One of the most terrifying and tremendous thrillers of the 1990s, Rob Reiner's film adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling semi-roman a clef novelistic ode to psychotic fans, MISERY, has always seemed somehow destined for the physical confines and emotional excesses of the stage, and, now, thanks to two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman, the man responsible for the original film's screenplay as well as many films, books, plays and musicals of his own, along with director Will Frears, the nightmare is coming all too harrowingly, hobbling-ly real live onstage at the Bucks County Playhouse for a special limited engagement November 24 through December 8. In this detailed discussion, Goldman, Frears and I dissect the finer points of the characters, story, themes and narrative ideas that flow through the original King novel and the Reiner film as well as outline what the new stage adaptation sets out to do insofar as intensifying, clarifying and maximizing the terrific potential inherent to the dynamic and compelling material. Plus, Goldman offers his erudite insight into the creation of the original screenplay and his feelings on King's work in general, as well as imparts his characteristic wit in touching upon his past theatrical endeavors to date - including a Broadway musical written with John Kander, A FAMILY AFFAIR (in the 1960s) as well as the never-filmed original movie musical written in collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, SINGING OUT LOUD (in the 1990s). Additionally, Frears gives us an update on his next project, a film centering on two friends coming of age in the UK in the 1960s. All of that, the most thorough analysis of Annie Wilkes outside of an insane asylum (or horror fan club, perhaps) and much, much more!
MISERY plays November 24 through December 8 at the Bucks County Playhouse. More information is available here.
You, Me & Misery
PC: How do you see MISERY as a piece - is it straight horror? A thriller? A deranged drama? Something else entirely? What drew you to it in the first place?
WG: It's all of them. How I got involved originally was that I was in Hollywood and someone offered me the movie and I had never heard of it - MISERY - but, then, obviously, I read the book and thought, "Holy sh*t! There's a movie here!"
PC: It hit you hard - whatever it was or is.
WG: Yeah! Of course, it's an absolutely wonderful book and King is a brilliant writer. This is a strange, and I would be willing to say, a very personal novel for him.
PC: You can say that again. What about you, Will?
WF: Well, I always think of it as a sort of love story that goes horribly and awfully wrong, basically.
PC: A romance.
WF: That's what's interesting about it - there are these two sort of sad, desperate human beings at the center of it. You know, one of the privileges of working on a Stephen King project with a William Goldman script is that they are so brilliant and the characters they create are so brilliantly written that they become these slightly tragic figures up onstage - these tragic figures who happen to meet each other and if they were only completely different they could end up together in some odd way; but they don't, of course.
PC: And inevitably so.
WG: Will, you would say that Annie is the remarkable figure in the piece, wouldn't you?
WF: Well, you said to me very early on that the thing about Annie is that nobody has ever met anybody quite like her anywhere in the world - she doesn't exist until this creature springs out from the Colorado backwoods.
PC: What a remarkable image!
WG: Right out of the writer's psyche.
WF: She's a remarkable creature!
PC: It's a romance that turns horrid instead of torrid.
WG & WF: [Laughs.]
PC: Bill, you originally read through the novel a few times with three different highliters in order to craft your original screenplay for the film, correct?
WG: Yes, that's true. You know, for me, because King is so popular and because of the material he tends to write about, I think people really don't realize what a brilliant writer he is.
PC: He is too popular to be popular with critics, in a way?
WG: In a way. You see, I never asked him where he got the idea for this novel from - we never discussed it. But, again, I think it is very personal.
PC: How do you both look at celebrity writers today versus twenty-two years ago or so when the novel and the film reached prominence?
WF: One of the things that we did when we first started working on this new stage adaptation was to play with the time period a bit - we set it in different periods to see what would work. You know, "Do we move it back to the time period the book is set in or do we update it to today?"
PC: A tricky conundrum.
WF: Yeah! And, so, after a lot of work in either direction it became clear that we needed to keep it where it was because, nowadays, fans are everywhere! There's a whole sort of culture of fan and author and fan and everyone out there that, now, Paul Sheldon would go to Comic Con and he would have a Twitter account and he would know that people like Annie existed in the world.
PC: Everything has changed.
WF: Twenty-two years is not that long ago, but there it is - so, yeah; he would have some idea that people like her existed.
PC: Being a celebrity screenwriter yourself, have you ever had any scary encounters like Paul's, Bill?
WG: No, luckily I've never had an experience like that. But, I mean, I think I've probably done four speaking engagements in my entire life, so it's not something I'm exposed to very often - I get very nervous when I have to talk because you always feel like you're going to be an assh*le. [Laughs.]
PC: Have you gone back to the original novel at all in this adaptation process of bringing MISERY to the stage?
WG: Not that much. When I first was working on the play I'm sure that I looked at the novel a couple times, but not much since then. It was just… I don't know; for me, I still remembered the movie and I always remember Kathy Bates and Jimmy Caan and all of it.
PC: That's what you remember when you remember MISERY.
WG: The movie is what I always go back to - yeah.
PC: Is it true you considered Bette Midler and Warren Beatty, among a host of other names, for the leads in the film?
WG: You have to remember, when we did the movie, I wrote the screenplay specifically for Kathy Bates, because I had seen her do brilliant work in the theatre. But, then, we were talking and we couldn't get anybody to play Paul - no movie star would play it. No one. So, fortunately, we eventually ended up with Jimmy Caan, but, if you think a lot about it… I remember we were talking once and we were saying, "Would Meryl Streep be believable doing these sadistic things?" And the feeling was no - she's a brilliant, brilliant actress but do you really believe she's going to lop someone's feet off? [Laughs.]
PC: So, in casting this stage adaptation, have you tried to find similar types to achieve a similar acting style or overall effect?
WF: Well, I think that one of the really great things about going out to Bucks County to do this is that there is such an astonishing group of actors available in New York - Johanna [Day] and Danny [Gerroll] who are doing it are just sort of these great, stalwart stage actors.
WG: That's true. They are really fantastic.
WF: And that's what's so great about them is that they can play anything and they can give you exactly what you want, but they bring so much of themselves to the parts and they are so like the parts without being like the movie, you know?
PC: They make it their own.
WG: Yeah. They really do.
PC: Have you seen the play up on its feet, as it were, prior to this premiere production of the piece?
WF: We have done it a few times - a few workshops, yeah.
PC: Are the sheriff and his wife still a part of the story?
WG: The sheriff is, yeah.
PC: It's a three-hander, then.
WG: Yeah - let's say it's a two-hander plus the sheriff.
PC: Let's! So, there won't be an Anthony Shaffer-esque SLEUTH casting coup, then, with Paul playing the sheriff, too?
WG: [Laughs.] Not quite!
WF: [Laughs.] No, we are being unbelievably literal - we have a wonderful actor as the sheriff, actually, by the way - James Demarse - and we are being extremely, utterly literal with everything that we are doing. There is no con anywhere.
PC: The hobbling scene is one of the most iconic film scenes of the last fifty years, though the act itself is significantly different in the novel versus the film - ax versus sledgehammer and so on. What can you tell us about that pivotal scene?
WF: Well, I'm sorry, Pat, but I am under strict orders not to reveal how we are addressing the hobbling scene.
PC: Any tease?
WF: The strictest, strictest orders! [Laughs.]
PC: Will you be using any theatrical or film narrative devices like voiceover or will it all entirely be straightforward and naturalistic?
WF: Yeah - it's two people in the room, plus the sheriff. It's the story of two people in a room together, so the story has always been almost painfully literal - and, you know, the feeling has always been, with this project in particular, that that is what is interesting; two people in a room. We don't want to do anything but draw the audience into the story of what happens between these two people and nothing should ever take you away from that.
PC: It's very focused.
WF: Yeah, I mean, it's very important that you get caught up in Annie's story - as Bill was saying, she's the remarkable character of the piece - and you become almost sympathetic to Annie.
PC: A relatability factor.
WG: Right. Right.
WF: Yeah - and if you move away from that than you lose a very important part of the story.
PC: How are we drawn in to the world of Annie in this particular iteration of the tale?
WF: Well, to be honest, it's mostly Johanna [Day]…
WG: Oh, yeah. She is just wonderful in this.
WF: She is so sympathetic and vulnerable and her heart seems to be in the right place, so it is all a bit heartbreaking to see this all happen with her and Paul.
WG: And, also, I think it is because we are so faithful to the book - I mean, the protagonist is just lying in bed for the whole damn thing!
PC: Precisely - well, more or less.
WG: Yeah - except for one little snippet. So, he's just lying there in agony for most of the story - which was what was the case in the novel and what was also the case in the movie. I mean, Jimmy Caan did not do any dancing in this. [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely not! Speaking of music, will Annie's beloved Liberace records be utilized? I know you have original music, as well.
WF: Right. There is both. The Liberace is just so iconic that we just have to use it and then there is the astonishing Michael Friedman who is writing us all new original music for it, too. So, it's a wonderful combination - a score and a soundtrack. It sort of jumps in and out of those two things.
PC: The Bucks County Playhouse is a very intimate house…
WF: Yeah - 450, I think. It's a big 450, though, if that makes any sense - it's got some real dimension to it.
PC: Have you explored the idea of proscenium versus a thrust stage or maybe even an in-the-round type feel for this particular piece?
WG: We have, but…
WF: Yeah, I think we always have but there are a certain amount of effects in this show that you need the proscenium to do - you know, the round is sort of the enemy of hiding things.
PC: This is your first stage venture in a few decades, Bill, is that accurate?
WG: Yes, it is. I had a few flops back in 1961, I think it was…
PC: With no less than John Kander - A FAMILY AFFAIR.
WG: Right! Right.
PC: Did you always know that this could potentially work onstage, even when you were adapting it for film, or was it an entirely new idea that prompted you to do it now?
WG: It was something I always knew I could do if I wanted to - when you first start thinking about this material and you look at the story that King told, you think, "Yeah, you could do this onstage - well, if you are lucky."
PC: A big if…
WG: Basically, there are these two people - if you just think about it like this; there are just these two people… who are in this very unusual relationship.
PC: A tango, more or less - hey, if anyone could make major excitement out of two people in a room poring over manuscript pages ala ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, it's you.
PC: Have you added any material to the story that you are particularly fond of as an author and novelist yourself?
WG: I can't really answer that, can I? It's always been a marvelous, marvelous experience working with this source material. [Laughs.]
PC: So, is Broadway the ultimate goal for MISERY?
WG: I think so - but, you know, it's not going to be my money!
PC: THE SEASON has taught us all about the nature of producers and how shows get on, after all!
WG: Yeah - so, right now we're just worried about Bucks County; everything depends on how it goes there.
PC: They are offering you a fantastic chance to try this out in front of an audience given that this is a world premiere of this new adaptation of the novel and film.
WF: One of the really pleasurable things about this whole process is that there has been no race in any of it - each piece of work that we have done has been dignified as a sort of piece of work on its own, so there has been no pressure; each workshop has existed as its own production, basically. So, we are thrilled to be down there and working on it away from New York and seeing it up on its feet - we are seeing what works and what doesn't and just trying everything, you know? Then, if everything goes well, of course we'd like it to have a future life, but we not looking past Bucks County at this point because whenever you look past something the work suffers for it.
PC: An illustrative point
WF: It's really difficult to get this sort of thing right… [Laughs.]
PC: To say the very least!
WF: We really want to take our time in getting it right.
PC: Will, you've worked quite a bit in Williamstown, so you have a background in a more experimental regional type of envrionment, yes?
WF: Right. I've sort of moved around a lot between theaters and theatre and film in general - I just got back from directing a show at the Geffen in Los Angeles and I'm here now doing this. So, I've been fortunate enough to be doing plays in New York and out of town and doing films here and there and I teach, too - I am happily sort of peripatetic about my work life, I guess.
PC: How did you react when you were offered the chance to work with undoubtedly the greatest screenwriter alive?
WG: Will, you told him to say that! Damn you!
PC: It's no hyperbole!
WF: It's totally, totally true - and I couldn't believe it. I got a call the week my wife was nine months and one week pregnant, actually. My agent called and he said, "They're doing MISERY onstage and they want to talk to you about it." And, I said, "When? My wife is going to have this baby any minute, so can we talk about it after that?" And, so, after that, I was sitting in the hospital room with my two-day-old child reading MISERY with this sort of horrified look on my face…
PC: What a sight that must have been!
WF: I know, right?! So, anyway, then Bill and I met for drinks and we just sort of hit it off. And, I was sort of exactly like you are - just in awe of him, you know? Who isn't?!
WG: [Laughs.] I'm not listening to this!
PC: It is just a great collaboration, then?
WF: We just really hit it off - it's been a complete and total joy for me since that day.
PC: How do you remember your first meeting with Will, Bill?
WG: Well, usually when you are a writer, you know, you do the best you can and then it is all in the hands of the other people. The fact that we have gone as far as we have as quickly as we have with MISERY is just wonderful. Just wonderful. I mean, the Hollywood people really like it, too, so we'll see if they like it enough...
PC: The theatre allows full autonomy to authors. Has that experience been rewarding for a screenwriter somewhat infamously scorned by directors in the past?
WG: Well… you'll have to wait until November 25 to ask me that! [Laughs.]
PC: MISERY onstage is an adaptation of a film based on a novel, so, as someone who has written all three…
WG: Listen, this process could not have gone better. Really. You know, I am desperate to see it on the first night with an audience - I am as desperate to see it as you are, Pat, because we are still in rehearsals. Right now, Will is directing people in street clothes and we haven't gotten the special effects yet, so she isn't really breaking his ankles or anything, so it's all a new process - and it will all change again after we get real blackouts and real lights and all of that stuff, too. That's what the theatre is - it's always adapting... again and again.
PC: Do you find theatre the most visceral and effective, at least as a dramatist?
WG: I have always felt that way - that theatre is better than anything, it just isn't very often… it just doesn't work very often.
PC: How have you seen the theatre change most significantly now versus when you wrote THE SEASON in 1967? It seems like a different place almost entirely, doesn't it?
WG: [Pause. Sighs.] Yeah - you're right, it has changed a lot, hasn't it? I don't know - I'm as much in the dark as you are.
PC: Or, maybe, to quote the subtitle of one of the highest grossing current shows, SPIDER-MAN: turn off the dark!
WG: [Laughs.] I know! I know.
PC: So, post-Bucks County we can hopefully look for MISERY on Broadway and in the West End, potentially, should the Hollywood contingent of the producing team be pleased?
WF: I'd be a liar if I said I wished otherwise! But, yeah, right now we are having such a wonderful time with Bill and the cast working on it that I will go anywhere with it.
PC: You don't have a very long rehearsal process, do you?
WF: Well, we missed the first day of rehearsal because of the hurricane and then we had the next two days of rehearsal at Bill's apartment. So, you know, we had to get used to slumming it… [Laughs.]
PC: I bet!
WF: But, then, we went to Chelsea rehearsal studios - which wasn't quite as much fun as Bill's.
PC: Edward Albee famously hosts first rehearsals of his plays, you know...
WG: See! So it might have been good for it!
WF: Yeah! It's a good sign.
PC: What has changed in rehearsals so far? What percentage of the script?
WF: Like 1 percent. Like six words.
PC: That's a sure sign of a well-written, well-made play - it doesn't get much better than William Goldman in any medium, in any event.
WF: That's so true. OK - cover your ears, Bill…
WG: OK, OK. [Laughs.] Covering…
WF: OK. There is just such economy to his writing! I mean, there's not a lot to cut - you know, you usually have to cut a certain amount just because the author is trying to dazzle you with his dramaturgy, but there is nothing to remove; it's all right there. There's nothing to change, nothing to cut... it's all just too cool.
WG: Can I listen again yet?
PC: Definitely! It's working out really well, clearly.
WG: Oh, it is. I mean, right now, we're blissful - we are. In two weeks we may not be, but so far it has just been wonderful in every way, every day.
WF: Really. I mean, the hardest thing in rehearsal, since Paul stays in bed almost the whole time, is Annie moving from stage left to stage right.
PC: This sort of property is particularly in vogue right now - AMERICAN HORROR STORY and other entities are exploring and exploiting psychological horror and torture porn, as it is called, with much success. So, why are you doing MISERY onstage now?
WF: Well, I fell into it originally because my agent called me and it was too good to pass up.
PC: What about you, Bill?
WG: I think it was that I got a call and they said, "We are interested in you doing a play version of MISERY," and, I said, "Well, let me re-read it." And, so I did - I looked at the book again and I thought about if I could make it play; because, as you know, most writers lack confidence. They have no confidence. So, in that respect, it couldn't have gone better. I look forward to every day in rehearsal, actually - because I know that tomorrow I will sit there on my butt and just watch the actors act and watch Will direct them.
PC: What a shift! Directors in film usually want screenwriters around as little as possible, as you have famously written about in your essays and books.
PC: The theatre is a big departure from that. So, considering MISERY is going so well: is there perhaps a new original play in your future, do you think?
WG: I have no idea! I really don't know… I don't think so, but I don't know. I haven't thought about writing a play in decades - since A FAMILY AFFAIR closed, I think, or whenever - but this is a very special thing and telling the King story is really is the reason for it, I think. It's a masterful King novel and if we can make it play for a live audience we might have something here…
PC: We can get ready for some real real world-based terror with MISERY, in any event.
WF: Yes, I cannot stress it enough - this is painfully, painfully literal; very realistic! There is not a metaphor to be seen.
WG: [Laughs.] Not one!
PC: What about the ending? Bill added that brilliant twist of putting us in Paul's position - always looking behind us. Will you be exploring the paranoia imperative to that?
WF: Well, we can't give that away! [Laughs.]
WG: Yeah - we'll tell you after we've opened!
PC: So, will it be one act or two?
WG: It's one act.
PC: Wow! The audience will be in for quite a thrill.
WF: A powerful evening and at the bar by 10!
WG: Exactly. [Laughs.]
PC: Is there a breather at any point or is it a roller-coaster ride start to finish?
WF: I think that the script is so concise that you would be inventing a break where there is no need for one if you did an intermission - there is no point in breaking up the tension unless you have to. Of course, there are points where the audience sits in difficulty and it is very tense and nothing really happens, but then it all moves forward - and, with Stephen King and William Goldman writing, there is momentum that you just don't want to get in the way of.
WG: It's going to really be something - I sincerely urge you and fans of the novel and film to come and see it.
PC: The producers have put together quite a winning team.
WF: Brilliant writers, amazing actors, remarkable designers - and these great producers, too. The whole thing really has been a pleasure from start to finish so far; the whole entire thing.
PC: One last thing I wanted to add: When Stephen Sondheim did this column we spoke a bit about SINGING OUT LOUD, a musical project you two worked on together, Bill…
WG: [Deadpan.] Oh, that Steve Sondheim… he's not too smart, that guy, is he? [Big Laugh.]
PC: Too funny - it would take another genius to spot it so precipitously in him, no doubt! He said he enjoyed working with you on that so much and remarked on the fun you two had.
WG: Yeah, that one was a lot of fun even if it didn't happen. You know, one thing I can tell you about Steve Sondheim is, although Will here is good at crossword puzzles, Steve Sondheim is great at crossword puzzles! [Laughs.]
WF: I don't doubt that! [Laughs.]
PC: He has written them, some say under pseudonyms - something you would know a thing or two about...
WG: Just a little bit… [Laughs.]
PC: Last question, Bill: is there any truth to the rumor that Brian De Palma is directing a new film based on HEAT?
WG: I don't know, honestly. I know there was interest recently, though, but that's all I know.
PC: What can you tell me about your next film project, Will - centering around two boys coming of age in the mod 1960s?
WF: Yes. My writing partner and I are cleaning up a new draft which we are very happy with and then we will, you know, enter the horrible world of film financing after that. I can tell you a sad tale that I'm sure a lot can tell you - and have - about all of that!
PC: Indeed. Misery is everywhere in Hollywood!
WG & WF: [Laughs.]
PC: This was absolutely phenomenal. Thank you both so, so much - this was totally exhilarating.
WG: Oh, you are very kind, Pat. Thanks a lot. Bye bye.
WF: Yes, it was a real pleasure, Pat. Bye.