Living ‘The Motel Life’

After a decade spent fronting the Portland-based band Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin published his first novel, The Motel Life, in 2007. Vlautin was 40 years old and had been writing since he was a teenager—songs and short stories as well as various unpublished novels—and The Motel Life happened almost by luck. But it was an auspicious, emotionally charged debut, a novel of heart-wrenching pathos and humanity.

The story follows two brothers, Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, marginalized souls with day-laborer jobs and no safety net. They struggle to escape the dead weight of their lives in Reno, Nev. after one is involved a tragic hit-and-run accident.

At the time I wrote 

Vlautin is a true literary talent, and The Motel Life is a wonderful discovery. His success is a suitably morbid reminder that there’s nothing so tragic as wasted potential. This is what fills the story of The Motel Life: unfulfilled promise, misplaced integrity, and plain-old bad decisions.

Vlautin sold the film rights to the book almost immediately to a Mexican filmmaker named Guillermo Arriaga. Arriaga labored over the story and eventually gave up on the film, at which point a pair of young brothers, Alan and Gabe Polsky, took over. The Motel Life became their directorial debut.

In its raw, heart-wrenching purity of narrative and characterization, the movie is the novel’s equal. The cast is stellar and appropriately subdued: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferon and Dakota Fanning. It premieres in Seattle at Grand Illusion on Friday.

I spoke on the phone with Vlautin about the film version of his novel, meeting Kris Kristofferson and what the future holds.

I remember you telling me about the film version of the novel when we spoke back in 2007 so I was excited to see it finally coming out. What was your involvement in that process?

Willy Vlautin I didn’t have anything to do with the making of it. So you don’t really know what’s going on. I’m just out of the picture. And the Polsky brothers, they called me every once and while and let me read the script and I showed them around Reno and give ’em my thoughts on it. And I was grateful they were so loyal to the book and shot it in Reno and at a lot of the places in the book—my favorite restaurant and bar and the casino that I used to hang out in.

I was impressed at how faithful it was to the book.

It was lucky because I know there’s a lot of states that are easier to make movies in than Nevada. One reason I wanted to sell it to [the Polsky brothers] is because they said they’d make it in Reno. I had no idea they’d be so loyal to the book. And they really tried to be authentic and make it a Reno story.

Who else was involved?

Noah Hapster is the main guy in the screenwriting team. He’d written a screenplay for The Motel Life on spec and gave it to the brothers and I think they identified with the brothers in the story to the point where they decided to make the movie. The ball started rolling from there. Obviously I’m a novice at all this, but there’s so many moving parts that it’s a miracle that anything gets accomplished, especially such a small story as The Motel Life.

I wouldn’t call the story small. Maybe intimate, but there’s such a deep well of emotion in it. I was struck at how similar the feeling I got from the movie was to the feeling I got from the book. A sense of heartbreak, and hope, and then a mix of both heartbreak and hope that’s kinda profound. The final scene between the brothers especially got to me. It was done so well in the film—both actors really nail it. 

There’s certain scenes for me as well—that being one of them. Certain scenes really struck me that I wasn’t ready for, small scenes with Emile Hirsch’s character where he woke up in his room—it’s pretty much the same room I was living in back in Reno and the same long johns I wore. Things like that really threw me for a loop. And their portrayal of how the brothers drank and the culture they were involved in, it felt pretty real to me. And I worry about that. With working-class stories you want it to feel authentic and real and a lot of time movies don’t feel like that. But this one does, it feels like Reno in the ’90s. In general the movie has a few dents or problems, I don’t know, but it has a good heart. It knows what it wants to be and is successful at it.

The Motel Life is about lost people, set into the wind to themselves, the dog in the story, and the brothers, the kid they hit, all the characters are by themselves and lost. Sometimes you run into a brick wall that way. It’s hard to make something of yourself when you’re left alone and have no real support or anchor.

How’d you feel when you heard Kris Kristofferson was on-board?

He was there for two days and the let me watch his scenes because they knew I was a big fan. That meant a lot to me. I only met him briefly. What’s a guy like me gonna say to a legend like that? I just eavesdropped on him all day and he seemed like the coolest, most humble guy.

The only thing I’ve ever learned is you can’t trust anything. It’s so difficult to get a movie made that everybody is trying so hard to be positive, but the reality is it’s really difficult for anything to get made. So many moving parts. When they said they had Kris Kristofferson, it’s like winning the lottery and you wanna make sure the ticket cashes before you start telling people you made a million bucks. I’ve learned in this way of living, writing novels and being in a band, work hard and be pessimistic and assume nothing good’s gonna happen. I figured Kris Kristofferson would get a flat tire on his way to the set and couldn’t make it.

He was there at the premiere in LA a little while ago and the Polsky brothers sent an email saying he liked the movie and was proud to be in it. What a lucky break.

You think you’ll get into screenwriting now?

No, Jesus no. I love the novel. I don’t think I’m savvy enough to navigate the movie world. You could spend years writing stuff that never gets made. I’m a huge fan of movies, but I’m just gonna hide out in my little room and write novels and keep it at that.

Vlautin’s next novel, The Free, will be published by Penguin Faber in February.