Peter Lefcourt is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist. His play – “The Way You Look Tonight” – is about two couples, pair of ex-spouses and their new mates. When the four get together for the first time in years, it blows up in a delightful mess of romantic complications. The play’s directed by Terri Hanauer, who happens to be Lefcourt’s wife, in their fifth collaboration. “The Way You Look Tonight” runs July 10 through August 24 at The Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. Tickets and more info here.
Peter’s other plays include “La Ronde de Lunch,” “Mutually Assured Destruction,” and “Sweet Talk,” which he adapted into a feature film. Peter’s TV-writing credits include Cagney and Lacey, for which he won an Emmy Award; Showtime’s Beggars & Choosers, which he created and ran; and ABC’s Desperate Housewives, for which he was a co-executive producer. He has published eight novels: The Deal, The Dreyfus Affair, Di And I, Abbreviating Ernie, The Woody, Eleven Karens, The Manhattan Beach Project, and Purgatory Gardens, set to come out in 2015.
Peter shares his experience writing and offers tips for writers in a variety of formats.
Why did you write “The Way you Look Tonight?”
If I knew the answer to that question, I could save a lot of money in therapy. Writing, for me at least, is largely a matter of accessing the subconscious – dredging around in the attic of ideas and seeing what turns up. It is an adventure, a journey with an unknown destination. Some journeys have to be abandoned midway or earlier; others wind up in unexpected places. You don’t know until you start out. And then you keep going, as an act of faith, hoping that you don’t wind up in the ditch (have I driven this metaphor into the ground yet?)
What was your favorite part of writing it?
Keeping the energy up, not losing the thread, remembering that what I write has to be performed by actors. And then, once rehearsal starts, having the fortitude to cut the superfluous, the pretentious, and the undramatic. The theater, especially the genre of comedy, demands precision and economy of language. One extra preposition or one wrong phrasing can kill humor. You don’t really know, of course, until you’re in front of an audience; the audience never lies. When you hear the sound of butts rustling in seats, you’re in trouble.
In what ways does collaborating with your wife help or hinder your creative process?
Collaboration is not an exact science. You need to learn how to do it. And it’s different with each person you work with. In the theater, listening to a director is extremely critical. The director comes at the material from a slightly different perspective – that of performance. It makes no difference what’s on the page if it’s not on the stage. “The Way You Look Tonight” is the fourth play I’ve done with Terri Hanauer. The fact that she’s my wife is irrelevant, except for the fact that we have 24/7 access to each other. This has its positive and negative sides: it’s nice to have the time to work together, but we tend to get obsessive about the project. Days go by without our talking about anything else. Which can become a little monomaniacal. Every now and then we have to check in with each other to find out what’s going on that has nothing to with the play.
How do your find writing in other formats (tv writing, novels) similar to writing plays?
On some level, writing is writing. That is, it is storytelling, whether it’s print, film or stage. There is more similarity between film and theater than there is between either of them and writing books. Performed art requires not just collaboration with actors and directors, but a sense of the visual, a sort of “visual intelligence.” Many writers, especially those who come from prose, never develop the ability to see the work; they can only hear it. And the work can become talky and static.
What are the differences?
Writing for film and television is much more lucrative than writing for the theater (unless, of course, you write the book for “Jersey Boys”). That’s about it for the good part. The bad part is that film and TV are mass media and, as such, need to appeal to a larger common denominator than most theater. Which means you are often writing with your eye on the meter. And if you’re not, you’ll have no shortage of studio and network executives doing it for you. In Hollywood, you can die from help. You can get so many notes from so many people that you no longer know what the story is about. And you start to roll up in a protective ball when they come at you: especially the superbly general ones. Can this be faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, and, of course, everyone’s favorite – edgier? I wish someone would invent an edgy machine, so that all we’d have to do is put the script through it and it would become edgier.
Do you have a preferred format? Why or why not?
Writing books is probably my favorite because it is about voice. And there is nothing as unique to a writer than his/her voice. With prose, you have to ability to get inside the characters’ psyches and break the unities of time and place. There is no filter between you and the reader. I find this a more intimate form of communication, both as a writer and a reader, than the performing arts. However, I find it a rather lonely business – cliché notwithstanding. After days of sitting in a room writing a novel I look forward to going to the supermarket, the drug store, even noisy restaurants with obnoxious kids. Any place with other people.
What tips do you have for those who want to write humor?
Be funny. Seriously, there is nothing as ineffable than humor. Once you try to explain it you’re in quicksand. The one piece of advice I would venture to give is not to overwrite humor. It’s fragile and it can drown easily. Personally, I believe that there is no discrete division between humor and drama. They are either ends of a continuum. If humor doesn’t have something serious at its base, then it’s like cotton candy – cloying and unnourishing. Conversely, there is nothing worse than heavy drama with nothing to leaven it. Even “Medea” should have light moments.
Advice for playwrights?
Don’t expect to make a living from it.