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After 35 Years and 135 Rejections, My Novel's a Movie at TIFF

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Tim Sandlin is the author of the novel Sex and Sunsets. The film The Right Kind of Wrong -- which screens Thursday, Sept. 12 at TIFF 2013 -- was adapted from Sandlin's work. The Right Kind of Wrong was directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, produced by Robert Lantos, and stars Ryan Kwanten. Megan Martin wrote the screenplay.

I started writing Sex and Sunsets 35 years ago when I was living in a backpacker tent in the Gros Ventre Mountains because I'd lost my tipi in a divorce. By night, I was washing dishes at Anthony's Italian Restaurant in Jackson, Wyoming. A month after my divorce I discovered you can touch women if you dance Western swing in the Cowboy Bar, so that's what I did for 10 years. The combination of Jim Beam and hour upon hour of aerobic exercise made me one of the healthier drunks in Wyoming.

One night I started a letter to my friend Greg. "The need has come to explain myself. First: I hear voices in running water." Twenty pages in, I realized two things. 1) This was too good to waste on a guy who wouldn't write back, and 2) I'd found my voice.

Washing dishes is the best job possible for a novelist. Philip Roth should try it. You keep moving, which keeps your mind moving, but you don't have to think about what you are doing. You are left alone to daydream. I made up conversations, then huddled over my yellow legal pad to get them down quickly before they evaporated. I felt just like Little Richard, slinging plates, flipping glasses, singing to the roaring rhythm of my Hobart. (Good Golly Miss Molly," "Sally Had a Party," and "Tutti Frutti" -- all tributes to waitresses.)

Of course, Little Richard wore make-up when he washed dishes. I wasn't that weird.

The first draft was more or less nonfiction. The divorce backstory was semi-true. The ongoing action of chasing Colette fell in the line of autobiographical fantasy. If you have a problem, write 100,000 words about it. You'll be so concerned with how to move a character across a room, the problem will be long gone.

Through nine drafts, the character of Kelly -- Leo, in the movie -- stayed basically me. In fact, when they brought me to the set, the director (Jeremiah S. Chechik) told the star (Ryan Kwanten), "This is you in 30 years." I thought, "Sure, I looked like that 30 years ago." From his face, I assume Ryan Kwanten thought, "Over my dead body."

The model for the character of Colette evolved, depending on what waitress I was smitten by at the time. To this day, there are four women claiming to be Colette. The ex-wife, Danny, Danny's father, and various characters left out of the movie are all fairly real. A couple of characters put in the movie but left out of the book are also awfully close to people from my past. I don't know how screenwriter Megan Martin did that.

Seven years and 135 rejections later, the novel was published. People magazine called me, "The Lone Ranger on Thorazine." I took that as a compliment.

The novel was optioned as a movie. The option ran out, and it was optioned again, and again. Option checks arrived for 25 years, and, as political correctness took over the arts, my story of romantic pursuit of the woman you love warped into a stalking book. (Imagine trying to finance The Graduate today.) I gave up on it being made. Then Robert Lantos, Jeremiah Chechik, and Megan Martin cracked the code.

Last October Robert flew me to Canmore, Alberta, and I hung out on the set, watching them shoot a scene I may or may not have written 30 years ago, but I certainly lived it.

Here is the coolest part of the process, from campfire to Canmore: I looked around and it hit me like a rock to the head that this thing that had sprung from my brain was now providing jobs for hundreds of people. My dishmachine daydream was real.

Imagine that.

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