Q & A with Screenwriter/Playwright Dan Gordon on “Irena’s Vow”

Playwright/Screenwriter Dan Gordon

Playwright/Screenwriter Dan Gordon

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing conversations with filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Hollywood screenwriter and Broadway playwright Dan Gordon about the differences between writing movies and writing plays like his new drama “Irena’s Vow”, starring four-time Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh.

“Irena’s Vow”, directed by Michael Parva, opens Sunday (29) on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre. It’s already being talked about as a contender for Best Play when this year’s Tony nominations are announced in May. For details about the play, check out its website www.irenasvow.com, which includes this synopsis:

“Featuring a cast of ten, ‘Irena’s Vow’ is the riveting, life-affirming story about one of the most courageous and unsung heroines of World War II. During the German occupation of Poland, Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, was forced to work as head housekeeper for a prominent German major. Over a two-year period of service, Irena would risk her own life in order to protect the lives of twelve Jewish refugees whom she secretly took under her care. ‘Irena’s Vow’ is the extraordinary true story of one woman’s choice and the twelve lives that would ultimately be saved - or lost - by her decision.”

“Irena’s Vow” is Gordon’s Broadway debut, but he’s written several other plays, including hit adaptations in England of “Rain Man,” starring Josh Hartnett, and “Terms of Endearment,” starring Linda Gray. He’s also adapted “Murder in the First,” which he wrote for the screen, to the stage. It will be produced in New York by the Invictus Theatre for the 2009-10 season.

Gordon’s screenwriting credits (shared) include the 1999 drama “The Hurricane,” for which Denzel Washington was Oscar nominated; the 1994 western drama “Wyatt Earp,” starring Kevin Costner; the 1997 thriller “The Assignment,” starring Ben Kingsley; and the 1995 thriller “Murder in the First,” starring Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater. He’s going to write and direct the movie version of “Irena’s Vow” later this year.

Q: Given your wealth of stage and screen writing credits, you’re well positioned to talk about how it is to work in both fields. That’s something not too many writers can do since they tend to work in one or the other rather than both.
A: In a 40 year career, I think I’ve never been as busy or as creatively happy as I have over the last year or year and a half.
Q: I don’t want to take anything for granted, so let me begin by asking if there are differences between writing for the theater and for films?
A: Night and day differences. (The Hollywood system of) development hell is a very painful experience, done by committee (and) writers are inter-changeable.
Q: Why is it that when a top director or a big movie star becomes interested in a screenplay, the first thing we see is that a new writer is hired to do a rewrite for them?
A: Which is interesting because it’s your script that got the movie star or the director in the first place. Everyone says, “It’s wonderful! Now let’s change it.” So you wind up seeing your best material, for which you have been paid royally, but in exchange for that you signed over your work and they can take it, rewrite it, add to it, bring in 10 new writers, have two sets of different writers working in parallel who know nothing about (their both working at the same time) and turn it into whatever they feel like turning it into. Sometimes you wish your name wasn’t on it because if you’re paid over a certain amount you can’t take your name off. On the creative end of it, I’ve never known a writer who will not admit to the pain of that process. It’s a pain for which we’re amply compensated, but on a creative level it’s a painful experience. And nothing much good comes out of it, by the way.
Q: Why is that?
A: Good things start to come out of it when you have one creative direction. But when you’re still in the committee stage, when you’re developing it with studio executives who go back to what they call their “group” — And these are all nice people, by the way. I don’t want to vilify anybody, it’s just the nature of the beast — nothing good comes of that process. It’s really a terrible process. It doesn’t serve the studios well and the fate of anything that’s being developed by the “group” is they’ll choose to develop it as opposed to abandoning it because they don’t want someone else to do it. (That’s how it is until a major star or a top director says they want to do the project) or until they’ve spent so much money on it they say, “Well, it’s just time to bury it."
Q: What if a director comes on board?
A: Then it can begin to take shape again because you don’t have the “group,” you’ve got the director and the director then can shape it into whatever the director wants either working with his or her own go-to writer, which many of them have, or whomever they decide to bring on at that point. And then again it will get back to the creative process of one vision guiding this thing. But as long as it’s the vision from a corporate group I’ve never seen anything good come out of it with the exception of the types of movies that the studios now like to do, which are the tentpole comic book movies. An awful lot of them — I won’t say all of them — are more a function of the marketing than anything else.
Q: Why doesn’t Hollywood change the way it develops projects?
A: I’ve often wondered why (instead of making one $200 million tentpole movie studios don’t finance 10 movies costing $10 million apiece) and let the filmmakers make exactly the vision that they have sold and that excited the studio in the first place. I don’t get that model. I don’t think it makes sense, but the studios think that it does, obviously. That’s what they’re in the business of doing. They would rather gamble that one of these tentpole things will hit the jackpot and two or three of them will be so-so and one of them will flop, but the jackpot will make enough to keep their lines of credit going. I think it’s an archaic business model and I don’t think it makes any sense today, but no one has asked me for my opinion except you.
Q: Although screenwriters are well paid, do they have much in the way of power or prestige in Hollywood?
A: Very little, I think, because the truth is the engine that drives any movie is the movie star. Movies get made because movie stars want to make them. So the top of the pecking order is the movie star. The movie star generally wants to know who the director is because that’s going to influence the way they look, how their performance comes across (and) who’s going to take them in interesting places (as actors) that they haven’t gone into before. And a lot of them are drawn to screenplays, but not drawn enough to say, “I was so impressed by that screenplay that, by God, that original writer has to be the one who’s through to the end.” That’s very, very, very rare. Of the four above-the-line entities — movie star, director, producer, writer — the most interchangeable and expendable is by far the writer. That’s not a “poor us,” it’s just that that’s a fact of life in the studio business.
Q: What kind of power do writers have on Broadway?
A: We’re gods. The only place the writer has more power than in the theater is as a show runner on television. A show runner on television, the writing executive producer, has a Vesuvian-like amount of power. The writer in theater has approvals over casting (and) over marketing. Usually you can put in an approval of your director. Such a thing is unheard of as a screenwriter. In theater that’s close to a given. (Playwrights have approval over everything from casting to) who’s hired as a director, who’s hired to do the sets, the music, incidental music. The flat out fun is that you get to work with everybody. It’s just the most fun in the world. You come to the theater and get a sense of the people coming in every night and unlike movies where once the thing is done and in the can, in theater it’s pretty much always a work in progress. You can go to the theater on a given night and say, “Gee, I have an idea for a great new speech and let’s try it out tomorrow” and you will. If the thing works, it will be up on the boards the next night. So they never take the train set away from you. You get to keep playing with it.
Q: What if someone wants to change a line of dialogue in a play?
A: They can only do it with your approval. They have to come on bended knee cowering, genuflecting at all times to the writer and say, “I have an idea to maybe change this particular line. Is that all right with you?” And I’m talking about the biggest stars on Broadway (who) must get the opinion of the lowliest paid playwright. If you are the playwright, nobody changes a word without your approval.
Q: If a movie star wants to change a line of movie dialogue do they have to call the screenwriter to ask permission?
A: Oh please. I can’t tell you the number of sets from which I’ve been barred on movies that I’ve written yet alone having any sort of approval of whether they change (anything). The movie star on a movie is God and can pretty damn well do whatever they want to do. It’s interesting when you see movie stars work on Broadway and they have to stick to a text. They sometimes are stymied by the fact that they can’t change dialogue or that they need to actually stick to the words on the page. It’s a different muscle they’re not used to working. This season I think there are more movie stars on Broadway than ever in the history of Broadway. It’s a huge number of people with real recognizable names who are trodding the boards this season. We’ve got James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels in “God of Carnage,” Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush in “Exit the King,” Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons in “Impressions,” Jane Fonda in “33 Variations” and on and on. There’s a lot of Hollywood folks out there in theater. It’s very exciting for Broadway audiences. They like it because they get to see movie stars up close in the flesh without someone saying, “Okay, cut. Let’s do another take.” You’re up there on the boards and you live and die in the time period between curtain up and curtain down. You either deliver the groceries or not. For an actor, it’s going to Mecca. That’s the big leagues for an actor. Theater is an actor and writer’s medium much more than a director’s medium. Motion pictures are in terms of artistic involvement much more of a director’s medium. I think actors get that instant gratification and feedback feel of the audience. You surf an audience’s reaction and it’s a very heady thing. Talk to any actor who plays legitimate theater and once they finish telling you about how great the fear was and get into the enjoyment of (doing live theater) they wax rhapsodic because it’s just great, great fun.
Q: Are playwrights paid as well as screenwriters?
A: If the play’s a hit you can make a chunk of change. If the play’s a flop, you’re not going to make a dime. You get a piece of boxoffice. And, again, what an extraordinary concept! You get a piece off the top. If you’re getting 6 percent of boxoffice, what that means is you don’t need Price Waterhouse to figure out what that is. You just take the total of boxoffice as reported and you say, “I want 6 percent of it.” That’s what you’re going to get. They usually have a sliding scale. When they get 100 percent of recoupment there’s a scale and you get more money at 125 percent of recoupment. And you can usually put in your contract that you can get another bump as well. So the writer has a vested interest and that’s a nice concept. If we fail, we all fail together. If we make money, we all make money together.
Q: You’ve done plays and screenplays, and I see you’re continuing to do both. Why is that?
A: I have a lot of alimony that needs to get paid. Someone once said, “What is your greatest inspiration?” I said, “Alimony. It inspires me every morning of my life.” I’ve been really lucky. I’ve done 300 hours of television and I’ve got a feature that’s coming up this year that will be my 11th feature.