Craig Lucas Interview

The writer talks about getting behind the camera to direct the film

Writing a screen play for the stage and writing for film are two completely different things. There's restrictions with both, and advantages to either.

That's what Craig Lucas did with his play The Dying Gaul. He took it to the big screen in the feature film starring Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Campbell Scott in a fatal love triangle.

He opened up to Movieweb about some of his most personal thoughts concerning this very deep topic. A very colorful character himself, he made a very morbid subject matter seem ok to be joyful about.

After just getting out of a great interview with Patricia, he came in and shook everyone's hand, which really lightened the mood of the room.

He started with his own assessment of how his interview would go:

Craig Lucas: You guys just had Patty; this is going to be such a come down. (laughs)

Let's talk about her.

Craig Lucas: Oh my gosh, isn't she just the funniest, cutest, little love bug. She makes me want to be straight! (lots of laughter). And she's always got her headlights on – like ‘Patty! (tons of laughter as he points his fingers out) What are you doing? What are you thinking about?' (laughter) Peter Sarsgaard used to say while we were shooting ‘I'm having a hard time being homosexual around Patty doing this scene.' (lots of laughter)

How did you visualize the IM chat sessions? Was it different from the play?

Craig Lucas: We shot some of them speaking what they were typing, and that was that. We shot some of them while they were looking straight at the camera, and those you saw, and we only kept that when it was breaking. Actually, it's hard to find which structure to use in which scene because it changes; the closer it gets to being Malcolm it changes. First, it's just the voice over, then he starts to look in the camera and then they leave that world all together for the latter part of the movie when they're floating in cyber space. It was Peter's real concern from the beginning; he would say ‘How you gonna (Craig starts laughing) do that scene?' And I kept saying ‘I don't know.'

How did you do it on stage?

Craig Lucas: It was much easier on stage. In the theater, is the notion that it's real, you know, it's that fourth wall. It's a great line in the Joe Orton play where he goes ‘Nothing we say will leave these three walls.' (lots of laughing) So they sat with their computers in their laps and with a little light on their faces, and then they began to look up and talk into the darkness. And we didn't show any words, so it was like two people talking. Doing the thing in their head allowed it to become a conversation. If we had to shoot that damn thing with the words on the screen, the movie would have been another two hours long. And it would be unbearable cause it's not interesting watching a computer screen for long. I think we use it enough for it to be dizzying and another world and lush and sexual. Ultimately, all we're interested in in storytelling is the person; and before I started shooting the movie I freaked out. I said ‘Why are these people letting me direct this movie? I'm going to have a huge public humiliation.' I called Alan Rudolph, who directed The Secret Lives of Dentists and said ‘Alan, I'm having a real breakdown trying to direct this movie. Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please.' And he said ‘You won't mess up as long as you stay on the actor's faces.' And that was such good advice, especially with something about their complicated souls; you don't wan to be looking at a lot of furniture and beautiful shots. A little of that goes a long way, I think, and I think the point of making a movie like this is the actors and what they can do. You know, a camera gets pretty close to a person's face, closer than anyone gets unless you're sleeping with them. So it's a kind of intimacy that is a privilege really, that a great artist can reveal something that we can only feel ourselves; we never see it inside another person because we don't get that close. You know what I mean, we don't get to see what's behind the eye; you would be quite surprised if I started doing that to you. Yeah, it's like back up, honey. So I just think I was extremely fortunate to have those three cause they weren't going to be boring to look at; they're smart, you always see them thinking. None of them wanted to play the clichéd moment or the character, or the needs they were interested in. It was sort of ‘what's under here?' Ok , so he's a Hollywood producer, but so; what's his nighttime like? Does he read to his children, does he talk to his wife during the day, what kind of movies does he watch when he's home, what does he read? You know, when you see him on that Sunday, he's not reading scripts, he's doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. He's kind of a haimish kind of guy, at least in the way that Campbell wanted to play him, which I thought was incredible. Otherwise, it would have been expected, and we've seen that movie more times than we ever want to see that again. I don't think America knows Hollywood the way the people at this table know Hollywood.

The scenes where Malcolm is there – is that your conception of Heaven or cyberspace?

Craig Lucas: We did both, we did shoot a thing that was like Heaven, but I was more interested in what Robert would actually be picturing in his mind. Cause I've spent time in cyberspace looking for love, or at least some form thereof –

- Two men on a park bench

Craig Lucas: Thank you. (laughter) But, then when Malcolm becomes real to him, what kind of place is he in, and I thought he was in kind of a holding place. He was held in a room between one room and the next. And this is only a living person's wish fulfillment of death; we're not known of what happens after death. I don't remember anything before my birth, so I don't know why I'd be expecting to know anything after my death. But he needs to believe it so desperately, so much that he walks away from his psychiatrist rather than telling her; he's too afraid to loose it because it's too good. It's like heroin; I never did heroin because I knew it would be too good. Right? It's gotta be good cause why are all those people flushing their lives away for it. It's got to be ‘faaabulousssss' (lots of laughter) and having Malcolm back was just too good. And that's why I think he goes berserk at the end because he's lost him twice.

Why do you think you didn't have Elaine be so aggressive after finding out what happened?

Craig Lucas: (long pause) Well, (pause) I'm not sure she wanted to take it a way from him. (long pause) Cause if you know someone and you love them – about four years ago I said to my boyfriend ‘I'm really going through an age crisis. I don't like getting to 50; I'm feeling old, and the boys on the street are looking back.' Very disquieting, and I thought I wanted to take a younger lover. And he said ‘Let me think about it.' And the about a year ago, he said ‘Go ahead. I know you love me and I know you love our sex life - he's a fabulous lover - but he can't be 20 or 25 or 30. And I did, I met a wonderful novelist, and the 1 in 1000th person who did look back, and I really enjoyed it. And then my boyfriend said to me, after it had gone on for many, many months - actually, he didn't volunteer this information, I went up to him and said ‘How are you doing?' And he said ‘It makes me feel lonely.' And I said ‘Well, that's not good.' So I put an end to it, but I think people – look, I know someone who I went to high school with and came out here to Los Angeles, and met this married couple, and she has been living with them as a ménage. Now, they don't go to parties as a ménage, and they don't advertise themselves as a ménage, but I bet that goes on more times than we know. I had a friend who came from the Ukraine, and his family came here with this guy, who they called Uncle Uri; he turned out to be the mother's lover, and it all came out after they all died. But there was this European tradition that if one of the parents took a lover, they would be known as ‘the uncle' or ‘the aunt who lived in the house,' and it happened all the time. So, that's one suspicion. Another, is she feels locked out of what they have, and instead of destroying what they have, she decides to be a part of it. You know, her husband hasn't made any of her movies, she stays at home and raises money for Emily's List, she's like the best person in the world. She's the one you want to go on vacation with, not him, you know, she's sexy, and in shape, and why would you cheat on her. Nonetheless, I think she's left her options open and that includes destroying Robert. But, if she says something, she'll never understand what he's getting out of that relationship, because it'll be done, she would have broken it, broken the vase, and never had a chance to look into it. She gets a very privileged view. And the interesting thing about Elaine, and it didn't start out like this when I was writing, it just kind of came up – when you're writing well, you don't know what you're doing – is that she takes this information and becomes a more loving person. You know, she says to her husband ‘You're a good person, other people don't see what's in there, but I see you're a good person.' He thinks she's crazy, be she really does see it and I think they're all poised to be better at the end of the story if there weren't this bad accrual faith and lies that's sort of this big ball that's rolling towards them that none of them see. But the things that they wanted from the lies aren't bad, and she was trying to make her marriage better, if she wouldn't have found out that her husband was trying to kill her. And even then, she's poised to have a better life when she gets out of that place, to have a life on her own away from that jackass. And I think Jeff could be in a better place if he would admit if he liked both sexes or if he were straight – or gay – I don't know, I keep getting that confused myself ‘aallllllll the time!' (lots of laughter with a huge burst of laughter from Craig)

Why would Robert believe that this was his dead lover, isn't a lot more obvious that someone is messing with him?

Craig Lucas: Yes, I think that's obviously that's the rational thing. There's a book out right now that I find so fascinating, it's Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking; she talks about what happens to you when you're grieving, and you go insane, that's what happens. I have a friend who's lover died, and he stayed in the apartment for ten hours before he called the hotline ‘Can you tell me if there's any example of a person dying and then coming back a little later, like an hour, ten hours?' This is a smart person, this is someone who went to Harvard. So, he doesn't want to be in pain anymore, and the sex isn't doing it, and the drinking isn't doing it, and that the fact that Malcolm isn't really gone, it's so intoxicating that idea. But it's crazy, it's a crazy thing to believe.

But it's also kind of like this Malcolm isn't saying things that is incredibly nice or helpful, so it's not like he's clinging to the most positive version of him.

Craig Lucas: No, but it's also if he has unresolved guilt into ending Malcolm's life, perhaps prematurely. What he says is ‘I couldn't stand to see him suffer anymore so I injected his IV with potassium chloride.' And at one point he does say ‘The doctors said you weren't going to get better, I think that's what they were saying, I hope that's ok.' He's not sure; he didn't end Malcolm's life because Malcolm was in pain, he did it because he was in pain. There are so many clues that this guy isn't well and that he's not a good person, but we're so invested in finding people who are suffering, victims that are to be better some how. You talk to these people who survived Hiroshima, they didn't just all of a sudden get happy, they were destroyed, they saw the 9th circle of Hell, and became just broken, shattered pieces of people. People who came out of the camps weren't all Primo Levi, some of them were just mean for the rest of their lives, or just incapable of speaking. I know that all the people who have died in my life have not made me a better person; I used to write comedies, (laughing) seriously, I'm making a joke. But, I'm an angry guy, and I wasn't an angry guy in my twenties, or certainly not this angry.

Is that what made some of the reviews of the play so mixed at one point?

Craig Lucas: I don't know if that helped though, the play was much funnier. And we didn't tell them that it was a horror or a tragedy, and what I think what's so brilliant about what George (VanBuskirk) has done with that blue poster – there's no way you look at that blue poster and say ‘Oh, I bet this is going to end well.' (lots of laughter) And that's important, because audiences feel betrayed; if you go see Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and you think it's going to be a musical, you're going to be mad. And if you go see The Dying Gaul and you think it's going to be a Hollywood satire, you're going to be mad. And that's what happened with Peter Marks, I think; it's actually my best reviewed plays I've ever had. But as you know, in New York, it's all about one paper for theater; and I think he did his job. He went, he had an experience, and he thought the play was at fault, because it upset him. We may have been at fault for not letting him know what he was coming to see – but then again, there's ‘dying' in the title. I felt like saying ‘Peter, pay attention.' It's that famous story, Cheryl Crawford refused to produce Death of a Salesman because it had ‘death' in the title, and then for the rest of her life, she had to say ‘I'm the one who didn't produce Death of a Salesman.'

How was working in that house?

Craig Lucas: It was a nightmare, literally. It was like ‘Could you not put your feet on the floor like that please? Does this have dirt on it?' We weren't allowed to use the bathrooms; we had to use those awful port of potties so the whole place stunk. And there was paper on the floor so when Patty's walking around, you heard (Craig makes crackling noises). It was a horror show, I just hated it, and the people weren't warm, fuzzy, people and they took all our money, and then – oh, never mind, ‘ohmmmmm.' (pretending to meditate) I would not want to do that again; that was hard, nine days in that house. We kept losing the light, and they neglected to tell us that they were in the flight path of LAX. We'd be outside doing these scenes and Patty would go ‘Robert, what is on your –grrrrrrrrhhhh' (sound effect of plane muffling up the lines) and she would get this look on her face like ‘To the moon, Alice.' And I would have to cut. I'm making movies indoors from here on out.

Peter told us you're developing something else.

Craig Lucas: Yeah, Patty, Peter, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Louise Parker, Daniel Gold – it's called Small Tragedy. It's about a Bosnian refugee who comes to the US after the Bosnian civil war, who auditions as a lark, on a lark, - for an interpretation of Oedipus Rex, and he gets cast as Oedipus, and he falls in love with the woman who's playing Jocasta. They get married and they have a child and then his past starts catching up with him, that's Peter's part; Mary Louise is playing – g-d, she was funny at the reading, there's no one funnier, she just makes me so happy, cooky. But it's based on a play again, but it's going to be easier, cause it's got little scenes and it's a lot more cinematic than The Dying Gaul, which was originally only six scenes.

What were your reasoning's for choosing the actors?

Craig Lucas: Campbell and I have worked together twice before, and I think he's really one of our finest, finest actors, and underappreciated because his work is so subtle. So I knew I wanted him to play Jeff, cause I knew he wouldn't play him as a heel. And I've known Patty for 20 years, since she came to New York, and they were a couple. So I thought ‘That's easy, they'll be good.' And the producers were interested, it was their suggestion, and it was their suggestion that I hire Peter, who's work I had scene on stage and in the movies; I couldn't have been happier. I couldn't believe he did it, I couldn't believe any of them did it, because I had never directed a movie, and why were they going to spend all those weeks working with potential nightmare, in that nightmare house. So, I'm feeling a lot of gratitude these days with the fact that I was surrounded by the best possible people I could find and they all watched out for me instead of saying ‘who's this jackass who thinks he can make a movie at 52?'

The Dying Gaul opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles November 4th; it's rated 'R.'