Paul Rudnick on How ‘Coastal Elites’ Straddles the Line Between Theater and Film

     September 14, 2020

coastal-elites-kaitlyn-dever-sliceThe HBO special presentation Coastal Elites might be about this strange new 2020 we find ourselves in, but much like 2020 itself, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Paul Rudnick‘s screenplays for films like Addams Family Values and Jeffrey (if you’ve never seen the 1995 film starring Steven Weber and Patrick Stewart, do yourself a favor and fix that) have confirmed him as a master of wit, both for the screen and the stage. It was the latter for which he began writing a series of monologues well before the onset of the pandemic, themed largely around the current political landscape, with the plan being to film a live theatrical performance for HBO.

Now, the theaters are closed and everyone’s coming up with new ways to tell stories that reflect what’s going on right now. This, as Rudnick explains below, actually ended up working in Coastal Elites‘ favor, as he was able to rewrite his original pieces to not just be relevant to today, but amp up the stakes and also remind us about what exactly life was like during the early months of the pandemic.

Coastal Elites may end up being remembered as a unique and vibrant time capsule we may look back on in a decade as a powerful reminder of just how crazy things are today. Below, Rudnick explains what it was like to work with and cheer on Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever while filming their monologues under quarantine, and how Ivanka was in the original draft.

coastal-elites-bette-midler

Image via HBO

You started working on this project before the onset of the coronavirus, so talk a little bit about what elements were new to the project after quarantine.

RUDNICK: Originally, Jay Roach was going to direct it onstage at the Public Theater as a live event with an audience, and film that for HBO. But, when the pandemic hit that, that became impossible. And I ended up being actually strangely grateful for the delay because it did allow me to include so much new material — everything about the pandemic, everything about the Black Lives Matters protests. Because there’s also, there’s a timeline through the pieces. The first piece takes place before all of that, but as we move through, especially ending with Kaitlyn Dever, that was brand new. That whole speech was something that was a reflection of what was going on in the world then.

So I tried to keep it as immediate as possible, because what I was discovering was that both the virus and the protests raise the stakes enormously for a situation that was already hugely dramatic and overwhelming — that people were going through so much and then suddenly there were whole new levels. So it was something that I thought of it as a very necessary opportunity to include everything.

How much of the Ivanka material was originally there?

RUDNICK: I would say about three quarters. Because there was always the idea of another woman of great privilege, who had a relationship with Ivanka from their boarding school days. So, it was someone very much on an equal footing and a visit to the White House. But what, and I always knew that it was a Black woman, that it was someone where there was a strong racial conversation going on.

So once the protests happened, again, that informed everything. And I thought of Ivanka’s response to those protests in real life was of great interest, and lacking potentially in certain ways. So, it became an opportunity to take everything that many steps further.

coastal-elites-issa-raeSo, while the visit to the White House was there, the conversation, and also an ultimate phone call… Which was sort of the complete snowball effect when the death of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were suddenly enormous factors in everyone’s world, and could not be in any way ignored or sidelined. So, it just became an essential part of it. So, yeah, but that was certainly included almost in real time as those events were unfolding.

When was that actually shot, then?

RUDNICK: That was shot… Let me think. I think we shot Bette Midler last, which was probably a month ago. And I think we shot Issa right before that, if I remember correctly. So it was, God I lose track of time so easily now, like everyone else now. So it would have been June or July. I’m not sure the exact dates.

The structure of the monologues is also chronologically out of order to some degree — what was driving that decision?

RUDNICK: Well, because I thought that there were certain pieces, like the Miriam Nessler piece, the opening piece, that demanded a freedom that the pandemic no longer allows any of us, that she needed to be out on the streets in a very specific way. There was a confrontation that was very central to the piece that I didn’t want to have also impacted by the virus.

And, but then as we moved through, we sort of felt our way. And when we ordered the pieces, we always wanted them to be in the order that they go in now. And I thought, man, it doesn’t have the chronology. It doesn’t have to be exact, but that is why we put dates on a card at the beginning of each monologue, so that we are saying, okay, this happened earlier, this happened a bit later. And I like that. Because we’re all in this together, it’s something we’ve all been going through.

coastal-elites-dan-levy

Image via HBO

It actually becomes part of the experience that you track. It’s the way in which nowadays people can be nostalgic for February. You can remember “when was the first time you heard about the virus?” I remember I was about to go out to the theater the night everything in Manhattan shut down. And there was a real decision to be made as to, do we go to the show tonight? Do you show loyalty? What were the health dimensions? So that with these pieces, you see the world coming together, coming apart. And it’s a little fragmented, but I thought, no, that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be as neatly ordered as it could be.

Ultimately, how collaborative was the experience working with the actors?

RUDNICK: Enormously collaborative. And this group of actors is so extraordinary. They’re so smart. And so funny that I would be an idiot not to take advantage of that, not to use them as the most complete resource as possible along with Jay, our director. Who is, I mean, Jay is sort of perfect storm, because he’s got a background in amazing comedy like Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers movies. And yet he also has such political command of movies like Recount, and Game Change, and Bombshell. So he’s the perfect combination for this particular piece, especially.

So what happened was, when I originally wrote the pieces maybe a year ago, the earliest drafts, it just sort of poured out. I wasn’t even sure how it would end up because I’m primarily a playwright. It felt theatrical, but I wasn’t even thinking along those terms, I was thinking these people wanted to be heard. These people were demanding that I write them.

So as the process went on, it felt strangely natural. That especially because of the monologues, there’s something intensely focused about them and intimate. And then when we got the camera on the face of Bette Midler, and Dan Levy, and Issa Rae, it felt like you had a front-row seat at the most phenomenal moment. There’s a level of sharing and intimacy that you don’t even get in the theater. Where yes, there’s, you may lack a certain physical dimension, but because these are solo pieces, that was less of a concern. So that I ended up feeling that this landed exactly where it needed to. That I loved being that close. I loved getting to know these people one-on-one. And so when I was talking to the actors, they’re like tuning forks, which I’ve been lucky in my career.

coastal-elites-sarah-paulson

Image via HBO

I’ve been able to work with an array of just amazing performers. So that when I would listen to them, if something felt off, if a phrase felt awkward, if a section felt unnecessary, I knew it was my fault. I thought, no, no, no, these people know what they’re doing, and they know their characters so well. And when I wondered for a moment, when I tried to decide what this particular cast have in common, it was because they all have this awesome sort of comic mastery. I mean, they’re such a funny group. And that they’re also capable of instant heartbreak, often within a couple of syllables so that I listened to them and felt, okay, this is where this needs to go. This needs to be amplified. We’ve had enough of that. So when I would talk to them, I mean they’re superb, and they’re also wildly articulate.

So that what happened was, It became almost rehearsal distilled, because when you’re working on a movie, there are always enormous amounts of other people around. There’s casts, and there’s a lot of downtime. There’s a lot of waiting for technical issues. And in the theater, you’re still in a room where you could take breaks, where you could step back, where you move on to another scene. This was always honing in on that actor, that moment. And it was thrilling in a lot of ways, because there was no nonsense, and there were no distractions. So, it was a very welcomed way of working. I mean, I don’t think it would be appropriate for every piece, but for this, it was exactly what we needed. And the actors that I talked to, they weren’t even aware of this, while we were filming, because some of these pieces are fairly long, and they would do them in a single take, which is almost unheard of.

It became very exciting in this very specific way where you just, you had to cheer for them, but remember to mute your devices. It was like when I’ve worked on projects in comedies where the actors are so funny that you end up, you know, like stuffing paper cups in your mouth so you don’t ruin the take.

Jay and I would be texting each other while we were filming. We were like, people at a sporting event or at the Olympics going, “Oh my God, she’s so great,” “He’s so amazing.” “Oh Lord.” And then we became that moment where he thought this was going so well, let’s see if they could bring it home. And they would, and we would use so many caps. It became almost very middle school, where we go, “Yay, that was so amazing!” And that the actors would almost… It was like coming out of a trance. Where they would go, “Was that okay? Did I miss anything?” And we would go, “You have no idea what you just did.”

Coastal Elites is streaming now on HBO Max. For more, check out our interview with Dan Levy.

Television