Film and TV Writings

Comments, Explanations and Accusations

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Left: Durang explains to studio executives
why he can't agree with their latest notes.

(gown by Vera Wang)

Three's Conundrum  – Because we had a good time working together on Meg and Billy, Gail Berman and Joan Stein asked me to come up with another sitcom idea, and placed it at the WB network (where Gail had a hit with Buffy the Vampire Slayer). 

I came up with a very Pirandellian idea for a sitcom.  And you know how frequently network executives say, “Why do we have nothing Pirandellian on the schedule?”  And various underlings say, “Gosh, we don’t know.  We’ll get right on it.”

So this sitcom was meant to answer this need.  It was kind of a parody of the famous sitcom Three’s Company – and in this version, the brunette girl and the blond bombshell and the friendly guy are all at college.  And through a computer error, they’re made to be roommates. 

However, in my version, while brunette Janice and friendly guy Ted act as if they’re in college, and have some of the usual sitcom troubles and worries, blond bombshell Kareena is aware that she’s in a television show, and even more aware that she’s sexy and about to become a star. 

So Kareena is always on the phone to her agent, and shaking her breasts at the camera, and calling up the writers to make her part better.  And poor Janice and Ted are very confused what she’s talking about, because they, after all, are just in college.

So that’s the Pirandellian part.  When I described it to the WB execs over the phone, they laughed a lot and seemed to like it.   When I handed in the first draft, they said they thought I should make it be more like Friends.  I wasn’t quite sure how to make it more like Friends.  Maybe set it in a coffee shop and change the premise and take out any surreal elements and make it be all about young people’s life issues for real.  Maybe that would do it.

So I don’t know why they said yes to my initial pitch. But I think it would have been funny on television, and also not like everything else.

Sister Mary Explains It All   –  Sometime in the late 90s, Victoria Tennant approached me about making a film of Sister Mary.  And in 2001, after several years of trying very hard to place the project, Victoria Tennant and Kirk Stambler placed it at Showtime, directed by the talented writer/director Marshall Brickman.  And I was thrilled to have Diane Keaton, whose work I’ve always loved,  cast as Sister Mary.   The supporting cast of the film was also excellent: Laura San Giacomo, Jennifer Tilly, Brian Benben, Wallace Langham, and Martin Mull.

To be totally honest, the movie doesn’t land quite as well as I hoped it would, through no fault of the talented people who worked on it.  I think I had maybe tinkered with the script for too many drafts, and little bits of the film became tongue-in-cheek (which wasn’t the intention), and I guess maybe the whole notion of adapting this particular play to film is just really difficult, given that the play’s first half is a monologue by Sister.

I have such a long history with this play, and with trying to make an independent film of it.

An independent producer approached me in 1982 or 1983 and said he wanted to make a small film of the play (whose full title is Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You).  I asked that he cast Elizabeth Franz, who created the role on stage, and he said yes.  I then wrote a couple of drafts of the screenplay for him.

The play is an hour long, and the first part is Sister talking directly to the audience, explaining how the world works.  On stage, a wonderful electricity happens because the character is talking to the people literally in front of her…it’s very immediate.   And as Elizabeth Franz in particular played it, when the audience would laugh, Elizabeth would play that Sister heard the laughter not as derision, but as agreement or appreciation or affection for her.  And so she would look pleased, and this would intensify the laughter more.

You can’t do that on the screen, of course.  And what do you do about the lecture part? – a full half of the play.  

I thought what you would do is to “write the audience”.  Who are these people who have come to listen to Sister give her presumably yearly speech?  

In my very first draft in 1983 - which today I now think was the best draft – I wrote a series of vignettes where you learned who the people were who were coming to the lecture.

They came from both the parish and from the town, some of them loved Sister, some thought she was odd, some were teenagers being dragged by their more religious parents; one was a woman taught by Sister as a child, now dragging her somewhat skeptical husband along.  These vignettes were short and a bit funny.  And they were almost like a chorus of people in a musical going: “Sister’s-coming! Sister’s-coming” etc.  It was a very good lead-in to Sister’s first appearance.

And then because you had gotten to know several of these people coming to the lecture, you could cut to them during the lecture and check out who thought what about the various things Sister said.

This use of the “written audience”  is still in the 2002 Showtime version, but greatly abbreviated and lessened from the long-ago first draft.  And instead there’s more focus on who the ex-students are who are coming to play a trick on Sister.

And writing about the students is logical screenwriting… and from about the third draft on (in 1988, say, with a second group of independent producers), I was always asked to focus on the students at the top of the film.

And I now think that was probably wrong.  Focusing on the students and their motivations ties the film closer to reality than maybe the otherwise stylized material can handle.  In the play the students don’t show up until the middle of the play when they put on their pageant, and we’re forced to figure them out at the same time that Sister does. 

But as I said, it seemed to be many people’s belief that the film should focus on the ex-students at the top of the film.  And those were the feelings of that second group of producers – whom I didn’t choose but who acquired the rights from the first producer in the late 80s.  And for them I wrote many variations on how to open the film, trying different ways of focusing on the ex-students before we have ever met Sister Mary.  Yet it’s hard to make sense of them except in relation to her (I think that now; too late, too late).

In 1995 the rights reverted to me, and shortly afterward I was happy to be approached by Victoria Tennant, whom I admire as an actress and found to be a wonderful producer as well.  And she got the film made.

So thoughts of should I have written the script differently aside, there are excellent things throughout this version; and I am grateful for the integrity, tenacity and talent that everyone involved brought to the film version – especially Victoria, Kirk Stambler, Marshall Brickman and Diane Keaton.

(right)

Durang sings "Hello, Young Lovers" from "The King and I."

(gown by Vera Wang)

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Labor Day Weekend  – In 2002 I worked for producers Susan Rose and Dan Paulsen on a three-authored special about marriage through the decades for Showtime.  The other two authors were Beth Henley and Diana Son.  I asked to take the 50s (when I was a child), Beth Henley asked for the 70s, and Diana Son asked for the present day.  

I assumed the producers wanted something comic from me, but to my surprise, I kept having the impulse to write this rather melancholy and moody piece about a beach house weekend for several married couples in the late 50s, where all the problems were under the surface, not discussed, and where alcoholism eventually wrecks the weekend, at least for one couple (and their child).  This was drawing from the same family memories that fed my play The Marriage of Bette and Boo, though the additional couples were very fictionalized.

I cleared with Susan and Dan that it would be alright that I write a predominantly non-funny script, and they said yes.  My first draft is more of an ensemble piece among the couples, and it’s a little funny, but a little sad and very much feels like the 50s, everybody talks around and over things, rarely discusses anything directly.  For the second draft, I was asked to make one of the women characters clearly the lead – so the woman in the alcoholic marriage became the lead, and her flirtation with another husband who’s in a miserable marriage became more central and more of a temptation.  Though it being the 50s, they decide they better stay in their unhappy marriages, that’s the meaning of “for better or for worse.”  So they’ll live through the “worse.”

Beth’s script is very funny (with 70s uncertainty about how men and women should behave around each other, especially with dating); and Diana’s script was strong and intriguing and a reversal: the woman doctor living with her boy friend who makes way less money than she does; and their relationship goes through several crises while attending the gay wedding of two friends.

I don’t know if Showtime will make these.  I’d like it if they did.  But I also enjoyed writing the two versions, regardless.  (And my Juilliard students liked them.)