A Conversation with John Logan

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The prolific screenwriter behind (count 'em!) three very different awards contenders reflects on his career and his upcoming Bond flick.

After 10 years writing plays in Chicago, John Logan turned to Hollywood in the mid-1990s. Within a few years, he had co-written Any Given Sunday and Gladiator and written The Aviator -- and earned two Oscar nominations in the process. Logan's return to playwriting, Red, about painter Mark Rothko, won the Tony Award for best play in 2010, and his latest films -- Rango, Coriolanus and Hugo -- all hit theaters this year and have critics raving.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Your screenplays have an excellent track record of being made into films. What's your secret?

John Logan: I know my job. I'm a dramatist. I'm not a poet or a novelist. Since I was 18 and wrote Never the Sinner, my first play, my job has been the same every single day: to write lines for actors and write scenes for directors and collaborate. When people ask me, "How do you get to be you?" what I say is, "You work really hard, and you learn how to do what you do as a professional." For me, that was 10 years of shelving books and eating tuna fish in Chicago and doing little plays. I learned how to collaborate with directors and actors and producers and front-of-house people and graphic designers.

THR: It also requires being shrewd while selecting collaborators, doesn't it?

Logan: The key artistic relationships of my life, whether in theater or film, are with directors. Nothing makes me happier than to sit across the table from [theater director] Michael Grandage and talk about Mark Rothko or to sit across a table from Marty Scorsese and talk about Hugo. They've been the most stimulating experiences that I've had. When I started my career with [CAA's] Brian Siberell, who has been my agent for 15 years, we made a list of directors that I wanted to work with. One of the keys to getting movies made is having strong people alongside you.

THR: How many of the directors who were on that list have you worked with?

Logan: All but one -- Clint Eastwood. But Clint and I are young men. The day will come.

THR: What keeps you invested, and what keeps filmmakers and studios invested in you?

Logan: I would like to think that I'm known as a hard worker. When I think back upon my life for the last 30 years, it's knowing what excites me. I don't have ambitions to direct or be a movie star. I want to do my job as a dramatist better every time, and I challenge myself to do different things. To me, variety and range are the secret of everything.

THR: When you're writing, is there a place you visit for inspiration?

Logan: I go to Death Valley every year by myself to go hiking for a week. It's the one quirk I have. I pick the hottest week of the year so I can just scorch myself and go back to basics. I'm usually turning over some very thorny issue for days on end. A few years ago, I was working on my play Red and thinking about the visual center of the play. It was while I was there that [having the main characters] prime a canvas came to me as an idea.

THR: Red involves an artist's struggle to create a great work. Was any of that informed by your path in screenwriting?

Logan: It was informed by my entire life as a writer. It is without a doubt the most autobiographical thing I've ever written. It deals with the essence of what it is to be a person who wakes up every day to create something. The struggle that the young man goes through to try to make his name and to rebel against the work that has gone before him, as well as the struggle the older artist has to stay relevant, are both parts of either who I am or who I've been.

THR: Tell me about writing a script for a 3D film such as Hugo.

Logan: That's part of the fun. I'm just a kid who loves the movies. The excitement that you get of thinking: "I can do 3D! What can we do with that? What's the legerdemain we can employ that's exciting and sparky?" The experience is the same sitting with Sam Mendes [for Skyfall] and talking about Bond action sequences with the best stunt coordinators in the world: "What can we do that hasn't been done before?"

THR: Is it a daunting prospect to bring something fresh to the Bond franchise?

Logan: It is. I grew up on Bond. Skyfall comes out on the 50th anniversary of Dr. No. I've read all of the [Ian] Fleming books. I do feel a sense of responsibility to Fleming, to the franchise and to myself as a kid seeing Diamonds Are Forever for the first time. Having said that, I'm in there with people like Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli and Dan Craig and Javier Bardem, people who love pushing the boundaries of what the piece is. Our Bond is going to shock and offend some people. I hope it's a provocative and valuable addition to the storied franchise.

THR: Looking at your forthcoming work, you've got Bond, Abraham Lincoln and Noah. Obviously, you're not shy when it comes to tackling iconic protagonists.

Logan: Those are the projects that I'm drawn to: those complex, multidimensional, opaque, thorny, ferociously complicated, big characters and theatrical ideas. I'm not interested in strict naturalism. I sometimes joke with other writers, "I'm not the guy to write two people sitting in a diner chatting about their relationship," because that bores the f-- out of me.

THR: Is there any significance in your having turned 50 this year?

Logan: More than I thought there was going to be. It did give me that natural caesura to take a breath, think about my life up to this point and think about the totality of my work. In my house in Malibu, I have a stairway that goes up to my office. I have all of my movie posters along that wall, and then it segues into my theater posters. I must say, walking up that stairway and past those posters made me feel very proud of both my own work and the work of all of those people that I've been lucky enough to collaborate with. However, I'm running out of space. I'm going to have to take the Bats poster down, I think.


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