Episode 610: Greg Marshall, Ben Purkert, ‘King on Screen’

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Director Daphné Baiwir in front of an open elevator filled with red balloons
Director Daphné Baiwir of the documentary film, ‘King on Screen,’ a Dark Star Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures.

Greg Marshall talks about his memoir, ‘Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew From It.’ Also, novelist Ben Purkert asks the question, ‘What do our jobs do to our souls?’ And we look at Stephen King films with ‘King on Screen’ director, Daphné Baiwir.

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  • Greg Marshall's 'Leg' is probably the most profound and funniest memoir you'll ever read

    Greg Marshall has pulled off the seemingly impossible. He’s written a memoir that is poignant and hilarious. It’s called “Leg: The Story of a Limb and the Boy Who Grew from It.

    Other titles that were bandied about included “The Kid with the Limp,” and “It’s a Wonderful Leg and There’s Absolutely Nothing Wrong with It and My Mother Did the Best She Could in Spite of Having Cancer and Five Kids and a Husband Who Died of F—ing ALS.”

    The book is an entertaining and enlightening chronicle of Marshall’s life so far, including his discovery when he was almost 30 that he had cerebral palsy since birth, not “tight tendons” like his parents told him.

    Marshall told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” that his mother was “kind of a tall tale teller.”

    Photo courtesy of Getty Images

    She would “go so far in the other direction of not only not acknowledging it, but completely papering over it with this kind of dazzle camouflage of saying, ‘It’s a wonderful leg and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. And, by the way, your dad died of ALS.’”

    Marshall said he wanted to include his mother’s reaction to his disability in the title because of the way it also encapsulated her reaction to other family members’ health issues.

    “It was kind of this whole soup of disability in my family. But it wasn’t just my leg and my cerebral palsy, which wasn’t talked about. It was kind of how we’re all of these other disabilities in my family — which ones were valorized and celebrated and which ones were ignored and minimized.”

    It’s amazing how brave Marshall is in confessing his most intimate thoughts. There were plenty of stories he could’ve shared, especially related to his mom’s heritage and being adopted into a large Basque family, but he culled them because it didn’t quite fit with the scope of the story he wanted to tell.

    I really wanted to track queerness and disability as sources of intimacy in my family and see how something like my mom’s cancer shaped her as a storyteller, as a survivor, as the hero of her own story and as a writer, and how those things shaped me as well. And kind of on down the line.”

    Marshall discovers he was born with cerebral palsy

    Marshall’s parents told him that he “tight tendons” instead of revealing the truth, which was that he had been born with cerebral palsy.

    Why does he think that they did that?

    “Oh, boy. That’s sort of the central question of the book,” Marshall said. “I think that they just didn’t want me to live with what they perceived as limitations or with stigma. And I think in some ways they were right. I don’t think that they’re at all the villains of my story. They’re really two of the heroes of my story. But it’s more about kind of a system-wide, society-wide perception of how we reckon with our bodies and how we find our own places in the world in spite of our differences.”

    Marshall said he does wish he knew about his condition earlier. He said by having all the facts, he could’ve been in command of his body.

    “And then I could have been the hero of my own story, in the way that my mom was the hero of her own story with cancer and writing her (newspaper) column.”

    So, how did he discover that he had cerebral palsy?

    Marshall was applying for private health insurance in 2014. His insurance application was flagged.

    “I had grown up having surgery on my hamstrings and Achilles tendon and physical therapy. So a lot of the trappings of cerebral palsy, a lot of the treatments of someone who has cerebral palsy,” he explained.

    “And so whoever was looking at my insurance application saw those things and just asked me, ‘Hey, so what is the source of your traumatic brain injury?’ And I was so taken aback. I was like, ‘What traumatic brain injury are you talking about?’”

    He got ahold of his medical records and saw sentences such as, “To whom it may concern: Greg Marshall has spastic cerebral palsy related to prematurity.”

    “After I read those medical records, I gave my mom a call, and part of me was sort of expecting her to be like, ‘Oh my gosh. Well, you always knew that you had cerebral palsy.’”

    “But her reaction was very much the other direction, where she just kind of was in this panic about it,” he said. “But I think it really clued me into the magnitude of that lie of omission or that fib, that it kind of really was this big deal. And her reaction, as much as anything else, made me want to go back into my childhood and reexamine what had happened.”

    Marshall’s mother battles cancer when father is diagnosed with ALS

    Marshall’s mother was still battling cancer when his father, Bob, discovered a muscle twitch in his shoulder while he was training for the Boston Marathon. This twitch was an early symptom of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

    “It was the indication that he had a terminal diagnosis and that he was facing a neuromuscular condition that would essentially kill or diminish nearly every muscle in his body,” Marshall explained.

    “His ALS was unfortunately really aggressive, and he went on a feeding tube that summer and he was on a BiPap for a few months and then went on a respirator and lasted about a year.”

    Marshall writes in the book about a moment when he and his dad took a drive up to one of the canyons near their house in Salt Lake City.

    “My dad and I kind of awkwardly sit on these rocks, and he just says, ‘You know, I’m starting to understand a little bit more about your leg. It just never really goes away, does it?’ That was kind of a launching point where we started to talk more intimately about our bodies. Those conversations that I had with my dad were the first times where I did directly use the word ‘disabled.’”

    At the time, Marshall said, he didn’t know that he had cerebral palsy. He asked his dad questions like: “Do you think of yourself as disabled?” and “Do you have ALS in your dreams?”

    “I think we were able to just relate to each other on a really deep, meaningful level,” Marshall said. “And I think to see someone like my dad — who had always been my caretaker, who’d always been so able and active and, you know, a skier and a runner — to see that you kind of both are and aren’t your body and that there are parts of you that really do transcend your physical limitations, but also that a disability is a profound part of your identity. And that it’s okay to talk about it, and okay to reckon with it, and okay to have feelings about it so that hopefully you can get to a place of joy, and acceptance and celebration of those things.”

  • Ben Purkert explores the question 'What do our jobs do to our souls?'

    If you’re a fan of AMC’s “Mad Men,” you’re going to like Ben Purkert’s debut novel, “The Men Can’t Be Saved.

    It’s about an overly confident copywriter named Seth Taranoff who is trying to recapture the success he had with an ad that went viral. But “The Men Can’t Be Saved” is about much more than Taranoff’s efforts to rediscover his glory days. The book also explores redemption, toxic masculinity, addiction and spirituality.

    The central question is: What do our jobs do to our souls? “The Men Can’t Be Saved” is funny, smart and gives you a lot to think about — both while you’re reading and long after you’ve finished reading.

    And Purkert knows this world. Before he became a poet and a novelist, he worked as a copywriter.

    “Coming out of college, I really didn’t know what to do,” he told WPR’s “BETA.

    “I wanted to be a published author. I didn’t want to be a copywriter at an ad agency or a branding agency. But as I started looking at job postings and I bumped my head against the reality — which is that college grads need to find a job — it seemed that this was one of the ways that I could take what I loved about my English education and apply it to business and make some money and pay off some loans. It was a practical decision. It wasn’t a creative one.”

    When we think of advertising, we tend to think of the “Mad Men” era. So, how have things changed since that time?

    Purkert said he started working at the agency around the time when “Man Men” debuted. He and his colleagues would talk about the show, and about everything that had changed since the 1960s and all the things they no longer recognized as part of the industry.

    “But then we would talk about the more interesting thing, which was everything that hadn’t changed, and a lot of the electricity of the environment, a lot of the big personalities, the big egos. But also the toxicity, the ways in which underlings…were just treated like trash, whether it was (by) the clients or the creative directors.”

    “And the bigger the ego on some level, the further you got in that world of business. And so if you squinted, it didn’t feel that different from the ‘Mad Men’ era to today. And so I wanted to write a book that examined that a little bit, all the ways in which this culture, even as it tells itself that it’s a highly progressive environment, maybe hasn’t evolved in the way that it likes to say it has,” Purkert said.

    Purkert describes his protagonist Taranoff as “one of these people who has a pretty overinflated sense of himself.”

    The book is written in first person, and Taranoff’s riding high when the readers meet him, Purkert explained. The tagline he wrote for an obscure brand of adult diapers just went viral, and because of that, Taranoff expects to make partner at the firm.

    “And as the book progresses, we pretty quickly see that his vision of grandeur for himself is not going to be realized. And in fact, he’s going to have a pretty steep downfall even within the first few chapters. And what’s interesting to me about Seth is the extent to which he does not see himself — but the characters around him, they do see him.”

    “And so as the reader, you move through an experience where on the one hand you get the PR department of Seth, you get Seth telling the reader what he sees for himself. But then you have these other characters who kind of splash him with cold water constantly, and that way in which — not men exclusively — all of us can delude ourselves or sometimes not examine ourselves or see ourselves clearly. I wanted to look at that phenomenon in the book.”

    The big question that permeates “The Men Can’t Be Saved” is what do our jobs do to our souls? What does Purkert think the answer to this question is?

    “For me, writing this novel over the course of a decade, that was the biggest job I’ve ever done,” he said. “And it was, I want to say, healthy for my soul. It was unhealthy for some of my relationships. But for my soul, I felt deeply fulfilled writing this book. But then there are other kinds of jobs where it’s 9 to 5, but it stretches way beyond the five, and it starts to feel endless. And you don’t really have a sense of purpose. And I think that is deadening to the soul. I think that it’s really the kind of work that leads to a repression of self and then a sort of resentment that gets pushed out into the world.”

  • 'King on Screen' sheds light on adapting the prolific works of author Stephen King

    In the fall of 2019, writer and “NOS4A2” creator Joe Hill joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETAto share what it was like to collaborate on a story with his dad, the horror maestro, Stephen King.

    “I’ve written with my dad on two short stories and both times, I felt like Wile E. Coyote hanging on to the rocket,” he said at the time.

    Hill and King were in the midst of working on a film adaptation of their story, “In the Tall Grass,” which would go on to premiere on Netflix. Hill said that being forced to adapt their story to the screen led to some fascinating differences between the mediums.

    “In some ways, the movie is actually a little bit more hopeful. It finds some hopeful notes that are unique to the film. And I think that that’s a good thing,” Hill said.

    That sentiment is at the heart of French actress and director Daphné Baiwir’s documentary, “King on Screen,” which takes a comprehensive look at adapting one of America’s most prolific writers and the small ocean of films that have sprung from King’s work.

    “I really wanted to dig a little bit more about the process of adapting,” Baiwir said.

    “Stephen King is so famous today perhaps because of his influence on cinema and also the fact that cinema adapted him so much that people who never read a book, they know Stephen King because they’ve seen at least one film,” she said.

    Baiwir interviewed dozens of directors for the film, including Frank Darabont, Mick Garris, Taylor Hackford and Mike Flanagan. Collectively, they shed light on the pressures and delights of adapting King’s works.

    The most controversial adaptation of King’s is definitely Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” starring Jack Nicholson. King famously hated Kubrick’s version of his story of a recovering alcoholic writer, Jack Torrance, isolating himself and his family over a winter in a hotel to avoid the temptation of drinking and to get back to writing.

    Baiwir explains that King was frustrated by Kubrick’s cold treatment of his characters in the book and their arcs.

    “When you are reading ‘The Shining,’ Wendy is a strong female character, and she’s not like that at all in the Stanley Kubrick adaptation,” Baiwir said.

    “Also, the relationship between her and Jack — which is Jack Torrance goes into madness — I think it’s something that is quite disturbing because in the book, you really have this smooth evolution into the crazy things that is going on in his mind,” she continues. “He’s going there because he is trying to fix his family…and it’s not the feeling that we have in the film.”

    Director Mick Garris — who would later readapt “The Shining” as TV miniseries — said in the documentary that director David Cronenberg said, “The reason ‘The Shining’ doesn’t work is because they cast the ending. Jack Nicholson’s crazy from the beginning. That works in Kubrick’s world, but not in King’s World.”

    Garris is one of a handful of directors, along with Darabont and Rob Reiner, who have taken several cracks at adapting King. Baiwir said that out of all of them, Darabont probably has dialed in King’s frequency more than any other.

    “I’ve always loved Frank Darabont adaptations because I think they are so amazing,” said Baiwir, whose favorite King-based film is Darabont’s “The Green Mile.” “He’s able to really capture the work of Stephen King and is doing amazing films with that.”

    Darabont’s 1994 film, “The Shawshank Redemption,” is likely one of the most widely known and critically acclaimed King adaptations. Baiwir said the popularity of “Shawshank” directly relates to King’s ability to operate outside the horror genre.

    With this documentary, we also wanted to break the myth of Stephen King, master of horror,” she said. “He’s able to write so much more than just horror. And I’m sure if he was writing a comedy, it would be good.”

    The film that perhaps best displays Darabont’s mind-meld with King is the former’s 2007 adaptation of “The Mist” starring Thomas Jane. King’s written story had an ambiguous ending that played well on the page, but not so much on the screen.

    Darabont wrote his own ending for his film adaptation, which ended up earning him the highest praise possible. When King himself showed up at the premiere in New York, King shared that he wished he would’ve thought of Darabont’s ending.

    “That’s how much (Darabont) was able to capture Stephen King’s universe,” said Baiwir. “To the point that when he changes something in one of Stephen King stories, Stephen King himself said that he wished he had that idea.”

    When dozens and dozens of your works have been adapted, there’s going to be some winners and losers. King himself doesn’t seem to mind how the movie or miniseries adaptations impact the reputation of his work.

    Toward the end of Baiwir’s film, director Mike Flanagan — who directed “The Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep,” merging King and Kubrick’s visions incredibly well — praised King’s philosophy when asked, “What did you think with what they’ve done to your books?”

    King would respond, “‘Well, what do you mean? What have they done to my books? Well, look at the bookshelf there. My books are all there. Nobody’s done anything to my books.’ So, I think he has a really great attitude about how his books are adapted,” Flanagan said.

    “King of Screen” from Dark Star Pictures is in select theaters now.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Tyler Ditter Producer
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Greg Marshall Guest
  • Ben Purkert Guest
  • Daphné Baiwir Guest

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