No stopping Logan’s run
From stage to screen, John Logan is having hit after hit. Michael Bodey taps into the writer’s energy
JOHN Logan had a very good February: there were celebrations as the playwright’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, called simply Hugo, picked up five Academy Awards. Oh, and his project with director Gore Verbinski, Rango, took the Oscar for best animated film. These wins added momentum to the beginning of production on the new James Bond film he has written, Skyfall, and to the project now occupying his mind, a film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. And did I mention his adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s toughest, if merely second longest, plays? Coriolanus is earning plaudits as it splatters its blood around the world.
Logan has garnered three screenwriting Oscar nominations from 10 screenplays. You might think from all this that the 2010 Tony Award winner is lost to the stage, but he laughs wickedly at the suggestion. ‘‘ No, nothing could be further from the truth,’’ he says, adding that there is a touch of ‘‘ kismet’’ to these films being released in such quick succession: ‘‘ I occasionally barred myself from plays so I could go off and write for the movies.’’
He recently completed a new play that should be produced in London early next year at the Donmar Warehouse, led by director Michael Grandage and the team that produced Red, his Tony Award-winning play about artist Mark Rothko (the play won six Tonys when it went to Broadway). ‘‘ So I’m completely involved in my theatre work,’’ Logan says, as though he has nothing else to occupy his time. It is an intimidating rollcall. Red’s resonance continues with upcoming Australian productions by the Melbourne Theatre Company this month (starring Colin Friels) and Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre in September (with Colin Moody).
The two-handed drama focuses on the renowned abstract expressionist Rothko at the height of his art, producing works of intimidating power in the late 1950s. Logan has achieved something monumental, a rendition of a famously brooding artist jousting with his fictional younger studio assistant, Ken, that speaks of generational change: the passing of a torch from modernism to the pop art represented by Ken. The Independent on Sunday described it as ‘‘ thrilling’’ and The New Yorker’s John Lahr complimented ‘‘ Logan’s smart, eloquent entertainment’’ for taking audiences with Rothko into the deep colours of his paintings.
The play also presents a stellar depiction of a complicated character. Alfred Molina’s performances of it on the West End and Broadway earned particularly rave reviews.
Logan is clearly a writer in the zone. Through his film and television work, and with Red, he has propelled himself from the comfortable confines of Chicago theatre on to the A-list of Hollywood and stage writers. He must feel it, too. Certainly it requires confidence to take on an adaptation of Shakespeare, as he has done with Coriolanus, not previously adapted for the screen.
‘‘ Yes and no,’’ Logan muses. ‘‘ On one hand you think, well, the audacity of dipping into the Bard and trying to make a movie requires a bit of nerve. But on the other hand — and the way I looked at it — Coriolanus has been around for 400 years, it’s going to be around for another 400 years; what can I really do to f. . k it up?’’
He says the play’s sturdiness will always remain, so he and first-time director Ralph Fiennes felt confident they could be ‘‘ so muscular’’ with the adaptation and ‘‘ just go in and get in the engine and sort of bang it around a bit’’.
In Fiennes he found a like mind: an actor known for his occasionally hefty performances on screen and stage, but who was an unknown quantity behind the camera. Logan says their coming together on the project happened though the ‘‘ oddest collection of circumstances’’.
A love of Shakespeare was inculcated early in the Us-born son of Northern Irish immigrants, although he built his early success on the Chicago stage with the plays Never the Sinner and Hauptmann, and the musical melodrama Riverview.
‘‘ The reason I’m a writer today is I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was really young and when I started writing movies I really wanted to do adaptations,’’ he says. ‘‘ And for me Coriolanus was the obvious one to do because I think it’s so modern. But I never in my wildest dreams thought there would be anyone as crazy as I am who [also] wanted to do Coriolanus. And lo and behold, here comes Ralph Fiennes.’’ They met in Los Angeles, Fiennes pitched his vision of the movie and it was ‘‘ exactly the movie I saw’’.
There are obvious reasons Coriolanus had not been adapted for screen (although it has been adapted for television by the BBC). It is long and its late-period verse is complicated. Crucially, its lead ‘‘ hero’’ doesn’t invoke empathy — not a crime in Shakespearean plays, but usually his tragi-heroes are framed in more accessible scenarios or, at least, explain themselves.
This tragic figure, based on the Roman general Caius Marcius (later given the name Coriolanus), is insular and isolated. He lives to scare audiences. Yet Logan’s vision for the play is meaty and involving — I had to thank him for having upended my trepidation at putting myself through yet another Shakespeare adaptation using the tired trope of a tyrannical political system or boardroom.
Modern Shakespeare adaptations have rarely moved beyond the settings of fascist societies or suited corporate malfeasance, after Orson Welles’s groundbreaking 1937 production of Julius Caesar and Bertolt Brecht’s later political invocations. And whereas Welles’s fascist setting was bang-on for a time of shifting alliances in Europe, today such adaptations look tired.
‘‘ I understand your trepidation and I appreciate your honesty about it,’’ Logan says. ‘‘ Most people pretend to be very respectful.’’
Coriolanus might have fallen into exactly this trap if not for its tight focus on its title character (played with unnerving intensity by Fiennes, who also played the role on the London stage in 2000) and its prescience. They shot the film in the scarred Serbia, which helps. But Logan and Fiennes agreed