Author Stephanie Danler on bringing her best-selling book to the small screen

By Seija Rankin
May 03, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT
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You will develop a palate.

During the summer of 2016, women everywhere cracked open their beach reads and took in those five opening words by the hundreds of thousands. They read on beach blankets, they read on subway cars, they read on planes, they read while holed up in their own dingy New York City apartments, apartments that resembled that of Tess, the protagonist of Sweetbitter, just a little too much. You couldn’t scroll through your Instagram feed without encountering a meticulously staged shot of that infamous broken-wine-glass cover.

Sweetbitter was an instant hit and would go on to live on the New York Times best-seller list for a total of 12 weeks. It became a reference point for a very specific set, 20-something women who knew what it was like to be lost in their own stretch for success, who drank Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s because they didn’t know better, but wished they did. Tess, her newfound Manhattan lifestyle, her fine-wine-and-food education at the mysteriously unnamed fancy restaurant, and her disastrous romance with the even more disastrous bartender struck a chord with readers and shot debut author Stephanie Danler to fame.

A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember.

Those words, and the story that follows, were quickly acquired for a television adaptation — that much was inevitable. What was less inevitable was the fact that Danler herself was hired on for the Starz show, not just to consult but to serve as executive producer and screenwriter for the pilot. It’s a coup rarely seen in the literary world: It’s practically unheard of for an author to retain such creative control over the next life of their best-selling novel, not even for Celeste Ng of Little Fires Everywhere or Liane Moriarty of Big Little Lies. But for Danler, the wins started early.

As she explains to EW, she realized quickly Sweetbitter was going to be different from the typical debut novel. Shortly after it was released, she got a call from a reporter at The New York Times asking for a quote, because she was going to debut on the bests-eller list.

“I thought, that is absolutely impossible!” she says through laughter. “And my next thought was, I don’t have to do anything else now. I’m done! Which was not true — I toured for another year.”

Danler’s connection with the book’s fans began to multiply, and as she toured the country visiting independent bookstores she slowly realized the impact that Tess was having on her readers. She was stopped on the street in New York, given handwritten notes of appreciation at her readings, and sent what she describes as “the most beautiful” letters.

“Young women are really vocal,” she says. “To have them as a fan base, you really hear from them. They used the word ‘obsessed’ a lot, and I like that.”

Jason Bell/Starz; Penguin Random House

It’s this relationship between author and reader that spurred executives involved in the Starz adaptation to push for Danler’s heavy involvement. After she sold the book to Knopf, before the release or even the next round of editing, came a wave of interest from Hollywood producers. Danler figured she would edit the book, then look into selling the rights — and never think about it again. But as soon as the buzz started to grow, it became apparent that they had a special opportunity on their hands.

“I had a team of people, including my literary agent and my agent at CAA, who believed that I could transition into being a screenwriter,” says Danler. “I don’t think that is always the case, but this incredible team of women said, ‘You’re going to be an executive producer and screenwriter.’”

It occurred to her that this was not only a huge win in the business, but an opportunity for a free TV education. Before she sat down to write the pilot of Sweetbitter, Danler went through what can only be described as television bootcamp. Her team gave her a watch list, and close to 60 pilot scripts to pore over. From there, Danler moved on to the first draft of the script and spent the next six months passing notes back and forth before finally homing in on the final version.

I knew if I spent one more minute, I would blink and 10 years would go by.

The Starz series scraps the book’s infamous opening lines for something a bit different, but the story hugs the literary version closely. Readers will recognize plenty of iconic moments: the oyster scene in the restaurant’s storage closet, the first time Tess joins the staff for shift drinks, the former waitress who comes back to terrorize Simone. This was deliberate from both Danler and the rest of the writers’ room; they worked from the book to a great degree, and Danler made sure to keep the moments that were especially important to readers. She was most excited to bring Simone, the senior waitress at the restaurant, and Tess’ relationship to life — starting with the day Tess visits Simone at home in the East Village, because it would mean extended scenes that simply feature two women talking to each other. (And yes, they made sure the keep that bathtub in the living room).

Macall Polay/Starz

As executive producer, Danler’s duties extended beyond maintaining the creative direction to overseeing every single aesthetic, casting decision, background extra training, even the type of china the restaurant used. The book is infamously based on her own time at Union Square Cafe, so her restaurant expertise loomed over the set.

“My priority was that the restaurant look aged, first of all,” she says. “And that we fill it with people who knew how to move in a kitchen; who didn’t look like actors and could hold a knife and pour water out of a pitcher and feel authentic.”

Eating becomes a discipline.

Filming Sweetbitter marked Danler’s first time on a television set, and while she was struck by many revelations, what really shook the author-turned-EP was the behind-the-scenes work that went into the many gluttonous moments. Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age story with a side of ill-fated romance, but it’s food (and wine, and some more illicit consumptions) that form the heart of the book. As Tess grows into her job at the restaurant and her life in the city, she is introduced to Beaujolais, to Chablis, to truffles and oysters. The onscreen version did away with most of the late-night imbibing but leans heavily into the other degustations. Which means, of course, that the actors did too.

For every scene in Sweetbitter that features Tess (played by Ella Purnell) or Simone (Caitlin Fitzgerald) indulging, there are a dozen more versions on the cutting room floor. The crew made wine out of food coloring and water and oysters out of tiramisu (Purnell is allergic to the real thing), but not all of it could be faked.

“In episode 4, Tess and Simone have grilled cheeses, and I think Ella got very sick that day because she ate so much cheese,” Danler laments with a laugh. “I felt terrible for these actors guzzling grape juice, smoking fake cigarettes all day, and eating plates of lasagna during the family meal scene for nine hours. It’s just horrific.”

The premiere of the six-episode series hits the airwaves Sunday, and whether the success of the book will translate to premium cable, whether devoted readers will become devoted viewers, remains to be seen. In the wake of miniseries-that-were-never-really-miniseries and the upcoming second season of Big Little Lies looms the question of the future of Sweetbitter. Danler, for her part, is waiting with bated breath.

“It’s slightly terrifying because I made this and I chose to be as intimately involved as someone could be, so my heart as an artist is all over this,” she says. “But I also did the hard work and carried the bulk of the anxiety already. I’ve heard all the complaints about the book, I’ve taken all the heat. I feel like I know a little bit more about how to navigate this part.”

You will never simply eat food again.

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