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 wgaeast.org 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!