Putting It In Writing

Craig Lucas survived a harrowing start to lifeand now pens some of Broadway's- and Hollywood's- most soul-searching works. Just ask anyone who saw The Secret Lives of Dentists, one of last year's surprise hits.



Putting It In Writing

 

A harrowing start to life resonates in the

plays and movies of Oscar contender Craig Lucas

 

by Oliver Gaffney

 

W hen it comes to first acts, Putnam County¡¯s Craig Lucas couldn¡¯t script anything more dramatic than his own entry into the world. Hours after his birth in 1951, the future playwright and screenwriter was left on the backseat of a car in an Atlanta gas station. Next to him was a note, presumably written by his mother, saying that she couldn¡¯t afford to take care of him.

 

Lucas was in his 20s when he learned the truth about his birth; later, he discovered that his mother was still alive, although he has never met her. Today, he admits that his feelings about his abandonment are ¡°complicated. As a man in my 50s, I can see that everything my birth mother endured as a pregnant teen must have been sheer punishment and the cause of great suffering. She certainly did the right thing. Growing up, it was impossible to imagine any real reason for my abandonment other than irrational ones ¡ª that I was a bad boy, a broken person, not worthy of love.¡±

 

Perhaps not so surprisingly, given his inauspicious start, Lucas¡¯s award-winning plays and film scripts often explore the meaning of truth, identity, and intimacy. ¡°I think I create many of the stories that I write to fill in the family bloodline,¡± he says.

 

This year, there have been lots of opportunities to see all facets of Lucas¡¯s oft-humorous and always soul-searching work. This Thing of Darkness, an unsettling comedy that spans 50 years, enjoyed a successful Off-Broadway run. And The Secret Lives of Dentists, for which he adapted the screenplay from the Jane Smiley novella, opened to enormous acclaim ¡ª and considerable Oscar buzz for Lucas. Already, his Secret Lives script has been picked by the New York Film Critics Circle as the top screenplay of 2003.

The theatrical side of Lucas¡¯s personality emerged early on, not long after he was adopted at eight months of age by a Pennsylvania couple. ¡°I performed as a child, and all I ever got from both of my parents was praise for my work,¡± he recalls. ¡°I received a great deal from my adopted mother in the form of boundless attention. She was a frustrated performer herself who poured all her hopes and ambitions into me.¡±

 

At Boston University, he studied with poet Anne Sexton, then had the opportunity to go on to the prestigious Yale School of Drama. Instead, Lucas decided to head for New York. ¡°It was Anne Sexton who told me I shouldn¡¯t go to Yale,¡± he says. ¡°She made the strong argument that I would be putting off my life if I did.¡±

 

For most of the next decade, he found small acting and singing jobs on Broadway. It was while a member of the chorus of the musical Sweeney Todd that he met the show¡¯s creator, Stephen Sondheim, and showed him the first act of Blue Window, his first play. Sondheim wrote back: ¡°You¡¯re really good at this, and should devote yourself to it. You¡¯ll find the creative life more satisfying than the performing life.¡±

 

¡°I was not a happy performer,¡± says Lucas, ¡°so Stephen¡¯s words found me at the right moment.¡± Inspired, in 1980 he created a two-character musical, Marry Me A Little, which showcased previously unknown songs by Sondheim. The show also began Lucas¡¯s association with the late director Norman Rene.

 

The writing and directing duo had two significant successes in the early ¡¯90s. Devastated by the loss of lovers, friends, and associates to AIDS ¡ª and distressed over Hollywood¡¯s lack of response to the crisis ¡ª Lucas wrote Longtime Companion, one of the first films to center on the disease. Directed by Rene, the film dramatized the terrible effects of AIDS on the gay community. Lucas was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay. 

 

The director and writer followed up with the film Prelude To A Kiss, based on Lucas¡¯s 1990 play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist). A romantic fable about a dying old man who switches bodies with an insecure bride on her wedding day, the movie starred Meg Ryan and Alec Baldwin. It was Lucas¡¯s baptism by fire into the world of big-budget Hollywood productions.

 

¡°I made a lot of mistakes on that movie,¡± he says now, ¡°and it was really not a very good experience. Up until that time, I had never come across any interference with what I wrote. On this film, I had to contend with uncomprehending producers and a particularly unpleasant, miscast, temperamental star. The studio also didn¡¯t help, trying to get me to make the story, as they put it, less ¡®philosophical.¡¯¡± He shakes his head, adding, ¡°It¡¯s great to be paid so handsomely, but what I learned from the movie is that there really is no such thing as free money.¡±

 

His experience in making The Secret Lives of Dentists ¡ª which examines the emotional undercurrents beneath the seemingly successful lives of a husband-and-wife pair of tooth-pullers ¡ª was completely different. ¡°I was originally hired to write the script in 1988 for PBS,¡± recalls Lucas. ¡°Many people, including Campbell [Scott], auditioned for it, but they decided not to do it. The rights to the script reverted back to me, and it was shopped around. I was told time and again that no one was going to make a movie about a real family going through genuine trouble.

 

¡°Campbell remembered the screenplay and wanted to make it. He brought it to Hole Digger Films, and they contacted director Alan Rudolph, who loved the script. Alan is great with actors and he did a fantastic job, adding elements that were needed to give the scenes more bite. The acting in the film is simply extraordinary. The movie is better than my screenplay,¡± he adds generously.

 

After the Secret Lives project, both its director and star felt that Lucas was ready to direct his first film. Production work on The Dying Gaul, an adaptation of Lucas¡¯s play about a gay screenwriter who is offered megabucks to change his script¡¯s protagonist into a heterosexual, began last fall. ¡°Campbell was very supportive and encouraging when the producers expressed interest in filming The Dying Gaul,¡± says Lucas. ¡°And Alan told them, ¡®You have to let him direct the film.¡¯ The incredible thing is that they are letting me do it.¡±

 

As exciting as it is for Lucas, he does not underestimate how daunting a job directing will be. ¡°Movies belong to directors,¡± he says. ¡°I started directing in the theater only a couple of years ago, so doing this film is a challenge I very much welcome ¡ª even though, as rich as the experience is going to make my life, it will shorten it!¡±

 

¡°As a writer, the hardest work for me is adapting my own work to the screen, because it is a medium that begs for images. The movie of my play will be considerably different than what you would see in the theater. I¡¯m going to take the elements that are best suited to the movies, throw out a large percentage of the play, and reinvent the story.¡± (Lucas hopes to have the movie finished in time for its debut at this May¡¯s Cannes Film Festival.)

 

As intoxicating as he finds his work, Lucas has a genuine affection for the country life he shares with his partner, set designer John McDermott, and their dogs, Jasper and Bug. ¡°I¡¯m not really a social person,¡± he says. ¡°I¡¯d much rather curl up with a book than flitter about in clubs, and I do love it here. My neighbors are diverse and accepting and are as comfortable with me as I am with them. It¡¯s also a beautiful feeling to be able to listen to nightingales and owls and then stroll through the quiet woods. I like a peaceful life and I find it here.¡± Then, with a line that is as resonant and challenging as any line of dialogue in his plays, he adds, ¡°Now, if they¡¯d close Indian Point, it would be perfect.¡± ¡ö

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