Film and TV Writings
Comments, Explanations and Accusations
From Durang: I’m including comments on SOME of the projects mentioned. I’m also choosing to refer to them starting with the oldest ones and moving up to the present. So it’s the reverse order of how they are listed on the previous page. But I think very sequentially, and I prefer to discuss them in that order.
Above: Durang makes a fool of himself at the 1954 Academy Awards.
(tuxedo by Vera Wang)
House of Husbands was the first screenplay job for both Wendy Wasserstein and me. We adapted a very short and very witty story by New Yorker writer Charles McGrath about a town with an epidemic of divorce, and how the separated men all share a house, fraternity-style. The story and our adaptation were somewhat surreal. Wendy and I envisioned Blythe Danner and Jon Voight as the “normal” couple you rooted for. And we greatly enjoyed creating the part of nutcase feminist Helen Brinkley, who changed her name to Herculina and organized the kidnapping of a particularly hateful husband. We enjoyed thinking of Swoosie Kurtz for this part. The script is still funny, I bet, but it also feels as if in terms of sexual politics, it was better suited to the time we wrote it in (1980) than to now.
The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance is probably my favorite screenplay of those I’ve written. Diane Sokolow at Warner Bros. hired me to write a comic film based on my feelings on my Catholic childhood, but didn’t want it based on my play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You because she didn’t see how one could make a film of that play (with its long section of a lecture to the audience).
I was happy to let my imagination wander and bump around, and the screenplay told the story of three friends graduating from a Catholic high school and what happens to them out in the real world.
Cocky Kevin never took the Catholic teaching too seriously, and is busy being a womanizing screw-up in college, though he’s still in love with Katie from high school. Katie is sweet and sensitive and believed all of the Catholic teaching, and has deep fears a brief kiss she has with Kevin may be a mortal sin. Rick is the third friend; sensitive like Katie, his life unravels horribly, and he ends up a male prostitute, though in constant fear of going to hell. (For casting back then, I thought of young Kevin Bacon and young Elizabeth McGovern for Kevin and Katie.)
As we follow the story of these three friends, the style of the movie is often phantasmagorical and Monty Python-esque. For instance, little Ricky is taught by Sister Marie Boniface that his non-Catholic mother will not be able to get into heaven; and we cut to a section of poor little Ricky seeing his mother yanked out of heaven and sent down to hell, screaming. (For Sister Boniface I thought of Cloris Leachman.)
Then a Woman in St. Louis appears and complains that the film is anti-Catholic and upsetting, and she wants a “Nice Movie.” At which point the movie grinds to a halt, and a "Nice Movie" starts up: a wise and kindly priest, a sweet housewife who comes for advice, etc. etc. The "Nice Movie" goes on for a while until the priest and housewife start to have sex, and the Woman from St. Louis furiously breaks into the movie again and demands the firing of the screenwriter.
A new screenwriter shows up and tries to take the film in a new direction. He brings the story back to Katie, who comes from a large Irish family. There are 12 boys and 2 girls, Katie and Siobhan. Katie wants to be a concert pianist, while Siobhan wishes to be a nun.
Katie’s family and her friends Kevin and Ricky go to see Siobhan take her final vows at the convent in a beautiful ceremony. (“Now this I like!” says the Woman in St. Louis.)
However, we cut to an airplane: a mad man inside struggles with the stewardess, the plane door opens, and the stewardess is sucked out into space. Moments later, the stewardess falls through the ornate ceiling of the church and on top of Siobhan, killing her instantly. Everyone is very surprised.
Katie’s father can’t get over his grief about Siobhan, and becomes obsessed with the idea that God now wants Katie to join the convent. Katie becomes convinced she shouldn’t seek happiness in life, but should suffer for God – one of the ideas she got from Sister Marie Boniface, whose comments and teachings keep popping into Katie’s head.
So Katie joins the convent, but starts to go crazy there, convinced she isn’t trying hard enough, that she should suffer more. She starts to believe God will value her prayers more if she kneels on dog food kibble. She flips out in front of children she’s teaching, and is sent off to the mental institution Bellevue.
The kindly mother superior of the order knows Katie needs psychiatric help, but doesn’t want poor Katie to be in therapy for 20 years.
So she shows up at the screenwriter’s house, and demands he find a way to solve things more quickly.
The screenwriter enlists Kevin’s help, adds a little more sensitivity to Kevin’s character; and Kevin goes to Bellevue and enters Katie’s mind to help her finally confront Sister Marie Boniface and her crazy, anti-pleasure, guilt-inducing teachings. In this fantasy confrontation Katie, Kevin and Ricky all finally stand up to the Sister from their remembered past; and in a climactic moment, Katie throws a pail of water on her – and Sister melts away to nothing. Then they’re all a lot happier, and ready to focus on college.
As a script Nun Who… clearly calls for a director who wants to dive in and make something nutty and playful, while still keeping the story of the three friends in the realm of emotional reality.
Carol and Robin and Whoopi and Carl was the first special Carol Burnett made after the end of her wonderful weekly TV show. I submitted a sketch about a funeral with a crazy person in attendance who keeps saying inappropriate things to the widow. Carol’s headwriters – Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, who among other things wrote those hilarious miserable family sketches with Carol as Eunice – called me up, liked the sketch but had a couple of significant notes. I took and implemented the notes, and then they asked me to join the show as a staff writer – which was a terrific experience. I wrote several other sketches, and worked with Dick and Jenna (and Ken and Mitzi Welch) on some the sketches they were writing.
And in the final product, Carol and Robin Williams filmed my funeral sketch. In the actual taping, Robin did the sketch more or less as written twice; but then asked Carol to let him do a crazy riff on it the third time. For complicated reasons (of one sketch falling out), in the final version they did my funeral sketch twice (!) back to back: first time as written, second time as Robin unleashed his craziness on it. It was a happy solution, Robin’s version was even funnier once you’d actually seen mine first. And Robin won an Emmy for the show.
Beyond Therapy A friend of mine who knew my play Beyond Therapy from Broadway saw the movie version and said, “Well, it’s not much like the play. It’s sort of a jazz variation on the play.” Which is the nicest way of looking at it.
This film is based on my lighthearted "comedy of manners and psychologists,” and it was directed by Robert Altman with a cast of wonderful actors: Jeff Goldblum, Julie Hagerty, Glenda Jackson, Tom Conti and Christopher Guest. Altman is a legendary director who has made many superb films – Nashville is my favorite, but there are many other ones of his I like and admire too.
When he doesn’t make a good film, though, he goes very far off sometimes – and this was a very unhappy experience and outcome. Altman wrote his own adaptation of the play before I even started to write mine – which certainly wasn’t the agreement. Then I wrote mine, which he pretty much ignored. And he was hurt I didn’t liked his version. Eventually I requested that we have a shared credit (since his version still had chunks of the original play in it), and I secretly hoped that the actors would improvise a lot, as was known to happen in Altman films. However, the finished film is pretty close to what Altman wrote. His version, in my opinion, throws the psychological underpinnings out the window, and people just run around acting "crazy."
I think the play would have made a good commercial comic film if the track-able psychology from the play had been kept. As well as more of the play’s dialogue.
Plus the movie lost me when Jeff Goldblum started sucking Julie Hagerty’s toes in the restaurant in the first five minutes. Unpleasant, unlikely to do in a restaurant, and the action told you that you were in a fake world.
(right) Robert Altman's Beyond Therapy film differs in many ways from Durang's play.
(loincloths by Vera Wang)
The Secret of My Success - I was hired as an actor on the Herbert Ross film The Secret of My Success starring Michael J. Fox. Ross then asked me to rewrite some of the scenes, and write a couple new ones as well. And the playwright/screenwriter Peter Stone had already rewritten some of the film.
Unusual for this sort of circumstance, Pauline Kael in her mostly favorable review of the film in The New Yorker made reference to this: "…the Writers Guild assigned these three [A. J. Carothers, Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.] the credit, though the dialogue was rewritten by others – principally by Peter Stone, who is known for his dapper repartee (as in Charade and Who Is Killing The Great Chefs of Europe?) and by the sacred-monster playwright Christopher Durang. …The movie has nutty glories (much like those in Durang’s plays)."
Ross asked me to rewrite scenes that were set to be filmed in a couple of days, and so the writing was done quickly, with me usually giving him two versions of everything to choose from (and then usually collapsing the two versions into one scene).
There were 8 actors playing executives in the film (including me), and initially not a one of us had any dialogue. And so Ross had me write dialogue for those 8 actors in the various business scenes. I actually wrote the part of a picked-on executive for another actor, but the morning of the filming of the first scene for that character (the rooftop exercise scene), Ross told me I should do the part. Which then, in a mild way, kept threading through the film.
Michael J. Fox was charming, professional and easy, Margaret Whitton was having the time of her life vamping the part of Aunt Vera, it was filmed in New York City and Katonah, New York during a lovely summer – it was a happy experience working on the film.
The Visit - I wrote a half hour teleplay for the Trying Times series produced by Jon Denny and Phyllis Geller for LA’s public television station KCET. There were several of these made – comedy looks at difficult, trying situations – all written by playwrights, including Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Bernard Slade, George C. Wolfe, Albert Innaurato.
My contribution was The Visit and starred the hilarious Swoosie Kurtz as Wanda, the ex-high school girl friend who shows up 20 years later, her face changed by surgery (so “they” can’t find her) and her emotional problems oozing all over the place.
Terrific performances were also given by Jeff Daniels as the intrigued but overwhelmed husband, and by Julie Hagerty as his understandably tense wife, trying to be polite with the crazy visitor. It was directed by Alan Arkin, who was a terrific director. I played the small part of the Waiter (who, though, has a fun speech toward the end). And the short film won a Gold Plaque in the 24th Chicago International Film Festival.
I later adapted this piece for stage, calling it Wanda’s Visit, and it was part of an evening of my one acts done at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1994.
The Adventures of Lola – Herbert Ross asked me to write an original screenplay for him to direct. I wrote about the travails of a musical comedy actress, struggling to keep afloat. She loses a job in an especially humiliating audition, and decides to change her life by going to a weekend seminar taught by a charismatic, narcissistic “self-realization” guru. At the time I thought of Michelle Pfeiffer for the actress, and Mandy Patinkin as the over-intense guru. Ross loved the first third about the theatre world, but wasn’t too interested in the second two-thirds about the guru. He wanted me to rewrite it that the actress gets a job doing theatre on a Caribbean Island, partially because he wanted a nice location in which to make a movie.
I thought the Caribbean Island thing could maybe work, but then I just couldn’t figure it out, and never completed the version he wanted. So it only exists in the first draft, waiting for Mandy Patinkin to come and breathe life into the guru. I enjoyed working with the late Mr. Ross, and am sorry we never did a second project together.
Dysfunction! – The TV Show – this was my first attempt to write an original sitcom, and I had a very good time and am proud of the script.
I was given an “over all” deal at Warner Bros. for a year. This was the time when the topic of “dysfunctional families” was first being spoken of by Oprah and John Bradshaw on PBS, and meetings of the new group Adult Children of Alcoholics were becoming more popular. And the term “dysfunctional” itself was just starting to be a buzz word.
So I had an idea to use some of the genuine things I knew about dysfunctional families (from life, books and meetings) and put them into a sitcom. And to call it “Dysfunction! – The TV Show.”
The show purports to be the weekly cable TV show of Dr. Herbert Sloane and Dr. Rita Driver, two family therapists who specialize in troubled families.
The first few minutes are Dr. Herbert and Dr. Rita addressing the camera and talking about dysfunction. Since it’s a comedy, Dr. Rita is a bit of a live wire and has a thirst for celebrity and also wants to sing. Dr. Herbert is a bit more staid.
Then in the next section of the show, Dr. Herbert and Dr. Rita show us the Sullivan family at home, acting badly per usual.
The Sullivans are being filmed by secret cameras in their house, and only later become aware of this fact. (So it had an element of “reality TV” way before that concept was all over the television.)
In the final section, the Sullivans have a family therapy session with Dr. Herbert and Dr. Rita, and are challenged to think how else they might have behaved earlier so that things could have worked out better. Since the Sullivans are a mess, they are almost never able to improve. But Dr. Rita does get to sing a bit when she feels like it. And the children are encouraged to play act as their parents – supposedly for therapeutic reasons, but it mostly ends up just driving the parents crazy.
That does sound different for television, doesn’t it? But I’m sick to death of the predictability of most sitcoms, and thought it could be a big relief to have something unusual.
The Sullivans, by the way, are indeed a family with alcoholism – the likable but unreliable drinking father Bucky (cast sympathetically with, say, a John Goodman type); the stressed-out controlling wife Kate.
And though I wouldn’t expect an audience to know this, the children fit the pattern of children in alcoholic homes. Bucky, Jr. the oldest is the “hero” son, who does well in school and is polite and bottles up his feelings. Both Jimmy and Susan are troubled middle children (“scapegoat” role) and act up like crazy, doing badly in school, flirting with promiscuity, etc. And the youngest, Clarissa, is a “lost child” – shy and unengaged, a silent witness to chaos – and when she does speak, she speaks too softly to be heard.
Warner Bros. liked this idea, and they coached me on pitching, and we sold it to Fox TV.
We eventually had two readings of the final script with wonderful actors: Jeffrey Jones and Kate McGregor-Stewart were Dr. Herbert and Dr. Rita, Jean Smart and Graham Beckel were Kate and Bucky; as the children, David Eigenberg was Jimmy and Jennifer Aniston (several years pre-Friends) was Susan; and Yardley Smith was an especially hilarious, inaudible Clarissa. The readings went extremely well.
Fox seemed enthusiastic about the idea when they bought it, but several months later chose not to go with it. This, of course, happens in TV all the time. Though I think the timing around the show maybe was unlucky.
When we sold it, “off beat” was in – Twin Peaks was acclaimed and getting good ratings, and Brandon Tartikoff (of NBC) was quoted as saying “the tried and true was dead.” But months later, when it was time to decide whether to film a pilot of this or not, the atmosphere had changed: Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock (which was a police show where the cops sang like in West Side Story) had been experimental but a big flop; and Twin Peaks had gotten just too weird and more significantly now was getting bad ratings. So off beat wasn’t in anymore.
Of course, that’s just my analysis. Anyway, I’m sorry Fox didn’t pick this up. It would’ve been unusual and, I think, funny.
The Girl Who Can’t Say No – the producer Scott Winant tried to interest ABC (where he had been one of the producers of Thirtysomething) in an anthology show about different kinds of love. For the pilot script, ABC wanted three separate examples of hour long teleplays, and Winant asked Aaron Sorkin, Jane Anderson, and me.
I like this script of mine – it’s a comedy about a sweet natured girl whom everyone takes advantage of: everybody at work, strangers on the street, and especially her loutish boyfriend. Finally she seeks out help and goes to an Assertiveness Training Support Group; this Support Group starts to act like a Greek Chorus for her, and shows up at her side to stand up to the people who push her around. And at the same time she meets a rather meek man who’s also in the Support Group, and the two of them fall in love and have to stand up to both of their overbearing parents.
At the time I thought of Kathy Najimy or Julia Sweeney for the sweet put upon girl; or Dianne Wiest at her warmest and fuzziest would also have been great.
Winant liked the script, I think ABC did too, but selling an anthology series just doesn’t seem too do-able anymore. (Which is a shame, since it was a staple on television in the 50s. Ah, life was better then. The rain was better. The milk was better. The sky was bluer.)
Meg and Billy – In 1997 the film My Best Friend’s Wedding was a big success, and several producers and network executives in Hollywood all got the idea of doing a series about a friendship between a straight woman and a gay man (which was a subsidiary theme of that movie). The Fox network wanted to develop such a series, and they went to Gail Berman at Regency, and she suggested me to them. I then worked with Gail and Joan Stein on fleshing out such a series. Meg was a waitress-singer at a piano bar. In my first draft Billy was her pianist, but Fox didn’t want them both in show business, so then Billy became a sitcom veterinarian (you know, with a funny receptionist). The main quirk in my version was that I gave Billy a religious, judgmental mother who kept trying to change him, and kept telling him he was going to go to hell. (I drew upon the Dana Ivey character in my 1996 play Sex and Longing.)
It was a good experience writing this, Fox seemed to like it but chose not to go into production. Though NBC’s Will and Grace did go into production, and unsurprisingly there wasn’t room for TWO sitcoms about a gay man and a straight woman.