Nicholas Kazan’s latest play—Mlle. God, in which he reinvents Frank Wedekind’s famous Lulu, “creating an outrageous and muscular dark comedy, a paean to sex, art, and living in the millisecond”—premieres this week in Los Angeles. Kazan’s plays, including the Off Broadway hit Blood Moon with Dana Delaney, have been performed across the U.S. in New York, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay area, Atlanta, and elsewhere; A Good Soldier was recently produced at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.
His first credited screenplay was as co-author of Frances, for which both Jessica Lange and Kim Stanley were nominated for Academy Awards. Other sceenplays include At Close Range, Patty Hearst, the Roald Dahl children’s classic Matilda (written with his wife, Robin Swicord), Fallen (starring Denzel Washington), and Bicentennial Man (starring Robin Williams). In 1990, he received an Oscar nomination for “Best Screenplay” for Reversal of Fortune, the darkly funny tale of Claus von Bulow that garnered a “Best Actor” Oscar for Jeremy Irons; this script also garnered Best Screenplay Awards from several critics groups (Los Angeles, Boston, etc).
Kazan talks about his background and creative process—including the experience of writing his first one-act, simply from inspiration—plus offers advice for screenwriters and playwrights in this Write On! Online Author Q&A.
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s world premiere production of Mlle. God launches an adventurous joint season with Circle X Theatre Co at the new Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. The play runs January 28 through March 6. For reservations and information, call 323-644-1929 or go to www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org.
What inspired you to write Mlle. God?
In 1979, Kenneth Tynan wrote a love letter in the New Yorker about the silent film actress Louise Brooks. Brooks was famous for only one film—G.W. Pabst’s astonishing black and white classic, Pandora’s Box. The film was based on the famous “Lulu play” written by the German playwright Franz Wedekind, a play so shocking that the original text was never performed during Wedekind’s lifetime.
After reading Tynan’s piece, I found the film and, like the essayist, I became obsessed with Brooks and Lulu. I found Wedekind’s play (later divided by the author into two plays as he tried, without much success, to transform or dilute his original impulse and transform it into something which audiences could tolerate), and I found it somehow … disappointing. It seemed awkward in places, not as exuberant as Pabst film or Brooks’ performance. I realized two things: that I had to write a modern version and I had to base it … loosely, very loosely … not so much on Wedekind as on my experience of watching the silent film.
Obviously I thought about writing this for a long time. It gestated.
What was your favorite part of working on this play?
There was no favorite part. I loved writing it, casting it, rehearsing it, watching it. To me it was all a blast. The film business has, sadly, changed. In a corporate environment, screenplays get “developed” for years … and most of the movies I have written would not be financed today. While of course I am still working in film, with this stage play I had the additional pleasure of hearing my words spoken again, seeing the whole thing come alive, soon after the writing period.
The greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge we had was logistical. So many talented actors auditioned … and the variations they presented us were so exciting … that we decided to double-cast six of the ten roles in the play. Equity rules, understandably and wisely, limit the number of rehearsal hours for actors. Normally these rules don’t create a problem—but with our partial double-casting, this limitation on hours meant that many of our rehearsals were rushed, leaving less time for play and exploration. The actors absolutely rose to the challenge, though, as it seems actors always do.
Why did you decide to premiere in LA?
My dear friend (the fabulous director and acting guru Larry Moss) introduced me to Gates McFadden. She showed me the theater she was converting from an old factory on the outskirts of a really cool area I’d never seen before … Atwater Village—on the outskirts of Glendale. I love Gates’ energy and her commitment and love for unusual theatre. I sent her two plays. She immediately wanted to do this one … in fact, to open her theater with it.
How did all the players come together?
We auditioned. Scott Paulin (the director) and I were apprehensive at first that we’d find our cast among actors who are members of EST. We needn’t have been, obviously—the problem was one of selecting among so many who are so skilled. We also cast some actors who are not part of the company. We just took the people who seemed best suited for the roles … and there were a lot of wonderful actors whom we could not cast.
Beyond that, I’ve never worked with a group of actors so talented, committed, and harmonious. It is—as it always should be in the theater—a family…and, miraculously, not a dysfunctional one.
How do you approach the blank page?
I love the blank page. This is the moment when anything can happen … the only limit is my imagination. And I love what comes out too, but once characters start speaking and the action begins, limitations enter. With the blank page, the first character to walk on can be anyone or anything: a man, a woman, a bear (I once wrote a play with one), a cockroach (Kafka), an alien, an alien disguised as a table … you see what I mean.
I believe my best writing is almost automatic … I’m keyboarding as fast as my fingers can move, hearing the dialogue and writing it down. I don’t like to “make things up” or force (or cajole) my characters into doing something. To me that kind of writing feels like what it is—a series of external manipulations.
What is your creative process?
First a practical answer. I write every weekday—and some weekends—from about 9 to about 4. If I miss a day, I get antsy. If I miss two days, I get depressed. The Italian novelist Alberto Moravio once said something I adore; he said, “Once I was so wildly in love that I walked the streets hoping to get hit by a car so I could die in a state of perfect happiness. Of course that was in the afternoons. In the mornings, I write.”
This is how I approach something I want to write. First, I decide what it is … what it wants to be, a play or a movie. Just a gut feeling. Then I start to write notes: scenes, parts of scenes, snatches of dialogue. This is a kind of dialectic with myself: about the characters, the plot (I write a series of partial outlines), research if there is some factual basis for the story, and so on. This is the most exhausting part of the process because frequently I confront things I don’t know … problems which at first appear insoluble. One has to be gentle at those moments, gentle with one’s self. Don’t force the issue. Just acknowledge the problem and let your imagination find a solution.
An idea can gestate (as this one did) for 20 years, though most ideas come together more quickly. But at a certain point, I know what the story is, and I get so tired of writing notes that I’m going to explode. I use a fission metaphor: I reach critical mass. At that point, I start to write. The preparation for writing can take as little as a few days, or as long as six months. The writing itself … the first draft anyway … usually comes fairly quickly, especially when I’m writing for the theater. Film is—in this respect —more difficult because more plot is required and more narrative events mean there are more junctures … intersections where the writer can make a wrong turn and lose your audience (or yourself).
Is your process different when writing for the stage than it is in writing a film?
Different mediums dictate differences … not so much in approach (my process is my process) but in focus and attitude.
There are several obvious differences between film and theater.
One is the editing machine: in film one can cut. In most circumstances, you must cut in order to create narrative movement and dramatic tension. The result is, as I said, a plethora of narrative events. In the theater, the tension often comes from not cutting. Theater is about elaboration … about character and the more gradual unfolding of event.
The second key difference is visual. I love visual elements in theater, but obviously one can’t set one scene on an iceberg and the next on a dusty street in Mexico … Okay, you can, but the locations are suggested, they’re not real … which means that the images themselves can rarely carry the audience through the story.
The third key difference is what I’ll call “sensory awareness.” In a movie, you can’t sense the physical presence of the actors. In a theater you can. Members of a theatre audience know they’re in the room, literally in the room, with real people who are enacting the play. This is why, for instance, watching a demonstration of magic works in a theater but doesn’t work on film—because on film one can cut … the magician can cheat. There is no cheating in a theater. The same is true for plays: there is no cheating. What you’re seeing is real … and it has to feel, in whatever way the play requires, real.
Do you feel you were destined for a career in the entertainment industry? How so?
I was interested in politics and economics.
Then, when I was in college, I saw a play by Harold Pinter. The next morning, I woke up, heard a line of dialogue, and wrote it down. The next line followed, and the next. I was writing as fast I could. I had no idea when I started who was speaking, what the situation was, or the time, or the locale. I knew nothing. I just wrote in a fury for about an hour. When I got up from the typewriter (yes, this was a while ago), the woman I was living with asked me what I’d been writing so furiously. I said, “I think I just wrote a one-act play.” She said, “What’s it about?” I said, “I haven’t a clue.” I waited half an hour, went back into my room and immediately rewrote it, smoothing out a few things. That was the text. It was done in college … and was the first play I had done professionally.
Decades later, I read Pinter’s Novel acceptance speech. He talked about his process. It was the same as what happened to me that morning in college. He heard a line of dialogue, wrote it down, had no idea who was speaking or to whom or what the situation (or plot) was. In retrospect, I think I somehow tapped into the same creative muse from whom Pinter took his inspiration. Mine play, needless to say, was not a Pinter work of genius, but the process was addictive; I was hooked.
So I never felt destined to have this career. But I did feel called.
Advice for playwrights?
The advice I give playwrights is the same I’d give any writer:
Don’t fear failure. You will never write anything good if you’re afraid you’ll be bad. You have to be willing to be bad … willing to make an utter fool of yourself, in order to write something good.
Advice for screenwriters?
Close your eyes. Write down what you see and hear. But don’t begin actually writing the script until you have a very good sense of your structure and a clear sense of where you’re going to end up.
What are the three biggest mistakes new writers make?
In real life, writers subsist on fantasy. We go into a room … not necessarily a dark room … and have visions. Great. But that means we are, normally, less forceful, less engaged with the real world, less active or pro-active, than other people. We tend to be passive and most of us are introverts. There’s nothing wrong with that … unless you write characters who are the same way. In real life, people often don’t demand satisfaction, they don’t determine their own fate. In drama … including film drama … they must. So the first and biggest mistake new writers make is a passive protagonist. Your hero must get into his or her own trouble and determine his/her own fate.
Second mistake: “It happened in real life, therefore it is good drama, and I can’t and shouldn’t change anything.” Even the most compelling real life events need to be altered somewhat to make them dramatic. The trick is to remain true to the real story while helping it conform to the needs of drama.
Third mistake: Insufficient daring. No one want to be bored. Make sure you grab your audience and never let them go.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
That life does not always recognize or reward quality. One has to fight for one’s vision, be rude or obnoxious if necessary … only you really know what your work is supposed to be. This does not mean you don’t pay attention to the opinion of others … you have to listen. Dramatic work is a dialogue … you have to hear what the audience (including your readers) have to say. But feedback is really just more information. Listen to other people … but you don’t have to do what they suggest. Sometimes you have to do the opposite of what they suggest. “The road of excess sometimes leads to the palace of wisdom.”
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