Tony Kushner, Beau Willimon Reveal How to Write for Hollywood Without Ever Leaving New York

Eric Ogden
From left: Kushner, Willimon, Shanley and Parks were photographed March 25 at the National Arts Club in New York.

It helps to be brilliant, like these four playwright-screenwriters — also including John Patrick Shanley ('Doubt') and Suzan-Lori Parks ('Topdog/Underdog') — who navigated La La Land with advice from Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols and William Goldman.

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

What happens when you put four New York-based theater greats (who also write for Hollywood) in a room and ask them to dish about the differences between the two cultures? A lot of smart conversation, not all of it precisely on point. But that's no surprise, considering the far-ranging brainpower of the scribes: Tony Kushner, the dramatist behind Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Angels in America (both the 1993 play and the 2003 HBO miniseries); John Patrick Shanley, who wrote 1987's Moonstruck and the play and screenplay for 2008's Doubt, which he directed; House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, who wrote the play Farragut North (2008) and the movie optioned from it, The Ides of March (2011); and Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer for 2001's Topdog/Underdog and has written projects for Oprah Winfrey, Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt and Spike Lee. They discuss the highs, lows and culture shocks between New York's theater world and Hollywood.

 

 

Their First Time

TONY KUSHNER I went to L.A. when [director] Gordon Davidson wanted to meet about Angels in America. I thought it was one of the weirdest places I'd ever been. I loved Venice, Santa Monica and thought downtown L.A. was extremely interesting and strange. I stayed at the Marina Pacifica hotel, and there were all these bodybuilders and weight lifters.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS I remember getting off the plane and seeing that thing [Encounter, the Jetsons-style restaurant] at LAX. It was as if I'd landed on another planet. It was the first time I'd ridden in first class on a plane because a studio was paying for it. I was really nervous because I was the only black person in first class. I'm standing there trying to look like I know what I'm doing. I thought, "Oh, I wish another black person would be in first class," and Denzel Washington walks on the plane.

JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY I had written a screenplay called Five Corners, and Tony Bill [The Sting producer] optioned it for five grand. He asked me to come out to Los Angeles to work on the script a bit. But actually, it was just so I could make friends with Los Angeles. He met me at the airport in a vintage sports car. He took me to all the hottest restaurants and introduced me to all the chefs. While we were eating fantastic appetizers at a French-Vietnamese restaurant, he said, "If it's OK with you, I was hoping to take you on my yacht to Catalina for abalone." I ended up on a yacht the following morning.

BEAU WILLIMON We sent out Farragut North as a writing sample. I got that Cinderella call: Warner Bros. wanted to option it for a movie. They were talking about George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio producing. It was all ass-backwards! At that moment, it was a hot item, and I had something like 70 or 80 meetings in a couple of weeks and went from complete soul-crushing obscurity to a lot of people telling me they loved my work. I got my pinky toe in the door and kept jamming that foot and leg and the rest of myself in ever since.

 

 

Quintessential "Hollywood" Experience

SHANLEY Tony Bill introduced me to an older, middle-aged guy who identified himself as a producer. This guy proceeded to tell me about his erectile dysfunction at some length. I didn't know how to stop him and said, "How much do you make a year?" He literally said, "That's personal." It's like, "OK, I'm in a different world."

KUSHNER There's some company in L.A. that looks at the number of pages and number of words on each page [of a script] and tells producers how long it's going to be. They should immediately be banished to some island. Apparently they're notoriously wrong all the time. [My latest Spielberg script, an adaptation of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara] was 400 pages in the first draft, 221 pages in the second, and the third is a very trim 145 pages — although I think I just added a page. Also, when you write for film, a scene that you worked on may be as hard as any scene you ever worked on in a play, but when the day comes to shoot it and it's shot, it's kind of done. I mean, it becomes a piece of something that will last, but the words on the page itself are sort of over. You get the chance to discover the pleasures of being a bottom. It's not all your fault if it doesn't work.

 

 

Their Hollywood Mentors

PARKS Spike [Lee] continues to be very nurturing and kind. Oprah's people and Denzel were really helpful when I worked with them. Right now, I'm working with Sue Naegle, who is awesome sauce. … I'll tell you [about it] once I write it for HBO — like everyone and their mom.

WILLIMON I learned, and continue to learn, a lot from [David] Fincher. There's a lot I got from notes he gave, discussions we had and watching him on set. Also William Goldman — I sort of bullied my way into his life. I first learned from his writing: Adventures in the Screen Trade, Which Lie Did I Tell? and The Season, a great book about Broadway. And mostly just the stories he told, his on-the-job adventures, mistakes he learned the hard way and a certain sort of belief in himself.

SHANLEY Several years ago, I expressed to William Goldman uncertainty about whether I would ever work again. He said, "There are very few people who can do this, and you're one of them." You know what? It just landed. I was like, "Oh, OK." And then Spielberg just kept talking to me about movies, and every time he'd say a movie that I hadn't seen, he'd send it to the hotel. I ended up going to film school.

KUSHNER I just sent in a third draft of this thing that [Spielberg and I are] working on now, and that afternoon, he sent it back. He said, "I'm sending you 20 pages of cuts." The cuts were incredibly smart. He's just astonishing at constructing narrative; it was his first read-through. But the best advice I ever got was from Mike Nichols. I was playing with Final Draft and had camera swings this way, that way. Mike smiled and said, "You've never been on a film set, have you?" I said, "No, is it that obvious?" He said, "Just describe what you think it is, and I'll make it into a movie." That was so liberating.

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