This week, Kelly Kerwin, an MFA Dramaturgy student at the Yale School of Drama, geeks out (via Google Doc) with Emily Zemba, a playwriting MFA student at Yale.
Today's Topic: What is your favorite play within a film?
Kelly Kerwin: So... we both saw Birdman within a week of a each other, and now it's been nominated for a ton of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. (TDF Open Doors mentor Alexander Dinelaris is also Oscar nominated for co-writing the screenplay. -- Ed.)
At the time, we were both surprised to find that, yes, Michael Keaton is still a good actor, but that the film as a whole is...what did you call it? A love letter to the New York theatre scene?
Emily Zemba: Hey. I always had faith in Michael Keaton. He IS Batman, didn’t you hear? But also, yes! Totally! I like that the film is both a realistic critique of commercial "movie-star-centric" Broadway theatre, and an homage to real, working, New-York theatre gurus. There are so many NYC theatre shout-outs and cameos! Like Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Kelly: I just saw a play of his this summer at Atlantic, which is now at Second Stage, so to see him in Birdman was a hoot---pun intended. Also, when that bizarre, probably homeless or mentally ill character was howling an epic monologue as Keaton was about to walk by, I thought, "Oh, of course this will be someone famous," and it ended up being Bill Camp. Who is maybe only famous to people in the theatre community. I think I was the only person in the movie theatre who had a mini freak-out. I kept tugging my boyfriend’s sleeve while mouthing, "That’s Bill Camp."
Emily: I also love that Michael Keaton plays a washed-up movie star turned aspiring playwright.
Kelly: And director! Triple-threat! But also, his character’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love actually looks like it might be pretty good. I mean, I would go see that play.
Emily: I would too! That production-within-the-film does look like a real attempt at a new groundbreaking play, and not just a foolish parody of what a new play might look like. I loved that line at the end, when Michael Keaton’s lawyer, played by Zach Galifianakis, exclaims something like: "This play is gonna last forever!!" Because that’s the dream, right? That we’ll write or work on the next big play, and it will shock and awe the theatre world and continue to run UNTIL THE END OF TIME.
Kelly: And all we need is a brilliant idea. And loads of money. And a movie star actor. We can do this.
Anyway, a play-within-a-film that definitely shouldn’t live on forever but kind of SHOULD because it’s a ridiculous send-up of community theatre is Red, White, and Blaine from Waiting for Guffman. Confession: When I was in high school, the other Drama III kids and I---AND OUR TEACHER---tried to get the rights to the film of Waiting for Guffman so we could do it in our high school. Which is really stupid because the majority of the dialogue was improvised. Spoiler alert: We did not get the rights. BUT we did each do a monologue from the film for our drama class. Like, we transcribed monologues ourselves and then performed them. I was Parker Posey’s Libby Mae Brown, duh. Obviously I went to public school where this was allowed.
Emily: Wait. So, the drama department in your high school wanted to perform a play version of a film which contains a play within it? That’s…pretty amazing.
This concept of plays-within-films is actually really fascinating. Wet Hot American Summer, which is one of the best movies ever I swear, is another film that uses this theme, I think for the same comedic effect as in Waiting For Guffman. They’re definitely showing us the painful silliness of what it is to do summer-camp theatre. I mean, they do Godspell. And it’s terrible and hilarious.
Kelly: Another confession: the closest I’ve ever come to seeing Godspell is by watching Wet Hot American Summer. They take rehearsal so seriously and the performance of "Day by Day" ends up actually being really poignant and wonderful. "Day by daaaaaaaaay." Honest to God, that is my sole experience with that song, but I could probably sing every word of it because the Wet Hot American Summer version is so good.
Emily: I feel like that part of the film was made for me. I love Godspell. Pretty much everything I know about the teachings of Jesus Christ I learned from my mother’s Godspell soundtrack. And I just can’t get enough! I mean, Jesus comes back! To Earth! To sing with some hippies! It’s nuts. Obviously Michael Showalter and David Wain have the same nerdy obsession with the theatre (and its ridiculous idiosyncrasies) as we do.
Kelly: I mean, Amy Poehler’s character name-checks the Cleveland Playhouse!
Kelly: Wait. What. All of them?
Emily: YES. Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper.
Kelly: You mean, Thrice-Academy-Award-Nominated Bradley Cooper. That’s what happens when you get nominated. It gets to go with your name for all time.
Emily: It’s like having an M.F.A.
Kelly: But wait, I literally only care about this if Ken Marino is back. If he’s not in it then I’m not watching it.
Emily: Um, duh. He’s back. Along with my one true love Joe Lo Truglio.
Kelly: Okay, I’m already picturing the world’s greatest double-date that then leads to a double-wedding like Marcia and Jan Brady. Deal?
Emily: Deal. Also... do you know what play within a film I have always been curious about, but we never actually see in the film? The play that Bill Murray’s character, Jeff, writes for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie. It’s called Return to Love Canal. Bill Murray has this great off-the-cuff line in the movie: "I don't like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, 'I really dug your message, man.' Or, 'I really dug your play, man. I cried.' You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say,'I saw your play. What happened?'"
He’s got his priorities as a playwright straight. I mean, but seriously though: What happened? I want to know, Jeff! I want to see that play.
Kelly: Wait, I think this could be our ticket. You write Return to Love Canal and then BOOM. We’re in. We could bill it as: "For all those fans of Tootsie who have always been wondering what happened in that play Dustin Hoffman’s character was so gung-ho about starring in, do we have a show for you!"
A play within a film that I’ve always wondered about is Margot Tenenbaum’s comeback play at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, probably because it’s just the staged version of The Royal Tenenbaums, complete with a Gene Hackman-esque theatre actor. It would probably be a Wes Anderson takes Broadway play---which I would pay fine money to see. Like, WES ANDERSON DOES BROADWAY. Get my agent on the phone because this is gonna be big and quirky and whimsical and full of nostalgia and Kodachrome colors.
Emily: There’s also that play at the end of Rushmore.
Kelly: Oh my gosh, Wes Anderson is the gift that keeps on giving. Max Fischer’s masterpiece about Vietnam, I think? It’s in a high school auditorium and there are definitely explosions and a remote control toy helicopter. And a steamy kiss with Margaret Yang.
Emily: Max Fischer, man. Yeah, playwrights as characters in films seem to be so often portrayed as these eccentric, comical, brooding, and befuddled people. But I also think the life of the playwright has been romanticized in movies. The Lloyd Richards character in All About Eve is the object of desire of these power-hungry actresses. He’s wealthy, successful, charming. He’s at parties all the time. He’s living the life!
Kelly: Is he why you became a playwright?
Emily: Yes. Oh, can you grab me another expensive martini while you’re up? Extra dirty.
Kelly: It’s funny that most of the examples we’ve mentioned are plays that don’t exist, or haven’t been adapted for the stage like in Birdman. So there are all these fake plays out there in movies! Like, does the screenwriter say: "Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a play, but I’m not gonna write it out, but I’ve got a title so let’s put it in the movie!" I mean, Wes Anderson totally does that.
Emily: I think that a lot of people really love the theatre, and what it represents. It’s live, it’s romantic, it’s unpredictable. It’s ancient. If it weren’t for THEATRE, there would be no FILM! Of course filmmakers continue to portray the form in their movies. They SHOULD. Respect.
Kelly: "If it weren’t for theatre there would be no film!?!?!??!!?" Emily, we need to tell everyone. People need to KNOW.
Emily: You’re right. Great. But first, can I seriously have that martini?
Now it's your turn!! What's your favorite play within a film? Geek out with us in the comments!