BWW Interviews: Harold Finley, Writer-Director of A THOUSAND MILES OF HISTORY
If Gary Naylor sees a more affecting piece of theatre in 2013 than A Thousand Miles of History, which follows the lives of artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol in the New York of the late 70s and early 80s (reviewed here), he will count himself fortunate indeed. He meets Harold Finley, writer-director to discuss the play below.
"I always had a fascination with Basquiat and Haring and I remember being given the Warhol Diaries as a teenager and reading them from cover to cover. The joke was that nobody read them all - everyone just looked for their name - but I read them three of four times. The thing that kept striking me was not just the extraordinary character he was, but the extraordinary era he was a part of.
"The friendship between the three (Basquiat, Haring and Warhol) was such an interesting story. There have been dramatisations and documentaries about Basquiat before and a musical about Keith. Christina Clausen (director of The Universe of Keith Haring) really helped me with my research. But what was really extraordinary is that these works never told the story of the three of them - how their lives and work intersected. I was a kid when it was all happening, but I had an awareness of them and I knew who they were - Haring's work was so recognisable.
"I really wanted to tell a very classic story, but I didn't want to make it about Art. What fascinated me was the people - they could have been taxi drivers as far as I was concerned. What they were struggling with was universal and humane because it's about family. I didn't want to approach the Art in a literal fashion - the Art had to come out of what they were going through, revealing more about who they were. The gallery owner's (Mary Boone) side of the story I used to talk about Art as a business, about capitalism, about how something can be hyped and hyped and hyped and then? Boom and bust.
"I tried to make the characters as complex as possible, so I wanted to imbue Mary Boone with a humanity. She is based on a real person, who is still active in the art world. I made attempts to contact her and did a lot of research speaking to people who knew her, but she didn't contribute directly to the play. Many people I spoke to were ambivalent about the project. Vincent Gallo was helpful, as was Michael Mustoe (Village Voice) and Anthony Haden-Guest who pointed me in the right direction early on. Travis Chamberlain in New York got me in touch with Fab Five Freddy and the networking spiralled. I never wanted to do a hatchet job on any of the characters because I respect them too much.
"The most bizarre thing that happened on this journey was at a reading. I had always worked with things drawn from my life, from my experiences, but I had thought that this was different. At the reading, I got very emotional and started crying - and I had the realisation that it was so much about me now. I thought I was doing something that was very arm's length, but I recognised that I had put so much of my own stuff in it, like the desire to connect with people and the world which was so important to Keith and Jean-Michel. Keith talks at the end of the play about the importance of kinship - and that's really important to me.
"Very early on, I knew exactly how the play was going to begin and exactly how it was going to end. I knew I wasn't going to show their deaths. The story starts in the middle and I didn't want an obvious ending - I wanted it to end positively. The encounter on the street that closes the play did actually happen - I love that scene. Many of the scenes in the play actually happened. So much of their lives was documented, but sometimes I didn't know the detail of the exchanges. I knew what was going on in their lives, so I had to fill in the blanks. One of my friends had actually witnessed the scene in which Andy Warhol has an altercation with a fan at a book signing.
"When I started writing, I really did have Shakespeare in mind - this is the kind of story he would have been interested in. I also had musical theatre in mind! The great musicals - Gypsy for instance - move into a heightened reality and you don't notice that it's people singing. When Momma Rose comes forth, it's like a Shakespearean soliloquy - the emotions are so strong that it's the only way they can express themselves. Where the characters start a soliloquy, they've moved to a different place when they finish.