Grounding the Emotional Experience with ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ Screenwriter Abe Sylvia
By Sadie Dean • September 15, 2021
'The Eyes of Tammy Faye' screenwriter Abe Sylvia speaks with Script's Editor Sadie Dean about his filmmaking journey, his personal and impassioned kinship to Tammy Faye, and what creative decisions he had to make in order to put forth the best story possible. Plus, he shares invaluable advice for screenwriters interested in adapting true stories.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an intimate look behind the extraordinary rise, fall and redemption of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Tammy Faye and her husband, Jim Bakker, rose from humble beginnings to create the world’s largest religious broadcasting network and theme park. Renowned for her message of love, acceptance and prosperity, Tammy Faye became inseparable from her indelible eyelashes, her idiosyncratic singing, and her eagerness to embrace people from all walks of life. However, it wasn’t long before financial improprieties, scheming rivals, and scandal toppled their carefully constructed empire.
This film has practically every element you'd expect from a biopic about Tammy Faye Bakker's whirlwind life - sex, religion, show business, family, power, fame, and loss. The story is richly crafted and characters are unique in their own skin, all thanks to the prowess of screenwriter Abe Sylvia. It's definitely no easy feat to adapt a true story on this level, essentially emotionally connecting the audience to the main character's needs, wants, ambitions, and failures - all the while, sticking to one point of view to drive the story.
I had a wonderful time speaking with Abe Sylvia about his journey to filmmaking where he initially started out on Broadway and years later attended film school, his personal and impassioned kinship to Tammy Faye, and what creative decisions he had to make in order to put forth the best story possible. Plus, Abe shares invaluable advice for screenwriters interested in adapting true stories.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What attracted you to this story and Tammy Faye?
Abe Sylvia: Well, I think I do tend to specialize in sort of humanizing the heightened. I think I've kind of carved out this niche where I’m tasked with taking extreme people and turning them into human beings without losing what's wonderful and exuberant and sparkly about them. Which is kind of the balancing act. I think, like a lot of gay people growing up in the 80s, I hope less so now because there are a lot more people in media out front that are showing different examples of masculinity and femininity and I didn't have that growing up. I found myself always sort of attracted to extreme women, who were famous, the people that I saw a part of myself in. I'm not religious, but I remember when Tammy Faye came on the scene, I was instantly attracted to her. I didn't know why at the time. And it's probably taken a lot of therapy and maturing. I don't think we've truly unpacked as a queer community, what it is that really creates a gay icon. And I think there's more self-examination that has to go along with that. For me, I can only speak for me, but I suspect that's probably true for a lot of us, that are attracted to her shamelessness in the face of humiliation. If you grow up feeling other eyes, in the public sphere, it becomes the person you identify with. And I think that was my attraction to her and continues to be my attraction to her and people like Judy Garland, Tammy Wynette, you know, these trailblazing women who suffered big. And their journey is not so different from the artist's journey, but it's harder for them, because they were women of a time. And that I think is the link which helps me write characters like this.
Sadie: With your background in TV, the shows that you’ve written for have these central strong female characters, and it definitely shows in this movie as well. I find that many biopics on female trailblazers, like the Aretha’s, Billie’s, and so forth, will typically focus on the man behind the woman – the only way she's going to perform well is from his physical abuse – which feels like it undermines these women’s brilliance. But in this film, it's more internal and with a dash of psychological manipulation from Jim.
Abe: Well, she’s the Cher to his Sonny. We had lots of meetings about how do you shape this thing, because you can take any moment, you know, she and Jim Baker were both such self-producing and vibrant, you could take any moment of their experience on the planet and we could make something out of that moment. The more problematic, the more there is to mine from it, right? And when after all of our meetings we were like, ‘OK, we're not going to show when she was on The Surreal Life, and we're not going to show her battle with cancer’ and those are all worthwhile things to build a story around, but once we made the decision to say, “OK, this is all from her point of view, do not break it’ that gets rid of a lot of editorializing. And it grounds it in her emotional experience of being alive. So, yes, we sort of know what Jim was up to objectively, now with 30 years of hindsight and even in the moment. I was like, maybe the more interesting way to go about it is, what is the experience of a woman that this is happening to in real time? And what is the emotional experience of being in a relationship with this man? And having this relationship with God? It's sort of a two-prong love story. We go off on that sort of emotional affair that she had with Gary Paxton, which sort of is her initial breaking of her covenant. It's the thing that Jim is able to leverage because she feels like she's sort of broken her faith with him. And so, she has some making up to do and that's kind of what she thinks is the first crack. But I think it's a love story with God more than it is with her husband - it’s her primary relationship. And the marriage in many ways is secondary. Because when PTL falls, she is ostracized suddenly - God's love is gone. What did I do to break my covenant, not just within my marriage, but for God? And for Tammy Faye, and I knew this to be true, her biggest fear was that she had lost her salvation. She got saved in this radical way when she was speaking in tongues as a little girl. And that special connection that she had, with the almighty, suddenly she felt like when PTL fell, he left her. That's the real demise of the marriage.
Sadie: What was the writing process for you? Were you collaborating with the documentary filmmakers as well and leveraging information from them?
Abe: They sent us a bunch of footage that was not in the documentary. And I loved seeing Tammy Faye unedited, seeing the raw footage, because you can also watch her sort of processing, whether she's giving you good stuff. She was completely this wonderfully self-producing person. And she's being filmed - she knows what the job is. It's kind of wonderful to watch her unedited, because you see a little bit more of the person. And then I read everything that I could get my hands on, stayed away from tabloid stuff, because in some ways, I already knew it. And we knew that would be a part of it but could not have that if we were going to stay away from the humiliation genre, that even though there were drafts where that stuff was in there, it quickly came out, because it felt unfairly punishing. Especially when we adopted this idea that it is only her experience.
Sadie: Right. Which seems like it could be very difficult to separate those things, the urge to add those little moments, but keeping it strictly to her point of view. You made it look easy.
Abe: [laughs] If you know the full story with our 30 years of hindsight, there are little Easter eggs throughout that say there's more here than meets the eye. But we're not going to go there. It's our way of honoring all of these other things that objectively happened. But it's like, OK, when that was happening, what did it feel like to be her? There are Easter eggs, if people want to dig deeper, I certainly encourage them to do so. It's a fascinating story and there are rabbit holes everywhere.
Sadie: Tell us about your filmmaking journey. What made you want to become a storyteller in this medium?
Abe: I think it was a relatively organic process, although it was a 30-year process. [laughs] You know, when I was growing up, I was very attracted to the theater, and sort of came up in the theater, studied theater in college, and then was a Broadway performer for five or six years. And once I started doing shows eight times a week, I realized what I actually liked was production. I liked rehearsal. I like putting the show up. I liked building the sets and sewing my own costumes and all those things that when you become a professional, suddenly, you're not allowed to do any of that stuff. And so, as I'm doing Cats on Broadway eight times a week, that's only three hours of my day, essentially, I had all this time where I wasn't building sets or making costumes, and I started writing. And a few years later, by the time I was in the original company of The Producers, I had four or five scripts and a novel I'd written and none of these things will ever see the light of day, but I think I taught myself how to be a writer and I think being a performer was very instructive because there are no funnier people more erudite, alive, sparkly people, than a roomful of chorus kids. They're the smartest, the best storytellers in the world, and if your story isn't landing with them, you know it immediately. I remember with The Producers watching Mel Brooks write on the fly and playing a different show every night and knowing what's going to land. You start to learn what things instinctively will hit with an audience.
And then after I had this pile of scripts, nobody was going to take me seriously. Every chorus boy has a dream that he's going to someday write a movie. And they should. These people are storytellers. Basically, 9/11 happened and I was like, get serious and recalibrate how the world sees me, so I could make this stuff because nobody was going to give me an opportunity where I was. And so, I went to film school at UCLA, and that was its own education and a wonderful community of artists that challenged each other, and the competition was really good for making everything better. Took my first screenwriting class with a fella named Hal Ackerman. And I wrote my first screenplay that I'd let people read, I wrote in his class, and that ended up being my first feature Dirty Girl. I had my end-of-term meeting with the professor, and he read it, and he gave me all of his notes, and it was the first time anybody ever gave me notes. And he was correctly hard on me, you know, because I had written all of these scripts that I never let anybody read, I kept saying to myself, ‘just get to the end of each script, just finish it.’ And by finishing it, you get better. So, I’m sitting there with him, I said, “OK, well, I finished the script, now write something else?” After I've gotten his notes, little did I know, the notes that I had in store in my career coming at the time, and I really look back on it now and I realized how gentle he actually was with me. [laughs] But I said, “Should I just write something else?” And he said, “No, this script will get you a lot of attention.” And that was shocking to me, he's like, “You’re ready.”
I ended up, from a short that I made in film school, getting a manager and he started sending the script around. And it got to a producer. I was just doing the couch and water show and I’m in film school. It'd be like, “We found this guy in film school,” and I'd walk in and I was 32 [laughs] and they were like, “we thought you were in film school?” And I’m like, “I am, I am. And I have the debt to prove it.” [laughs] Of course, I'm like, ‘Oh, now it's all happening. Now I get to make my movie!’ It was another six years until that movie got made and walking a friend's dog to make money and QCing at Deluxe. I watched Avatar probably 4,000 times in every single language, doing quality control for them. And so that's kind of how it all started.
When that movie happened, Harvey Weinstein who I'm sure everyone's familiar with, bought the movie and recut it and put it out and it bombed. And I was sort of back at ground zero for myself, career wise. But luckily, a producer had seen the film, the original version of the film at Toronto, and invited me to come work on Nurse Jackie. I moved to New York and became a staff writer on Nurse Jackie. And that was probably the greatest career gift I've ever been given. That team of writers and that cast and the top-down leadership of Edie Falco. And everybody's encouraged to be their best and everybody's encouraged be kind – “look what we can make.” We don't have to be crazy and mean to each other and it doesn't have to be fraught to be beautiful. That was a real education. And from there, I've worked steadily in television.
Sadie: Which is almost every writer’s dream right now. That’s an incredible journey, because a lot of writers don't have that kind of real-world education, where they're performing and writing at the same time. And I feel like writers who are also actors, usually have a better sense of characters and dialogue – it’s a little sharper, and it has a better pace. That makes more sense now, with your characters and dialogue in this film.
Abe: I appreciate that. I think are all kinds of ways people can become writers. What I've noticed about writers who are performers in the writer’s room, is they do have an instinct for when the story has become an intellectual exercise, and not a human one. And like the ones who have a little bit more showbiz instincts like, “No one's gonna want to watch that.” [laughs] You gotta let it play out.
Sadie: You have an actual focus group in the room with you. What was the collaboration process like with director Michael Showalter, who's very well known for his comedy movies and now he's doing this. I can definitely see his vision, and his sense of levity with what could be big emotionally over-the-top dramatic scenes, but is able to reel it in and still have that human connection.
Abe: He came on well into the development of the script. Obviously, we did his pass - when the director comes on, they become the new author of the film, and it has to make sense to their sensibility. And so, there were a lot of meetings where it all has to make sense from a production standpoint. The script was much bigger than the script that ultimately got shot. I have a sequence where she's like a sleepwalker through the grounds of the hotel at PTL and like, it's gonna be this grand 1980s Hotel, and they're like, “We can't do that.” [laughs] There was a lot of bringing down to earth in Michael Showalter’s pass on the project and I am certainly very grateful for that. And you're right, he has an uncanny ability to marry humanity with humor, without it ever becoming cheap.
Sadie: Yeah, exactly. Screenwriters who are adapting a true story, what is something they should avoid?
Abe: They can't let the research dictate the story. Research is wonderful, but it can be a rabbit hole. And you have all of this information, of all of these wonderful things that you want to get in. You're not going to be able to. And I suppose that's the process - to get it all in there and see what sticks and then you start pulling things away. But don't become a slave to your research. I've made that mistake many times. I always get there, but I've certainly made that mistake. That's the biggest thing. It's like, yes, it's all wonderful, but you need to come up with your essential thesis of what is the human relatable story with all this crazy stuff that's going on. What is this? What is the kernel of humanity that's going to draw the audience in? And for me, it was this is just the story of a marriage that fell apart. You know, this is the story of a relationship that didn't end well but started out with the best of intentions. And once that became sort of my guiding principle, then I kind of knew what could fall out. My first draft had everything and the kitchen sink. There were biblical characters walking into the room, she was talking directly to them. [laughs] It's fantastical and it's like, ‘OK, OK, reel it in, Sylvia.’ [laughs]
Sadie: That’s great advice. Find the kernel of humanity, can’t get simpler than that. Thanks so much for your time, Abe. Congrats on the film and very much looking forward to your new TV show.
Abe: Thank you so much.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye will be available in Theaters on September 17.