The Collider Interview: Craig Lucas

     November 3, 2005

Posted by Mr. Beaks

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When Craig Lucas made his off-Broadway comeback in 1998 with The Dying Gaul, expectations were that the light touch of Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless had likely given way to a somewhat weightier hand, considering that the writer was mourning the loss of several loved ones, including his longtime collaborator, director Norman René.; A healthy dose of melancholy would’ve been palatable; instead, audiences got a shockingly bilious work of self-recrimination that infuriated and closed quickly.;

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A tragic tale of artistic compromise that curdles into metaphysical betrayal, The Dying Gaul satirized Hollywood with brass knuckles.; Seven years later, Lucas has opened up his play and turned what was once a full frontal assault on the studios into a wincingly personal thriller that might’ve caught the fancy of no less a neurotic than Alfred Hitchcock.; On the surface, it looks like a by-the-numbers cautionary tale in which principled, and gay, playwright Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) sells out to bisexual production executive, Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), whose retired screenwriter wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), becomes obsessed with Robert’s unhappiness.; But it is so much more than that.; Few films this year have evinced the thematic malleability of The Dying Gaul, and none have boasted a more accomplished ensemble than Scott, Sarsgaard and Clarkson.; As was the case on stage, Lucas leaves his tale frustratingly unresolved, but provocatively so.; It’s a beautifully played chamber piece and the most emotionally satisfying iteration of a story that never comes completely into focus.; And I mean that in a good way.

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I had the opportunity to briefly chat with Craig several weeks ago as he made the publicity rounds for what I hope will be his breakthrough film.; He was in buoyant spirits, and, best of all, let slip a scoop about a potential musical that could very well win him his first Tony (Craig was nominated again this year for writing the book for The Light in the Piazza, the music for which was composed by Adam Guettel).; Even if you’re not a big theater queen like me, give this a read.;


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I had the great fortune to see The Dying Gaul twice at the Vineyard in 1998, once with Cotter Smith and once with Tony Goldwyn in the role of Jeffrey.; And I really have to express utter surprise at being here discussing a movie of The Dying Gaul because it’s been so long since that production.; Did you ever think you’d be making a movie of this play?

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No.; Not in my wildest dreams.; I did not pursue it.; You know, I got into movies because Norman Rene wanted to make movies.; I love the theater, and I had wanted just to do theater.; And Norman was interested in Bob Fosse’s movies and Mike Nichols’s movies, and studied them carefully – he was a friend of Bob’s.; And I kind of went along for the ride.; Though I do love some movies, I’m not a movie geek.; I’d just as soon stay home and read a book.; I’m really a solitary kind of person, and movies are a very public and social event in every way.;

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(There’s a knock at the door.; It’s housekeeping!; No clean towels right now, thank you.; Maybe later.)

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So, I did a little bit of studio work before I wrote [The Dying Gaul], and it wasn’t my métier; it just wasn’t at all.; They didn’t get me, and I didn’t really get them.; I probably would find it much more viable now that I understand [the process].; I was naïve, and, I think, kind of bratty.

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Bratty or maybe too principled?

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I think not so much principled as arrogant.; Hubristic.; And not so respectful of their needs and their world.; They were giving me a lot of money, and I really should’ve tried to give them what they wanted, but I didn’t know how.; So, coming back to movies has been a really surprising, unexpected turn of events, and it’s all because of that man who looks like a surfer dude out there (pointing to producer George VanBuskirk).; He called me up and said he wanted to make a movie out of The Dying Gaul, and he wanted me to direct it, and I really thought he was out of his mind.; I did.; I thought he was a crazy man.

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It such a strange turn of events because I think this is, without a doubt, the angriest thing you’ve ever written.

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You want to hear a funny story?; When we went into previews for The Dying Gaul in New York, at the very first preview, which was Tony’s first performance – he had rehearsed for a day – I was sitting there sweating bullets, and this woman two rows behind me said, “I love his plays because they’re always so open hearted.; He’s just a generous soul, and the work just leaves you feeling warm inside.”; And I thought… (buries his head into the palm of his hand).; And at the end of the first act, she said, “Well, I think it’s going to work out.”; (Stifling a laugh); And at the end of the play, you know, people were really angry – angrier at the play then they were at the movie because they didn’t expect it from me.; And she said to her husband (whispering), “I don’t know.; Something must have happened.; Maybe he had a psychotic break.”; (Laughing hysterically.)

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(The phone starts ringing.; Turns out it’s the incredibly persistent housekeeping staff of the Century City Hyatt.; Craig reiterates that there will be no clean towels, thank you.)

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But this did come from something of a dark place, didn’t it?

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It’s a very angry story.; And I have always, actually, been an angry person.; But Norman always encouraged me to take that anger and turn it around.; And when Norman died, there wasn’t anyone there to turn it around.; Plus, my lover of eleven years had died, and my mother had just died, and my best friend had just died.; Everyone I knew was dying, and the Reagan Administration sat around with their thumb up their ass for all those years, and I felt that it was time that we not go gently into that good night.; And that silence really did equal death.;

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And people change.; Life burnishes them and changes them, and I had become interested in tragedy.; Theatrical tragedy.; Drama.; The Greeks.; Shakespeare.; Marlowe.; O’Neill.; In those years, I had suddenly gravitated towards these plays that I had not understood as a young man because I was very callow and a late bloomer.; I’m rediscovering my lighter, more playful side now that some time has passed and I’m not just sitting at home crying and drinking.;

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Would it be fair to say that the first murder of the play is the changing of the names, which represents switching the gender of the other main character?

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That’s a very good point.; What we were able to do in the movie that we couldn’t really do on stage is see that actually happen.; 1,192 Maurice’s changed to Maggie.; [Robert] panics, of course, and wants to undo it, but the computer freezes.; And isn’t that always when they freeze?; Everytime.; Today, you’d have an Apple and that wouldn’t happen.;

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Exactly, but not then.; You’re lucky if you had even backed it up in the first place.

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(Laughing); Exactly.; Well, David Pogue says there’s two kinds of people in the world:; those who back up their data, and those who will.

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I’m in the “will” category.

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But I always loved [Ingmar] Bergman’s movies – The Passion of Anna, Shame.; I loved Scenes from a Marriage.; And I didn’t know how, as an artist, to move into that terrain – “the dark night of the soul” – because I think as a young artist I was too interested in winning the audience’s good graces.; But you can’t want people to like you, finally, as an artist.; If you want to be an artist, ultimately you have to be willing to make people uncomfortable.; There’s nothing comforting about King Lear.; It’s not a happy experience.; A Touch of the Poet, Long Day’s Journey, Streetcar, The Bacchae, Oedipus, Persona, 400 Blows, Midnight Cowboy – the great narrative tragic work demands an engagement with life’s tragic element that T.V. and Hollywood have lured us somehow into thinking we can escape.; Americans were shocked by 9/11 in a way that the rest of the world was not, because somehow we’re… better!; We’re privileged!; We’re the best fucking country in the world, so we never have to ask, “Gee, where’s all that money going that we’re paying in taxes?”; “Oh, we’re just bombing a lot of innocent children for no reason except that we want their oil.”

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The response really is to treat them as pests, and all we have to do is exterminate them.

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Yes!; And when you grow up and realize that – again, I’m a late bloomer, and I realized well into my adulthood that I was a part of a country that I was ashamed of, ashamed to be participating in paying taxes for these wars, from Vietnam to El Salvador to Guatemala to Iran to Iraq.; There isn’t a part of the globe where we haven’t brought our big guns and shot up a lot of civilians to keep the capitalist ball rolling, and I think that The Dying Gaul was the only way I knew how to [confront it].; It’s no more disturbing than Psycho or Vertigo – there are antecedents to this movie.; It’s just not candy cane.; And I think because I wrote Prelude to a Kiss and Reckless, everybody thought I was… that person.; You know, if you read early Ibsen and late Ibsen, or early O’Neill and late O’Neill, or early Shakespeare and late Shakespeare… writers who are engaged with their world and their life and their art, they change.; And I’m grateful for that.; I love that George Bush said that Harriet Miers in decades to come would be the same woman that she is now!; And that’s a good thing!?!?; What kind of person doesn’t grow over thirty years!?!?

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People who don’t value education, that’s who.

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That’s exactly right.

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They just value belief.

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Blind faith.;

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But then again, at least for the relevance of the play and this film… I hate to say “grateful”, but, I guess… grateful to this administration because I think it’s now more relevant than it was during the Clinton Administration.

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Oh, I think that’s definitely true.; I’m not grateful to them, though.; I’d rather my movie have no relevance then we be doing this to the world and ourselves.; I could make another movie.; (Laughs); It was, actually, the 2000 Election that convinced me, when George called, to make this movie.; I thought, “You know what?; It’s the only thing I can do to express my… fury.”

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The Dying Gaul has really changed from when I saw it before, but, then again, when I saw it two times back in 1998, it hit me differently each time.

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We did, in fact, set out to not do the play.; The play is about corruption, and I wanted to make a movie about betrayal.; And lying.; Because the play already exists, and I thought, “Why turn this into a filmed play?; That’s just dumb.; I’ve done that before.”; So, we threw a lot of it out, and changed a lot of it, as you know.; Also, I’d seen the play in a couple of productions, and I thought, “You know, it doesn’t have to be funny”.; It still is funny at times, but it can just be a drama.; It can just be a thriller.; The things that we kept watching before we started shooting were Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window – I was looking at a lot of Bergman and a lot of Zanussi, whom I hadn’t seen before.; And a friend turned me on to Kieslowski’s movies.; Just ways that you can use the camera and color to create disquiet.; The beauty is part of what starts to make you nervous; it’s like everything is so perfect.; You feel like if you move one thing in Jeffrey’s office, the whole thing will come screaming down, with the pot and the gleaming glass… it’s all beautiful.; His pool and their house – and I wanted to start us feeling like, “Someone’s going to break something.; Something’s going to go wrong.; This is too perfect”.

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Immaculate surfaces are always good in thrillers.

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I think so.; It’s true.; Oh, I want to see Vertigo again!; I want to make a musical out of it!;

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Seriously?

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I do.;

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That would be fantastic.; Now that you’re in the business of doing these intellectual musicals—

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That’s what I want to do.; I’m really trying to get Adam Guettel into doing Vertigo as a musical.

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Oh, my god.; That could be terrific.

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(Uncontrollable, almost embarrassed laughter); It’s insane.

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It is insane, but that’s why you do it, right?

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It’s a good one, right?; It’s obsession!; Obsession with women and the way they’re objectified!; Hitchcock, more than anybody – talk about taking your dark inner side and putting it on film – he was the frog!; And he lusted for these perfect, chilly, beautiful women, and he made a movie about it.; What a revelation that picture is!

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Also Marnie.; That’s my favorite of his obsession films.

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I wish I could print where Craig went with this, but he asked me to keep it off the record.; And it was at this moment that the barbarous Chris Regan whisked Craig away to the roundtables, where he opened in fine fashion by talking about how Patricia Clarkson’s headlights are always on.;

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Hopefully, this brief exposure to the mind of Craig Lucas has whetted your appetite for the cookie full of arsenic that is The Dying Gaul, which opens in limited release this Friday, November 4th.; As for Vertigo as a Broadway musical… please.; And soon.

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