Yale University professor, playwright and screenwriter Donald Margulies isn’t one to rest on his laurels—years after taking the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for his play Dinner with Friends, which he later adapted into a TV movie, Margulies has received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for The End of the Tour, and he’s quite excited about it. As he’s quick to mention, Margulies has written far more screenplays than have ever been produced, and has spent most of his career in the film world writing adaptations, a process he quite enjoys. Before heading back to the classroom for the spring semester, Margulies spoke with Awardsline about the process of adaptation, his more unpleasant experiences with journalists, and the joys of watching the student become the master.
In 2000, you received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of the most prestigious awards a writer can ever aspire to. Is being recognized in this medium, with your first Independent Spirit Award nomination, something that holds equal weight for you?
Well sure, it holds weight. I am so delighted that people remembered our movie—that in itself feels like an accomplishment. This was such a rich year, for not only independent films, but mainstream entertainment, so I felt particularly honored to be recognized with a nomination. It feels awfully good. This is a different medium for me from that which I am most associated with. And I’ve written many unproduced screenplays, but this is the first one to be made as an independent feature. It is also one that I am very proud of.
Your script for The End of The Tour made the 2013 Blacklist of the best unproduced scripts—in that case, there’s a badge of honor associated with being unproduced.
That was a wonderful surprise. I hadn’t even thought about it until I was notified of it. And I thought, “Well, jeez, that’s nice, people are reading the script and admiring it and talking about it. That’s great.” That it had its fans even though it had not yet gone into production.
What spoke to you about David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, on which the film is based?
[The book] was sent to me by David Kanter, who is my longtime friend and manager at Anonymous Content. David knows me quite well, and recognizing that the book is primarily a conversation, and seeing how my plays have a lot of dialogue in them, he thought that I might see an opportunity for a play adaptation. But when I started reading it, I became very exhilarated by the idea of creating a drama out of that conversation for film. It seemed very much to me to want adaptation to the screen.
I think what was so exciting to me was imagining David Foster Wallace, one of the great chroniclers of of the American culture, and seeing him on the American landscape. Not just hearing about it; but to actually put him in these very familiar, iconic locations, such as McDonald’s or 7-11 or The Mall of America—all of these places that he and Lipsky actually visited during their five days together in 1996. And I just thought that you couldn’t really communicate the richness of that image without actually seeing it.
The End of the Tour is your first screenplay credit since 2002, but you mention lots of unproduced projects. What have you been working on since then?
In that time, I wrote many scripts for film and television that have not been made and may never be made. My secret is that I’ve written on assignment as a writer for hire in Hollywood for many, many years, which has subsidized my career as a playwright. Even though I’m very fortunate to have my plays widely produced, it’s very difficult to earn a living as a playwright. And so the occasional film or television assignment has really helped subsidize my lifestyle. In that time, I worked on a Keith Moon biography from Mike Myers, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex for HBO. These things take chunks of my time over those years.
The End of the Tour is principally about this very interesting relationship between a journalist and his subject, which you’ve described as a sort of “artificial intimacy.” What has your experience been like with journalists who are covering your work, including this film?
Very often, I would have interviews with people who didn’t do their research. And it’s a little bit of, “Tell me about yourself.” And, “What’s this play about?” It ceases to be a conversation and it’s really more about providing sound bites for somebody. But the situation that is portrayed in The End of the Tour is a unique one in that it falls into the genre of celebrity profile, which is a genre that is most typical in magazines and is really not that prevalent in magazines anymore, either. But it’s a style of journalism that was sort of the in-depth portrait of someone. That in itself was a rare opportunity for Lipsky to be in close contact with his subject.
What made this even more unusual and raised the stakes even further was the fact that Wallace invited him into his home, which was a very interesting choice made by somebody who was so ambivalent about speaking to a journalist. That act in itself, I thought, was a very interesting one.
I was very influenced by Janet Malcolm’s The Interviewer and the Murderer, which was her book about Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald, the accused murderer. I always thought there was something very fascinating about that dynamic, which was one of the other things of The End of the Tour that I felt was really ripe for exploration.
Lipsky’s book is very dense and filled with interesting, often challenging ideas. Was it difficult to narrow down this material to only the essential?
I read Lipsky’s book many, many times and deconstructed it. I was most interested in the themes of celebrity and artistry and authenticity, along with their discussion of popular culture and what it means to us. And how we are either nourished or addicted to it. And I began to sort of isolate, within the course of that 300-page transcript, certain passages that seemed more cogent and more accessible than other passages. I didn’t want it to be just a lot of shoptalk. They did a fair amount of that during the course of those days. That was not really something that is of universal interest. It seemed pretty much like “inside baseball” between these two guys. When their conversations became broader and more inclusive of the rest of the world, and not just about the business of publishing and acceptance as a writer of literary fiction, and I saw that there were larger and more universal themes, that’s what excited me about it. It’s all there, but it really became a matter of selection and juxtaposition of moments and speculating about what was going on when the tape recording wasn’t running. And really making these voices on the page come to life as two guys whose company we enjoy being in. That was the foremost objective—to make them good company.
How does screenwriting compare to writing plays?
Most of the work that I’ve done as a screenwriter has been adaptation. Most of my quote-unquote “original ideas” tend to present themselves to me as plays. It’s just sort of the way I’m wired, I think. I’ve always found a lot of craft pleasure in the art of adaptation. It lets me use different muscles than I use when I’m writing for the stage. And it’s enjoyable—I like the problem solving. I like figuring out the collage of it, or the puzzle of it. Because screenplays are really these snippets of moments. Even in a long dialogue scene, there are beats within that scene. And that’s one of the pleasures of watching a movie, is seeing two actors who really get to act, who really get to show myriad emotion within the space of a very short period of time, which is something we’re more accustomed to seeing on stage.
There’s a change of temperature that occurs with a word that is said that might alter somebody. That’s what, for me, is one of the pleasures of seeing Jesse Eisenberg’s performance in this. Jesse’s performance is such a case study in film acting because it’s all in his eyes and in his very subtle facial gestures. There’s so much in the subtext. And there’s so much in the writing that is subtext. He’s so alive in the moment in which he is not speaking. Of course that’s true of Jason, too, but Lipsky is not the subject of the interview. It’s Wallace who’s the subject. So that’s something that I learned from being a playwright, I think—sort of mining the subject in those scenes.
You’ve talked in previous interviews about your role in “demystifying” the text during adaptation, and you’ve also talked about demystifying David Foster Wallace, as an impenetrable, complex figure of popular culture. It seems like there’s an interesting parallel there.
I think that what I meant by “demystifying” is that when you begin to see people in their domicile, in their mundane activities, there is a kind of demystification, because we don’t necessarily see people functioning as everyday humans when they possess a genius that has moved us beyond words. And I’m not just talking about Wallace; I’m talking about any artist whose work has had everlasting impact on us, in one way or another. You don’t really want to think about that too much. But there is something about humanizing, certainly, and demystifying somebody who was so outside collective thinking. It really was just a matter of my finding it a very interesting problem to solve as a dramatist. How do you do that? I purposely avoided the tropes of biopics, because I have a very low threshold for seeing the scenes of writers at typewriters, crunching paper and thumping it against the wall. The fact that we’re dealing with Wallace, who was such a brilliant force and continues to be, I think that’s all a part of it.
James Ponsoldt, the film’s director, was a former student of yours at Yale. What was this collaboration like?
It was incredibly gratifying—to entrust my work to someone I knew when he was a very young man. He was not much more than a boy when he was my student. He was, I think, still a teenager—maybe 19 or 20. The mentor-protégé or teacher-pupil relationship is a very special one and it’s a very freighted one. There’s a lot of mutual identifying going on. And I’ve been very fortunate and very gratified by the numbers of students who I have kept in touch with, who have gone on to really illustrious careers in film and television and the stage. It’s very special to me. James is one of those students with whom I’ve kept in touch. When I wrote this script, because I had been following his career, and based on what I knew about him and the way his mind worked and the kind of the things he responded to intellectually and creatively, it just seemed so obvious to me that he would be an excellent choice for this. And it turned out to be true. You know, there was very, very little development that went on with The End of the Tour. It was one of those miracle scripts that I wrote and we attracted the right director at the right time. We attracted the right actors at the right time. And it doesn’t happen that way very often. There was a very unique synergy there.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been teaching playwriting to Yale undergraduates for 25 years. I go back to the classroom next Tuesday. The script that I’m currently working on is The Most Dangerous Book. I’ve been working on a new play. I’m working on the book of a Broadway musical. I’m working on a lot of stuff. But The End of the Tour has been a kind of glorious experience in film for me, the likes of which I will probably never see again.