“Dinner With Friends” Playwright Donald Margulies On Writing “The End of The Tour”

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There’s really only one thing you need to know about Donald Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play “Dinner With Friends” (1998) — he will field any question graciously. This generosity is the defining characteristic of someone at the top of their craft. So when The End of The Tour (starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg) opens in theaters on July 31, Margulies, as the screenwriter who adapted the David Lipsky memoir about David Foster Wallace, will be discovered by a whole new generation of film audiences.

MarguilesLipsky’s memoir is entitled “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace” (2010). This source material was unpublished from a Rolling Stone-contracted interview, that turned up in book form after David Foster Wallace’s 2008 suicide. David Lipsky also penned reactions in print to the death of this newly minted literary giant. Writer D.T. Max then wrote about DFW in “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace” (2012), which is a line lifted from the departed writer’s emails to friends. Both books were well-received in the aftermath of the 46-year-old’s shock death.

But “Although You End Up Becoming Yourself,” again a line lifted from the writer’s work, was ripe for adaptation because it focuses on a four-day ‘bromance’ whereby Wallace and Lipsky bump up against each other. They spar as very different people on the male spectrum, as well as creative artists. Wallace has a huge reputation coming off masterful work “Infinite Jest.” In other words, Lipsky has a “little” book. A single book he indelicately presents to his interviewee, which is a huge no-no in journalism, by the way, even for a rock magazine. And so the tension builds to an unspoken, somewhat grudging, love-hate-respect relationship, in David v. David on the road. End of The Tour is directed by James Ponsoldt, and is presented by Kilburn Media, with Anonymous Content Productions, in association with Modern Man Films. JesseJasonEOT2

Jason Segel, complete with the writer’s trademark white-patterned bandanna, plays David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg is David Lipsky, the interviewer Rolling Stone Magazine has tasked with tracking down the brilliant novelist, whose nearly 1200-page book “Infinite Jest” (1996) has literally blown away critics, fans, and most other writers with its remarkably inventive prose. End of Tour’s cast includes Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter), Ron Livingston, and Mickey Sumner.

Donald Margulies, who teaches Drama at Yale University these days, is the screenwriter here with us from a suite at The Four Seasons Hotel on his own whirlwind tour…

When you read his words, in “Although You End Up Becoming Yourself,” did you get a sense of DFW, the writer?

You know I think that is really the effect that Lipsky’s book had on me, to just mourn for this great talent who just couldn’t hack it. He just couldn’t overcome his demons.

Was that it, or do you think it was a medication thing? (He’d switched from Nardil before his death.)DFWNYC

In any event, it was an underlying depression that was his struggle. Some people struggle over it and fail.

As a writer yourself, even as a playwright, there is so much rejection. I mean, you see a production of your work that’s horrible, you get upset. Then you get reviewed by (New Yorker critic Christopher) Isherwood, and he loves your work —

Sometimes.

What I’m trying to say is that for you as a writer, do you hear in his words anywhere the sense that he was a veteran of rejection, that heartbreak?

In my little universe of the theater, I certainly have experienced sort of a pre-“Dinner With Friends,” and a post-“Dinner With Friends” career. And, uh, it is different once you’re anointed.

Successful.

Well, call it successful.

That’s a horrible word.

Because I think writers never feel “successful.”

Recognized?

Recognized. Okay, recognized. Because there is something to be said for writing in obscurity, creating in obscurity. Because there is so much frustration and anger that goes into it — it’s a great motivator for a lot of people. And then once you do receive that recognition —

It’s a bit of a let-down?

Look, I’ve had a wonderful career, I’ve been really fortunate, and productive, and have a solid marriage. All of those things help a lot. Um. I think it is a conundrum. You want success. You want people to respond to your work, but once you do get that exposure then there are expectations placed on you. Then there are comparisons made.

Is that the thing about “Infinite Jest”? I mean, “The Pale King” was put together after he died. It’s like Harper Lee has this novel out, and it’s a nightmare; it would almost be better for people if (it was posthumously published) to think it’s not really hers! What I’m saying is, since this movie was made after he died, is it fair? Because his family didn’t agree with having this made. You probably didn’t have to deal with them, The Estate of David Foster Wallace?

No, I haven’t. We want them to see that this honors their family member.

What were their objections? It’s verbatim.

I don’t want to dwell on this. But their objection was that they felt he wouldn’t want it repurposed in this way. It was an interview he gave.

That wasn’t a trick question by the way (no harm meant)…

No, no, no, I know. People close to Wallace have seen the movie and have really appreciated it.

That’s what I was trying to get to in my clumsy way: when you saw the movie, how did you feel about it, because it is writer-on-writer-on-writer, a stone skipping three times across a pond. How did you feel when you saw your work up there as you, as Lipsky, as Wallace?

Obviously the themes of Lipsky’s book resonated for me. I identified with the struggles: the fear of success, the attainment of success, the ambition. You know, the kind of dual character study that it really is. All those things I responded to.

To want it, and feel cynical about it?

Marguiles3Yeah, yeah, exactly. You know what Wallace says in the movie about when somebody else has a success, it must be a piece of shit, right? But when you have a success, if you use that same equation it doesn’t quite work out. So, you know, I think he was able to articulate so many of the paradoxes of being a successful artist.

You mentioned themes before, that David Lipsky, even David Foster Wallace, had some of the same kind of themes that you do. What are these themes? Specifically?

There are themes in the Lipsky memoir. I’ve written about mentors and proteges. I wrote a play called “Collected Stories,” which is about an older woman writer and her young female protege —

Helen Mirren?

Helen Mirren did it in London, with Anne-Marie Duff (James McAvoy’s wife). Who was fantastic. It was her first real play. So, I’ve always been interested in a dialogue between artists. I’ve written about artists a lot. In “Sight Unseen,” it is a painter; in “Time Stands Still,” it is a photographer. Sort of a dialogue about the problem of being an artist.

Having a novice, or imparting wisdom?

Of an acolyte who is seeking some sort of affirmation or approval, or even recognition, of someone they admire. So, yeah, I mean that is something that is fundamental to the struggles of an artist. And I have been on both sides of it. I mean I have been a Lipsky, and I have been a Wallace.

But it seemed like Wallace didn’t want to be given the burden of having to be The Master at something, am I wrong there?Marguiles4

I think it was a burden, and I think he was so ambivalent about it. Which is so much a part of the dance that occurs between these two guys. It’s so subtle. There are subtle shifts. Of Wallace not wanting to be perceived as someone who wants to be interviewed in Rolling Stone, yet submitting to an interview.

He mentions he wants tea with Alanis Morissette (as a result of the interview), are you kidding me? He won the Whiting Award! Is that because he was high and low, high-brow and low-brow, do you think, or he is trying to keep his equilibrium?

He was a fatally self-conscious person, I think, ultimately. Always concerned about how he would appear. But that’s part of what I’m trying to dramatize here, and hope that it portrays a universal struggle. So many, not just artists, but people in any field — who are in the company of someone they admire. You know, in an office setting, if you have a mentor.

Where were you when David Foster Wallace died, it was Sept. 12, 2008, in Claremont?

Where was I in 2008?

Okay, it’s not like Kennedy, you’re not going to remember maybe. But for writers that I know, it was huge. Like, ‘what? Duct tape?’ He duct-taped his wrists together.

He did?

Yes, he did.

I didn’t get into the lurid details.

It’s not lurid, it is effective. I was thinking, wow, he really meant it.

He hung himself.

Yes. But also duct-taped his wrists (to avoid saving himself).

With his dog leash.Marguiles2

I heard it was a belt. But what was your reaction to it? 

I probably read about it online during the course of a work day. I just thought it was sad. I didn’t have a personal connection to him yet, in 2008.

You met the Ghost? “Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story.”

I read that, D.T. Max’s book.

Thank you so much for your time today. I’m in the presence of someone I admire.

You did well.

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