Mark Medoff embodies the writing life
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