Milos Forman was looking for the best writer to adapt the hippie anti-war musical Hair for the big screen. The Czech filmmaker already had a growing U.S. following in the wake of The Firemen’s Ball and Taking Off when 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest took home five Oscars including best film and best director. And while Michael Weller had zero experience as a screenwriter, he did have a reputation for plays that cast a gimlet eye on the generation that came of age in the era of protest against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. His works included Moonchildren (1971), Loose Ends (1979) and Spoils Of War (1988), which interwove the intensely felt political and personal obsessions of Baby Boomers on the cusp of adulthood.
For Forman, Weller would write two of the most underrated films of their time, Hair (1979) and, two years later, Ragtime. Like his London-based counterparts Tom Stoppard — the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead playwright who’d gotten his launch at the Edinburgh Fringe before going on to acclaim with the screenplays for Brazil, Empire Of The Sun and Shakespeare In Love — and Stephen Poliakoff (an underground playwright who would go on to acclaim for the teleplays and screenplays of such works as The Lost Prince and Gideon’s Daughter), Weller always has been as comfortable writing for screens large and small as he remains dedicated to the live theater. But in the mid-seventies, as far as Hollywood was concerned, he was the compleat novice.
That was then, this is now. Weller returns to Broadway in the spring with his biggest project yet: a musical adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Not only will it have to compete with one of the last century’s best-known literary works, but also with David Lean’s 1965 Oscar winner with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, not to mention a plot that rivals The Magic Flute and any Dickens novel in complexity and nuance.
I’ve known Weller since the late 1970s, when, as a young reporter on the theater beat, I covered his activism in the Dramatists Guild on behalf of the financial rights for playwrights as off-off- and off-Broadway were growing increasingly important as a source of income for writers. We then spoke at length about his most intimate play to date, The Spoils Of War, starring Kate Nelligan, which opened off-Broadway and then transferred to Broadway in 1988 before being turned into a 1994 film In Spite Of Love, starring Nelligan and a then-unknown Tobey McGuire. The musical Doctor Zhivago has been in the works for nearly a decade. Directed by Des McAnuff (the Broadway musical Jersey Boys; The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle), it has a score by Lucy Simon, Michael Korie and Amy Powers and is slated to begin previews at the Broadway Theatre at the end of March.
Weller recalled that his friend Peter Shaffer (Amadeus) first suggested he take on the Hair assignment.
JEREMY GERARD: How did that come about?
MICHAEL WELLER: Peter called me up to say they needed a writer for Hair, and at that time, I’d never done any film work at all. The conversation was something like, “Why the hell should I write Hair?” And he said, “Because they’ll pay you a lot of money, and you’ll be able to write a play,” and I thought, Okay, fine. I’d never had any interest in movies really, but I’d seen The Firemen’s Ball when I was living in England. It’s the only time I’d ever felt this way about a movie, but I thought if I ever was in movies, that’s the kind of movie I’d want to make, you know?
GERARD: You met with Forman in New York?
WELLER: Yes, at the Hampshire House. He was a huge success coming off of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he had a writer on the movie already. I didn’t know that at the time. The producer was Lester Persky [the producer of Shaffer’s Equus, and Hair, among many other films]. That was the common bond between us all, and Lester was trying to come up with a brilliant suggestion for Milos that would work. So he was sitting the whole time trying to pimp for me. It was this uneasy meeting where Milos and I immediately understood that we liked each other a great deal more than we liked Lester. So the pimp had to be kept in a corner kind of. I liked Lester very much, but he was, you know, a silly billy in that he didn’t know the business very well.
GERARD: How did you and Forman find common ground?
WELLER: He said to me, “What are your ideas for Hair?” And I had no ideas at all, I hadn’t had time to prepare. I’d seen the show once, and it wasn’t really my cup of tea. So I said, “I don’t have a f***ing clue,” and he said, “Brilliant,” because everybody else had been giving him a pitch. We just started to improvise scenes, and it was like we were working right away.
GERARD: He would say, ‘So here’s a scene. How would you solve this?’
WELLER: No, he would say things like, “So, I think maybe we open…so they’re riding in the park, and then we hear this music behind, and it would be this way, and then someone comes out of the bushes,” and I said, “Well, wait a minute. What if they didn’t come out of the bushes? What if you started on them and then you move to the park?” He said, “No,” and he was teaching me. I don’t understand much about film. It’s never been a secret passion of mine. Plays are what I dream of. He said, “I teach you this. I need the dialogues. That’s all I need.” So he took me on with no expectations and he then took it very seriously to train me as a screenwriter because he thought that would be good. He was working very hands-on and very generously as a kind of mentor.
GERARD: What were the key things you learned about the difference in writing for the theater and the movies? Is it as simple as literal-versus-visual?
WELLER: That’s one distinction, but it’s also that, in a film, you really are reporting life entirely by the way it looks, and you can’t fudge your way inside of a person through dialogue that wouldn’t really be said in life. It has to all be the way a camera would record it. That’s just the way it is. The rules change entirely. You just change gears completely, and the hardest thing in the world to do is to take a play of yours and truly make it into a movie. It’s because you thought so deeply into it as a play. There’s some that you can, but it’s hard. If the project is good, I like doing film work very much, and I like the dream that the film is going to be beautiful and great. I don’t even mind, you know, a lot of the compromises that go along with it. But you need to trust the source material. As David Brown used to say, “Let’s not improve this into a flop.”
GERARD: Forman must have been happy, since you seemed to jump right into Ragtime.
WELLER: He wanted me to write Ragtime right away, but I was writing Loose Ends then, and I said “I can’t, I’m writing a play and I don’t have time. He said, “So how long it takes you to write this play?” I said, “I have no idea, Milos.” He said, “So I hire somebody to sort of fake draft to keep them occupied, and then you be ready?”
GERARD: Was that the last time you worked with him?
WELLER: No. I did a lot of little work for him on other things that it’s probably best not to talk about, but we have stayed friends. He said when he came to America, anything that looked like special pleading for a point of view that’s not real reminds him of the communists, something controlling you. He wants popular success. You don’t think of him being that way, but that’s always what he’s trying for: How is somebody just off the street going to take this? I always loved that, that little lesson that he taught me. When I’m looking at the latest new hit, I think, okay, we go to the Midwest, and we open that show and the play I’m working on. Which one is the audience going to want to come back to again? That’s my comparison, and it’s ironic to me because most of the stuff I love the best is very weird, minority-ish theater. But I also love popular successes. I loved Kinky Boots.
GERARD: Let’s turn to Doctor Zhivago. You’ve had a long history with it, going back a decade.
WELLER: Yeah. Yeah, but I’m finishing up a new play, and I have two other plays that are about to be done. So I’m working on Zhivago, and I’m working on those things at the same time. Zhivago’s an ongoing business, and the tempo of it is dictated by a team effort. It’s not, me whenever I feel like working on it; it’s they call you up and say, We need another scene here, and we do it. I’m being a little flippant about it and in fact it’s been a wonderful experience to work on it. It’s just that I’m not the boss.
GERARD: They brought you in and said, “We’re going to do Doctor Zhivago and this is our approach, or how did it happen?
WELLER: They’d apparently been through quite a few people. My agent said would you be interested in working on Doctor Zhivago? They told me who the team was, and I said let me see the movie and read the book. I did, and I said “Absolutely no way!”
I thought, How on earth do you start a piece like this? But then what sparked me was thinking, Oh, it’s a big dance, a big ballroom dance. You don’t know who anybody is, and this woman walks in and asks to see so and so. She’s taken over to a corner. She takes out a gun, and she tries to kill him. You have no idea who she is. Make her a mystery. So the story will unfold about what happened to her. That would drag me in because suddenly you have a question to answer after a big, dramatic move.
So that was the template. We’ve gone way beyond that now. We have stuff before it, and largely, afterwards, because that turned out to be just too confusing, all of a sudden people starting to just spill on stage, and you didn’t know who they were. But I understood that the story could be an unfolding of what’s this mysterious, passionate, weird, murderous thing that happened, and of what the secret was, of each person’s attraction to her. It’s that simple.
GERARD: What’s your budget for the show? I imagine it’s many millions.
WELLER: I don’t know. I don’t know! They keep saying, “We’re financed,” and I go, “At what?” And they go, “We’re covered!”
GERARD: How do you navigate a creative life writing for two such different mediums?
WELLER: It happens prior to the actual event of writing. When you’re doing a film, you’re making an artifact. Although I care very much about the artifact, when I’m writing a play, I’m on a journey of some kind. It’s where I am in the bigger journey of a play and what I’m trying to work out in it that matter to me. Right now I have about four plays that I want to write, and I know they’ll only be possible if what’s going on inside me is there for each play. Otherwise, I won’t write it.