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Int: Craig Lucas

There’s something rotten amongst the hills of Hollywood.

Meet Robert, a young talented screenwriter living on the fringes and grieving for the loss of his male companion who died from complications of AIDS.

One day, Robert receives a phone call. A big Hollywood producer, Jeffrey, wants to buy his script The Dying Gaul, a very personal work about the death of his boyfriend. Jeffrey offers Robert one million dollars, but there is a clause. Robert needs to change the script, turning the dying man into a woman for ‘obvious’ commercial reasons.

Robert, at first, refuses, but then, slowly, gets won over by Jeffrey, who invites him to his spectacular glass house in Malibu with a stunning swimming pool and an amazing view overlooking the ocean. Here, Robert meets Jeffrey’s beautiful wife Elaine, a former screenwriter who gave up her career and buried herself (and her dreams) in the golden cage of her marriage.

Robert starts hanging out with the couple, and is slowly seduced by their lifestyle until he accepts their proposal and decides to change his script. He also starts a secret relationship with Jeffrey, notwithstanding the tight friendship that he is developing with Elaine.

When Robert confides in her that he finds solace, at night, in gay chat rooms, Elaine, strangely excited, decides to explore that world, discovers his nickname, and starts talking with him anonymously. As their online dialogue unfolds, Robert confesses his whole life to Elaine, including his relationship with her husband. The shock of the revelation sets off a tragic web of deceptions and betrayals.

The story of a struggling screenwriter who sells his soul to Hollywood with tragic consequences will inevitably bring comparison to Sunset Boulevard but the same has already been said a few years ago about Gods and Monsters. In both cases, I’d say quite inappropriately.

The Dying Gaul is actually something very different, not only from Billy Wilder’s masterpiece but, in general, from the constellation of film noir set in Hollywood. It starts like Robert Altman’s The Player (high rhythm, fast-paced dialogues about the cynism of Hollywood), slowly develops like an Almodovar script (think Mala Education with its lush visuals, its gay issues and its “thrilleresque” structure), and eventually ends up like a Greek tragedy, including the use of poisonous herbs and the classical recalling in the very last image of the famous Roman statue that gives the title to the film.

Problem is: how does it manage to keep so many things together?

Actually, it doesn’t. The script of Craig Lucas uses the “indecent proposal” of the Hollywood producer as a pure gimmick, an excuse to analyze the mechanisms of power in a threesome. It’s what Hitchcock would have called a “MacGuffin”, a pure cinematic device that sets up a film’s plot, but whose actual content is, in the end, rather irrelevant to the main focus of the movie. We will never get to know, for example, what became of Robert’s revised script. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Nor do we focus on the moral struggle of his choice. For this reason, those who were hoping for a harsh accusation of the Hollywood establishment could be somehow disappointed by the missed opportunity. The main interest of Lucas, in fact, seems to be something else. As in his previous script, The Secret Lives of Dentists, he wants to explore the ongoing struggle between honesty and deception, control and submission, and power and weakness inside a relationship. Lucas seems to suggest that there is never a balance within a couple, and there will always be a predator and a prey, a sadist and a victim.

Yet, even though the film industry represents, in a way, just the luxurious and corrupted landscape where these tricky dynamics develop, at the same time it would be inappropriate to dismiss completely the background. Elaine is a failed screenwriter. This is why she is so fascinated by the idea of creating a whole new character in her nightly online conversation. Jeffrey is a big-time Hollywood producer. This is why he needs to have control of everything, from his “trophy” wife to his writer/lover. As for Robert, he is obviously the weakest link of the chain. As an upcoming screenwriter, he feels the need to be accepted by the establishment at all costs. This is why he will give up his beliefs.

Yet, and this is where the film is so original and fascinating, as the story unfolds, roles will subtly switch and positions will inexorably change until it becomes almost impossible to tell who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. While, in the end, nobody wins, still somebody might decide to read through the lines, and savor the pointless revenge of a desperate screenwriter against the dreamland of Hollywood that fluffed his ambition and corrupted his soul.

Marcello Paolillo met with director Craig Lucas and actress Patricia Clarkson in New York.

* * *

Craig Lucas

Q: After many years as a succesful playwriter and screenwriter, how did it feel to finally direct your own script?

A: I was extemely nervous since it was my first experience as a director. In a way, I felt like I was at the mercy of everybody, and so I was very honest and upfront about it and asked for advice. Yet, at the same time, I knew the material very well since I adapted it from my theatre play, and I knew all the traps of this story. For example, I learned a lot from the reactions of the audience who went to see my play in the theater, and that made me want to spend more time on the script. I did several adjustments. Truth is: to adapt a theater play for the screen is such a stupid, horrible job! It’s much harder to take a play and turn it into a movie, than simply write an original screenplay. It’s like having built a beautiful brick house and having to tear it down to rebuild it. It’s painful. For example, many scenes were very long and static since they were conceived for the stage, and I had to change them completely. Luckily, I had a general idea of camera and angles since I always went to the editing rooms of all the previous films I wrote.

Q: The film is visually stunning, very lush and stylized. How did you work on the atmosphere and cinematography?

A: My main concern was what Hollywood would look like. It had to look extremely appealing. The setting has a key role in luring the screenwriter into its world of deception and corruption. This is why the room of Robert is so dark and small and miserable, while the house of the producer is huge, and bright, with a swimming pool and a wonderful view on the ocean. Also, I liked the idea of a world that seems apparently perfect, and that hides secrets behind his surface.

Q: Which is the worst soul-crashing experience you had in Hollywood?

A: Well, I can tell you my favorite Hollywood soul-crashing experience. It happened to a friend of mine, but I can’t tell you the name since he is a pretty famous screenwriter. He got a phone call from a Hollywood producer begging him to help him with the re-writing of a script. The producer told him that the concept was great, but it was very poorly written. So, my friend asked who was the writer of the script. The executive grabs the script, looks at the name on it and realizes that it was actually written by my friend! That tells you a lot about how screenwriters are taken into consideration in Hollywood. They don’t like us, they need us. Producers know that they can’t make a good film with a bad script, therefore they desperately want a good script, but they don’t want us.

Q: Since you name Gus Van Sant in the movie, I remember that years ago I asked him if he thought that Hollywood was homophobic and he said: “Not at all! Hollywood is just about the money! If tomorrow morning executives woke up and realized that gay films could make them gain billions, they would start greenlighting gay films right away.” Do you agree?

A: Absolutely! They would sell their grandmother’s bones if they thought that it would give them money. Hollywood producers know only one parameter: their salary!

Q: Still, in these last few years something has changed in the representation of gay issues in movies.

A: This is why my film, as it was the play, is set in the early Nineties, before Will and Grace and Six Feet Under, before Far from Heaven and Brokeback Mountain. Now, it’s different, but back then, these films were unthinkable. At best, you could have films like Philadelphia or In and Out, but if you think, those films were about homophobia. I remember, for example, how difficult it was for me to have Longtime Companion greenlit. Oh, my God: it was so painful! After the hit of my play Blue Window, I started to get the attention of Hollywood. So I went to some meetings with film producers and I remember all those executives asking me: “So, what would you like to write?”, and I’d say: “A film about somebody dying of AIDS.” I got the same reply from everybody: “Great! And what else would you like to write?” See what I mean? You have to have a great sense of humor to deal with Hollywood, which I don’t necessarely have…

Q: Upcoming projects?

A: My next film will be called Small Tragedy . It’s based once again on one of my plays. Patricia Clarkson will star in it, along with Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The Dying Gaul opens in New York and L.A on November 4th.
Tomorrow we feature an interview with Patricia Clarkson.

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