Mark Medoff em­bod­ies the writ­ing life

MARK MEDOFF

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Robert Nott

IT"S not easy to put a la­bel on Mark Medoff’s work as a writer. But for both theater and film, he has penned a va­ri­ety of pieces that have a few things in com­mon: More of­ten than not, they fea­ture weary and cyn­i­cal char­ac­ters or touch on the dark ob­ses­sion some peo­ple have with celebri­ties.

Among his canon you can find a 1978 Chuck Nor­ris ac­tion film, Good Guys Wear Black (“He’s a nice guy,” Medoff said of Nor­ris), the stage play Chil­dren of a Lesser God (1980), which Medoff wrote for the late deaf ac­tress Phyl­lis Fre­lich, and the black com­edy Refuge (2010), in which Linda Hamil­ton plays a woman who kills her abu­sive hus­band and then takes it on the run with his corpse — and a male hostage — in tow.

“I just al­ways go wher­ever the muse leads me,” Medoff said. “I’m not sure where things come from. They just come out, and I spend years rewrit­ing them. I al­ways ex­plain to my stu­dents that writ­ing is rewrit­ing, and it is very hard to ac­cept that. That’s where all the hard work comes in.”

Medoff spoke with Pasatiempo to dis­cuss his ap­pear­ance at the Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val this week­end. The fes­ti­val is screen­ing three Medoff films, all of which dis­play some hint of that cyn­i­cism ap­par­ent in much of his writ­ing. Two of the films — Refuge and Homage (1995) — were shot par­tially or en­tirely in New Mex­ico.

Homage isa dis­turb­ing slice of Amer­i­can gothic about three lonely peo­ple — a mother, her tele­vi­sion­star daugh­ter, and a slightly creepy handy­man who tries to pull them apart.

The fes­ti­val is also screen­ing the 1986 film adap­ta­tion Chil­dren of a Lesser God, which Medoff co-wrote based on his stage play. It’s a story of two peo­ple — a teacher at a deaf school and a deaf woman who works as a jan­i­tor at the school — who can speak the same lan­guage but dis­cover they still live in two very dif­fer­ent worlds, which causes con­flict.

Medoff, who was born in Illi­nois in 1940, as­pired to be a doc­tor or a pitcher for the Dodgers when he was a kid. At the age of fif­teen he had an English teacher who set him on his ca­reer as a writer by telling Medoff that he could make stuff up and write it down bet­ter than any­one else in the class. He has been a teacher of some sort or an­other at New Mex­ico State Univer­sity in Las Cruces since the mid-1960s, when he first drove to the cam­pus and found cat­tle roam­ing on it. Medoff still teaches at the univer­sity, where, he said, the ma­jor­ity of young writ­ers to­day seem more in­ter­ested in writ­ing film than theater. But, he added, “When a screen­writer dis­cov­ers how lit­tle con­se­quences he or she has in the whole mix of movie making and then goes and works in the theater and finds out what the col­lab­o­ra­tive process can be life, it can be life chang­ing.”

Where did his ini­tial cyn­i­cism come from? “I don’t know,” Medoff said. “I re­mem­ber in col­lege rais­ing such a ruckus that my pro­fes­sors took note that I had a prob­lem with the evo­lu­tion of our species. But that’s such a de­press­ing sub­ject. I do have to man­age neg­a­tive feel­ings.”

Some of that cyn­i­cism has been melted by the pres­ence of his nine­teen-month-old grand­daugh­ter, Hope El­iz­a­beth Har­ri­son, a Tri­somy 18 baby, which means she was born with an ex­tra chro­mo­some that brings on an ar­ray of de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges. When he writes in the morn­ing, she is of­ten by his side. “I’m known as the baby-hog,” he said. “She de­fies fate ev­ery day. She’s truly re­mark­able.”

His most re­cent play, which pre­miered in New Mex­ico this au­tumn, is about the last days of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe. It was based on a se­ries of au­dio­taped in­ter­views that Medoff’s busi­ness part­ner Den­nis D’Amico con­ducted with Lena Pepitone, who lived with Mon­roe for some years be­fore the ac­tress’ death at the age of thirty-six in 1962. Medoff said he plans to stage the play, Mar­ilee and Baby Lamb: The As­sas­si­na­tion of an Amer­i­can God­dess, in New York.

He couldn’t care less whether he gets in­volved in an­other movie again, as he dreams of help­ing to found a theater com­pany that would present four new plays and one new mu­si­cal ev­ery year in Las Cruces. And he likes to direct: “I pre­fer to be in charge.”

He doesn’t know who picked the trio of Medoff films play­ing at the fes­ti­val — or why — but he fig­ures two were cho­sen be­cause they were shot in New Mex­ico, and the other be­cause it may be Medoff’s most fa­mous work. The more he watches Chil­dren of

a Lesser God — fea­tur­ing Wil­liam Hurt as the teacher and Mar­lee Matlin in the role writ­ten for Fre­lich — the more he likes it. But his mem­o­ries of the pro­duc­tion re­volve around the fact that it took years to get it up and run­ning, had four or five direc­tors tied to it, and sur­vived a lot of dif­fer­ent drafts by dif­fer­ent writ­ers. “Prob­a­bly 70 or 80 per­cent of the movie is mine, but I was frankly tired of it by the time they got around to making it.”

Time doesn’t weigh heav­ily on Medoff. He has a lot of cre­ative recipes brew­ing, in­clud­ing di­rect­ing a cabaret show called “Decades of Di­vas” fea­tur­ing ev­ery­one from Bil­lie Hol­i­day to Adele. “My days are full. I don’t understand peo­ple who re­tire and are glad about it. Some­body asked me the other day if I could do some­thing for them and I said, ‘No, I’m booked un­til my death.’ ”

Mark Medoff is hon­ored at the Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val’s pa­tron din­ner at Coy­ote Café (132 W. Wa­ter St.) on Satur­day, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. Tick­ets are $125, avail­able at www.santafe­film­fes­ti­val.com.

I just al­ways go wher­ever the muse leads me. I’m not sure where things come from. They just come out, and I spend years rewrit­ing them. — Mark Medoff

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