Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stephen Belber on "Tape"

Where were you in your career before you wrote Tape?

I was not highly far along. I had just quit my day-job to work on The Laramie Project. It was the year that we were researching the murder of Matthew Shepard. I was going out to Laramie every couple of months and then coming home. So I was just starting to get paid. I had been writing plays for a long time, I'd come out of the Playwright Fellowship program at Julliard, but I was sort of adrift and not sure.

And then Tape came along. It was not one of the big plays I was planning on writing or was working on. It was something were two old friends of mine came along and they wanted to showcase themselves as actors in the New York theater world, and they said, 'Can you write us something that can really show what we can do?"

So I really wrote it for them and then one of the actors was dating this girl, so I added her because it got boring with two guys after awhile. So it wasn't like, "I'm going to write this big play." I was just doing it because I liked these guys and I liked their work and it was fun.

What was your day-to-day writing process?

I guess I'm pretty intense when I come across an idea and I don't sort of do an hour a day. My wife is French and we were living over in France, in these guys' apartment while they were out of town. She was working on a job, and I was transcribing tapes for Laramie. And as soon as I got done with my current load, I dove into this.

I remember trying to describe this idea: A comedy about date rape was how I was forming it at the time. And she sort of laughed me off and said I should come up with a different idea. But I was able to keep writing; I remember starting over at one point, fairly early on and scraping what I had when I came up with the idea that she might show up. I was writing by hand at that time. I like to get really into it when I'm writing and get a first draft done as soon as possible, and then go back in and work on it.

And you're able to do that even if you don't know exactly where you're going?

Yeah. I had, at the time, a philosophy that when you're dealing with those types of tight friendships, where you don't know yourself where the conversation is going, that it would be truer and more genuine to write within that vein and to have a general goalpost that you were headed for, but to let the turns happen.

If you're writing quickly enough in your mind, and keeping up with your pen, let those twists and turns come at you, almost as quickly as they're coming at the characters. At least for this type of play, where it's sort of down and dirty.

When you were adapting it into a film script, was there ever any talk of "opening it up"?

There was briefly talk about it. That would be the first instinct for any filmmaker. That's the great thing about Linklater. We talked a little bit about opening it up, but his inclination was definitely not to, that it was going to be more interesting to keep it enclosed.

The problem was how do you not repeat the theatrically that comes when you try to film a play, because so often it doesn't work. Because of the DV cameras that were sort of new at the time, which allowed you to go into a motel room or a soundstage that really felt like a motel room, that he was going to be able to capture a cinematic way of telling the story. So, very briefly only did we talk about doing some exterior stuff, which made me delighted, because I was worried that they were going to ask me to write stuff that didn't fit this play.

What I love about the movie is that it raises more questions than it answers, and most movies aren't willing to do that.

Well, that's the golden rule is to tie it up and provide those answers. And even in playwriting, I think, it's a very fine line. Audiences will feel ripped off if you're intentionally ambiguous for the sake of it. If ambiguity serves a purpose, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it's to turn it around and challenge them to ask themselves, 'What would I do in that situation? What have I done in past situations? And what have I done about those things?' That does seem to serve a purpose, and if nothing else the movie does poke it back at you, and it's so pointed at a particular generation were the words date rape just became a phrase.

My wife translated it into French and there is no expression for date rape there in that country yet. And it's relatively new to America. So I think the people who respond to this movie are people who have grown up with those words.

So, in terms of adaptation, it sounds like you basically handed Linklater the script to the play and said 'Have at it.'

Yeah, he was great that way. It was the opposite of what you expect the Hollywood machine to do to your work. Basically, the put it in Final Draft form. Robert Sean Leonard's character was originally Jewish; he makes a crack about himself being Jewish, but we didn't think we could pass off him as that. We also changed his name. There were also one or two cultural references which we thought would potentially date the film, so we cut a couple lines, one about David Hasselhoff.

Do you ever put a script in a drawer for a while?

Oh, absolutely. I have about twenty-five things in a drawer right now.

I think if I had put Tape in a drawer at that point I would never have gone back, because it's not the heftiest play. But I know that it hit a chord with people, because it was compact. I always complain when I see plays that are successful that they aren't as deep and profound as they should be, but that's not what audiences necessarily want or connect to. It has a tightness that is very satisfying and a compactness, and at an hour twenty, it definitely had that.

Did you learn anything from this process that you've taken to other projects?

Yes. I think letting a degree of spontaneity into my writing, which was something that I had excised at Julliard. Learning to let that back in. And knowing that that makes for better writing.

I learned that there is a market and an audience out there for dialogue-heavy films and character-driven films, and that this fast give-and-take actually can work. Everyone says it's so theatrical that it doesn't work, but if you put it out there, an audience will follow it. It's not particularly complex, it's not Tom Stoppard. But we're used to it and we can be conditioned, as filmgoers, to follow and like it.

And that drama doesn't come from just visuals. Drama comes from classic dramatic structure and shifts in emotions.

Dialogue that's fun and appropriate to the contemporary world is something that audiences will respond to.

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