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.
"It took three months to cast the play - it was like our search for Scarlett O'Hara! It was life-affirming, but there were times that I wanted to kill myself! We saw a lot of amazing people, but I believe that the actors that I end up with are the actors I am meant to be with. I tried to take a huge amount of care in the casting. I didn't search for people who looked like them, but for actors who would capture the essence of the characters. I also wanted them to be unique, bringing something of themselves to the work. I saw Michael Walters on the first day of casting, and I was pretty sure he was going to be my Basquiat. Michael came in and he took the role. He knew lots of stuff about the era. We asked him to pick a scene and he did the one with the Swiss collectors - I had goosebumps running up my body!
"Simon Ginty (Haring) was the last person we cast on the last day. I started talking to him and I noticed myself standing next to him, which was unusual. He was different and quirky and at one point he started to laugh and it was so charming - as a person, Simon really shone through.
"Casting director Annie Rowe's stroke of genius was to demand a comedian for the Warhol role. I have a lot of trust in Annie and if I trust anyone, I always say yes. We only saw one other person, but Adam [Adam Riches] really clicked. I think he's crazy to take the part! He was meant to be in LA! But he really loved the play, and he really wanted to do it.
"The humour is a part of my personality. There are two strands throughout the story - drama and comedy - right to the end. I'm most interested in the parts of life when we laugh and cry at the same time. I think life is pretty funny - we're all clowns and fools and we're also incredibly serious. If you step back and look at yourself, you think - how ridiculous! People are surprised that it's as funny as it is, because they're not expecting it. Parties of students just laugh and laugh and have a great time.
"I really hope the play has a long life - I want to be doing this for years. Of course, I'd love it to go to New York - we're going to see."
A Thousand Miles of History has just closed at the Bussey Building, Peckham.