Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for WEST SIDE STORY

Host Geri Cole kicks off a new year, and a new season of OnWriting, in conversation with celebrated screenwriter, playwright, and author Tony Kushner—the screenwriter behind the recent adaptation of WEST SIDE STORY.

Geri and Tony discuss the process of adapting one of the most famous musicals of all time, how in-depth research about New York’s West Side added historical context and deeper meaning to the script, and how even the likes Tony Kushner get anxious looking at a blank page.

Tony Kushner is a celebrated playwright, author, and screenwriter who is perhaps best known for writing the acclaimed play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes—and its TV miniseries adaptation—as well as for his collaborations with Steven Spielberg as screenwriter for MUNICH and LINCOLN, both of which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Angels in America earned Tony both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1993, and he received Emmy and Writers Guild Awards for its onscreen adaptation. He also received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2013.

His latest screenplay (and most recent collaboration with Spielberg) is the musical romantic period drama WEST SIDE STORY. The film—based on the 1957 stage musical and a follow-up of the acclaimed 1961 film adaptation—explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, as they explore the ever-shifting (and never-changing) landscape of New York.

WEST SIDE STORY was released in December 2021 and is now showing in theaters.

Seasons 7-11 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi. I’m Geri Cole and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome to the podcast, Tony Kushner, screenwriter of the new version of West Side Story, in theaters now. Kushner is best known for the award winning play and television miniseries Angels in America. West Side Story is Kushner’s third collaboration with director Steven Spielberg having wrote the plays for Munich and Lincoln.

Geri Cole: In our interview, we talk about the process of adapting one of the most famous movie musicals of all time, how in-depth research about New York’s West Side added historical context and deeper meaning to the script and how even the lives of like Tony Kushner gets anxious looking at a blank page. First of all, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. I so enjoyed the film and it feels like such a modern adaptation of this famous classic.

Geri Cole: So I want to really get into all of the ways in which you took it apart and adapted it for today’s screen. Then also, obviously a little bit talking about your career and the experience that you have. But let’s start with West Side Story. So it kind of feels like this would have been an impossible thing to say, “No.” to where Steven Spielberg asks you if you want to update West Side Story but what was the thing that made you say, “Yes.” to this project?

Tony Kushner: I think I was always going to say yes to it and I never said no. I did say no to writing Lincoln. I held to that for about six months before finally Doris Kearns Goodwin was the one who convinced me to do it. I’m a very anxious writer so it takes me sometimes a long time to feel that I at least have a shot at not making a fool of myself. West Side Story, when Steven first told me about it seemed like a really nutty idea. I brought it home to my husband and said, “I think that Steven’s kind of crazy.” Mark surprised me by saying immediately, “That doesn’t sound that crazy to me.” Then said as a joke, “If you do write it, what are you going to do about the character of Doc?” Which Mark and I watched West Side Story together on an early date when we were just getting to know each other 20-whatever years ago.

Tony Kushner: We both cried by the end of the movie, which is when I think we sort of decided that we were probably meant to be with each other. But we agreed that Doc is kind of … I mean, Ned Glass is a wonderful actor. It’s kind of an unbearable character. So his first question was, “If you do it, what are you going to do with Doc?” I said, “I don’t have any idea. That’s another reason not to say yes.” He said, “Well, you could change Doc to a woman Puerto Rican and cast Rita Moreno.” That’s probably the first moment that I thought, “Oh, well, that would really be exciting.” Then I called Steven and said, “Mark just had this amazing idea.” Steven immediately said, “That’s a great idea.”

Tony Kushner: So I think around then. I’ve always loved the musical a lot. I think the score is just beyond belief magnificent, great. It makes me cry. It’s so melodic and pluralistic and American. Bernstein was such a great composer and Sondheim was a genius and a great songwriter in general. But certainly maybe one of the greatest lyricists that ever lived. So I loved it and I loved the story. I love Shakespeare so the way that Arthur Laurents adapted Romeo and Juliet has always impressed me. So it seemed like it was … I was excited by the idea of spending time with the material. I always want to work with Steven because it was going to be our third movie. I really have loved working with him.

Tony Kushner: It’s a tragedy but it’s also a political work of art and it’s about racism. It’s about xenophobia and it’s about a sort of betrayal of the American dream by becoming reactionary and unwelcoming as opposed to expansive and welcoming and embracing. It’s about poverty and to some extent about gender. So I believed in the sort of good faith liberalism of the four gay Jews that wrote the thing originally and being a gay Jew myself and a progressive person, I thought there’s a lot … I think that’s why Steven was drawn to it. I mean, he always wanted to make a musical and he really loves West Side Story but he has a very interesting sense of timing. I think this was around 2016. I think, maybe before Trump became president a sentence that I still can’t believe I’ve just uttered.

Geri Cole: I try to not say it.

Tony Kushner: Yeah, but it happened and it may happen again.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Tony Kushner: But I think that Steven, we had talked over the years about the horrors of American immigration policy and its treatment of … I mean Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants. They’re migrants but the sort of xenophobia that has been growing in this country for quite a while and sort of a reluctance to share in the country’s imponderably vast wealth with people who are in need and the history of American colonialism and the abuse of Puerto Rico, the destruction of agriculture and so on and so forth. It felt like he was coming at it for what were exciting and good reasons. He told me, one of the first things he said is that I think if we do this, all the kids, the Jets and the Sharks should A, look like kids because that’s what their intended to be and they’re really poor.

Tony Kushner: They live on the streets. They live near the streets. This is not about people who have many resources and that’s a scarcity of economy is part of what drives the conflict. When I started doing research and began investigating the destruction of the West Side by Robert Moses and the Committee for Slum Clearance, I realized that it was a scarcity of the economy that was not naturally occurring as most scarcity economies aren’t. It was manmade and served a larger political purpose. So all that made it seem like a really exciting scary thing to do. So, yes.

Geri Cole: Oh, my goodness, yeah. That was actually one of the things that hooked me right away when in that first shot where you see … I’ve worked across from Lincoln Center for a decade now and it’s like oh, it grounded it so immediately for me. I feel like as you were just talking through that’s the one thing that really resonated so much with me is that this feels so grounded and so relevant to right now. I read that you did a good bit of research on that demolition project and I wonder how that research played into your initial approach when you were working the material, if your approach in working with the material changed as you learned new things and just sort of what that process was like?

Tony Kushner: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I had remembered reading that there’s a shot and I live in West End Avenue and 69th Street. So you see my apartment building sort of getting built in America when Anita stops at and points to signs and “I’ll get a new apartment.” She’s pointing to a architect’s rendering of the building that I live in right now.

Geri Cole: Wow, wow, wow.

Tony Kushner: So when over the years when I’ve watched the ’61 film, there’s a moment in the prologue when the Jets run up this kind of earthen berm and the Sharks are waiting below and throw stuff up at them. But if you look past the Jets and the Sharks, in the distance you see what looks like Hiroshima after the atom bomb. There’s like just a completely flattened stretch of block, after block, after block of what had clearly been buildings that are no longer there all the way to the Hudson river. That’s the only shot in the ’61 film of the Robert Moses Slum Clearance Committee’s work.

Tony Kushner: When I started reading about it I was horrified. There were sort of two parts of what was called Lincoln Square area. The lower part where these white people lived who were the remnants of earlier waves of immigration who had sort of come through and then started to ascend the ladder, upward mobility and left behind the members of their various groups who had problems, who were junkies or prostitutes or caught up in crime or had mental illness issues and were sort of left behind. They were inhabiting this increasingly uninhabitable slum but the upper part of the area known as Lincoln Square, was called San Juan Hill.

Tony Kushner: It wasn’t originally a Puerto Rican neighborhood. It was a black neighborhood and in fact, the buildings that were rented to Puerto Rican families were owned by African-Americans. I read in a couple of urban histories that nobody really knows why it was called San Juan Hill. But it had been called that all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. I think I have a theory. I can’t prove this but when Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders rode up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and took the hill, which was a big turning point in the war and became national heroes for doing it, the part of the story that’s not often told, is that there was a hill right next to San Juan Hill that had a fortress that was sort of protecting San Juan Hill.

Tony Kushner: Before the Rough Riders could get up San Juan Hill, somebody had to take that fortress. The group of American soldiers that took it was an African-American Infantry Unit that did the very dangerous job. A number of them were killed scaling that hill and taking that fortress. It was an all-black unit and then of course, the white guys rode up the other hill and got all the glory. The black Infantry Unit was basically written out of history but the members of the unit stayed together and felt understandably ripped off by this. They got back to the United States. They had pensions from the Army and I really have a suspicion that the reason it’s called San Juan Hill is that the veterans from the charge of San Juan Hill in Cuba named it that to commemorate their own exploits since nobody else was doing it.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tony Kushner: It’s only a theory. I can’t prove it.

Geri Cole: That’s such a great theory to let you figure it out somewhat.

Tony Kushner: Yeah, yeah. But it’s an interesting thing-

Geri Cole: Oh, my goodness.

Tony Kushner: … because it was a black owned neighborhood and then when most black families that had the means started moving uptown to Harlem, which was becoming a sort of separate African-American city, they left the Upper West Side. But they rented to this new wave of people coming in, people of color who were migrants from Puerto Rico in the ’30s and the ’40s. That’s why in the Upper part of Lincoln Square there was a neighborhood unlike the really terrible slums to the south of San Juan Hill. This neighborhood was coherent because these were people who were just arriving and they were trying really hard to stay together to keep families together, friends together to preserve Puerto Rican culture in New York and to find a foothold in the economy of New York City.

Tony Kushner: So the junkies and the prostitutes and the homeless people below San Juan Hill were fairly easy to move out. When they needed to, the city just moved white occupants of Lincoln Square to Sheepshead Bay and relocated them. It was much more complicated with the Puerto Rican residents because A, they didn’t want to go. So they started organizing and resisting. B, Moses had no interest in relocating people of color. He was a racist and he just sort of thought, “Well, they’ll go somewhere and it’s not my problem where.” So he started giving out $600 dollar checks to people for relocation fees and eventually, several thousand families were dispossessed and really the community was scattered to the four winds.

Tony Kushner: The only place where that population reconstituted itself was on the Upper East Side in Spanish Harlem. But so then when I started working on this it took two Supreme Court cases. There was a big issue of separation of church and state because Catholic church was part of this plan. They built Fordham University down at the bottom. I didn’t know what we were going to do with it but I brought it to Steven and I said, “Look, what if we make this part of what we’re filming?” He immediately got excited because of the filming possibilities. Then the more we worked on it, the more it became a kind of a new character in the film.

Tony Kushner: I mean, it was clear that as I said before, there were forces endemic to the two warring groups. In the movie, the Sharks are kind of a neighborhood watch organization trying to protect their neighborhood from these rampaging little street rats who are determined because they have nothing better to do with their time than to harass a neighborhood of color. There are those forces of on one side racism and xenophobia. On the other side a determination to make a new life in New York City.

Tony Kushner: But overarching both of those is something much bigger and less personal and more difficult to identify and also much more difficult to resist namely these giant forces of commerce and institutionalized racism and a notion of progress that doesn’t include certain kinds of people. That can actually only go forward if on a sort of ethnic cleansing, a basis of ethnic cleansing.

Tony Kushner: So it was interesting to us how absolutely the structure of West Side Story allowed, seemed to have room in it for this to happen. We didn’t feel … We never wanted it to feel like we were sort of like shoving things in for the sake of … We really wanted both Steven and I believe that this is a masterpiece of Western dramatic art and of Western theatrical music. We didn’t want to make it feel like we were correcting it or fixing it or jimmying in-

Geri Cole: An agenda of some kind.

Tony Kushner: … an agenda of some kind. It was just basically take these guys at their word and things that were latent or more alluded to than overtly expressed in the original, we wanted to see if there was room. It turned out there was room. We were always afraid we were going to make the thing too long because we were adding all this new stuff but our movie is actually I think two minutes shorter than the 1961 film, so.

Geri Cole: So that’s quite an accomplishment also, all of that makes me think of how you recreated or reinterpreted the character of Anybodys, which it felt like that you didn’t sort of create a trans character. You sort of revealed that this is a trans character and so I’d like to talk a little bit about that process and about how you guys sort of came to that decision and what developing that character was like.

Tony Kushner: Yeah. I wish I could say where I first read this but I was reading, years ago, an essay by a trans writer about theater I think and a mention was made of Anybodys. This is long before I started working on the musical, on the screenplay or even thought that I’d ever be doing that. But somebody had mentioned that Anybodys was considered to be the first trans character in an American musical. Anybodys is an interesting figure in the original.

Tony Kushner: The character exists because Jerome Robbins knew this woman who was a dance captain and a wonderful dancer. He wanted her in the show and they wanted to figure out a way to include her. Arthur, who was gay and had a very lively sense of exploring the boundaries and borders of things, thought it would be interesting not to make her just a girlfriend of one of the Jets but actually a girl who wanted to be a Jet.

Tony Kushner: So there she is and it’s a she in the original. It’s a girl who doesn’t want to be a boy necessarily or who doesn’t feel that she’s a boy but who wants to be a member of an otherwise all male gang. So in a way, Anybodys is a tomboy originally. But I like what you said. It felt like a revelation because I felt like there was something more going on. There’s a song that the only song, only one of two songs that I know of that were cut out of West Side Story. I asked Sondheim if I could put the song back in, if I could find … He said, “Sure, if you can find a place for it.” Then he said, “But I guarantee you, you won’t find a place for it.” And he was right.

Tony Kushner: It’s a song sung by Anybodys, A-Rab and Baby John. Each one of them is lamenting their lot in life. A-Rab is short and he says, “It’s terrible to be short.” Baby John is lamenting being so young. But Anybodys starts it off by saying, “Who wants to be a girl? I don’t want to be a girl. What’s the good of being a girl?” So it didn’t take much to think, “It would be very interesting if this character was not just somebody who was a tomboy or not a tomboy but rather a trans man.” I think the same impulse that brought about the creation of Anybodys in the first place by Robbins and Laurents, in the ’50s when we were just watching a couple of Nicholas Ray movies, I mean, Rebel Without a Cause.

Tony Kushner: I mean, there’s a hysteria about gender in the ’50s in America that’s really weird. It’s kind of laced with deep sort of perverted Freudianism but there’s a panic. I feel like it’s probably because of an awareness on the part of the patriarchy that feminism and then LGBTQ revolutions are on their way. There’s a panic about policing those boundaries really, really strictly. It’s also I think not coincidentally the moment when mainstream culture begins to make its first acquaintance with people who are … Well, Christian Jorgensen, I mean, with the fact that some people are not this gender that they were biologically assigned.

Tony Kushner: Many, many years, 60, 70 years later it felt like it was time to really kind of include that in this movie. It felt like it was part of the hyper steroidal masculinity that sort of toxic masculinity that the Jets are emulating that leads them ultimately to almost committing a rape and to the death of three young men. Then to put Anybodys in the middle of that and Iris Menas who was the magnificent actor we cast in the part. I had a lot of incredibly important discussions with him about including pronoun issues.

Tony Kushner: In the screenplay, Anybodys, is referred to as a he because Iris and I agreed that there were no other pronoun choices and then I finally said to Iris, “So you’re Anybodys and if you’re Anybodys and it’s 1957 and you don’t have any choice between she and her and he and him, what pronoun would you choose?” Iris said, “Double he, him.” But Iris himself is a gender questing person and the indeterminacy of that and the voyage of that is very important to them in the performance. I think you can see it in the performance and then it actually gave me an idea at the end during the rape scene for … He didn’t know quite what to do with any …

Tony Kushner: In the original, Anybodys gets the sort of thumbs up from Ice. He says, “You did good buddy-boy.” Which is a touching moment and then you think, “Ew.” But that means Anybodys has gotten membership into the Jets and who would want that? Then that’s what led to the moment in the doorway between Anybodys and Anita, which is a moment that I’m proud of and I think Iris performs and Ariana DeBose perform just spectacularly. It’s one of the great things about working on a play or a screenplay is that you work with actors and they bring their lives to it. That transforms the characters in the ultimate nature of the play or the film.

Geri Cole: Speaking of actors, I read that you wrote, correct me if this is wrong, a 30-page character bible for each performer.

Tony Kushner: Everybody had a different length. The only one that was 30 pages was poor Rita because Rita’s character is the oldest character in the film. So right after she said yes to doing the movie, she and I spoke. She said, “So you’re going to have to tell me who this person is. What part of the island does she come from and so on?” I started thinking about that. Then I started writing this sort of life story of Valentina and because Valentina is in her 60s, early 70s in 1957, her life sort of goes through the end of the 19th century. It was sort of almost from the beginning of U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico all the way up to the mid-postwar period.

Tony Kushner: So that really was … Writing it was a lot of fun for me because at this point, I was a couple of years away from the original research period but I got to go back to all my Puerto Rican research and really go deeper into the history of Puerto Rico in writing it. I want to now figure out a way to make a miniseries of it because it’s incredibly, it’s a really cool story leading up to her meeting Doc and then the two of them owning this drugstore and then eventually meeting Tony and Riff as little kids. Then leading up to the beginning of West Side Story. Maria is very excited about the idea-

Geri Cole: Kristie, I hope you’re listening.

Tony Kushner: Yeah. Well, I’ve talked to Steven and Kristie about it. We have some plans. I think it’s-

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Tony Kushner: I wrote this insane thing for her. It was 30 single-spaced pages and I did I think about 15 to 20 pages Rachel and David Alvarez who played Maria and Bernardo then said, “Okay, well, we need to know now who was our father? What part of Puerto Rico do we come …” So I did the same thing for them and for Ariana and for Luz and Rosalia who live in the building with her. Then I started doing a whole Tony, Riff, Jets thing and then a Sharks thing.

Tony Kushner: It was a lot of fun. It was an enormous amount of writing but I don’t know how much it helped. We started out, the very first day of rehearsals was really Kristie Krieger our producer pulled together this panel of Bobby Sanabria who is a wonderful Puerto Rican jazz musician and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, who was a scholar of Puerto Rican history and Nuyorican history and who was our main historical advisor for the project.

Tony Kushner: They talked about the political history of the ’50s to the cast. It became clear right away that we had to all do a lot of rethinking of who these people were. I was interested in the relationship between the Jets who were basically a gang of screwed up white street kids with the real gangs that had once held sway over this area of the city from Lincoln Square way down to the Village, the Hudson Dusters and the Gophers, these predominantly Irish gangs who had controlled the dock lands until Italian American mafia started moving in, in the ’20s and the ’30s. But for instance, the scene in the bar with Riff, that came out of this idea that Riff’s father had been a really bad guy and an actual gangster.

Tony Kushner: A lot of what the Jets do is terrible and we made it even more terrible. The first thing they do is desecrate a Puerto Rican flag mural. I think that’s in the original. I mean, not that overt an act but Bernstein and Laurents and Robbins, I mean, they had a choice when they were doing West Side Story of I mean, originally they were going to do it between Jews and Catholics in the Upper East Side. I think that felt like-

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tony Kushner: … Tony and Maria over there. It was going to be called East Side Story.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tony Kushner: They dropped the project in the mid ’50s because they couldn’t get anywhere with it because I think it didn’t feel like they were talking about anything that was of all that enormous significance at that point I mean, the conflict between Jews and Catholics. Then Arthur Laurents is the one who ran a newspaper account of Chicanos and white kids fighting in L.A. and said to Bernstein and they were both doing something in L.A. at the same time, staying at the same hotel. He said, “What if we did with Chicanos and white kids in L.A.?” Bernstein said, “No, let’s do it in New York but Puerto Rican kids and white kids.” That’s when they got excited about it.

Tony Kushner: But in doing that, they made a big break from Romeo and Juliet because nobody knows why the Montagues and Capulets hate each other. You can’t even remember who’s who except that Juliet rhymes with Capulet. That’s the only way to keep track and that’s actually part of what Shakespeare is saying is that this is a completely … The causes of this hatred are lost. The only thing that remains is the hatred itself. That changed the minute these guys made it a fight between them. I mean, they had a horse in the race as soon as they did that. These were very progressive people and they knew that racism and discriminating is all through West Side Story.

Tony Kushner: Racism was the great fault line in American history and in American political life and in the fortune of our Democracy as it has continued to be up to the present day. It may turn out that some frightening minority of white people in the United States would literally rather live in a fascist plutocracy than share the Democracy with people of color. It’s horrifying but there it is and I think that these guys understood that, believed in it and committed this story to being an exploration, an investigation of love and intimacy destroyed in the middle of politically motivated hate so that all of these sort of not new but new considerations had to be brought in.

Tony Kushner: Everybody embraced them. I think Steven, and I’ve told this before but Steven changed the ending onset at two o’clock in the morning. I had written the ending of the movie to be like the ending of the film because it always makes me cry. They’re carrying Tony’s body off and the Sharks and the Jets are holding the body together. The camera lifts up over the West Side and you hear church bells ringing. You see Maria walking behind them and then the orchestra starts playing Somewhere and you start crying. I thought, “How can you improve on that?” So it was one of the few things I just left completely alone. Then at 2:30 in the morning in Paterson, New Jersey where we had built the Doc’s Drugstore set and several ruined blocks of the Upper West Side.

Tony Kushner: The Sharks and the Jets … The Jets pick up Tony’s body and then the Sharks join in and they start carrying him off. Maria’s behind them and then all of a sudden, there’s Rita who wasn’t in the script at that point. But there she is onset and she’s walking in the opposite direction. She picks up the gun and goes to Chino and starts walking. I ran from Video Village to find Steven and I said, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” We had one of our little squabbles and he finally said, “It’s 2:30 in the morning. The sun’s coming up soon. I have a lot to get done. Please, go back to Video Village and leave me alone.” Which is somehow, sometimes the way that we’ve had to resolve things.

Tony Kushner: So I said, “Okay, fair enough.” I went back and I thought, “I guess if he really screws this up we can reshoot it.” But I knew better really and then the next day I came back. He said, “Let me show you what I did.” Then he showed me and in the end of his West Side Story is a young man of color in handcuffs being put in a police car. The fire escape, which is the icon, the great image of West Side Story, it’s on the original poster, is an image of love flowering in an urban setting. The way that Steven films through the horizontals and verticals of the fire escape they become the bars of a prison. He leaves you. Nah, nah, he doesn’t let you off the hook. He doesn’t say, “It’s all going to be like don’t worry. This is really sad but it’s going to be okay.”

Geri Cole: Yeah. It’s not.

Tony Kushner: He leaves you with a big question, “Is it really going to be okay? Look at what we’ve done.”

Geri Cole: Yeah, which is really powerful. So you mentioned earlier that you’re an anxious writer and I really want to ask you about that. But let’s quickly talk about you’ve collaborated with Steven many times. What do you think makes your partnership, your collaboration so successful?

Tony Kushner: Well, he’s not anxious about work. Steven loves working. I really have learned a lot. I just did a new movie with him that we wrote together during the pandemic and even though I’ll come up with any excuse I can find to avoid writing because I never feel like I’m really ready. I think I’m hitting a sympathetic nerve here.

Geri Cole: Yes.

Tony Kushner: I mean it’s true of all writers. It’s just you don’t want to feel self-pitying because there are a lot of harder things in the world to do than writing but it’s tough, especially during the time when you’re alone in the room with a blank screen or a blank page and the fear that you’re really just faking it and that you were going to be found out because you are faking it. I mean, you’re making stuff up is an overwhelming and some people deal with it better than others. I deal with it well in the sense that I somehow manage to … I’ve worked out ways to overcome it but it’s also taken much more time than I wish it had taken. When I sat down to write the script with Steven last October we started on October 3rd and in two months we had finished the script because Steven is really happy working.

Tony Kushner: He just loves it. It’s what he was born to do and he’s really happiest I think doing that. I’ve learned a lot from him in that. I really, when I wrote Munich, it was my first screenplay. I’d never written on a film set before. I’d been on the set of Angels in America with Mike Nichols but I’d never done a feature film. It was a lot, that I mean, pretty much everything that I didn’t know about the process. I learned so much of that from Steven and I knew this about him before. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about his films. One of my first dates with Mark in addition to West Side Story was we went to see Saving Private Ryan together.

Tony Kushner: He pointed something out afterwards. He said, “If you went back and you looked at the D-Day sequence of the invasion, the taking of Normandy Beach, with all the things going on, the thousands of people on the beach shooting at the thousands of people on the boats and the thousands of different boats and this boat and that boat and the other thing.” Mark said, “If you stopped the movie at any point, you could ask anyone in the audience, no matter how sophisticated or unsophisticated, ‘What’s going on at this moment?’ And they could probably tell you because of the clarity of the storytelling.” I went back the next day to watch it just to see if he was right and he was completely right.

Tony Kushner: Steven is one of the great constructors of narrative of all-time. He has a small D democratic principle. He doesn’t dumb things down. In fact, I think in all of his movies going all the way back to Jaws and Duel, the really early stuff, there’s a deep poetry and deep levels of meaning in his, in the work as well as I mean, that’s why I frequently compare him to Dickens. He has an enormous popular appeal and has had huge popular success but in all of his movies, you go below the surface.

Tony Kushner: There are real depths to be plumbed there. He’s a genuinely great, I think an artist of real genius but there’s a kind of a determination on his part. I think it’s really true to a Democratic spirit that no one should be left behind, not by making things stupid but by us, the artists doing our job and making sure that when we’re doing the … One of the big arguments in the House of Representatives from the 13th Amendment during Lincoln, you had to remember who were the left-wing Republicans and the right-wing Republicans and who were the Democrats and who were the Independents and keep track of this giant room of screaming people.

Tony Kushner: Steven had a bad cold the day when we shot one of these big sequences and he kept coming to me and saying, “Okay, so remind me, which group does this one belong to and which group does that one belong to?” In one part I said, “Steven, I mean, it’s really descended at this point in the story into kind of chaos, so anybody could be in any.” He said, “Yeah, I know but I don’t make chaos. If I do make chaos, I want it to be chaos that people can understand.”

Tony Kushner: It’s magical to watch that happen. He did it in Munich. He did it in Lincoln. The rumble in the big fight scenes, the prologue fight scene in West Side Story, the dance at the gym. I mean, when I was writing it I went through the whole thing beat by beat and said, “Okay, at this moment, Tony sees Maria. At this moment dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” Then Steven took all of that information and the choreography that Justin Peck had done and this giant group of dancers in a gymnasium in the middle of the summer in New York, where it was literally 103 degrees and pulled together this … It’s just staggering. I mean, like six different stories are happening. Six different. The plot advances in six or seven different ways through the course of the dance at the gym. He does the same thing in America. It’s a great lesson.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tony Kushner: I don’t know that playwrights are necessarily storytellers first. I think we’re dialecticians first. I think our real skill has to be figuring out how to take embodied arguments and put them in conflict on a stage or on a screen and have them, have the things that they embody sort of do battle with one another. But you need a story to hang that on and it’s been one of the great blessings of my life that I’ve been able to work with a real storyteller of genius. So I love it. He’s also hugely respectful of the people that he works with. He’s really included me.

Tony Kushner: I mean, he’s the director and there are times when I don’t win arguments, a number of times. Then there are times that I do and he really lets me fight. He doesn’t like to yell back but I’ve gotten very heated and we’ve had long, tough exchanges. He’s kept me on the set for the entire filming every time, on all four movies that we’ve made. I also love the way he works with actors and brings them in. When we did Munich, the Palestinian actors were really concerned about how Palestinians were going to come across in the movie. They made a determined effort to make their way to Steven and engage him in conversation. They absolutely did and it had a huger impact on the film.

Tony Kushner: I think that was certainly true with Latino actors and the Puerto Rican actors in West Side Story. He’s really genuinely curious about lives other than his own and about using art empathic leaps of the imagination to broaden his understanding and to share the struggle to understand with other people. I love that in him and it’s made working on each of these films, although, they’ve all been difficult in their own way, a real joy.

Geri Cole: Wow. So you mentioned just before this that you had figured out a few ways to sort of get over the anxiety and pressure that you feel when you sit down to write. I wonder if you might want to share those ways with us, if there’s any rituals and/or charms?

Tony Kushner: Sure. I’ll spare you the details of some of the rituals and charms because some of them are really unsavory and some of them are unhealthy-like.

Geri Cole: We’ll take all. We’ll take all.

Tony Kushner: Yeah. Well, I wouldn’t recommend eating boxes of chocolate chip cookies, which used to work for me but now actually usually, now that I’m 65 years old it puts me to sleep. I don’t think I have any secrets that other people don’t have. There’s the Hemingway trick, which really works if you are disciplined and stick with it, which is that you never, ever stop writing at the moment that you’ve completed something that you were working on. You always go beyond that into a place where you can stop at a moment when you haven’t completed it. A thing, a scene, a moment, an act, whatever it is because then when you come back the next day, you have something unfinished but existent to work with. If you finished it and it’s great and you love it, you come back to a blank page, which is always the thing.

Tony Kushner: You sometimes can’t avoid it but it’s why we all do outlining forever and keep long … I still have all my Lincoln notebooks here because someday I want to sort of look through them again. But there are like 20 Lincoln notebooks. I mean, you just keep writing and writing and writing until finally you can’t stand anymore. Or you just, your notes turn into dialogue. Then you’re ready to start doing it. You can sort of trick yourself that way. The other thing is the fundamental truth about the activity of writing. It’s something that I’ve always told when I’ve taught writing and that I believe very deeply and that I always somehow manage to forget when I get too nervous is that you’re not taking dictation from something that’s been formed in your head and then putting it down on paper.

Tony Kushner: In Marxist terms, writing is praxis. Or in Freudian terms it’s a combination of idea and action together. It’s also in Marxist terms a combination of the material and the idea of thought and matter. You’re taking thought and turning it into matter but the matter is also producing thought by writing it down. In a Freudian sense, your unconscious is telling you, your conscious self what it’s really thinking about and what it’s pursuing. But there it is in writing and you’re giving yourself clues all the time as to what avenues you need to go down. When you reread, if you’re reading attentively, you discover those clues. So the most fundamental I think essential trick is sit down and start writing, actually writing not thinking.

Tony Kushner: Not going for long walks where you may intend to go for a long walk and work out your big problem in act two. You’re just as likely to talk yourself into believing that you’re too much of an idiot to fix act two. So the thing that I think really if you haven’t saved something that you can immediately go to work on, just go back and start typing or correcting the grammar or moving words around. The minute you do it, the language producing, writing producing parts of your brain will get engaged. The machine will start to click.

Tony Kushner: Then you’ve had this experience. We’ve all had this experience. Suddenly you look up and several hours have passed. Or you spend six hours pulling your hair out and having to strap yourself down to your chair because you just can’t stand it anymore and start wishing you could go online and look up applications for nursing school or computer science, anything, law school to get out of this. Then at the end of that miserable day, you’ve produced the best thing you’ve ever written because it doesn’t … It’s not just … We always should remember Walt Whitman says, “I contain multitudes.”

Tony Kushner: There are so many people inside of you. There are so many voices using you as a conduit at all points. Your job in a certain sense is to loosen and that’s a painful thing to do because you want to be a tightly constructed conscious being. You don’t want to go out on the street and push people in front of buses and kill cats and wind up in a prison. You want to be a coherent being but part of what you need to do as a writer is loosen the stays a little bit, so that some of those other beings inside of you can start to find cracks and avenues and outlets for their voices to be heard.

Tony Kushner: If you can do it, you’ll always be able to knit yourself back together again or mostly. The great joy of it is that suddenly you discover the nature of some of those multitudes inside and you realize how complicated and composite and collectively constructed human beings really are. I mean that’s sort of the amazing thing about art is that it’s proof that we’re not isolated and we’re not entirely self-created. That we are born of our communities and contain our communities within ourselves.

Geri Cole: That’s really beautiful. That’s really beautiful actually. We are running out of time so I want to make sure that I ask you this question because this question that I love to ask everyone who comes on the podcast because I find it very interesting. It’s the idea of success, especially in creative professions, just in general the idea of success but certainly in creative professions where it does feel like elusive, no matter what sort of awards or status you’ve gained. So I’m curious how you define success for yourself and how that may have evolved over time?

Tony Kushner: I’ve learned. I’m now 65 so I’ve been writing professionally for 30-something years and I’ve really learned that the true measure and this is a corny cliché. The true measure of success is not always immediately apparent. Time is a great judge of success. If something that you’ve written, that you’ve been a part of is still around 15, 20 years later, you’ve done something. It’s hard and rare I think to have done something like that. I’ve had experiences where the reviews have been great but the box office has not been great.

Tony Kushner: Where the response of people have been great and even where the box office has been pretty good and the critics all hated it. By and large, the things that I’ve written are well, seem to me to be around and of meaning to people a few years later. It’s not exactly Aeschylus whose plays are still being read. They’re 3,000 years old. I probably shouldn’t do this but can I recite a little poem?

Geri Cole: Please. Please.

Tony Kushner: It’s by the Roman poet Horace. It was translated into Russian by Pushkin and then into English by Nabokov. I really love it. He says, “Long to the people shall my name be dear because kind feelings did my lyre extol. L-Y-R-E, lyre extol invoking freedom in an age of fear and mercy for the broken soul. Obey thy God and never mind oh, muse the laurels or the stings. Make it thy rule to be unstirred by praise as by abuse and do not contradict the fool.”

Geri Cole: Hmm. Wow.

Tony Kushner: So there you go. It’s hard to be a writer because it’s hard to tell the truth. The truth is very hard to find and it’s very scary to speak. There are all sorts of ways that the world polices truth-telling and many of those ways frighteningly are inside of us. We do our own policing but if we lie as writers it’ll be clear and it’ll doom what we write because people won’t believe it for very long. They may believe it in the immediate instant but eventually it’ll start to smell like an old fish.

Tony Kushner: So the really, really hard thing is and the thing that will define whether you succeed or not is how much have you told the truth? All that you can ever say at the end of the day is, “Did I really work hard to try and find it? Was I really brave? Did I think the hard thought as far down the road as I could think it past the point when it felt safe to me to keep thinking? Did I really find something that feels to me like it’s of use to people who are struggling?”

Tony Kushner: That’s going to tell you what the value of your work is. If you can say, “Yeah, I think I really did that. I think I really gave it my best.” It’s going to be worth something. That’s success. That I think is all you can hope for. To want more than that, everybody wants more than that. Everybody wants to have money and fame and statues and things like that. But if you assign that as your life’s goal I think you’re quite likely not to have a very satisfying or productive life. I think that keeping your own counsel, which is what the little poem that I just recited, I can’t believe I did that, means, is I think your counsel and the counsel of one or two people whose opinions you respect and trust. Then the rest is up to the gods.

Geri Cole: Wow. Well, I think that, that’s a perfect and beautiful place to wrap up.

Tony Kushner: Well, thanks, Geri. Yeah, it’s so nice-

Geri Cole: Thank you so much. Oh, God, those were so many jobs. Thank you so much for sharing with us today.

Tony Kushner: All right. It was really nice talking to you.

Geri Cole: That was incredible.

Tony Kushner: Thank you so much for doing it.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at and you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms @WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on!

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