For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from Backstory’s Black List Tales interview with Escher writer Jason Kessler from Backstory Issue 36 – out now exclusively for subscribers.
Jason Kessler is the poster child for why you should always follow your heart. He loved writing stories over the course of his life yet chose to pursue a career as a lawyer, working at a law firm in New York City for almost five years. But his love for writing never left; in fact, that was the part of each day that he looked forward to the most. “I always had to do my ‘homework’ first,” he says, using the term as a substitute for his day job. “As I became a practicing lawyer, the homework became more and more, and then I realized for some people the law is fun. They want to spend all their hours in the office and be the best lawyer they can. For me, I always wanted to finish as soon as possible so I could get home to write.” While still employed as a lawyer, Kessler took a screenwriting class with the Gotham Writers Workshop, and that sealed his decision to say goodbye to the field. It’s not easy to leave such an illustrious career given all the time and money already invested in it, but he made the brave choice to follow his passion.
Kessler enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s two-year MFA screenwriting program in 2015 and received the Robert Foshko Prize in Screenwriting for his TV pilot Burning Kingdom. But during his final semester, Kessler also penned Escher, a half-fact, half-fiction take on the life of famed artist M.C. Escher and the role he played for the Dutch resistance in a Nazi-occupied Netherlands in 1944. While Escher may not seem like an obvious subject to build a successful script around, the results say otherwise. In 2017, Escher placed first in the Slamdance Film Festival’s feature screenplay competition. After the accolade, the scribe reworked the script some—enough to land him representation. And the very next year, it placed on the Black List, sending his career into a different stratosphere.
The interest in Escher stems from Kessler’s mother, a math teacher who always admired the artist’s math-based works. Kessler had also come to believe that penning a biopic is a good way to get noticed as a writer these days. “Hollywood loves biopics, but it’s also hard to find real people where we don’t already know everything about their character,” he says. “Or maybe they’re an interesting character but there’s no reason to think it will be a unique film. I realized that very little is known about Escher the person, and there’s never been a film about him so that drew me in.” From the outset, his idea was always to combine Escher’s story with visual flourishes throughout the script that evoke the artist’s work via dream and fantasy sequences only Escher and the audience can see. Making a more straightforward biopic about the man never appealed to the writer. “For me, the entry point was to figure out the best possible canvas to bring his art and artistic approach to life. His art is the type of art everybody immediately recognizes so the idea of creating a film that evokes that visual style was appealing to me.”
When he first started on his first draft, it did not have the same Nazi-centric focus as later passes. At that point, he wanted the artist’s problem throughout the film to be mainly internal. “I started out thinking that Escher’s character struggle was him trying to create a certain piece of art and how he would try to tackle it artistically,” Kessler says. “Then the world around him ultimately influences him, and he solves it. It was about him becoming the artist he became. But as I wrote that draft, it wasn’t clicking.” He soon came to feel that if you have a film set in a country occupied by the Nazis and there are people dying around them as a consequence of that occupation, you have to acknowledge that in a major way. “I realized that no one would care if he figured out how to make the perfect piece of art for himself because of what’s going on around him. It was just a mismatch of story and setting. I could have done a version of that film where he’s in Italy finding his creative passion, but it just felt I was wedging the wrong pieces together. So I instead put him in the high-stakes world of the script and had him react to those real-world dangers in an authentic way.”
There are a lot of fictional details throughout Escher, but they are all born out of real-life situations and characters that Kessler expanded upon, while other key character moments in the script came from reality: Escher’s mentor, the Jewish artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, was murdered, along with his wife and son, in a concentration camp; his half-brother, Berend, was arrested and held by the Nazis for a period of time; and his nephew Rudolf, a famed Dutch composer, was a member of the resistance. Using those facts, Kessler crafted a thrilling narrative where Rudolf agrees to hide one of de Mesquita’s children from the Nazis in exchange for Escher’s help with the resistance, which he had been reluctant to join. “I took those facts and then took a little bit of liberty,” Kessler says. “I imagined what Escher could have done in that environment, even though we don’t know how much he was actually involved with the resistance.” Crucially to the writer, all of Escher’s creations and the details related to them are exact and based on historical fact. “The most important thing to me is all the artwork is accurately portrayed. What he was trying to do with different pieces and his approach to the artwork and how he tackled artistic problems are all true.”
Escher’s participation in the resistance—and his reticence to join—is a key plot point throughout the script. The artist is clearly not sympathetic to the Nazi regime’s evil ways, but he questions the resistance’s tactics at times as well. In an early scene with Berend, Escher is making overtures to see if the resistance can help hide de Mesquita’s daughter. Berend says maybe but only if it doesn’t come at the expense of helping others. “Saving a young girl is absolutely the most important thing in the world, unless it comes at the expense of saving two,” Berend says. Escher is critical of this line of thinking, and his brother reprimands him for staying on the sidelines, telling Escher, “You have no right to be upset with how we fight.” When penning this scene, Kessler couldn’t help but make a connection to current events. “This film is really about what do you do when society around you is getting more and more troubling and that has resonance to today,” he says. “I think some people who haven’t been politically active in the past feel a call to action for various reasons on both sides of the aisle. Escher in particular is a very smart, introverted artist who at times could indulge in the luxury of focusing entirely on his art. But then he finds himself in a society that’s deteriorating more and more. His journey is about, Do I sit back and wait for the world around me to get better, or do I get involved?”
The script’s final scene didn’t appear in either the version Kessler penned in school or the one that won Slamdance. In those drafts, after the film ends, Kessler lists some true facts about the people we just read about, including the fate of de Mesquita and that the main German officer in the story, Hanns Albin Rauter, was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death after World War II. The new closing moment keeps that same list of facts but recontextualizes them in a powerful way. The camera would pull back to reveal cameras and lighting equipment, highlighting the fact that this is a movie, and text appears onscreen: “This film is an illusion, but the following is real.” Then as the list of real-life facts appears, it’s a powerful way to show that even though a large part of the film was invented for the script, there were real-world consequences to the story as well, including the sobering reality that despite the resistance’s efforts, 75 percent of Dutch Jews were killed in the Holocaust. “Many Escher drawings are him trying to show you some trick of the eye,” Kessler says. “I got a note from a development exec who said the ending of the film felt a little more like an Escher work itself, so that’s when I added that final flourish.”
Since moving to Los Angeles after getting his MFA, Kessler has been both penning his own scripts and working on two television series. He was hired by Godzilla writer Max Borenstein to be a writers’ assistant as he developed a possible Game of Thrones prequel for HBO, and he held that same role for season five of CBS’ Madam Secretary. He has also written and directed the darkly hilarious—and very meta—short Death by Script (link HERE), about a Hollywood assistant who comes across a script that murders its reader every time someone passes on it. Since being named to the door-opening Black List, Kessler has indeed been having meetings—some about possibly getting Escher made and others about new concepts he is working on. So this begs the question: Now that his screenwriting career is in full bloom, has writing started to feel like homework in the same way his days as a lawyer did? “I feel like there’s a divide amongst writers,” he says. “There are the ones who love writing every day and there are the others who can hate the process at times but are giving birth to something they feel needs to be out in the world. I’m definitely in the second category, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
To read the full article in Issue 36 of Backstory, click HERE to subscribe or buy it as a single issue.
For more info about all the other articles in issue 36, view the Table of Contents.