Interview: Donald Margulies (THE END OF THE TOUR)

Margulies HeadshotAuthor David Foster Wallace has attained a near mythological place in our cultural landscape. His 1996 encyclopedic novel Infinite Jest is one of the most revered books of the late twentieth century and has been the topic of countless think pieces and endless debates.

In THE END OF THE TOUR (A24), screenwriter Donald Margulies takes us on the road with the reserved author and a reporter from Rolling Stone as they travel together during the final days of Infinite Jest’s hardcover book promotional tour.

The WGAE spoke with Donald about his script, his writing process and the making of an incredible film.

What was your first writing job?

The now-defunct Jewish Repertory Theater commissioned me to write a stage adaptation of a short story by Delmore Schwartz, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” The resulting one-act, Luna Park, ended up being my New York debut as a produced playwright. I was paid $100.

My first paying job as a writer-for-hire in television was for Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. They were doing a monthly half-hour series for a fledgling pay-cable network, something called HBO SNEAK PREVIEW, which was basically an in-house promotional show that featured introductions to film clips interspersed with short comedy sketches. It was a non-union production and I was not yet a member of the WGA, which is what qualified me for the job. It paid well enough for me, still single in my mid-twenties, to quit my day-job as an art editor at Scholastic Magazines. The year was 1980; I have not returned to the world of publishing as a graphic designer since.

I define myself as a playwright who also writes movies and television. My reputation is based in the theater. My professional story is a common one in that I’ve written a lot of movies that no one will ever see for which I was paid. Over two dozen unproduced screenplays and teleplays have subsidized my career as a playwright. THE END OF THE TOUR is the first independent feature film made from one of my screenplays. (A couple of screenplay adaptations of my plays have been produced for television: COLLECTED STORIES on PBS and DINNER WITH FRIENDS on HBO.)

How did THE END OF THE TOUR come to you or how did you go to that project?

In 2011, my friend and longtime manager, David Kanter, a producer at Anonymous Content, sent me an email asking about my interest in David Foster Wallace. I knew of Wallace’s suicide at age 46 in 2008, had read many of his essays, but was not a devoted fan (I had never gotten through his thousand-page opus, Infinite Jest). A book had been sent to Anonymous for consideration (by the late literary agent Nick Harris) as a possible property of some kind. The book, a memoir by David Lipsky, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, is essentially a transcription of five days of a conversation that Lipsky had with David Foster Wallace in 1996 during the last days of Wallace’s tour promoting the book that had just catapulted him into the literary stratosphere. Kanter, recognizing that the book is all dialogue and I am primarily a playwright, suggested, “Take a look at this; there might be a play in it.” I started reading Lipsky’s book but I didn’t see it as a stage play. Yes, it was all language and dialogue but I didn’t see it simply and statically as two guys sitting in a room talking. Instead, I imagined it as a road picture. Two intensely bright, complicated, competitive guys on the road talking about life and love and career and fame and the conundrum of artistic success. I also thought the artificial intimacy that occurs between an interviewer and his subject was ripe for exploration. So, rather than pursuing it as a play, I became increasingly excited about the prospect of putting this story on film. We needed to see Wallace and Lipsky in these various locations – in diners, hotel rooms, airplanes, a multiplex – in the frigid American Midwestern landscape of 1996.

When you were adapting Lipsky’s book, what else did you use as source materials? Did you go back and read Infinite Jest?

My primary source was David Lipsky’s book and David Lipsky himself. From the very beginning, this was going to be a subjective look (through Lipsky’s eyes) at this particular brief encounter between Lipsky, who was then a 30-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone, and Wallace, who was only four years older, but had already achieved the kind of fame that Lipsky – that any talented young artist – aspired to himself. I read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s excellent biography of Wallace. I read, finally, Infinite Jest. I watched and read other interviews but relied solely on the transcript of the Lipsky interview; I never wanted to listen to the actual recordings because I needed to create my own tone and context. This was not intended as a cradle-to-grave biopic, which would only be reductive. No script can encapsulate a man’s life or find the key to his genius. Lipsky’s book provided a window into the life of an unknowable, iconic public figure who died young; Lipsky’s quest for uncovering and perhaps understanding him is part of what fuels the narrative. It is also what informed my reading of the book and enabled me to more fully appreciate – and mourn – the loss of this remarkable chronicler of our time.

Of course many, many people had discovered DFW long before I did, and had very passionate and in some cases protective feelings toward him and his legacy. I was sensitive to that from the beginning. However, I was surprised when I first embarked on this writing project how many people to whom I had mentioned it had never heard of David Foster Wallace; I mistakenly assumed he was part of our oxygen. So, bringing this story to a larger audience, through film, was a way to illuminate some of the themes and ideas that fueled his imagination and are explored in Infinite Jest, a book that is, arguably, unfilmable.

How did you put together the script? Do you have a certain style that you like to work within, especially when you’re adapting a book?

Most of the work that I’ve done as a screenwriter has been adaptation, a form I really enjoy. Adaptation is like solving a puzzle. My process involves multiple readings of the source material. With each successive read, I underline with pencil, highlight images or phrases and break down the original into separate pieces. That helps me to demystify the source and lay its parts out in a scrutable, malleable way. A narrative begins to take form. I’ve likened adaptation to collage-making. In my previous life as a visual artist, I did a lot of collage; I still do. In adaptation the deconstructed book becomes the found material with which I get to play and move stuff around, creating new juxtapositions that reveal different facets. When it works, the new composition resembles the source, but is not slavishly faithful to the source. It is something that should stand on its own.

In the case of the Lipsky book, I knew that the screenplay would take place during the course of those five days in 1996 but that it needed a framing device to provide context. Structurally speaking, I didn’t really know exactly where the turning point was going to be, where my third act was going to be, but I knew that something needed to happen, a shift that would heighten the stakes as the tour wound down. That discovery emerged through conversations that I had with Lipsky. I was intrigued by what was going on when the tape wasn’t running. I detected a subtle change of temperature toward the end of the book that was unexplained. When we first met, I asked him, “You guys were together for five days and never squabbled?” Lipsky told me that they actually had, but he didn’t include it in his book. The frisson in the film that occurs between the Davids over a perceived transgression (the scene in the kitchen that some detractors have accused me of inventing) provided me with the missing piece of the dramatic puzzle.

How do you like to write? What kind of environment to you like to be in?

I like quiet. I’m not a guy who sits at his laptop at Starbucks. I don’t like clanking and clamor. Generally, I don’t listen to music. If I’m in deep-writing mode, I really do prefer silence. If I’m doing research, looking at photographs or flipping through things, I might have music on, but silence is really important to me. I like being alone with the voice in my head and not have it compete with any external rhythms or sounds.

How did THE END OF THE TOUR make its way to the screen?

The script went through very little of the torturous development I had become accustomed to. Almost none, in fact. I didn’t outline it – I really abhor outlining – I wrote it. Sometimes, not always, I have an innate sense of how to make a story work and am eager to get down to writing. For me, outlines are writing about the writing, which delays the pleasure of actual writing and, I think, can be detrimental to the process. Writing THE END OF THE TOUR was a joyful experience. I loved figuring out the puzzle of it: how to turn this tome, this treasure trove of conversation into something dramatic. Conversations, even those as pithy as the one provided by Lipsky and Wallace, aren’t intrinsically dramatic. It required carving out a dramatic narrative and mining the subtext. Screenwriting is 90% structure. Until you’ve figured out how to maintain the stability of the house of cards you’ve constructed, it can be a tenuous endeavor.

I had found that structure in the first draft; it appeared to be sound and simple, if a tad long. I send it to David Kanter, whose notes were very respectful of the integrity of the structure that I had come up with and were all about concision. Some scenes went on too long. There were maybe a few enjoyable digressions too many that didn’t lend new shadings or it became a little discursive in some places. I pruned about 12 pages. At that point, Kanter, with his producing partners, Matt DeRoss and James Dahl, at my suggestion, sent the script to James Ponsoldt.

Now, James Ponsoldt is someone I knew when he was an undergraduate at Yale University, which is where I’ve been teaching for the last 25 years. James was a student in my playwriting class. Like with many of my former students, I had maintained an email correspondence with James. I had just seen his film SMASHED and emailed him to say how moved and impressed I was by his achievement. THE SPECTACULAR NOW was about to open, and I went to my producers and said, “You know, there’s this extraordinary young talent on the verge of a tremendous career. I know him. I can vouch for him. He’s an intensely smart, principled, conscientious artist and I think he would really respond to this.” We sent my script to James. He read it overnight. Things moved pretty quickly after that. There’s a Yiddish word ‘bashert,’ which means something that was meant to be. The making of THE END OF THE TOUR has felt very much like that. It’s a small miracle that it was made at all.

The film features excellent acting from Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Jason Segel as Wallace. Segel was a surprising choice to many to play Wallace. When you saw him on screen, what were your initial thoughts of his performance and how he’d handled the material that you had written?

When Jason’s name came up in early casting discussions, I thought that was a really fantastic idea. Jason, himself, has modestly joked about the improbability of his landing such a role: “Hey, here’s a David Foster Wallace script. Get me Jason Segel!” But Jason had the sheer physical size of Wallace and more than a passing resemblance. Jason was the same age – 34 – as Wallace when the story takes place and is a writer himself. And, most tellingly, there has always been a kind of gravitas in Jason’s comedy, a ruefulness in his eyes. So when his name was mentioned, it was a real eureka moment of, “Yes, of course.”

When I first met him on the set, Jason was in full bandanna. I was excited to see him embodying, or I should say because it was almost eerie, reanimating this iconic figure. I also got the unmistakable sense of an actor who knew that he was at a thrilling turning point in his career; his fervor was palpable and endearing. When I saw an early cut, his performance exceeded my expectations. I was thrilled to see this character brought to life with such wit, sincerity and humanity.

Jesse’s performance, while less surprising because we’ve seen him in dramatic roles before, delivers, I think, the best performance of his career. Certainly it is the most mature work he’s done on screen. His is a kind of film acting that seems almost invisible – the active way he listens, a flinch, a skeptical squint – is reminiscent of the young Jack Lemmon. It seems as if what he is saying he has come up with on the spot. We were blessed to have these two verbally dextrous actors on screen together. They’re like a great jazz duo.

Some of that had to do, I believe, with the fact that there wasn’t really rehearsal time.

There was no rehearsal time. There might have been a brief dinner that preceded Jesse’s arrival in frigid Michigan in the winter of 2014, but the two didn’t really know one another before we started shooting. That lack of familiarity worked perfectly for the story and contributed to the dynamic we see on screen as these two guys feel each other out.

Is there a scene that you felt translated particularly well from the page to the screen?

I have to say that the experience I had of seeing a rough cut of the film was unlike any I’ve ever had as a writer – certainly as a writer-adapter whose work has been translated to another medium. For the first time, I felt that I had seen what I wrote, which is not the same as hearing the words that I wrote. The gift for me is that what is on screen is what I imagined as I wrote it. James captured the cinema-verite, unadorned, undesigned quality that creates the sense of our being passengers in the backseat of that car.

The scene that I love the most is the one in which Wallace goes into Lipsky’s bedroom late at night after a heated confrontation. It’s a very quiet moment where Jason as Wallace, in shadow, tries to articulate his emotional turmoil. It’s a beautifully acted scene that moves me every time I’ve seen it, which is a lot.

You chose to address Wallace’s suicide right at the beginning of the film. It’s not left hanging there as some mystery. How did you go about making that decision? And more so, can you talk about how you went about turning someone who was been mythologized as a famous recluse and turn him into someone who is cinematic?

I saw no benefit in withholding the fact of his suicide. Wallace’s death was the catalyst for Lipsky’s revisiting the recorded conversations and the events of the days the two spent together twelve years earlier. I wanted to simulate the emotional experience I had when I first picked up Lipsky’s book, that of someone whose appreciation of Wallace was limited but grew over the course of the journey being recounted. There was no point in being coy and waiting until a title card at the final crawl to tell the audience the lurid and sad details of his death. This was never going to be that kind of story. Instead, the knowledge of his suicide is a given that colors all that follows.

Portraying the interior lives of artists on screen is tricky, particularly writers. I have an aversion to scenes of writers typing then pulling paper from the typewriter in frustration and crumpling it. Cut to: a pile of crumpled paper. Our movie doesn’t attempt to dramatize writing. We never see Wallace at work, he talks about the work. In fact, we don’t even glimpse his work space until very late in the film, and even then, in chiaroscuro. Genius remains a mystery. People can’t be truly known, uncovered or explained. This interview’s existence attests to a certain ambivalence that Wallace felt as an artist, as a private person, as someone who wanted fame, but was extremely ambivalent about it. As he says in the film, he wants to “appear in Rolling Stone but not as someone who wants to appear in Rolling Stone.” That ambivalence is a powerful undercurrent of so much of what transpires during the course of the movie.

Are there things that you’re watching or reading right now that you would recommend to other writers?

The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. The first four volumes of his ambitious six-volume (each of them extremely long), autobiographical novel are available in English. Knausgaard is something of a polarizing figure (not unlike Wallace when he first burst on the literary scene) but his multi-part opus is one of the most engrossing reads I’ve had in a very long time. I can’t explain what it is that’s so remarkable except that he captures the essence of memory, the mundane details of experience, with such verisimilitude, it’s kind of mesmerizing.

Right now, I’m immersed in the research for my next screenwriting assignment. I’m about to sound like a self-parody because I’ve gone from the writer of Infinite Jest to the writer of Ulysses. The new project, THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK, is an adaptation of a non-fiction book by Kevin Birmingham, the subtitle of which is The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a fascinating story about the creation of Ulysses, its toll on Joyce and his marriage, the legal struggles for its release, and the landmark obscenity trials in 1920 and 1933 that resulted from it. It’s a fascinating, very lucid account of this chapter in 20th-century history.

If you can go back through the history of cinema or television, is there a character you wish you could have written dialogue for?

I guess I’m drawn to Addison DeWitt in ALL ABOUT EVE, played by George Sanders. The acid-tongued drama critic. I would have had a ball with that.