Interview (Part 2): Donald Margulies

February 26th, 2015 by

Donald Margulies, one of America’s most widely-produced playwrights, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Dinner with Friends (which was made into a Emmy Award-nominated film for HBO directed by Norman Jewison) and was a finalist twice before for Sight Unseen and Collected Stories. His many other plays, which include The Country House, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, Brooklyn Boy, the Tony Award-nominated Time Stands Still and the Obie Award-winning The Model Apartment, have been produced on and off-Broadway and in theaters across the United States and around the world. Mr. Margulies has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was the recipient of the 2000 Sidney Kingsley Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre by a playwright. In 2005 he was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Award in Literature and by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture with its Award in Literary Arts. He was the 2014 recipient of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for an American Playwright in Mid-Career and the 2015 William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater. He has developed numerous screenplays, teleplays and pilots for HBO, Showtime, NBC, CBS, Warner Bros., TriStar, Universal, Paramount, and MGM. He is an adjunct professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale University. The film of his screenplay, The End of the Tour (2013 Black List), directed by James Ponsoldt, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the fall of 2015.

Donald agreed to respond to some of my questions about writing The End of the Tour as well as his insights into the craft of writing.

Today in Part 2, Donald talks about the unique relationship he had with the film’s director, what it was like to have his script land on the 2013 Black List, and his experiences at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

Scott: Another challenge: Handling the end of Wallace’s life in 2008. By going back in time to the events of Lipsky’s book, there is that foreknowledge in the script hanging over everything like a ghost from the future. At one point, Wallace’s character says to Lipsky, “You’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.” And then in scene description: “Silence. Lipsky mulls over the gravity of what David has said. David breaks the portentous silence when he pops a wad of tobacco in his mouth.” ‘Portentous silence’ would seem to be an acknowledgement of future real-life events. What was your thought process and approach when writing the script in dealing with Wallace’s death?

Donald: I was never interested in making this a bio-pic. This is based on a true story, a one-hour, forty-five-minute dramatization of a five-day footnote that might shed light on an entire life. Bio-pics of writers are mostly embarrassing; the obligatory typing scenes and crumpling of paper; the flashback to the traumatic childhood event that attempts to explain everything. There was to be none of that here. And I was not interested in exploiting mental illness and suicide. The DFW of The End of the Tour is at a healthy time in his life, not at its nadir; that was one of the things that attracted me to this story. However, I felt it was important to acknowledge Wallace’s death at the very beginning, which the script does, on page one, in a prologue that takes place in 2008 (the coda takes place in 2010, with Lipsky reading from the book we have just seen dramatized). There was no point in withholding that information or saving it for a title card before the closing crawl. In fact, I thought it was essential for the film to have the gravitas like that felt when reading the book. It was the news that prompted Lipsky’s reflection on his encounter with Wallace twelve years earlier, and it contextualizes – and ironizes – all that follows. Wallace talked about suicide – being “put down,” “leaving the planet”- a lot. The “portentous silence” you referred to characterizes the experience the reader and viewer has; it registers with us because we know what is going to happen.

Scott: There is a personal aspect to this project. You have been an adjunct professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale and one of your students there was James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now), who ended up directing The End of the Tour. Could you describe how that came about and what it was like working with one of your former students?

Donald: It was a joy. Around the time the script was finished and directors were beginning to be discussed, I happened to have reconnected with a former student of mine whose directing career was on the ascent. James Ponsoldt was one of the most memorable undergraduates I have had the pleasure of introducing to dramatic writing (Elizabeth Meriwether, Stuart Blumberg and Zoe Kazan are some of the others). James and I had kept in touch since his graduation fifteen or so years ago and rekindled our acquaintance when I contacted him after I saw Smashed to tell him how impressed I was by it. Not long after, with the blessings of my producers (Kanter, Matt DeRoss and James Dahl), acting on a hunch that it would speak to him, I sent James my script. His enthusiastic response came overnight, things moved pretty quickly after that, and here we are. I had a real Mr. Chips moment when I saw an early cut of the film; I was so moved not only by the fine, mature film James had made but by the faithful and loving way he brought his old professor’s script to life. It was as if 25 years of teaching had brought me this incredible reward. On a purely artistic level, it was wonderful having a director who trusted the power of the language (I once had a director who brutally cut a long scene in half and placed the latter portion in a men’s room).

Scott: Were you at all involved during the film’s production for five weeks up in Michigan? If so, what was that experience like?

Donald: The cast and crew tolerated long days in crushing cold. I spent only four days on the set in Grand Rapids (wisely, all interiors), long enough to make a couple of Hitchcockian cameos, most notably, Businessman with Rolling Suitcase in Hotel Corridor. There were not many changes made to the script once we went into production. Some scenes were consolidated, some cuts were made, mostly by email from my home in New Haven.

Scott: You have written for TV and other movie projects, so I’m guessing you’re aware of the Black List wherein each year, they announce a group of the best unproduced original screenplays as voted on by Hollywood creative execs. The End of the Tour made the Black List in 2013. Did that have any special meaning to you?

Donald: As a writer-for-hire, I’ve worked on something like two dozen(!) unproduced screenplays. All kinds of interesting stuff, many of them biographical: Keith Moon for Mike Myers, Gertrude Berg for Bette Midler, John Callahan for Robin Williams, Robert Capa for Oliver Stone; adaptations of novels by Edith Wharton, Jeffrey Eugenides and Tom Wolfe. But none was the labor of love that was The End of the Tour. Maybe that’s why it was the one that actually got made, who knows? A few reviewers of the film mistakenly referred to me as a “first-time” screenwriter when really what I am is a first-time happy screenwriter. I was aware of The Black List but never imagined that I would land a script on it one day. I was delighted when I did. It was very validating. A “They like me, they really like me” moment. It certainly lent the script a little extra sheen and buzz which I think contributed to the impression that it was something special. So, yes, I was very grateful for that recognition.

Scott: At some point when the film moved into production, the David Foster Wallace estate raised objections to the project. Presumably you had already done the lion’s share of your writing on the screenplay, but during the scripting process, were you at all concerned about what the reaction would be, not only from Wallace’s family, but also his fans?

Donald: I set out to capture Lipsky’s impressions of his five days on the road with Wallace. The book was well-received and had the support of the family, who were aware that it had been optioned. My hope was that it would honor the spirit of a revered writer and perhaps inspire a new generation of readers.

Scott: For several years, you have been playwright-in-residence at the Sundance Playwrights Conference. Then this January, The End of the Tour premieres at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. That must have been quite a contrast seeing Sundance in such a different light at the Festival.

Donald: I participated in the Sundance Playwrights’ Institute in Provo back in the pre-historic eighties and nineties. I had never been to the festival before so I wasn’t quite prepared for the traffic and the celebrity-gawkers and the pandemonium, or the smiling sponsors insisting that you take their free merchandise. Oh, yeah, there are movies there, too, but I couldn’t get in to see any but my own.

Donald Margulies, James Ponsoldt, Jason Segal at Sundance

Scott: The movie has been picked up for distribution by A24, one of the most cutting edge independent movie companies to emerge in the last few years. Can you even begin to describe what it feels like to have traveled on your own creative road trip with this project and now see it all come to fruition?

Donald: I have said that The End of the Tour was a labor of love and I think everyone associated with it would describe it the same way. I take particular pride in having made this film with my longtime associate, David Kanter, and my former student, James Ponsoldt. We’re excited for a wider audience to finally see it.

Scott: What’s next for on the writing front for Donald Margulies?

Donald: I’m looking for a new screenwriting assignment. The older I get, the more I view a potential project as occupying a precious chunk of time and imagine how I would feel living with it for that long. Not too many things pass that test. For the stage, I’m writing a new play and working on my first book of a Broadway musical, for Disney Theatricals, Father of the Bride (based on the 1950 original with Spencer Tracy, not on the Steve Martin remake).

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Tomorrow in Part 3, Donald responds to some questions about the craft of screenwriting.

Donald is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.

Video: “Richard Linklater – The Works”

February 26th, 2015 by

I loved Birdman, but to me, the movie that deserved the 2015 Best Picture Oscar was Boyhood. It’s a cinematic wonder. Yesterday the trades mentioned that writer-director Richard Linklater might be directing an equally exciting project: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a movie based on a novel by Maria Semple and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars). So what better time to feature this video tribute to Linklater.

Our lives are so enriched by filmmakers like Richard Linklater.

Edited by Joel Walden.

HT to Indiewire for the link.

Script Analysis: “Whiplash” – Part 4: Psychological Journey

February 26th, 2015 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Major Plot Points
Wednesday: Sequences
Thursday: Psychological Journey
Friday: Takeaways

Today: Psychological Journey.

The way I look at a script, it is a screenplay universe comprised of two worlds:

External World: Action and Dialogue.
Internal World: Intention and Subtext.

The first is the realm of a story’s Physical Journey, what we see and hear on screen.
The second is the realm of a story’s Psychological Journey, what we intuit and interpret.

The Physical Journey deals with the question: What is the story about?
The Psychological deals with the question: What does the story mean?

The two are inextricably linked. Characters experience something in the External World which impacts their attitude in the Internal World which alters their behavior in the External World which brings them to new knowledge which impacts their attitude which alters their behavior and so on.

Played out over the course of an entire story, we call this dynamic: Metamorphosis (or Transformation).

Joseph Campbell said the whole point of a Hero’s Journey is transformation.

Therefore we cannot consider script structure without embracing the Psychological Journey along with the Physical Journey.

So as we analyze a script, we can ask these questions:

* Which characters go through a metamorphosis?

* Where do they begin and where do they end in the transformation-journey?

* What are the stages in their metamorphosis?

* How do plot points in the External World impact and influence the character’s change in the Internal World?

For Part 1, to read the Scene-By-Scene Breakdown created by Steven Broughton, go here.

For Part 2, to read the Major Plot Points, go here.

For Part 3, to read the Sequences, go here.

Written by Damien Chazelle.

IMDb plot summary: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

Writing Exercise: Go through the script or the scene-by-scene breakdown and ask yourself: Which characters go through a metamorphosis? Where do they begin and where do they end in the transformation-journey? What are the stages in their metamorphosis? How do plot points in the External World impact and influence the character’s change in the Internal World?

Tomorrow we wrap up our weekly analysis by considering what takeaways we may have discovered which we can bring to our own writing.

This series started here and we have 26 volunteers to do scene-by-scene breakdowns of contemporary movie scripts. The scripts we have already analyzed are in italics.

American Hustle: Jon Raymond
Argo: Nora Barry
Barney’s Version: John M
Belle: DaniM
Beginners: Ali
Boyhood: Jacob Jensen
Enough Said: Ali
Flight: 14Shari
Frankenwenie: Will King
Frozen: Christina Sekeris
Gone Girl: NateKohler1
Gravity: Matt Duriez
Hanna: John Arends
Lincoln: pgronk
Looper: erikledrew
Moonrise Kingdom: Daniel Bigler
Mud: Alejandro
Paranorman: OhScotty
Prisoners: Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Short Term 12: Carolina Groppa
The Artist: Traci Nell Peterson
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Rob Hoskins
The Social Network: N D
The Way Way Back: Ricky
Wadjda: iamdaniel
Whiplash: Steven Broughton

If you’d like to participate and do a scene-by-scene breakdown yourself, please indicate which script in comments or email me. We are using scripts available on our site here. Note some of the 2014 scripts are now available there including Belle, Birdman, Boyhood, Calvary, Get On Up, Gone Girl, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Kill The Messenger, Locke, St. Vincent, The Boxtrolls, The Fault In Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, and Wild.

For new volunteers and those who have already volunteered, but not sent me a breakdown yet, please do so as soon as possible. Thanks!

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: Whiplash.

Movie Trailer: “Insurgent”

February 26th, 2015 by

Screenplay by Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback, novel by Veronica Roth

Beatrice Prior must confront her inner demons and continue her fight against a powerful alliance which threatens to tear her society apart with the help from others on her side.

IMDb

Release Date: 20 March 2015 (USA)

2015 Dialogue-Writing Challenge: Day 19

February 26th, 2015 by

As noted in this post last month:

What if in February, we put the spotlight on writing dialogue?

A Dialogue-Writing Challenge!

Here’s my idea: We crowdsource a bunch of dialogue-writing prompts. From that, we choose the 20 best ones. Then next month, Monday through Friday, much like the scene-writing exercises, I invite people to take each prompt, use it to write dialogue, then upload the dialogue to the site for peer feedback.

People submitted some great dialogue-writing prompts, so let’s do this!

Every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific in February, I will upload a post with a prompt for writing dialogue. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. If you really want to get in the spirit of things, upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your dialogue as well.

To provide extra motivation for this series — to get people to WRITE PAGES — I am giving away some of my Craft classes to Dialogue-Writing Challenge participants. That’s right: For free!

The Craft classes highlight key principles and practices tied to the nitty gritty of writing a script. Here is the Craft lineup, the only time I will teach each of these courses in 2015:

January 19: Craft: Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling

February 2: Craft: Story Summaries

February 16: Craft: Handling Exposition

March 16: Craft: The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling

March 30: Craft: Character Development Keys

April 27: Craft: Create a Compelling Protagonist

May 11: Craft: Write a Worthy Nemesis

May 25: Craft: Scene Description Spotlight

Each is a 1-week online class featuring 7 lectures written by me, lots of screenwriting insider tips, logline workshops, optional writing exercises, 24/7 message board conversations, teleconferences with course participants and myself to discuss anything related to the craft of scriptwriting.

A popular option is the Craft Package which gives you access to the content in all eight Craft classes which you can go through on your own time and at your own pace, plus automatic enrollment in each 1-week online course. All for nearly 50% the price of each individual class.

To qualify to take one of my Craft classes for free, write and submit ten [10] Dialogue-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. The former to get you writing, the latter to work your critical-analytical skills.

A chance to take any of my eight Craft classes, interface with me online along with the usual stellar group of writers who take Screenwriting Master Class courses, while using writing exercises and feedback to upgrade your skill at writing and analyzing dialogue.

ISN’T THAT AN AWESOME IDEA?!!!

A couple of logistical notes:

* Limit your post to 2 pages. Out of fairness to everyone participating in the public dialogue-writing workshop, let’s not abuse anyone’s patience or time with really long scenes.

* Give your scenes a beginning, middle and end. You may enter late and exit early, but provide an arc to each of your posts. Even monologues or telephone conversations, both of which we will be doing this month.

* Don’t be concerned about proper script format when you copy/paste your pages, rather the content and execution are the important thing. So as a default mode, do this: (1) Don’t worry about right-hand margins on scene description or dialogue, just keep typing until it manually shifts each line. (2) Don’t worry about character name position, rather do this:

SCARLETT: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

RHETT: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Today’s prompt: A prayer.

All sorts of ways to approach this prompt. Someone praying out of desperation. Perhaps a benediction. Maybe grace at a meal. A minister offering last rites. A plethora of ways to go at it.

Focus on the dialogue, not the action to drive the scene. In most movies, it’s the other way around because movies are primarily a visual medium, however sometimes the script requires a dialogue-driven scene and we need to hone our chops at being able to do that effectively.

Write a 1-2 page dialogue-centric scene, then copy/paste in comments.

If you are interested in qualifying for 1 free Craft class with me, please note in each post you submit the number of scenes you have written. If today is your first effort, note that it is Scene 1. The next one, Scene 2. And so forth.

Also when you provide feedback on someone’s scene, please note in each reply the number of comments you have uploaded. So if today is your first response, Feedback 1. The next one, Feedback 2.

You are on an honor system, as I don’t have time to check every post, so do the right thing!

Remember: In order to qualify for one of my free Craft classes, you need to submit ten [10] Dialogue-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers.

FEEDBACK TIP: What can be surprising about a prayer? Who can forget this cinematic prayer?

Ironically, George gets smacked by a guy in the bar whose wife George berated on the phone. As George says, “That’s what I get for praying.” Nope, George. You get this guy!

That’s a nice twist: A prayer that ends with a punch to the face. Whatever scene you assess, see if there’s anything surprising about it. If not, make a suggestion.

Want to join in? For the Week 1 writing prompts, go here. For the Week 2 writing prompts, go here. Week 3, here.

Day 16 challenge: Someone applying for a job.

Day 17 challenge: A drunken tirade.

Day 18 challenge: A conversation involving texting.

It’s the 2015 Dialogue-Writing Challenge! Give a jolt to your creative and writing muscles… and win 1 free online class with yours truly.

NOTE: If you have done all 10 exercises and provided 10 feedback posts, you are eligible to take one of my Craft classes for free. Just get in touch with me via email and I’ll handle the rest.

Daily Dialogue — February 26, 2015

February 26th, 2015 by

Mitch: Hi, Mom.
Mom (on telephone): It’s September 8th, 1952. We’re driving back from your Aunt Marsha. My water breaks. Your father jumps the divider of the highway and races me to Doctor’s Hospital. And… [laughs] … at 5:16, out you came. Oh… happy birthday, Darling. Here’s your father.
Dad (on telephone): Hello, boy. Happy birthday.
Mitch: Hi, Dad. How you doing?
Dad (on telephone): I’m losing feeling in my left leg. Here’s your mother.

City Slickers (1991), written by Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel

The Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Birthday.

Trivia: Aside from the Yankee game story that Mitch tell, another true story from Billy Crystal’s life is the wake up call from his mother on his birthday. According to Billy in the DVD Commentary, in real life, his mother would call him on his birthday at around 5 o’clock in the morning (the time he was born) and verbally re-enact the event over the phone. The rendition in the film is word-for-word the true story of Billy Crystal’s birth.

Dialogue On Dialogue: This scene is part of the story’s setup to sell Mitch’s sense of growing old and wondering if this is all there is to life. It’s his 39th birthday. Next one is the big Four Oh.

If you have a suggestion for this week’s theme, please post in comments.

The importance of an outline

February 25th, 2015 by

You probably get sick of me harping on the importance of ‘breaking’ your story in the prep-writing phase, ideally ending up with a comprehensive outline. So I have featured interviews with screenwriters who extol the virtues of outlines like Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for Milk:

But allow me to make this point even more tangible for you. Here is a photograph of Paul Schrader’s outline for the Raging Bull script:

This corroborates what I have posted before from an interview with Schrader:

“I know exactly where I’m going beforehand. I know to the half page if I’m on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages. You may go two, three pages ahead or behind, you may add or drop dialogue or scenes; but if you’re two pages ahead or behind, you have to work that into the timing. Especially if you get five pages ahead, or, worse, five pages behind, then something you had planned to work on page forty may not work the same way on page forty-five.”

Let’s add one more chip to the pot to get you to go all-in and embrace outlines. You can go here to download the “step sheet” for the Chinatown screenplay, crafted by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski. It is in effect an outline with considerable detail for each scene.

This is what most professional screenwriters and all TV writers do: Wrangle the story in prep.

Okay, I get it, prep-writing is hard. Working up an outline is a pain in the posterior. But here’s the thing: You are going to have to do the hard work anyhow. Why do it after you type FADE IN, spending all that time and energy wandering around, stopping, starting, going back, re-starting with a very good chance you won’t ever finish the draft because you will get frustrated at being lost… when you can ‘break’ your story in prep, then type FADE IN with confidence since you already have a strong sense of the narrative’s structure.

So yes, consider this a sales pitch for the online workshop I created five years ago: Prep: From Concept to Outline. I have worked with countless writers who absolutely loathed outlines who, after learning this approach to prep, now swear by them.

In the end, by breaking your story in prep, you will save time… exponentially increase the chances you will actually finish your script… and be able to enjoy the page-writing process because you pretty much know where your story is heading.

[clears throat]

Chinatown: Academy Award, Best Writing, Original Screenplay [1975]

Raging Bull: Nominated, Golden Globe, Best Screenplay [1981]

Milk: Academy Award, Best Writing, Original Screenplay [2009]

[drops mic]

My next session of Prep: From Concept to Outline begins Monday, March 2. For more information and to enroll, go here.

Spec Script Deal: “The House”

February 25th, 2015 by

New Line acquires comedy spec script “The House” written by Brendan O’Brien and Andrew J. Cohen with Will Ferrell attached to star. From Deadline:

Ferrell plays a guy, who, with his wife, blows their daughter’s college fund. Desperate for cash, they team with some neighbors to open an illegal casino in the suburbs.

Per Deadline, interesting approach to the deal “which began with the writers pitching the concept to studios and leaving behind a script.”

Writers are repped by CAA and Deb Klein.

By my count, this is the 13th spec script deal in 2015.

There were 10 spec script deals year-to-date in 2014.

Spec Script Deal: “Smoke”

February 25th, 2015 by

Relativity Media acquires action crime spec script “Smoke” written by Max Vaney and Luke Goltz. From Deadline:

It’s set in the Miami Vice 1980s era in South Beach. Spec tells the true story of Joey Ippolito, who was one of the world’s top speedboat racers. No one in the South Beach socialite crowd knew, however, that he was also running one of the biggest cocaine smuggling operations out of the U.S.

Vaney and Goltz are first-timers. They are repped by Paradigm and Circle Of Confusion.

By my count, this is the 12th spec script deal of 2015.

There were 10 spec script deals year-to-date in 2014.

Interview (Part 1): Donald Margulies

February 25th, 2015 by

Donald Margulies, one of America’s most widely-produced playwrights, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Dinner with Friends (which was made into a Emmy Award-nominated film for HBO directed by Norman Jewison) and was a finalist twice before for Sight Unseen and Collected Stories. His many other plays, which include The Country House, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, Brooklyn Boy, the Tony Award-nominated Time Stands Still and the Obie Award-winning The Model Apartment, have been produced on and off-Broadway and in theaters across the United States and around the world. Mr. Margulies has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was the recipient of the 2000 Sidney Kingsley Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre by a playwright. In 2005 he was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters with an Award in Literature and by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture with its Award in Literary Arts. He was the 2014 recipient of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award for an American Playwright in Mid-Career and the 2015 William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater. He has developed numerous screenplays, teleplays and pilots for HBO, Showtime, NBC, CBS, Warner Bros., TriStar, Universal, Paramount, and MGM. He is an adjunct professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale University. The film of his screenplay, The End of the Tour (2013 Black List), directed by James Ponsoldt, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in the fall of 2015.

Donald agreed to respond to some of my questions about writing The End of the Tour as well as his insights into the craft of writing.

Today in Part 1, Donald discusses how he became involved in the project and some key creative challenges he faced in writing the script:

Scott: The End of the Tour is an adaptation of the 2010 book by David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which itself is based on recorded transcripts from five days Lipsky spent with Wallace at the end of a book tour promoting the 1996 release of the novel Infinite Jest. How and when did it come to your attention?

Donald: In March, 2011, my friend and manager, David Kanter, who has represented me in one capacity or another since 1991, and who appreciates my aesthetic sensibility better than just about anyone, sent me a book that had come his way at Anonymous Content: David Lipsky’s memoir. Kanter said, “Take a look, there may be a play in it.” Just a few pages in, I began to get very excited; I envisioned not a play but a “road picture.” I had a strong sense of what it needed to be and how I would go about achieving it. Inspiration doesn’t always work that way; sometimes, rarely, I know almost immediately how to solve a play’s or screenplay’s structure, other times I struggle for months. The script that became The End of the Tour was written relatively quickly (once the rights had been secured) and came to fruition not long after that. Between my introduction to Lipsky’s book and the movie’s premiere at Sundance was a period of less than four years.

Scott: Had you ever met David Foster Wallace?

Donald: No, I had never encountered Wallace nor, frankly, was I fanatical about his work. My appreciation of his work and interest in him really began when I read Lipsky’s book, which not only captured Wallace’s dazzling intellect but succeeded in humanizing a cultural icon. It was then that I truly understood what a huge loss his death was to our culture and was moved to read and re-read Wallace in a new light. I’m hopeful that our movie accomplishes a similar feat: of compelling audience members with limited knowledge of David Foster Wallace to seek out his books and revel in his voice.

Scott: When breaking down the book, what were some of the key themes and dynamics you knew upfront you wanted to explore in adapting the story into a screenplay?

Donald: Anyone who’s followed my plays over the years will see thematic resonances in The End of the Tour. (Collected Stories is a two-hander that tracks the complicated relationship between an older woman writer and her protégée; both Sight Unseen and Brooklyn Boy take on the struggle between artistry and fame; Dinner with Friends deals, in part, with male friendship.) In my reading of the Lipsky book, I saw a convergence of so many of the themes that have captivated my writer’s imagination. Here was a story of two incredibly smart, witty, articulate men, both of them writers, who ostensibly want the same thing: literary success and legitimacy.  Lipsky, 30 years old in 1996, was the aspirant whose first novel was published to modest acclaim; Wallace, only four years older, was the newly anointed voice of their generation.  The men spend five intense days together (after which, incidentally, they will never see one another again) during which their interaction fluctuates between suspicion, intimacy, competitiveness, defensiveness – sometimes from one beat to the next. I have always been fascinated by the journalist-subject dynamic (so memorably written about by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer about Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald) and I saw in this material a chance to take that on, too. I had at my disposal the 300-plus-page transcript that was the heart of Lipsky’s memoir. I never listened to the actual recordings but I did spend several hours interviewing David Lipsky, who generously shared moments that weren’t included in his book, details that proved invaluable in my screenplay. My challenge was to take this treasure trove of conversation and carve out a dramatic narrative; I needed to find the conflicts, mine the subtext, create dialogue that melded with their distinctive voices. I deconstructed all that rich, dense language, shattered it, and fashioned a kind of collage out of the shards, creating new juxtapositions and contexts. The dramatic stakes were intrinsic in what became the film’s title: the event being the final days of the tour that celebrated the book that changed his life. When Lipsky leaves Wallace in Illinois and goes home to New York, Wallace is confronted with the rest of his life, which we know will end by his own hand in just twelve years. I decided from its conception to put Lipsky in the foreground of the screenplay and tell the story from his point of view (a position the script adheres to but for two brief instances at the end of the film).

The movie’s co-stars, Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segal

Scott: The script is a ‘road picture’. Did that influence the way you approached the characters and the structure of the story?

Donald: One of the things that excited me when I read the Lipsky book – and what convinced me that the material would be best served as a film and not as a play – was the notion of placing the great satirist of American popular culture, David Foster Wallace, on the American landscape. Not just at a book-signing or giving an NPR interview, but in cars, on highways, on airplanes, in 7-Elevens and iHops and McDonald’s, visiting the Mall of America, watching Broken Arrow in a multiplex – it was all too delicious to imagine. It needed to be a film – it would have been too constrained on the stage .

Scott: One of the most noteworthy aspects of the script is how dialogue-heavy it is. Were you at all concerned about writing a movie, known as a visual medium, in which the story is primarily comprised of two characters talking?

Donald: Yes, there are a lot of words. Chunks of speeches and dialogue scenes that run several pages, almost unheard of, I know, in conventional screenplays. I love cinematic feasts like Lawrence of Arabia but I love My Dinner with Andre, too; sometimes I have an appetite for language. Given the source material, I saw the opportunity to capture on film, through dialogue, the whirring intelligence, wit, imagery, obsessions and demons of a brilliant writer whose fiction is, arguably, largely unfilmmable.   I adhered pretty closely to the itinerary Lipsky recounted in his book and was determined not to contrive Hollywood escapades for our guys on the road, certainly not in a craven effort to “open up” the story. For me it was all about the subtle shifts and calibrations in behavior between them; that’s where the drama was. Plus, I thought David and Dave made really entertaining company.

The End of the Tour generated strong buzz at its Sundance screenings. Here is an Indiewire Review.

Tomorrow in Part 2, Donald talks about the unique relationship he had with the film’s director, what it was like to have his script land on the 2013 Black List, and his experiences at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

Donald is repped by WME and Anonymous Content.