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This month marks 25 years since audiences got their first glimpse of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, a courtroom tearjerker that cast Tom Hanks opposite Denzel Washington in the story of a man who battles his law firm after being fired because of his HIV diagnosis. The film — celebrated today on World AIDS Day and through a series of events in partnership with (RED) and the Coca-Cola Company — went on to land five Oscar nominations, one of which went to screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how the film changed his life, the lesson he learned from his mentor Demme and what he’s working on now.
When you think about Philadelphia, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is the phone call I received from my mentor, Jonathan Demme, whom I had worked with a few years before. And Jonathan said to me that his friend had been diagnosed with AIDS, and Jonathan said that he was terrified. The only thing he knew how to do was to make a movie, and he asked me if I would make a movie with him about AIDS.
During the writing process, who did you look to for inspiration?
We had so many. In those days, if you lived in New York City as I did, and if you worked in the movie business as I did, you were surrounded by people who were facing HIV and AIDS. Notably, there was a wonderful guy named Tom Stoddard who founded Lambda [the Legal Defense and Education Fund]. He came on as a consultant fairly early on. We became very close. Ron Vawter, who ended up being an actor in the movie, was, in some ways, a consultant. In the making of Philadelphia, we had at least 50 people who had HIV/AIDS participating in the movie, so I was surrounded by it…. When we started this in 1988-1989 working on the script and then going into production in 1992, everybody was thinking and talking about AIDS. It wasn’t just one of the things that you occasionally thought of — it was something in the news and in the culture quite a bit.
Did you face any pushback when trying to get Philadelphia made?
There were films in the United States about AIDS before Philadelphia. We were the first major studio Hollywood film about it. There were some really good films, like Longtime Companion and Parting Glances, that were very inspirational to us. We wanted to do something that would play at the mall cineplex. As we got closer to making and even selling the script, Jonathan was in the process of making and then releasing The Silence of the Lambs, which was a huge commercial hit and also won five Academy Awards. So there was a certain point at which there was no opposition because people weren’t going to tell the director of The Silence of the Lambs what he could and couldn’t do. I know people would love to hear the juicy stories where we had a shouting match with the studio executives and demanded that they make this film. That was not the case. We worked with a wonderful studio executive named Marc Platt who felt a moral imperative to make this movie. When we pitched our version of the story to Marc, this is exactly what Marc said: “There are 10 scripts in development right now that I know of that are about AIDS in Hollywood. All of those other scripts have heterosexual main characters. That is insane and immoral. We are gonna make the movie about AIDS that should be made.”
How did working with Jonathan Demme change your work? What is the most valuable lesson you learned from him?
Jonathan went into so many situations with enthusiasm and love. If a waiter waiting on us at a restaurant liked a certain kind of music, Jonathan would send the guy a DVD. So Jonathan was enthusiastic, and it gave me this profound confidence moving forward. I just knew that I was free to make mistakes and try things, and there was this basic love underneath all of it. And he really taught me — and I don’t always follow it — to approach most situations like that. So if I go into a notes meeting, for example, which I hate, I can choose to be really defensive and I can turn off the executives in the room, or I could be like Jonathan, who would make all of his executives feel like they were geniuses. He would then turn to me as we left the room and said, “You can just forget about everything they said. You don’t have to do any of it.” It wasn’t about going to battle and being defensive and being angry. It was about really embracing every day and every situation with this life force of enthusiasm, and it’s not my personality. I would rather do almost anything…I just love to stay home and watch TV in my underwear. But he influenced me to be a bigger and more enthusiastic part of the world.
This film was very successful during awards season, with five Oscar nominations and two wins for actor and original song. You were nominated for best screenplay. Did it change your life?
Philadelphia changed my life completely. That’s the dividing line of my life, and I also have to tell you that when Tom Hanks signed my script, he wrote, “My life will always have two parts: before Philadelphia and after Philadelphia.” That’s how I feel. A miracle happened. I was on the set of Homeland, a show I worked on, and one of the production assistants introduced himself and told me, “I just wanna tell you that you changed my life.” He was Egyptian and in his early 30s. He told me that when he was 14, he snuck into his parents’ bedroom one night and watched a very heavily censored showing of Philadelphia. In watching it, he realized who he was. Jonathan changed my life with his phone call, and we were privy to pass that along.
You signed a new deal with Fremantle, and it was announced that your show Bounty was first under the deal. What’s the latest news?
We sold a story based on a great novel by Louisa Luna. The novel’s called Two Girls Down, and the great director Lesli Linka Glatter is attached to it. Lesli and I know each other from Homeland, and it’s about a female bounty hunter, a.k.a. recovery agent, who goes to a small town in Pennsylvania and helps to locate two abducted girls and, in the process, turns the town upside down and uncovers all kinds of secrets. It’s thrilling to do that. We have two or three other things in the works. I’ve worked with Showtime for so many years, going back to 2003 when my film Soldier’s Girl was made for them. A very early transgender story, by the way. I was there in 2003 with a transgender main character, ahead of the curve. So I’m back with my friends at Showtime, which is fantastic.
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