Sandi Tan to Direct ‘The Idiot’ Adaptation, Described as ‘Twilight’ Meets ‘Phantom Thread’

Sandi Tan isn’t wasting any more time. After charming audiences with last year’s documentary gem and Indie Spirit nominee “Shirkers” — which chronicled the filmmaker’s wild early years making a film when she was just a plucky teen bouncing around Singapore, only for the entire thing to be stolen by her would-be mentor — Tan is lining up her next big feature, and it sounds like one heck of a clever fit.

In a new interview with The Cut, Tan shares her plans to tell another story about a smart woman waylaid by a devious man, as originally told in ways that seem, well, just a bit unfilmable. Tan will soon tackle her own version of Elif Batuman’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Idiot,” jumping to the narrative realm with her own screenplay, which she will direct for the big screen.

While “Shirkers” was about piecing together a years-old story that literally hinged on missing material, seeing Tan revisiting the key spots of her youth while also trying to find the long-stolen footage of her first film, Batuman’s autobiographical novel offers its own challenges. “I read it and I was like, I love it so much, but I don’t know how to do it,” Tan told the outlet, adding that she then read it again and realized she had a way into making it into a film, adding, “I was like, Oh my God, I have to do it. I know how to do it. I know how to do it!”

A bildungsroman offering told in epistolary style (mainly through emails, it is a modern story, after all), the 2017 autofiction novel follows Harvard student Selin as she embarks on an ill-advised romance with fellow student Ivan. Selin is the idiot of the title, and as she follows Ivan back to his native Hungary, it becomes achingly clear why that’s the case.

Tan has already conjured up some intriguing comparisons for her adaptation, noting that “the book’s basically the intelligent, creative young woman’s ‘Twilight.’ … It’s about this woman who is head smart and heart stupid — that’s why she’s the idiot. And she’s being sucked into this vortex of obsession by this guy, and by the end of it she gets destroyed. But instead of turning into a vampire, she turns into an artist.”

The filmmaker also told The Cut she’s picturing her film as “Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ told from a female point of view” and “the teenage version” of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.” Other films she’s looking to for inspiration: “Call Me By Your Name” for its “bucolic” setting and “Lady Bird” for its treatment of women finding their way.

Tan already has one big fan: Batuman, who told The Cut how much she loved “Shirkers” the first time she saw it, and instantly saw the connection between her novel and Tan’s film. “It blew me away,” Batuman told the outlet. “’Shirkers’ seemed like a literalization of something that I had experienced metaphorically. Selin follows Ivan to Hungary, and then he sort of disappears and takes the story with him. I wanted to convey what a horrible feeling that is to feel that someone else has gone off and taken [the story] with them — and how long it takes to recover from it.”

You can read the full interview over on The Cut.

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