Tom Stoppard: I Want to be Like Verdi

The noted playwright discusses the Blu-Ray version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, writing for stage vs. screen, and why actors don’t laugh at jokes they’re telling on stage.

Jeff Morgan/Alamy

Sir Tom Stoppard does not merely talk in complete sentences. He talks in complete paragraphs.

In the interview below, he says that dialogue is his strong suit, and he’s talking about playwriting, but listening to him it’s clear from whom his characters have inherited their often terrifying lucidity.

So talking to this fearsomely articulate man can be a little daunting, and would be even more were he not so unfailingly polite and even kind: Ask him an awkwardly worded question, and he instinctively, helpfully offers you a much better answer to the question you should have asked.

In our conversation, there was even a moment that seemed to leap right out of a Stoppard play, when—at one point—he broke off in mid-sentence.

The silence grew louder and louder for about 20 seconds, at which point he finally asked, “Am I pausing for you or are you pausing for me?”

The occasion for the interview is the re-release, on Blu-ray, of the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which Stoppard not only adapted from his own play but directed as well.

This play, while not his first, was the one that overnight elevated him to the highest rank as a dramatist, a perch from which he has never fallen. The story of two hilariously feckless minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern showcased Stoppard’s felicity for comedy and verbal felicity.

If it takes a playwright with unimaginable brass to put his dialogue side-by-side with Shakespeare’s (the scenes with characters from Hamlet use the Bard’s dialogue], it takes a genius to pull it off. But pull it off Stoppard did.

Since that audacious opening, Stoppard has gone on to win every award imaginable for his subsequent theater work and his screenplays, including an Oscar for his screenplay, co-written with Marc Norman, for Shakespeare in Love.

More tellingly, perhaps, his works have never ceased to be performed. Someone, somewhere, is always mounting a new production of Jumpers, or Travesties, or Arcadia, and repeated viewings always show you something new. Stoppard’s plays, even the old ones, never fail to come alive again on stage.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the only film he has ever directed, and when it opened, it was better received in Europe, where it famously beat GoodFellas for the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.

The American reception was more mixed, but 25 years later, it is hard to see why anyone complained. The film is funny, engaging, lovingly produced, and Tim Roth and Gary Oldman both deliver standard-setting performances in the title roles.

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At 78, Stoppard shows few signs of slowing, although a couple of years ago, he did leave London and moved to the Dorset countryside.

“I just wasn’t getting any work done in London somehow,” he said. “So that’s [Dorset] where we live, yeah. We’re about 100 miles from town, which enables me to say no to things that I otherwise might have to do if I were in London.” He spoke by phone to The Daily Beast from his home.

Are you pleased with the new Blu-ray version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

I’m very pleased. [Producer] Michael Brandman has performed a minor miracle. The film was in the coils of a company that has ceased to exist. I never expected it to re-emerge, really. I don’t really get what Blu-ray means. I do get that it’s better in some way—crisper, clearer. But I’m not technologically minded, so whatever it means, I’m in favor.

Are there differences between the play and the movie?

I think that’s the underlying reason why I ended up directing it. Somehow I was the only person, as it were, who wouldn’t try to defend it from the moviemaker. It’s not terribly different from the play. At the same time, it’s enormously different.

If you compare dialogue against dialogue, it’s not that much different. But as a film it just produces a large number of completely different kinds of images. With the play, you’re looking at the same icon—the same moving, talking picture.

A movie of any play has to liberate itself from being a camera in the middle of Row H. That’s clearly the first step.

But the larger step, which I think it needed me to take, was to treat the original with irreverence rather than reverence. And my name on the film made it easier to raise what was in any event a modest amount of money.

I’ve said this before, but I feel that the thinking was that since I’d never made a film I might turn out to be incredibly brilliant at it, whereas if I had made a film, one would know that I wasn’t. So, while I was an unknown quantity, the possibilities were infinite. And to use a Madison Avenue word, I think there was something sexy about the writer-director idea, that it was actually one person’s film, rather than a film by somebody using somebody else’s work.

We ended up in Croatia mostly, and Slovenia, and I think we probably shot, as far as I can recall, for 36 days or something like that, and then brought it all home and looked at it.

It was a very enjoyable process. I said this at a journalist’s lunch once, and my comment morphed into my saying it was “easy” rather than “enjoyable.”

I didn’t find it easy. At the same time I have to say that because I had the sense to talk a lot to Peter Biziou, who was the lighting cameraman, and to Michael Roberts, who was the camera operator, and the people around me, y’know, best boy and everybody, it was quite a collegial enterprise.

I didn’t feel that the whole thing was on my shoulders at all. There were moments of tremendous exhilaration and liberation when I realized how flexible one can be when one is making a film.

I remember going to look at the set for what we were going to shoot the next day. It was just a boxed set, the badminton court, and I remember standing there saying, ‘Oh, damn, I should have had two doors, one in each corner instead of a central door.’ And whoever was standing there with me said, ‘Well, you can have that if you want it.’ [laughs]

I’d come from a world where a set has to last physically, concretely, it has to last for months—some sets last for years. And the idea of having a set that could be changed 12 hours before it was used was completely new.

I hadn’t even thought like that, not to mention putting a different color of paint of something, or whatever it happened to be. It was very fluid and exciting in that way, quite unlike any work I’d ever been involved with in the theater.

Plays aren’t like novels or movies, which, once they’re done, they’re done. Plays sort of follow you around.

I know what you mean. I can produce a well-worn aphorism for you, which is that with a movie everything stays the way you left it.

You did a day’s work and you put it in the fridge, and when you came back weeks later it was just as you left it. (I have to flag my aphorisms for you.)

That was the best thing about movies, and also the worst. Because with a play, it doesn’t stay as you left it, which is sometimes frustrating, and sometimes very, very convenient.

You can manipulate it while it happening, day to day. So it cuts both ways. On balance, the fact that you felt you’d got something right, like for example there might be a dialogue scene, and if you got to a point where you thought to yourself, Gary and Tim really got it right on that take, you said, ‘Print.’ And it was there, preserved in amber for you.

I’m going to see a play of mine day after tomorrow which opened about a month ago, and it will be full of things which will be different. And some of it will be slightly out of focus, and some of it will be in slightly better focus than before, and I guess that’s the reason why I’m mainly a playwright, because I find that an exciting way to work, an exciting medium to work in.

Have you ever been tempted to direct another movie?

No, I haven’t, but only because I’m lazy. There was the opportunity for me to direct I script I wrote from a late, unfinished Raymond Chandler novel, Poodle Springs.

I say unfinished but I can’t remember, that may have been a different book, but anyway, there was a late Chandler book called Poodle Springs, and Michael Brandman said time and again that I should direct it, and because the rest of my life somehow didn’t accommodate that—you know, going to California for many weeks or months or however long it took—I basically funked it.

And when my life settled down again—I forget why it was volatile at the time—but when it did settle down, it became one of the regrets in my life, which is no disrespect to Bob Rafelson, who did direct it and who of course is far more experienced, knowing—a knowing director. But it was a challenge that I shied at, I’m sorry to say. But in general I don’t live with a desire to direct a film, no.

As you go through life, does writing get easier, harder?

For me it has to do with energy. So in a rather banal sense it gets harder, it takes me longer to produce a given amount of work.

And, of course, there is the sense, the general rule with artists turns out to be that from the long perspective of hindsight, you liked their early work.

That is a small joke that passes between writers, especially between writers when they are friendly and prove their friendship by insulting each other.

They tell each other, I loved your early work. And there are very few great artists who have done major work once they approach 70 or 80. When I think of my favorite writers, it was the way they started off that captured me and left me captive.

I’m not an opera person at all, but I think of Verdi, for example, as someone who was writing at the age of 80 work comparable to what he was doing 50 years earlier.

I’d like that to be true of me, and in about 18 months I will be 80, so I’ll have to set about trying to prove it. I don’t know that I can.

Are you fond of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if that’s the word?

That’s a very good word. I think that’s actually a good way to describe one’s positive feelings about one’s own work. Fondness is very much the word. And yes, I’m fond of it.

One of the great things about coming back to something, certainly in the case of Rosencrantz, is that you can cut the stuff which you don’t like any more.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this, because from a PR point of view it’s kind of counterproductive, but when Michael Brandman said that he’d managed to give the movie a kind of relaunch, I said, ‘Oh, great, can I take 10 minutes out of it?’ And he said, ‘No, you can’t.’

And I’m such a virgin at movie-making that it took me a moment to understand why I couldn’t. Namely, that the music track would be jumping the points. But it’s sort of an insight into the creative frame of mind, because when we were in postproduction and sort of finessing to a final cut, I could not have taken 30 seconds out of it. I wouldn’t have wanted to. And a few years later, I could’ve taken three minutes, and a few years later six minutes. One gets more brutal about this. You become quite severe in your judgment about your own things.

Movies to me seem sort of hogtied to realism, such that if someone in a movie musical breaks into song, it always seems weird. Whereas when actors sing on stage, even though they’re living people standing right in front of you, it seems somehow believable. Or not?

I wonder if you said the opposite if it would be true for some people, that in a movie, you just take it on board if somebody bursts into song, and there’s music behind it, and it’s fine.

In a play one might think that the whole artifice gets shattered. But it doesn’t in either case. I’m not sure I would make the distinction you’re making.

One of the interesting things that struck me years ago about comedy on stage—and of course the same is true of comedy on film—is that in a scene where the audience is laughing—and it’s intended that the audience laughs—there is something weird about the fact that nobody on stage is laughing at these very funny things being said.

And by the way, on one level or another, comedy is what I write If it’s not straight-out comedy, there’s audience laughter in everything I’ve written. So this is true of my work, too.

But when I’ve got a bunch of people in my sitting room and amusing things are being said, what one doesn’t do socially is engage in a kind of studied indifference to the comedy, to the wit, whatever it is. One joins in, one makes the noise, and so the evening continues.

But you go and watch The Importance of Being Earnest, and the audience is laughing every other line, and the character to whom these lines are being addressed is completely phlegmatic about them. So, yeah, what one is watching is not a slice of life in any literal sense.

If you take one of my favorite plays ever ever, The Front Page, you don’t really want to acknowledge the fact that everything is highly artificial, even thought Hecht and MacArthur were taking real life as their base for everything that happens in the play, because life is first draft and theater is final draft.

Theater and movies are both collaborative, but are they collaborative in the same ways?

They’re really different in philosophy and principle. I know it’s a bit of a truism, but I do think that in film the writer does more often exist to serve the director, rather than the other way around.

I’m a rather conservative person, so this is an old-fashioned thing to say, but in theater it’s as though everyone exists to serve the writer. That becomes less true as one gets farther into Europe.

I’m coming to New York in a couple of days, and the first thing I want to see is Lazarus, which I would say is more director’s theater.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was just the first of your plays to look at history from the position of the bit player.

I suppose in my own work that’s the obvious example of finding a story from the perspective of somebody on the margins.

Travesties does that, too, doesn’t it?

In a different sense, that’s true. Maybe I could wrench this around until it became true of everything I write! [laughs] I think it’s quite central to me.

Does that come from a distrust of the main narrative, whether it’s play or a history book or whatever it is?

No, I think it’s the opposite. One seizes with relief and gratitude the chance to write something which is—well, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants sometimes. That’s certainly true of Rosencrantz. But I’ve adapted novels by Nabokov, by Doctorow, by Ballard, and I could piously say it’s a privilege. But it’s true also that it’s a huge benefit and advantage.

In that they’ve done some of your work for you?

That’s what I mean. I don’t consider myself very good at inventing structures and stories and plots. I like doing dialogue, and the dialogue seems to write itself for me. But without the structure, the characters, the story—the narrative, let’s say—it’s not a very useful gift, dialogue in itself.

Are you working on anything that you can talk about?

I’m hoping that in the first part of this year I’ll be writing a screenplay, but since it isn’t really fixed, I suppose I shouldn’t talk about it. I usually blab about everything, but I’m trying to learn not to.

So, the answer in a general sense is that the first thing I’ll be writing this year is a screenplay, but I very much hope that the second thing will be a play.

So do I. And here, if I may, I’ll just say thank you for writing Arcadia, which I think is one of the great pieces of theater in my lifetime.

Thank you. Scott Rudin has been asking me for years and years to do a screenplay, and I can vaguely say that it could be happening.

Well, I’m unimaginative enough to say that I can’t imagine how that would work, but—

That’s what I keep telling him!

RLJ Entertainment will release the film for the first time on Blu-ray on Tuesday