How Three Playwrights Are Making the Jump to Film and TV

Laura Barisonzi Photography
Rob Askins

Several top writers recount the stage-to-film transition: "I hope I haven't come too late to the game for Marvel"

It’s a well-traveled path for writers from stage to screen. There are the established crossover masters — think David Mamet and Tony Kushner — but every decade brings new playwriting talent to Hollywood, from American Beauty’s Alan Ball to Skyfall's John Logan. The Hollywood Reporter shines the spotlight on the new class of playwrights who are making their names known in film and TV.

Rob Askins

"It's blood, sex and Jesus, with laughs," says Askins of his playwriting, his slight drawl barely hinting at his rural Texas upbringing. His home state inspired the 34-year-old first to write stark Westerns like those of Sam Shepard, then to take a blackly comedic tone toward the same places and people. The approach has won him acclaim for plays like Hand to God, which will open as his Broadway debut in April and centers on a young man who creates a foul-mouthed sock puppet of Satan after his father dies. “I like laughter in the midst of death,” the playwright tells THR.

He’s a comic book buff, and he can pinpoint the very issue where he realized comics could have allegorical depth — Marvel’s X-Factor #87, in which a superhero team undergoes psychoanalysis. "That was the first time I was like, 'This is not just a fantastic hero story,' " he says.

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His dream jobs include a historical work and a Marvel superhero movie. ("I hope I haven't come too late to the game for Marvel," he frets.) He’s getting there with his current project — he's writing Black Hole, the adaptation of Charles Burns' horror comics that David Fincher was set to direct before passing it to Top of the Lake helmer Garth Davis, for New Regency and Brad Pitt's Plan B. He's repped by WME, Grandview and Schreck Rose.

Penelope Skinner

Skinner, 36, focuses on female-centric dramedy in part to help out her friends who are actresses. "I feel like they need different kinds of jobs, where they’re not just someone’s girlfriend," the playwright tells THR. But she feels a greater "responsibility and desire" to level the gender playing field in theater, film and TV, she continues. "Ideally, the female characters could become universal protagonists in the way that males are. You could have a woman leading a movie about monkeys taking over the world." Her plays center on women, from The Village Bike’s pregnant housewife played by Greta Gerwig off-Broadway to the drug-addicted stripper in her well reviewed first play F—ed.

Her first film credit was The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald’s post-apocalyptic How I Live Now, released last year by Magnolia, and now she’s writing her first period drama, Working Title’s Mary Queen of Scots with Saoirse Ronan in the title role. She wants to write a sci-fi movie ("with a lot of women," she adds) and she says she’s been asked in several meetings about writing a project set at a bachelorette party. She’s repped by WME and the U.K.'s United.

Formerly an actress herself, she remembers her surprise on the How I Live Now set that the cast and crew were nice to her. That’s due to a previous experience on set — she was once an extra in a music video for Spice Girl Emma Bunton. “It was one of the worst days of my life,” she says with a laugh.

How I Live Now

Jordan Harrison

Harrison admits he isn’t the industry’s most obvious hire. His subject matter is eclectic and wide-ranging — his plays include a drama set among a community of 1950s re-enactors, a fairy-tale-meets-espionage adventure with a child protagonist and a journey through memory with an elderly woman and an artificially intelligent hologram. "It's not a business-savvy way to be, but it’s how I am," the 37-year-old says. His process starts with finding a genre or format he’s never tried before, he says. "I don’t sit down thinking, ‘What part of my childhood am I going to plunder this time?' "

None of that stopped him from securing a job in the writers' room for the second season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, where he says creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan is "decisive and unapologetic" but gives her writers the freedom to exercise their own styles. "It hasn’t felt as different from playwriting as I thought it might. There's room for an individual’s voice within the larger voice of Jenji and Orange," he says.

He’s eager to launch a TV project of his own, but he isn’t planning on leaving theater behind. He’s taking his cue from other writers he’s seen open plays while writing television. "It's been amazing to see that you can occupy both worlds and tell stories in both ways, over two hours or over 200," he says. He’s repped by UTA and Circle of Confusion.

Jordan Harrison /  Courtesy Jordan Harrison

Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka