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Writing the Playwright


June 28, 2005

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On a brisk day in early 2005, Tony Kushner and Frederic Tuten meet before a crowd of several hundred at City College in New York. After an opening reception and a slew of introductions—Oscar Hijuelos, Tuten’s former student at the City College writing program, stands and waves—Kushner and Tuten are about to begin what has been billed as an “intimate” conversation, spanning everything from politics to Hollywood to Herman Melville’s Mardi.

Kushner’s first musical, Caroline, or Change, set in 1963 Louisiana just before Kennedy’s assassination and the Civil Rights era, closed on Broadway the previous August, and his adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, directed by Academy Award-winner Mike Nichols, swept the 2004 Emmys with 21 nominations and 11 wins.

Tuten, author of Tintin in the New World and The Green Hour, leads Kushner onto a small platform set before the audience and the actual stage. They sit down. There is a small table and a pitcher of water between them.

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Frederic Tuten: Someone once told me years ago that there was nothing so dead as a warmed-over love affair. I thought, well, in the spirit of the evening, there’s nothing less spontaneous than an informal conversation in front of two hundred people. So, how can we, you know, keep the spirit of spontaneity and formality and passion? I guess we’ll try.

Tony Kushner: We can turn off the microphone. (laughs)

Tuten: (laughs) That’s a very good ploy. That would be kind of charming.

Kushner: (to the audience) Talk amongst yourselves. (audience laughter)

Tuten: We’ll give you a theme. The Spanish Civil War was not a Civil War, nor was it Spanish. (audience laughs) But should we start off with a very light thing?

Kushner: Sure.

Tuten: How old were you when you thought you’d become a writer?

Kushner: Eight or nine or ten when I think I first thought about… when I sort of became aware of the possibility of becoming such a thing. I grew up in a house full of artists. My parents were both classical musicians. My brother is now a musician and my sister is a painter, so we all stayed close to the family tree. I think that during my early years, I thought that a writer was what I was going to be and what I wanted to be, but then as I got to college and read more, I became more and more intimidated by what really good writers do, and hid that ambition and considered for a while becoming a medievalist, which is what I studied at Columbia. I went to graduate school as a theater director, although at that point I knew that I wanted to be a playwright, but I didn’t think I’d be good enough, so I decided to try directing instead, which I mistakenly assumed was easier than writing. But then I started to sneak in scenes that I had written as things to direct, and did wind up eventually turning into a writer.

Tuten: Tony, as everyone knows here, you’re probably the most perfect man except that you went to Columbia instead of City College. (audience laughs)

Kushner: (laughs) I know, it’s a great shame.

Tuten: You said in the afterward to Angels in America that “In the modern era, it isn’t enough to write, you must also be the Writer, with a capital ‘W,’ and play your part as the protagonist in the cautionary narrative in which you will fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold, ride the wheel of fortune”— the medieval one and not the one with Vanna White. Now I see where the media reference comes from. “You become a character in a meta-drama into which your own dramatizing has pitched you. The rewards can be fantastic, the punishments dismal; it’s a zero sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity.” It’s a very popular myth. So, where are we, where are you in this myth?

Kushner: Oh god, I don’t know. Do you mean, what’s my stock right now?

Tuten: I mean, I think we all recognize that one of the problems in American culture is that increasingly, there’s no middle ground. That either you’re a celebrity writer or a celebrity poet, or else you’re nothing. So, you’re aware of that, you say that. How do you negotiate that as a writer, what do you do, how does that affect your writing, how does that affect your thinking about the next thing you’re doing?

Kushner: Honestly, look, I mean, I’ll answer that and then you answer it. I think that in a certain sense, that’s only apparently the case. One is told in more superficial places where these things are discussed that that’s the case, that you’re either a hot writer, or you’re finished and you’re over. But of course, the more you hang around and the more you become aware not only of what “reputation” is for other writers, but also what your own reputation is, you become aware that it’s much more complicated than the conventional media would have you believe.

Right now, I suspect that I’m at the beginning of that period in an American writer’s, or at least an American playwright’s life, where I’ve had a big success and I’m starting to get beaten up for it on a fairly regular basis when my plays appear. At first, that freaked me out a lot. It still freaks me out, but I’m also becoming aware of the fact that plays can outlast even the opinions of the chief film critic of The New York Times and that reviews, although they feel devastating in the immediate moment, are not remotely as significant as the significance you endow them with on the day that they appear. I can see a kind of tough but interesting time ahead. If I keep writing, if I keep working, surviving… I mean, I’m in an odd place right now in New York where I routinely get trashed by every daily drama critic and have a few allies among weekly/monthly drama critics, and you sort of plot these things out and figure it out. But it’s just what any writer goes through, periods of favor, periods of disfavor. And the trick is just to keep writing and to not let an obsession…

The people that I see whose careers have really been ended, or people who sunk for whatever reason, can’t escape from taking this stuff too seriously, and begin to devote a tremendous amount of their creative energy to the business of doing battle with stupid people. (audience laughs) I mean, it helped me to politicize it, it helped me to think of them [critics] as people who, although they don’t know this because they’re not articulate or self-exploratory enough to have figured it out, they have a job, and their job is to protect their reading public from anything that isn’t essentially mediocre or right-wing, and they do their job very effectively for the most part. God, I sound so bitter. (audience laughs)

Last year was a tough year. But I think you just learn to survive that. I mean, there was another side to what I was writing, and I had completely forgotten that I’d written that thing you just read…

Tuten: Should I read the rest of it? (audience laughs)

When I used to teach writing, what I would tell my playwriting students is that while you’re writing your plays, you’re also writing the playwright.

Kushner: No, I mean, part of it I enjoy. When I used to teach writing, what I would tell my playwriting students is that while you’re writing your plays, you’re also writing the playwright. You’re developing yourself as a persona, as a public persona. It’s going to be partly exposed through the writing itself and partly created by all the paraphernalia that attaches itself to writing. But you aren’t simply an invisible being or your own private being at work. You’re kind of a public figure, as well. It’s something to craft and shape in terms of the person who’s writing these plays, which is both the person that you really genuinely are and also the person that you wish to project to the public, who you want to have the public aware of as they come to see your work. And I think that it’s worthwhile to explore the ways in which you write the person that’s writing your plays as opposed to simply assuming that it’s all a natural process and there’s no design in it. Because your public persona is designed, to a certain extent, and you can have fun and profit at various times doing that.

Tuten: So who are we seeing now, the public persona or the real Tony Kushner? (audience laughs)

Kushner: (laughs) Yeah, once I get really warmed up, the more and more of an artificial being I am.

Tuten: I’m just teasing you. But this leads to what I was going to ask you next, which is, what is our place as writers in this increasingly, I think, oppressive and repressive self-censorial culture? I mean, how do we survive this and how do we fight through this?

(to audience) I’m not just saying that one day you’re famous, one day you’re not. When you are out of favor, so to speak, it’s not just the reviewers. It’s the editors, the publishers, they don’t want you anymore, you’re just gone and you’ve been written out of history as effectively as the old Stalinists would write someone else out, take their photograph out of a book. That’s what I meant. What spirit, what kind of courage must one muster up to do that and continue to work? That’s really what I’m saying.

Kushner: In a sense, I feel like the job of the artist at all times is essentially the same, which is simply to tell the truth. I mean, I’m nervous about any prescriptions for what a writer should or shouldn’t do. When I was younger, I used to be very impatient with anyone who wasn’t doing overtly political work. I’ve since come to feel that some writers have an appetite or a need for the political, for political discourse, for historical political subjects. To attend to some of the other things we share as writers, although we work in completely different media, I certainly wake up every morning and thank God that I’m not a novelist because the theater is tough, but novel writing is infinitely harder. Especially with the economics of serious fiction being what they are in this country.

I don’t want to name names because they’d be mad at me if I did, but people who are significant novelists can’t get published by real publishers at this point, or have to go through two years of trying after writing a novel that’s taken them five or six years and simply can’t get the thing in print. Or it gets in print and it doesn’t get reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and disappears without a trace. I mean, it’s terrifying. I don’t know how anybody can stand it. It’s such an enormous amount of work and the economics of it are really quite brutal.

Whereas if you’re a playwright, unless you’re really lacking in get-up-and-go, you can always get your play up somewhere. You can’t necessarily make a living doing it, but theater is about meeting an audience. Plays are not easier to write necessarily, they take less time to write. If you get them up, it’s a much more rough-and-tumble kind of existence. I think it’s, from my perspective, easier than novel writing. I think that everybody who writes believes that their work has some kind of use-value, for someone, that there’s some need for it, some person or group of people out there has demanded that these words come into being. I think that you do the work for these people. You hope that you can make a living at it. Whatever your ambitions and needs are in that regard, your only real requirement is to try and dig as deeply as you can dig to make sense of the meaning of human existence.

And for me, it’s not possible to do that without thinking about politics. But there are certainly people for whom that is not a category that helps you understand human existence. In fact, it’s kind of a detour into superficiality, and although I disagree with those people, I don’t think it’s the case that everyone who writes has to write politically or has to write in opposition to the really horrendous things that are going on on a political level in the world today. There are some writers who simply aren’t any good at that and really should stay away from it.

Tuten: I don’t think there’s much choice, actually.

Kushner: Yeah.

Tuten: You do what you do. Whether one becomes famous or not, you have to be reminded of people like Melville, a writer that I know you love so much, who for the last thirty years of his life was completely unknown. He worked in a customs house and walked off to work as an anonymous person in this American culture. I mean, how much more of a horror could one imagine that this culture can offer, itself, by doing that to someone like that?

But I meant the other problems, which are the problems of the machinery of getting the work published. And as you say, if you’re out of the loop, you’re just writing and it’s painful. And I’m not, thank god, so far, speaking of myself, but I’ve seen the cases where people are writing and books go in drawers and that’s the end of it. It’s not an enthusiastic culture, I mean for culture.

Kushner: No, it’s not.

Tuten: I think that Angels In America apart from its aesthetic value, apart from its work of art-ness, had an impact on culture. It really did things to people. And I don’t think it did it in a way that we were talking about earlier, like agitprop.

Angels in America appeared at exactly the right moment for its reception to be great, both on a political level and also even on an aesthetic level.

Kushner: The thing with Angels is that it was, in a certain sense, an accident. I mean… I’m enormously the beneficiary. I think it’s a pretty good play, but whatever is good in it is not sufficient to explain why it became this big thing. It appeared at exactly the right moment for its reception to be great, both on a political level and also even on an aesthetic level. It showed up at a time when the country was getting very sick of the Reagan counterrevolution and really was getting more and more receptive to anything that would say publicly, “This is not America, this is not what this country is about.” The censorious, ego-anarchist, theocratic, anti-tax, anti-government right-wing madness had had its play and it was time to do something else. People were beginning to feel profoundly disconnected and estranged from their own idea of what America was. And I think there was a coupling of that sort of growing feeling through the ’80s with the AIDS epidemic, which brought out a whole new way of thinking about the human body and also about homosexuality and sexual minoritarians of all kinds. And in fact, the relationships of minority groups to American culture, I mean, it created kind of a good atmosphere for the play. I mean, it gave birth to the play, my response to all those things.

It also created a great moment for the play to be received. It opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the first time we did both parts, in 1992, about a week before the November elections. The performances after Clinton won were some of the most exciting days in the theater I’d ever seen because it was like a rock concert. Audiences were just so jazzed because it really seemed at that moment, and I think in some ways actually was the moment, of the end of this nightmarish thirteen years of misrule. I mean, we didn’t know what was coming. (audience laughs)

Tuten: I was going to talk about that for a moment.

Kushner: Yeah, who knows, that’s another story. But I think I was the beneficiary of that. You mention Melville. Melville is a great example of two things, really. He’s an example of how appallingly wrong people can be about a great writer, in that Moby Dick was a total failure, and in a sense, ended his career. Of course, we all know now that it’s one of the greatest books ever, and sort of the beginning of so much. And that he went on for decades after that in increasing degrees of anonymity, and being completely forgotten is horrible. When he died, Billy Budd was left in a tin in a trunk. He didn’t even have the heart to show it to anybody. It wasn’t discovered until 1923 or something.

Tuten: 1924, Raymond Weaver…

Kushner: …found it in a trunk. You know, Billy Budd. I mean, it’s horrifying. But when you read everything that Melville wrote after Typee and Omoo, especially if you read this novel Mardi, which is kind of a—

Tuten: I knew you’d love that.

Kushner: I love it.

Tuten: I knew you’d love Mardi.

Kushner: It’s completely nuts and it’s a dry run for Moby Dick. He begins to test his wings. And there are four or five chapters in it that are just incredibly vicious attacks on critics, which is a good way to guarantee that your book is not going to get good reviews. And it didn’t get good reviews. But you also begin to see in Melville that part of what makes him great is his immense ambition, and part of what makes him immensely vulnerable is the same ambition, and that he’s really going to have a hard time. I mean, unlike Hawthorne, who has this kind of strange quality of doing something revolutionary without ever openly acknowledging it and keeping his borders very well defended, Melville was all over the place. And so you can kind of tell, as early as Mardi and certainly by the time he writes Pierre, which is the book he wrote after Moby Dick, and which was heartbreakingly supposed to be this big romance, and a big success for him, and about a third of the way through the book, he goes into an attack on the New York publishing industry because he’s so angry about Moby Dick. He just can’t stop it and it turns into this amazing, insane book. It’s also the end of his life as a great writer.

Tuten: I would argue that the finishing wasn’t exactly Pierre but it was The Confidence-Man, which, I think, was a greater book, almost equal to Moby Dick. It’s just hard, it’s painful to say which one you love. (to audience) If you don’t know this novel, it’s a lesser known of Melville’s and it’s beyond—

Kushner: It’s amazing.

Tuten: It’s amazing. There are no words for it. It’s probably the darkest novel of the 19th century. It is the most bleak, of course. It’s fun for lots of people, it’s a condemnation of everything, it’s a condemnation of optimism, which of course, is against the American grain. If you’re not happy, if you’re not Emmersonianly happy and think everything’s going to get better, then you’re just sort of a dark animal. I mean, Melville, I guess he’s our main man.

Kushner: I didn’t mean that it was the end of his life as a great writer. I just meant that, you feel like after Pierre, that he becomes more and more discouraged. The Confidence-Man, as dark as it is, it’s in a certain sense permission that he was given to Clarel, which is thirteen thousand lines of rhymed verse about pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. It’s incredibly great and almost completely unreadable. But he becomes more and more a writer for himself and gives up on the idea that he’s going to rival Hawthorne. There’s a terrifyingly sad moment in Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville where he’s been completely forgotten and he’s seen Hawthorne become the great American writer. And Hawthorne’s dead and his diary has just been published. Melville, whose life has changed by reading Hawthorne, and reviewing Hawthorne, and meeting him, rushes to a bookstore in downtown Manhattan to buy a copy of the diary, because certainly Hawthorne hasn’t sent him a copy. And he opens it to the index to see if the day of their meeting and their friendship is in the diary. He’s mentioned, I think, once, as a kind of a strange bearded man whom Hawthorne knew vaguely.

Tuten: I think Hawthorne says something like, “I saw Melville today.” Melville came to see him in Liverpool or something. “I saw Melville today, and he’s driven.” You know, he said, “Where will this take him?” As if he was such a foreign, alien creature. But think of it, one was burning with passion, and the other one was just Mr. Cool.

Kushner: Yeah.

Tuten: The conservative, politically, as well.

Kushner: Politically, very conservative.

Tuten: But while we are on American literature, why don’t I ask you to put it this way… Someone said, in a simplistic way maybe, that all American poetry is either cooked or raw, and if it’s cooked, it comes from Poe. The line of development is from Poe to Wallace Stevens, let’s say. Poetry, which is basically the poem in itself, the poem as itself. And then the raw was more coming from Whitman and going over to… I mean, it’s an interesting diagram… going over to, ah, Ginsberg for example. So, in terms of your line of development, are you either cooked or the raw, or are you sort of half-cooked. Who are your antecedents, I guess I’m really saying? Who are the people that made you feel that this is where you wanted to go?

Kushner: I mean, it’s an interesting… do you really… is that true, though?

Tuten: (laughs)

Kushner: Before I answer… I don’t know. I guess Poe, as a short story writer… As a poet, he just makes my teeth hurt.

Tuten: No, no. Of course. Do you remember that someone called him… I think it was Emerson… called him… and maybe I’m wrong, please don’t send any letters… but one of those writers called him “the jingle man?”

Kushner: Yeah, the jingle man.

Tuten: No, it’s not that he wrote… he wrote terrible… I mean, I think—

Kushner: Say it. Say it.

Tuten: Grizzly, awful, depressing, ridiculous, sentimental postcard poetry. Hallmark would have made a fortune with him if only he’d been living today. But the notion of his poem was that the poem didn’t have to mean anything, it just had to sound great or that it depended on no outer reference but itself. It fell into itself and it was an aesthetic object, so to speak. So it’s art for art’s sake, if you want to put it that way. I think that’s how it was meant, that it’s cooked in the way that it doesn’t bark. It doesn’t have a barbaric yawp.

Kushner: It’s that Ezra Pound thing, you know, like, “Walt Whitman, I’ve hated you long enough. You broke the wood and now’s the time for carving,” which is a poem, although I love Ezra Pound’s poetry, I’ve always hated that poem because Whitman has never seemed to me raw in the least. I think it’s aesthetically, immensely sophisticated and complicated, in terms of just poetic sound.

Tuten: But by raw, he means experiential. I think what he means is “the stuff of life.”

Kushner: As opposed to?

Tuten: As opposed to the stuff of art.

Kushner: I mean, I’m not a poet. I wish I was a poet but I’m not. I’m a playwright. And so I have a different set of antecedents.

Tuten: That’s what I meant. Who are your antecedents?

Kushner: Well, there are two strains, I think, in American playwriting, of importance. One is traditional narrative realism, which is definitely my strain, and then the other great contribution that America… well, three I guess. One is American musical theater, which is a whole other kettle of fish. I dabbled in it recently—

Tuten: “Caroline.”

Kushner: In “Caroline.” And I love musicals but it’s very, very different. It’s really just a different form than serious drama, and has very different rules and a completely different set of characters and requirements and ambitions. It maybe shouldn’t be as separate as it is, but it’s got a different history. In terms of serious drama, I think you’d have to say that you could break it down essentially into the narrative realist tradition and experimental theater. The American experimental theater from the ’50s on, in this past century, transformed world theater. But I’m not an experimental artist. I have no talent for that. I need a certain kind of antecedent form to follow. So, for me, of course the great daddy of us all is Eugene O’Neill, and then I think Miller and Williams. And then Albee. Then there’s a host of people who come before me who had an enormous impact on me, writers like John Guare, Maria Irene Fornes, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Jean-Claude van Italie, although he’s sort of more in the experimental mode. But those are the people who had a tremendous impact on my writing. There are a lot of contemporaneous playwrights whose work I’m influenced by or I’ve stolen from or, you know—

Tuten: Stealing is good.

Kushner: Well, it happens… Both here and in England. But in terms of American playwriting, in a certain sense, you could say that with O’Neill, there are two strains. There’s a kind of personal drama and the epic drama, and I think I’ve been profoundly influenced by both strains. You see them interestingly emerge in Miller and Williams. It’s sort of a combination, because the plays of Miller and Williams are both epic and intensely personal and lyrical and non-epic at the same time. They’re actually stranger plays than I think we give them credit for.

Tuten: I didn’t want to flatter you too much, but I wanted to say, when you said, “I’m not a poet,” I was going to say, well, that’s a matter of opinion. Because I think that the poetry in your plays, without being poetical, without being forcibly so, or self-declaredly so, is so much a part of why I love the work, and why I feel that it’s not the narrative but it’s the language that’s so rich and beautiful and vital. I think that the lines in “Caroline”—sometimes it’s doggerel, if you want to call it that—it’s just sublime.

Kushner: Thanks.

Tuten: Forgive me for embarrassing you in front of 200,000 people. I do believe that. And I also think that you speak in realism in drama, in your drama… This is an autobiographical moment, so forgive me: two nights ago and then again last night, I heard some noises and I looked above me and the ceiling began to split. Now, in the old days, and this is true, in the old days, when your ceiling opened, it just meant you had a crack in the ceiling. This time, I thought some angels were going to appear. I only thought that because of you and your work, but the angels haven’t come yet. I think they’re announcing themselves a little bit.

Kushner: You need a plumber. (audience laughs)

Tuten: Thank you. A plumber who’s an angel, I guess, working for union wages. No, I don’t think it’s strictly so about your work. I think that there’s a lyricism and a poetry there. It’s not realist. You know, O’Neill tries it. I’m not a great fan of O’Neill so… I used to love him when I was about fifteen/sixteen and then I thought I’d rather die than see an O’Neill play.

Kushner: (groans) Oh, no.

Tuten: Iceman cometh, you know, iceman shooteth…

Kushner: (laughs)

Tuten: Don’t come, just leave. Ice man leaves. But that’s another thing. That’s another part of my life.

Kushner: You know, I think that when you’re writing plays, and I think it’s also true with novels, it helps to have an ear for the music of language, for what we call poetry, for the sound effects and the way that the sound can produce sensual feeling at odds with or consonant with the content of the work. Your work is also gorgeous writing. It’s very unfortunate when you open a novel that everybody’s loving and it’s just, you know, an excruciatingly bad sentence…

Tuten: (laughs)

Kushner: I call it lug nuts in a rusty bucket….clunk clunk clunk…And part of what makes for good writing is an ear for what we would call the poetical. Poetry itself is another thing and it seems to me to be the most difficult writing—that those people are the best writers and they lead the way for everyone else and their writing is frighteningly great. I don’t know, I’ve been reading a lot of Marianne Moore recently, somebody I didn’t like for a long time, and I’ve come back to her. The insight into politics, into the world around us… I think she was an Eisenhower Republican…

Tuten: Yes, she was.

Kushner: She’s phenomenally great. And those people scare me. I have kind of an almost religious feeling about them. I usually refuse to meet them because I admire them so much. Except for Poe.

Tuten: Not to speak of the fact, all that money they make.

Kushner: Yeah, they’re rich.

Tuten: That’s why they go into it, secretly. Poetry is big money. (audience laughs) Why don’t we leave the realm of ether and go, for a moment, to less poetical terrain, Hollywood. I’d love to talk to you about your work now in film because you’ve been doing that now for a while. Where did that begin, the film work?

Kushner: I feel like I’ve just started it. I wrote a screenplay version of Angels in America for Robert Altman, which was completely rewritten. I mean, it was a play completely reimagined because it was right around the time that the play was coming to Broadway and we both felt we needed to do that. Also, I don’t think that, had Altman actually filmed the play, it would have borne a lot of resemblance to the play, because that’s not the way he works. That’s not what his particular genius is, and I really do think he’s a genius. When I was working with him, he told me terrifying stories… You know the scene in Nashville where Ronee Blakley is shot while she’s singing at a concert at the Grand Ole Opry? It’s an astonishing scene and it’s one of the things that makes Nashville a classic. She had apparently written this scene the night before they were going to film, where something else was supposed to happen. She’d written it and tried to get Bob to look at it right before the cameras started rolling… “What if somebody shoots me?”… And he had taken the scene and was a little tired and didn’t want to deal with this actress with this idea, so he put the piece of script in his pocket and they shot the scene as it was originally intended to be. And then at the very last minute before they decided to move on to the next shot and dismantle the whole thing, he remembered that she had done this scene, and he stopped everybody and they reread it and decided to try it and it changed the entire… I mean, the movie without it is unimaginable.

So he’d tell me these stories while we were working together. It’s the scariest two years I’ve ever spent as a writer. I loved being in the room with him and I loved working with him because I really revere him as an artist. But I began to have greater and greater doubts that this film was going to be what either he or I wanted it to be. And I think he felt the same way. Then I wrote a film for Jonathan Demme that was a complete disaster. Nobody’s ever seen it, nobody ever will. The film wasn’t made. The screenplay was like the worst thing I’ve ever written. It actually took two years of my writing life and it was one of the unhappiest… not because of anything that Jonathan Demme did. It was just that I didn’t know what I was doing.

And then Mike Nichols called and said he wanted to do the film version of “Angels” and I immediately felt comfortable with him because he’s somebody who’s spent as much of his working life in the theater as he has in film. And from the very first conversation, the first thing he said to me was, “I want to keep all the doubling. If Meryll Streep’s gonna be in the movie, I want her to play all of these characters… I want to see what it would be like if she played a rabbi.” And I immediately thought this was going to be a very strange movie, and he gets the play in some way and he gets what makes it good as a play.

I started writing scenes and I don’t know anything about making movies. I’d never been on a film set. I’m really kind of an idiot when it comes to figuring out where objects are in space. If they’re both moving, I can’t do the math. If you ever see me driving down a road, go somewhere else quickly. (audience laughs) I don’t have that spatial thing, that “Top Gun” thing. And I’ve always known that I’d be bad at doing the sort of geometry that’s involved in making a movie. Because, you know, the proscenium arch theater is the frame and the people are standing behind it… it’s very easy to get that.

I did about thirty pages of the script and I sent it to Mike, and it had “p.o.v.” and “cut to” and the camera transitions and all these things that sounded to me like technical film talk. If you write a film script, you get a special kind of software called Final Draft, which has all of that stuff in it. Like if you type “c” this little thing will pop up on your screen that says “cut to.” So you can find all these technical terms even if you don’t know what they mean. It makes it look very authentic. (audience laughs)

And I handed Mike thirty pages of this drivel, and he said, “Have you ever been near a film set?” And I said, “No,” and he said, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” (audience laughs) I said, “Is it that obvious?” And he said, “Yeah, this is ridiculous. I’ve made a lot of movies; I know how to make movies. Your job is not to make the film. Your job is to give me your idea generally of what the scene is like and what’s said, and you can do it any way you want. You don’t have to use all this gobbly-gook.” And that made everything so much easier.

So working with him on the “Angels” script was great, and now I’m doing my second screenplay, which is for Steven Spielberg. It’s a very different experience because it’s a very different kind of director. He wants everything to be in the script before the shooting begins.

Tuten: You mean he wants you to tell him where the camera’s going to be?

Kushner: Well, no, he doesn’t do that, but when we’re talking through a scene, he’ll say, “You know what would be cool is if the wall blows…” It’s a very violent movie… he says, “if the wall blows in and knocks the chandelier out of its socket and then it bangs and it falls and it…” And I was sort of nodding my way through those things, saying, “That sounds great. You’ll work that out.” Then I would send in a new draft and he would call back and say, “Where’s that thing about the chandelier?” because he wants me to write his ideas in because it’s Hitchcock really, it’s what Hitchcock did…

Tuten: He wants every frame…

Kushner: Mike, when we got to Rome to film the heaven scene, couldn’t decide what the angels in the Council of Principalities would be wearing, so poor Ann Roth, who did the costumes, came up with like three different versions of these really gorgeous costumes that they could be wearing, and we went to rehearse the scene… it was all done in Hadrian’s Villa. And Mike saw these actors up there in their—it was spring, but it was cold—and they were all wearing these down coats and hats. And he went up there and he said, “That’s kind of interesting.” Then he just threw it out, right on the spot, and said, “Let’s not have costumes, let’s do this in rehearsal clothes,” which I thought was just awesome. It’s only a sixty-six million dollar movie and he takes this loony gamble, and people said, “Film it with the costumes, too.” And he said, “No, this is good, we’ll do it this way.” I can tell that Spielberg is really a different kind of director. It’s much more planned for, but I’m sort of enjoying it. I just can’t wait to get back to writing for theater again.

Tuten: I was going to ask you that. Does this captivate you enough to want to make your own films and write and direct them?

Kushner: Oh God, no. I mean, no… it sounds to me like they’re talking about nuclear physics. I don’t have any idea what they’re talking about and that’s fine with me. I don’t even like directing the theater anymore. I like writing and sitting back and letting other people do it. Being on a film set is like being in tech forever. In theater, when you finally finish rehearsing, you go onstage and you do the lights and the sets and you make the machine of the production work. It takes usually about ten days in the theater, two or three weeks if it’s a really big musical. I mean, it’s hell on earth. You just sit around forever while they adjust the lights. And every playwright with half a brain runs for the hills when tech starts because it’s so boring, and you don’t want to talk to the director because the director is running this giant machine. So you just stay away from him. And film is like tech starts on the first day of filming and it never stops. There’s never a moment when the audience comes in, you’re just in tech forever, and I can’t stand being on a film set. It’s really tedious.

Tuten: All that free coffee and everything, that doesn’t work?

Kushner: Oh, unbelievable food. That part of it is great. (audience laughs)

Tuten: Tony, you think we could just maybe wind down… You want to add anything before we say, “Au revoir?” That’s French, you know.

Kushner: There’s that Proustian side of you.

Tuten: (laughing, to audience) Any questions?

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You might also like

  • Telling a WhopperTelling a Whopper The writer-musician rewrites the Battle Hymn in his new novel, The Good Lord Bird.
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  • The End of Gore VidalThe End of Gore Vidal The iconoclastic leftist and novelist discusses the rage that fueled him, and how he felt about his coming end alongside the ruin of America.
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