Dan Savage’s Adaptation

What’s a nice sex columnist from Seattle doing in a place like Hollywood?

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Dan Savage and I live only eight blocks away from each other, yet on this rainy November day in Seattle, we were talking via Zoom. Though I’ve known the notorious Savage Love sex columnist and podcast host for several decades (he was even my boss at one point when I was the editor in chief of the Stranger, the newspaper he cofounded), we conducted our chat with handlers and time limits under official “studio” capacity as he promoted Spoiler Alert, his screenwriting debut starring Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge, which opened last week.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
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Savage has been flirting with Hollywood for a few years, serving as a producer on documentaries (including the groundbreaking It Gets Better series, which he and his husband, Terry Miller, produced) and The Real O’Neals, a sitcom loosely based on his life that ran for two seasons on ABC. For Spoiler Alert, he collaborated with David Marshall Grant, an actor and a Hollywood vet who has been involved as a producer on Looking, Brothers & Sisters, and other projects. (Grant plays a shrink in the film.)

Based on a memoir by TV critic Michael Ausiello (founding editor in chief of TVLine), the film tells the true and sad and beautiful love story of Ausiello and his boyfriend Kit, whom he marries after 13 years, from their meet-cute to Kit’s tragic death from cancer. Hence, the book’s title, shortened for the marquee: Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words.

For Savage, who has written with humor and sensitivity about his own life in his column and in books like The Kid: (What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant) An Adoption Story, adapting Ausiello’s story presented new challenges.

“It’s his story and the story of his husband’s excruciating death. And it’s a very funny book. We had a lot of phone calls where we had to talk about these people, ‘Michael’ and ‘Kit,’ with Michael Ausiello on the phone. And we had to talk about him in the third person as if he wasn’t on the phone with us,” Savage says. “At first, that felt like a minefield that we had to tiptoe through, wanting to be considerate of Michael Ausiello. Ausiello was so game, and eventually we were able to, like, stomp through that minefield. It turned out it wasn’t a minefield at all.”

Also alien to a writer and an editor used to no-BS newsroom culture: the collaborative nature of screenwriting and Hollywood’s notorious feedback system. Cowriting with Grant was more familiar, Savage says. They could go back and forth without mincing words, writing scenes and trading off the rewriting. But the layers of studio notes are not something most writers—especially the ones who usually work alone and have columns with their names in them—are used to.

“Hollywood is very much a compliment-based economy. I find that very…” Savage pauses. “Disorienting,” he says with an eyebrow raised.

“Somebody will be giving you an elaborate compliment and you’ll realize halfway through the compliment that it’s a ‘note’ and there’s a criticism in there. Criticizing something is like giving a dog a pill—you have to wrap it in cheese to get the dog to swallow it.” And if anyone has read Savage give advice over the decades, they know he never sugarcoats his. “I’m, like, ‘Just tell me it’s bad! Just tell me!’ And I’ve gotten in trouble working on some things and by sharing my unvarnished opinions.”

Writing an adaptation presents other challenges, including rearranging the narrative to present as much of the original story without losing the important parts. “A book is like a road trip,” Savage says. “And a film is a flight.”

Spoiler Alert is a two-hour flight through every emotion. Like the book, the film is moving, funny, and super gay, as well as a four-hankie tearjerker. Though many of the quips are drawn from the source material, there are a few firmly Savage-esque touches, should you look, including a joke about “being a top” that Savage is quite proud of getting, ahem, inserted into a mainstream Hollywood film.

“That’s what’s so beautiful about this movie: a joke like that just acknowledges gay sex. It shows the sense of humor gay men have about gay sex and sex roles and what it means to be active or passive, penetrated or not penetrated. All of that informs that moment, that joke, that relationship, Michael’s identity, his understanding of himself. And Jim Parsons just f---ing lands it.”

More than 30 years after Savage started his sex column and began promoting LGBTQ visibility, gay relationships are finally being centered in Hollywood movies. Spoiler Alert follows Billy Eichner’s rom-com, Bros, and this past summer’s Fire Island. With so much mainstream presence for gays and lesbians, it’s disconcerting to speak to Savage the weekend after the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs.

“Sometimes the pace of change, you take it for granted and you have to step back and say, ‘Damn!’” Savage points out that the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, and the secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, are both out gay men with kids. Savage also notes that the Q patrons fought back and subdued the shooter and were rightly praised by the police for it.

“We’ve come a long way,” he says. “We have a long way to go. But I don’t think we can point to things like the Club Q shooting or the Pulse shooting and say we haven’t made any progress. I’m not going to give that to the haters. I’m not going to give them the gift of my despair.”•

Tricia Romano is a writer based in Seattle.
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