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When Rumaan Alam released his third novel, Leave the World Behind, the world was six months into a deeply traumatizing — and claustrophobic — pandemic. The book opens on a white family vacationing at a rural Long Island Airbnb as the Black family who owns the home knocks at the door asking for refuge from a citywide blackout back in Manhattan, and deftly transitions between a provocative exploration of race and class into a new kind of disaster tale. As the two families navigate the politics within their four walls, the world outside is slowly nearing apocalypse; that blackout turns out to be much more serious. The book’s prescience struck a chord with audiences and critics, but months before its release its success was cemented further by Sam Esmail and Netflix, who scooped up the rights for a reported seven-figure sum.
Now, three years later, the final form of the thriller will premiere as the opening night film at AFI Fest. Its stars — Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke play the vacationers, Mahershala Ali and Myha’la are the father-daughter pair who own the place, and Ethan Hawke pops in to play a neighboring doomsday prepper — will be sitting out the big night due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, but Esmail (who is a graduate of the AFI Conservatory) and Alam will represent. The author joined THR via Zoom from his Brooklyn home ahead of his travels west to reflect back on his book’s success and tease what little he can about the big screen version.
Now that we’re a couple of years out from the October 2020 release of the book, what still sits with you the most about the experience, and the reception of the book?
The book was published during a really tough moment for of us. So to find a readership at all, is so gratifying, and I’m still really touched by it. When you write the book, there’s always some remove from its reception — you’re not in the room with the reader. It’s sort of a one-way transaction. There are a lot of books that I love, and I’ve never told those writers that I love them. I just read Underworld by Don DeLillo, and it’s so rare to read a book that makes you want to reorder your lifetime top 10 list. That’s one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure I’d want to talk to (DeLillo) about it. But I have still been aware that (Leave the World Behind) has connected with readers and I’m really grateful for that.
Do you remember a moment, especially in comparison to the pre-publication process of your previous books, where the fact that this was going to be quite big came into clarity?
I think it was probably when I talked to Sam Esmail. He was one of the first readers — outside of my agent, or Ecco’s editors and publicists — that I talked with, and that conversation made me realize that the book really worked in a way I hadn’t quite seen before. It made me realize that maybe there would be an audience. But we as authors are also very good at reminding ourselves not to get delusional about things, so afterwards I just went back to work writing and back to managing my kids’ homeschool.
What do you remember most about that first conversation with Sam?
It’s a day that lives very vibrantly in my head, because my husband is a photographer and he had a story about a holiday collection that he shot in our home — it was June 2020 and unbelievably hot in New York and my children and I were wearing our winter clothes and coasts. The conversation was very similar to the kind that I have with my friends and colleagues, where we’re talking to each other about what the work made us think of. It wasn’t about Sam walking me through what his version of the adaptation would be, because of course he hadn’t written it at that point, it was just what we were interested in artistically. I’m pretty sure we talked about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, because the way that play (and film) works is you begin by watching something that these four people are doing and by the end you feel like you’re in the room with them. You’re kind of tipsy, you’ve lost control, and you’re sort of trapped with these poor people. That was what I wanted to accomplish on the page.
When you first read the script, what stood out to you the most — in particular, what felt most different than the book version?
My impression at first was that Sam had planted more firm suggestions about the disaster that was happening, but then when I watched the film I realized what he was doing was adapting a technique that the film also uses. The book does say this thing is happening and this thing is happening, and it declines to fit them all together into one explanation. There’s no actual explanation offered in either version. The difference is that I have access to the ability to tease the reader in a different way than Sam is able to tease the audience.
Do you think there was any inclination to offer a slightly less ambiguous ending than what was in the book? I often think that ambiguity feels more frustrating onscreen than it does when reading, but I could be wrong.
I think it was a tricky balance for Sam. When I watch the movie, I see a work that is aiming to leave its audience the same way that my book left its readers, but the conventions of the form are just different. The two feel really intertwined to me and the adaptation feels very faithful to what I was trying to accomplish.
In observing this process, do you feel any pull to write a screenplay yourself?
That’s a tall order. (Laughs) Sam’s script is so good that I can’t imagine thinking that I’m going to write something like that. I am interested in other forms, and in fact I was trying to write a play earlier this year. I don’t really know where I’m at with that — but I feel deeply committed to the novel as a form.
What can you tell us about going to set during production?
It was a personal and career highlight. The actors were so warm and kind, especially to my kids. We are actually in one of the scenes that I went to set for — the scene shot at the beach where the principal are walking through the 1950s bathhouse. And the second day I went was when they were shooting Julia and Ethan’s family lying in bed together while the daughter is telling a story.
I didn’t know you were extras!
Listen, my kids are going to be furious if you don’t call out that their beautiful faces are in that scene. (Laughs) I’m torn about showing them the movie, because it is not a movie for children, but they’re really eager about seeing their moment of fame. Most kids don’t care about what their parents do, and I don’t need them to care about what I do, but it was meaningful to me that they saw all this. At some point it will become clear to them just how unusual it is that Julia Roberts said hello to them.
I remember when you first spoke about this movie coming together, saying that it was so wild to be in meetings where people mentioned Julia Roberts so casually — you said, everyone’s talking about her like she’s our friend Julia.
It’s absolutely wild and I hope I never get to a point where I don’t think that’s wild. She’s one of the absolute best at what she does. There is a very deep relationship between me and the fake people I wrote in this book, and to have her interpret that for this vast audience — it’s crazy.
Leave the World Behind is the first feature to come out of the Obama’s Higher Ground production company; did you get to meet them?
I haven’t met them. I still can’t believe that my book was on his year-end list. It’s one of the most momentous experiences a writer can have. He’s considered the bookseller-in-chief so of course there is a commercial opportunity in it, but he is a very discerning reader and to be counted among the level of taste that he brings to those lists is really meaningful.