InDepth InterView: John Logan Talks SWEENEY TODD, CORIOLANUS, LINCOLN & More
John Logan, the playwright responsible for the Mark Rothko-inspired 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Play, RED, is also a name familiar to movie buffs around the world who may very well have enjoyed his considerable contributions to cinema - among them, the screenplays for 2000 Best Picture Oscar-winner GLADIATOR (directed by Ridley Scott), Oliver Stone's ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, Martin Scorsese's THE AVIATOR, Tim Burton's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET (2008 Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical Or Comedy) and many more. Discussing his collaborations with those lauded directors as well as his work for the stage - going all the way back to his Chicago roots - Logan and I also touch on some of his incredibly exciting upcoming projects - the new Sam Mendes James Bond film, SKYFALL; the Ralph Fiennes-directed adaptation of Shakespeare's CORIOLANUS; Martin Scorsese's critically lauded HUGO, now in theaters; and, Steven Spielberg's forthcoming biopic of LINCOLN, co-written with Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Additionally, Logan illustrates his appreciation for RED Tony-winning leading man Eddie Redmayne, who also starred in the Kathryn Bigelow-directed HBO pilot of Logan's aborted Broadway-themed musical series, A MIRACULOUS YEAR. All of that, plus early casting ideas for Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, as well as much, much more!
A Miraculous Decade
PC: To have written so many amazing movies in such a short amount of time is a true credit to your craft. You are a real inspiration to aspiring screenwriters out there.
JL: Well, thank you! It's all very good to hear. You know, part of the responsibility of being an artist is to inspire those who come after you, so I'm glad that some of the work has appealed.
PC: Do you think that we are in a special time for theatre-related entertainment entities right now - besides your own SWEENEY TODD and the success of CHICAGO, HAIRSPRAY and DREAMGIRLS, there is also GLEE and the Fathom events and much more?
JL: Without a doubt. Without a doubt. We had a huge, homegrown American theatre and an amazing peak period in the 70s, when, suddenly, we were getting A CHORUS LINE and, you know, SWEENEY TODD and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC - sort of just amazing, homegrown American theatre. And, then, we had the British invasion.
PC: In the 80s.
JL: Yeah. But, now, we are so, totally back.
JL: I mean, if you look at the muscularity of something like WICKED and the way it has just spawned sort of generations of young people wanting to get involved in the theatre - it's brilliant. It's like, when I was a kid, it was ANNIE...
PC: Of course.
JL: Those shows coming along - like Billy Elliot; or, MATILDA in London - those are the things that get young people into theatre and what will keep it a vital art form.
PC: And be introduced to the magic of great theatre.
JL: That's what one of the great joys of working on something like SWEENEY TODD - realizing people will go see a movie with Johnny Depp who would never necessarily pay money to see a work of theatre, and they are still going to hear Steve Sondheim's score and they are still going to get Hugh Wheeler's book; you know, they're gonna be inspired by all that work. You know, when you do something like CORIOLANUS or SWEENEY, you get some people to see some Shakespeare or eventually plunk down some money for FOLLIES.
PC: GLADIATOR. What was your inspiration for that? What was working with Ridley Scott like?
JL: Well, I mean, when Ridley first came to me, I was like, "With this subject matter, you are out of your mind! A swords and sandals movie? Really?" And, he just said, "John - no skirts."
PC: That's hilarious.
JL: Then, he showed me visual images for the way he saw the movie. And, it was absolutely thrilling.
PC: I can only imagine.
JL: David Franzoni had written an amazing script that Ridley had signed on to and that I came on to, because we had just done a movie called RKO 281 together.
PC: Of course. For HBO
JL: We had a great relationship. And, you know, working with Ridley is working with one of the great filmmakers and one of the great raconteurs. You know, it's like, a dinner with Ridley Scott or a dinner with Martin Scorsese? You just want to cut your arm off to get those. They are so experienced - they are such old-world artists, in a way, and they bring this set of references that is so vast that it is always sort of inspiring.
PC: What a thrill.
JL: Rid was just… everything about GLADIATOR was an adventure. No one had made a movie like that for a while; we had a star who wasn't really a movie star at that time - it was all a sort of great, challenging, bruising piece. But, at every point, Ridley kept his fingers on the pulse of making the movie he wanted to make.
PC: His follow-up to GLADIATOR was HANNIBAL and I know there were at least a dozen drafts of the script - the first by David Mamet, no less. Were involved in any of that?
JL: No, no. Not at all.
PC: I think that is one of his best films. It was very controversial when it came out, for many reasons.
JL: It was very controversial, and, you know, it was tough, because Julianne Moore had big shoes to fill - but, I think she did a fantastic job.
PC: I agree.
JL: And, I love that movie. I think the whole sequence with the shooting early on and the way it becomes a fugue and a sort of two-person dance at the end I think is beautiful.
JL: And, it's very Ridley! You know, in the feelings and in the colors and the textures - again, the old-world sensibility. You know, we're there in Florence and it just has a certain feel to it.
PC: I've heard that Russell Crowe was considered for SWEENEY film at one point - back when Sam Mendes was involved - and I was curious if you ever discussed the role with him one-on-one?
JL: No. Never discussed it. You know, Sam and I spent a long time working on SWEENEY and that was always a sort of goal. But, then, obviously, it became a different thing when Tim and Johnny came onboard sort of simultaneously.
PC: So, Russell and Meryl Streep were at the top of the list at first?
JL: They were among the names being considered. I mean, you always - in idle moments in script meetings - you toss actors names around.
PC: I've heard Toni Collette gave a fantastic audition on tape - is there such a thing?
JL: Yes, there is. There is. [Laughs.]
PC: ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. Were you a sports fan before you wrote it? What was working with Oliver Stone like?
JL: I was a football fan.
JL: You know, I lived in Chicago for 25 years and I lived there when the Bears won the Super Bowl.
PC: Wow. That was a huge deal.
JL: Yeah! I always thought football was amazing and no one had made a football movie in years! It was really my first screenplay.
PC: Really? How interesting.
JL: Yeah, I credit Oliver with teaching me to be a screenplay writer - because I was a very experienced playwright, but he was the one who was very patient and nurturing. We did 26 drafts of ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, actually.
PC: That's a lot.
JL: I remember that number very distinctly.
PC: Oh my gosh.
JL: All the way along, though, he was nurturing and supportive. And, it was wild because it was like being picked up by your heels and thrown into the deep end of cinema. You know, I didn't have any UCLA starter films or work on a TV show - it was right in with Oliver. The only reason I survived it was because of him.
PC: How did you get involved with him in the first place?
JL: Well, I wrote it as a spec script - my first screenplay.
PC: So spec scripts actually do get produced sporadically? Who knew!
JL: [Laughs.] Absolutely, they do! At least in this case.
PC: On your first at bat, no less!
JL: Yeah, but it's important to remember that when I started I wasn't 20 - I was in my late 20s. I had been a playwright in Chicago for 10 years, so I knew what my job as a dramatist was - I knew how to collaborate with writers and directors; I knew what those people could bring to your work and your responsibility to step up and do your part of the job. So, as disorienting as it might have been - sitting down with a director like Oliver Stone to work on that movie - it really is just a job I had been doing for 10 years in Chicago, just better pay. [Laughs.]
PC: How fascinating. Speaking of Chicago, tell me about an original musical you wrote there - RIVERVIEW?
JL: Oh, that's something I did at the Goodman with Bob Falls.
PC: What was it about?
JL: It's about an old Chicago amusement park and race relations in the 40s. We did it with great found music. It was fantastic. It was the first musical I have ever been involved with and it was just fantastic.
PC: What about other musicals you have been involved with or are planning to do in the future?
JL: I am involved with a couple now! I am sort of in process with them.
PC: Can you tell me about any of them?
JL: I cannot. [Laughs.]
PC: I figured as much. What a shame! No hints?
JL: All I will say is that I am very close with Adam Guettel and Tom Kitt and Andrew Lippa. And, I certainly used the opportunity of RED and the success of that in the theatre world - in both London and New York - to pursue composers I thought were talented. My great ambition in life is to write the book for a musical - you know, it's the mountain I haven't climbed yet.
PC: Speaking of RED, could you tell me about working with Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina on it? It's a sublime play.
JL: Thank you. Eddie… he's the dream of all dreams, Eddie. You know, it all started with Michael Grandage reading the play - he was willing to read this play and he just fell in love with it and said, "Let's do it!"
PC: How fortuitous.
JL: I wrote it with the Donmar Warehouse in mind as the perfect theater for it. And, you know, spending that time in the rehearsal room - it was the middle of Winter and it was this frosty little rehearsal room across the river in London - but, with great actors like Fred Molina and Eddie Redmayne - and a great director - it was thrilling every second. They are so respectful to text. You know, I was a lot more muscular with the text than they ever were, that's for sure! [Laughs.]
PC: What a treat for a playwright that must have been.
JL: Yeah, it was really a gift being in that room - watching them develop their characters and work at their own pace to get there. With a two-hander, it's a particular challenge because there is no escape valve - you are locked in that studio with Ken and Rothko and the molecules aren't going anywhere. So, it's up to the two of them to constantly keep that ball in the air - and, it was amazing to watch them learn a sort of ease and familiarity with each other.
PC: I've heard Sondheim say that the Donmar is the perfect theatre space. Do you agree with that sentiment, having done RED there?
JL: It is! It is. It is my favorite theatre space in the entire world. There is something about those 240 seats in that configuration, on that street, on a given night, that can take your breath away.
PC: What was your first meeting with Sam Mendes like?
JL: With Sam Mendes? Oh, my gosh! I've known Sam so long that I don't even remember. [Pause.] I think it was when he was doing ROAD TO PERDITION.
PC: Would you consider working on a musical with Sam in the future, whether onstage or onscreen?
JL: I'd love working on one - I love working on anything with Sam. I mean, just having done SWEENEY TODD and, now, SKYFALL, he is just one of the great collaborators. He is a man of the theatre and a man of cinema. You know, we are the same age, so we have the same set of references about everything - and it's nothing but a joy, spending time with him and getting to work with him.
PC: SKYFALL should be stupendous with you, Sam and Daniel Craig all involved now!
JL: You know, at this point in my career, I am looking for those artists that inspire me - that push you out of your comfort zone; a little further, a little better. And, Sam is great about that. And, because we are both theatre guys, we can talk about a proscenium arch. We can talk about the process of creating characters on the page that come to life in a very sort of different way that I couldn't talk about it with with Tim Burton - we had a different discussion.
PC: What was the primary difference in working with both of them in adapting SWEENEY TODD for the screen? Ultimately, we never got to see Sam's vision for the piece, of course.
JL: Well, every director is going to have a different vision. You know, when you work with any director, you are learning a new language - and, Tim is a poet. He speaks in haikus. It's a wonderful, evocative language. It's very gentle and whimsical and it has a certain poetry; lyricism - especially in the way he responds to the material. That's something I find very exciting.
PC: And Sam?
JL: And Sam - more like me - is like, sort of, get in the engine and clank around; throw your elbows a bit with the material. So, it's more muscular, maybe - a more muscular engagement.
PC: How fascinating. What a world of difference between them.
JL: Both movies would have been amazing.
PC: Burton's certainly was.
JL: It's just different filmmakers, different vision - totally different movie. In the same way - as you know - that if you handed the score of SWEENEY to Bill Condon or Eric Roth or Steve Zaillian, you would get a different movie, you know? It's the same with any director.
PC: Was any of "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" filmed at any point?
JL: Was any of the "Ballad" filmed? No.
PC: Christopher Lee and the ghosts were dropped at the very last moment, correct?
JL: Yeah, but it was great seeing them rehearse it out at Pinewood, that's for sure. [Laughs.]
PC: It was intended to follow as it was in the shooting script, then - a ghostly street scene?
JL: Yeah - I am trying to remember exactly, but that was the plan.
PC: The last director on my list is a current collaborator of yours - Ralph Fiennes, who directed and stars in CORIOLANUS and also will be appearing in the Bond SKYFALL. What was your experience in working with Ralph?
JL: Ralph Fiennes is unbelievable.
PC: How so?
JL: He's so great - he's like my brother. I have a hard time looking at him objectively now because we spent so long in the trenches of CORIOLANUS together, and, now, we are doing Bond. He's a genuine Byronic figure - a poet, too.
PC: How illuminating.
JL: He's a very lyrical, full-of-life, theatrical person. And, with a writer? So sensitive and nuanced and respectful in his approach. You know, it made CORIOLANUS just a thrilling, thrilling experience. And, you know, because he is an actor, I also got the extra added attraction that when we were working on the text he would leap up and perform it!
PC: How cool is that?
JL: So, like, in my study, there's Ralph Fiennes performing Shakespeare just for me - an audience of one.
JL: You know, there are worse ways to make a living. [Laughs.]
PC: I can't wait for LINCOLN and your collaboration with Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner - that's what you are working on right now in addition to SKYFALL, right?
PC: And things are going swimmingly? It's already shooting, yes?
JL: Yes. Yes. All is well!
PC: In closing, I just have to add: I hope MIRACULOUS YEAR gets picked up someday!
JL: [Big Laugh.] You and me both.
PC: So, it's completely dead?
JL: Yeah. It is.
PC: What a shame! Can't win every race, I guess. In any event, what a miraculous year - make that: decade - you are having! This was awesome. Have a great afternoon, John.
JL: You, too, Pat! Thanks so much. Bye.
More On: John Logan, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, Stephen Sondheim, Sam Mendes, James Bond, Ralph Fiennes,