Dying Gaul, The: First Time Director Craig Lucas on Longtime Companion, Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott

Craig Lucas on The Dying Gaul

Writer Craig Lucas (“The Secret Lives of Dentists,” “Longtime Companion,” “Prelude to a Kiss”) makes a disappointing directorial debut with The Dying Gaul, a psychological thriller about power, corruption, betrayal and revenge set in the seductive world of Hollywood filmmaking.

Directing for the first time
It was the most joyful experience of my life! I thought it was going to be overwhelming, which it was, but in ways I could not have anticipated. I loved taking care of that many people and having the privilege of being able to express myself in collaboration with so many unbelievably gifted, skilled, committed artists.

Image of Hollywood
Although the film concerns a triangle that develops between two powerful Hollywood insiders and a struggling screenwriter, it’s far from a simple, predictable story of crass, tasteless executives vs. the pure young artist. I think most people have a very two-dimensional image of movie people, that theyre greedy and self-serving and heartless. Sometimes it’s true but not everyone in Hollywood is that way. I wasn’t at all interested in playing into the received wisdom that people who make movies are stupid or venal because, in fact, my experience is that people who make movies love to make movies and love the art form.

Contesting Stereotypes
“The Dying Gaul” is not a movie about moviemaking. I wanted to play against stereotypes. The couple at the center of the story is everything that is appealing about Hollywood, theyre basically intelligent and kind and good at what they do. That was necessary so that theyd be appealing to the character of Robert, the screenwriter. He has no money, his lover has recently died. And the appeal of this world, this house, this sea, the safety or at least the illusion of safety that money can buy, is understandable. I always feel that the interesting and challenging thing when youre making something to entertain people is not to tell them what they already think they know but to tell them what they don’t yet know they know. Something that throws lights into a dark corner.

Let’s face it; so much entertainment relies on stereotypes so that the artists don’t have to work very hard. The fun part for me, whether Im at the theater or watching a movie, is to have to engage, to be surprised, and to be taken on a journey into corners of lives that I didn’t even know existed.

Becoming a Director
Although I had directed some theater, it was my good friend Campbell Scott, with whom hed worked on “Longtime Companion” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” who persuaded me to take the plunge into film directing. After “Dentists” came out, Campbell and George Van Buskirk (who produced “Dentists” and now “Dying Gaul”) were extremely insistent with me about turning “Dying Gaul” into a movie. And I put it off for a long time because I didn’t know how to do it. But finally the fact that I didn’t know how to do it was the thing that interested me.

Reaction to the play and movie
I have seen the play several times in various productions. It was successful but successful in that it stirred people up. It upset some people terribly. I think other plays and movies had led audiences to expect someone who is grieving over a loss to AIDS to always behave nobly, as so much media intimates that suffering is ennobling whereas, of course, suffering breeds more injustice and cruelty. Audiences were not gambling on being confronted with anything like that. So it was a strange experience. I think it made me want to spend more time with the play. I wanted to understand why it affected people the way it did and I wanted to, frankly, see if I could tell the story better.

Campbell Scott as bisexual exec
Campbell Scott was the perfect actor to play this very complicated character. He has a great understanding of storytelling. He’s not interested in cheap effects and he doesn’t do what I call schmacting.’ Schmacting’ is what usually wins the Academy Award. If you play a crazy person, an autistic person, a drunk or retarded person, that’s thought to be acting. The hardest thing in the world is to tell a story and never draw attention to what youre doing. With Campbell, there’s fluidity between his head and his emotions and his gut and his genitals! Id work with him on anything.

Patricia Clarkson
I was thrilled when Clarkson signed on for the role of Elaine. Eighty five percent of directing is good casting and to have Patti in this role was a dream come true. Patti and I have been circling each other for about fifteen years. She did lots of readings of my plays in New York.

Sexuality on screen
Patti and Campbell were adamant about not villainizing these people that the film was about three people who are all basically yearning to make their lives better and who somehow, when they come into combination with one another, an inevitable pull drags them into terrible places. And neither she nor Campbell was afraid of the overt sexuality in this story. I always felt that we couldn’t tell this story in front of a camera without really allowing their bodies and the way they use their bodies and the way they live in their bodies, to be fully expressed.

Since I had never directed a film before, I invited everyone to engage in the most communication possible, from beginning to end. I made no secret of being a first time director, asked everyone to watch my back, and encouraged them to speak out if I was making what to them seemed to be a misjudgment of some sort. Once we talked about the depth of the characters and what were the most essential qualities in each scene to be pulled into the forefront, each of the collaborators had specific notions about how to accomplish that, and if they didn’t, then I resorted to making suggestions. We changed our minds about a lot of things along the way, and I continued to treat the set as a fluid place of group discovery. I find that if you invite people into your process along with knowing your own point of view, you have then the best of worlds, collaboration and self-expression.

Losing Rene Norman as a director
I had worked on stage for many years with a great director, Rene Norman, who died in 1997.  And so I wasn’t having this experience I expected to have for the rest of my life, working with this director. So in the late 1990’s, I started directing myself. And I found that I came alive and I enjoyed it and I had things to offer actors and to other collaborators that I didn’t even know I had. What a strange thing to happen when you’re 50 years old — Im probably the only first-time 52-year-old movie director!”

Advice to the audience
Enjoy, and forgive me if your sleep is ruined.