Apr 18, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 148: Beau Willimon
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Current Town: Brooklyn, NY
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on two new plays – one that will have a production this fall here in New York, and another that’s a commission for MTC. One of my older plays – LOWER NINTH – is having its UK premiere this fall in London in a Donmar Warehouse production, so I’ll be gearing up for casting and rehearsals soon on that. In terms of film, I’m working on screenplay for Summit Entertainment to star Sam Worthington (AVATAR). TV-wise I just completed a treatment for a new pilot that I’ve been hired to write, and I hope to finish that by the end of the summer. So I’ve got my hands full at the moment!
Q: You're one of those people who has lived many lives. It seems like every time I sit down with you I find out something new about you. Apart from being a writer, you used to be a pool shark, you used to fly planes, you worked for Howard Dean and wrote at least one speech for Bill Clinton, you went to South Africa on a visual arts fellowship, you curated a festival of Iranian films. How does one person do all these things? What is the obsession you have that I don't know about?
A: Well you make my life sound a lot more exciting than it actually is. When you condense all those things in a short list it must seem like I’m doing anything and everything but writing plays! But most days I’m alone in my apartment with my cat trying to punch out pages, although I’m usually more successful procrastinating with online Scrabble or Risk.
As for obsessions you might not know about, I guess one of my biggest is maps, and that stems from my love for travel. I own dozens of maps and map-books, and can’t get enough of them. I like to track all the places I’ve been, but I’m more interested in all the places I have yet to explore. One of my favorite forms of travel is good old walking. That started about a dozen years ago when I trekked the Dingle Peninsula and Northeast Coast of Ireland on foot. I fell in love with the solitariness of it, and the way you really absorb your surroundings in a very intimate way. I’ve been doing similar treks ever since.
When I first moved to Brooklyn eight years ago I realized I knew very little about the borough, so I consulted my maps and began organizing walking tours for myself. Over the course of a summer I hit all 80-odd neighborhoods in Brooklyn and have since started branching out into the other three outer-boroughs. And this summer I plan to walk 100 miles through New York over the course of five days – 20 miles in each borough – literally walking from Manhattan to Staten Island on foot. I’ll have to get special permission to walk across the Verrazano Bridge (which has no public walkways), but I’m working on that so keeps your fingers crossed.
Last September I completed an 85- mile coast to coast trek along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. There was something that attracted me to the idea of following this ancient wall from end to end and seeing where it took me. My ultimate plan (and it may take me 20 years to do it) is to traverse the length of many of the world’s famous (and not-so-famous) walls. Some of these I won’t be able to do on foot because of their length, but among those I’ve singled out are the Gorgon Wall (Iran), Trajan’s Wall (Romania, Moldavia, Ukraine), The Great Wall of China, The U.S.-Mexico Border Wall, the DMZ between North and South Korea, the former course of the Berlin Wall, and Morocco’s long military ramparts in the Sahara. Anyway…as you can see I’m clearly obsessed haha.
Q: As someone who has successfully written both for the stage and the big screen do you have any tips for a playwright trying to write a screenplay?
A: Every writer has his or her unique process, but for a screenplay I personally think outlining in advance is extremely useful. With a play you’re rarely dealing with more than ten to twenty scenes, so the structure is more manageable. But with a movie you may have well over a hundred scenes and that can be a bit daunting. Even a very rough outline of the major beats can help keep the structure from getting out of control.
Another thing to keep in mind is that movies (in most cases) are primarily visual, as opposed to plays, which (in most cases) are dialogue driven. So it’s important to really visualize what’s happening in every scene, what you’re actually seeing in the frame. And you’ll find that much of your story can be told without dialogue at all – the way a character cracks her knuckles, or the glance between two lovers, the silent moments film can capture in more detail than the stage.
My friend and mentor, the legendary screenwriter William Goldman (BUTCH CASSIDY, MARATHON MAN, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, MISERY…the list goes on and on) wrote two amazing books about screenwriting which I recommend to anyone who’s writing a movie for the first time. They’re called ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE and WHICH LIE DID I TELL? Goldman recounts his personal experiences on the many movies he’s written while simultaneously providing wonderful advice on the craft of screenwriting. An added plus is that the books are as entertaining as they are useful – wildly funny, and at times quite moving.
Q: Tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My Dad was in the Navy until I was ten years old. During my first decade on the planet, my family moved every two or three years. We lived in Washington DC, Hawaii, San Francisco, Philadelphia and eventually settled in St. Louis when my Dad retired from the service. Every move meant an entirely new city, a new school, a new community, new friendships and experiences. It meant constantly adapting and re-inventing myself. This fostered a wanderlust in me (see above) and introduced me to a wide spectrum of people and their stories. It made me deeply curious about the world around me. And I think a strong sense of curiosity is important to any writer. It’s what compels us to tell other people’s stories, not just our own. And it helps us ask questions of ourselves and others are that both difficult and unexpected. It’s what helps us tap into the mysteries which breathe life and magic into the stories we hope to tell.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Every type of theater that’s out there – past, present and future. The old stuff and the stuff that has yet to be invented. Every –ism under the sun and everything that can’t be labeled with an –ism. I find it interesting when playwrights rail against a certain type of theater. You have some people who think “naturalism is dead” or others who think the avant-garde is “pretentious.” You have folks writing manifestos as to what theater should and shouldn’t be. I don’t get it. The more types of theater out there the better. The more voices, the more forms, the more stories – they all keep theater alive and exciting. I’m glad there’s so many playwright out there writing completely different stuff than me and each other. Otherwise theater would be boring and homogeneous. My first experiences at the theater were seeing the big musical road-shows that came through St. Louis – like THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN and BRIGADOON – which I loved. But when I moved to New York I fell in love with the Wooster Group and ended up interning there while they were creating TO YOU, THE BIRDIE. I love that the theater has room for both big musicals and the Wooster Group, that it’s diverse and unpredictable.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: I think the single most important thing is to find the friends and peers you really believe in, and who really believe in you, and stick together. It’s a tough business and a hard life, and you’ll get strength from those people. Nobody can do it alone. When things are going good for you, help your friends out, and when things are going good for your friends, hopefully they’ll return the favor.
On a practical note – we all know that the economics of playwriting are abysmal. There are very few playwrights, even the most established ones, who can make a living just from writing plays. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. If you need to do a day job, I recommend work that’s easy on the brain and leaves you enough energy for your REAL job, which is writing plays. I’ve done any number of jobs over the years – factory work, bussing tables, detailing cars, teaching SAT prep courses, etc. They didn’t pay great, but none of them drained me to the extent that I couldn’t find time or energy to write. Of course, if you’re lucky enough to get work teaching or writing movies or TV, that’s great – at least you’re being paid to do something somewhat related to your writing. But until those opportunities come along, make sure to protect your headspace and your time.
Todd London, who runs New Dramatists in New York, just published an amazing book on the current state of the theater and the challenges of getting new plays to the stage. I recommend it to all playwrights, not just those starting out. It’s published by TDF and is called OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY.
Q: Any plugs?
A; Yes – I plug Adam Szymkowicz! If you’re reading this blog, then you already know what an amazing thing he’s done in conducting all these playwrights interviews. Take an afternoon and read them all if you haven’t already. It’s one of the most valuable resources on playwriting and the theater that I’ve ever seen, and it will introduce you to a ton of great writers you haven’t heard of yet, as well as giving you terrific insights to writers you might already be familiar with. I also plug Adam as a writer of plays, not just a conductor of interviews. Adam’s plays are wonderful – funny, unique, perceptive, exhilarating – so go see one of the many productions he usually has up somewhere in the country, or order his plays from DPS and read them, or both!