time Circus and put them up on my wall. I went, ‘Well no internet’ and everywhere I looked there was the circus. All I had with me was my file.

Was there anything that you found in your research that surprised you?

A lot of things surprised me about the circus and I think that was one of the reasons why I was so hooked. The idea that they were firing people by throwing them off the back of moving trains! It was completely lawless. It was an entirely different world within our world.

Did you ever go to the circus when you were younger?

If I did, I have no memory of it. It was truly just based on the photograph. Of course I went to circuses while I was writing the book.

What did you think of the casting of Rob Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon for the Jacob and Marlena roles?

I thought they were fantastic. I was really, really impressed. I had no idea–of course I’ve never been on a movie set before–and I had no idea how hard these people work. Its eighteen hour days, day after day after day and so much concentration. They don’t necessarily shoot the scenes in order so its got to be really, really difficult to do, not to act chronologically, and I think they just did a wonderful job.

Did you have any input on the casting? Were they the look of the characters you had imagined?

It was definitely the look, I wasn’t involved in the casting. I was very lucky–I was able to see the movies sets and my family got to have cameos in the movie.

That’s amazing! What scenes were all of you in?

I’m the easiest to see in it. When Rosie is by the vegetable stand I’m in the crowd looking shocked as she’s led away. One of my sons and my husband are in that scene and all of us are in the parade scene. My husband and I and our oldest son are walking on the sidewalk and our two youngest run out onto the street to walk beside the elephant.

That must have been so amazing for all of you! How many times did you visit the set?

I visited the set twice. First time it was just because they were going to tear the sets down in a few days and [Producer] Andrew Tennenbaum said, ‘Sara’s got to see this.’ So they flew me out to see it and it was just amazing. I mean we drove over in a golf cart filled with berm and I saw the circus and it was so weird because this book had been in my head for so long and suddenly I was standing in the middle of my book! [Laughs] I was really, really glad to see that. And then the next time was when we had our cameos and everyone was there. So I went twice and everyone else in my family went once.

That must have been somewhat emotional to see. Do you have a favorite character that you created? 

It’s hard to say. There are characters that came easier to me and there are characters that I had to work harder for. Old Jacob, Walter and Queenie actually came to me whole and of course I love Rosie! [Laughs]

Was there a specific scene you were most proud of once having completed it?

Nothing I can say without giving away any enormous plot story lines. [Laughs]

That’s true. Definitely don’t want to spoil anything! Well do you have any plans once you get the DVD on its release day?

We’re going to go find us and freeze it on our cameos! [Laughs]

What was it like being in New York for the Ziegfeld Theatre premiere?

It was just surreal. It was amazing. It was just–I don’t even know how to describe it–it was amazing. It was wonderful.

 

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