BootLeg Betty

I’ll Eat You Last: An Interview With Writer John Logan

Wall Street Journal
Writing a Hollywood Story for the Stage
By BARBARA CHAI
April 23, 2013

4-19-2013-5-35-00-AM

For John Logan, writing stories for theater, film and television is all the same job—you just have to put on different music to get into each world.

While writing his latest play, “I’ll Eat You Last,” about the late Hollywood agent Sue Mengers (1932-2011), Mr. Logan listened to Barbra Streisand and a lot of disco. “Whatever might have been playing around [producer] Robert Evans’s pool circa ’79,” he said.

‘I’ll Eat You Last,’ is about the late Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, played by Bette Midler.

For “I’ll Eat You Last,” which opens Wednesday at the Booth Theatre, Mr. Logan has written a meaty, one-woman show for Bette Midler. As Mengers—a German immigrant and longtime New Yorker who represented everyone from Candice Bergen and Bob Fosse to Sidney Lumet and Ms. Streisand—she sits on the couch and dishes for 80 minutes, her speech laden with valentines to Hollywood and zingers for some of its major players.

John Logan wrote ‘I’ll Eat You Last,’ about the late Hollywood agent Sue Mengers.

A man of Hollywood himself, Mr. Logan wrote the most recent James Bond installment, “Skyfall,” and he’ll write the next two in the series. So, naturally, he’s been listening to the classic Bond theme a lot. “Before I go into every meeting, I have it on and I just get into that guitar riff,” he said with a grin.

The 51-year-old Tony Award winner (“Red”) and three-time Oscar nominee (“Hugo,” “The Aviator,” “Gladiator”), who divides his time between New York and L.A., spoke with The Wall Street Journal about “I’ll Eat You Last.”

How do you make a play about the machinations of Hollywood work for the theater?

I’ve been living in the world of Hollywood for so long now that I have a lot of ideas about it. I always wanted to write something set in that world from a very inside-baseball perspective. Then I met Sue Mengers in 2008 at one dinner, and she was mesmerizing to me. On one hand, she was absolutely what you would expect: ebullient, loudmouthed, opinionated and viciously funny. But on the other hand, what touched me was how sensitive she was. Her awareness that the cycles of time had moved on. When the landscape’s shifting under your feet, when there are cracks in the ice, how do you respond to it?

What did she say about old Hollywood?

There are two lines I think you could put on the tombstone of this play. One is, “If you want to be a thing, make yourself a thing.” And the other is, “Honey, we used to have fun.” It was a very particular time in Hollywood. It was a business lubricated by sociality, by cocaine, by friendships. Hollywood now has become a much more corporate entity, where there’s always the straitjacket of financiers and publicity men around the table with you. When Robert Evans was sitting with Roman Polanski and they’re talking about “Chinatown,” there’s not a guy who wants to design the poster in the room. There’s not a guy working on the foreign sales. That’s where Sue lived.

It’s an unusual format, one woman speaking to the audience for 80 minutes from the couch.

I always wanted to do a one-person show because I think the form is really fascinating and, frankly, at this point in my career I’m also looking for different things to do. There was something about the purity of her just sitting there on that sofa and not moving. The obligation to all the narrative was on the words, and on the actor to communicate to the audience. It also seemed very Sue, to sit there like Jabba the Hutt and not get up! I’m gay enough to know that there’s something great about a play where the big special effect is a woman standing up and walking out of the room. That’s our big 11 o’clock number. In the end it’s a play about a woman justifying her life in storytelling. She doesn’t tell these stories because it’s amusing. She tells them because her whole life is ending and she has a need to say, “This is who I am. This is who I was.”

When you write about some of the famous people Sue discusses, the journalist in me wonders if you asked those folks for comment.

[laughs] It is important to have that discussion because it’s vital to remember this is a work of drama. It is not a work of history, of reportage, or biography. I’m the first person to say, I made it up. It’s a work of fiction, like many of my works, that’s based on reality and has, I would hope, a tender responsiveness to what I think the truth is. But in any case, when it’s a choice between good drama and actual history, my obligation is to good drama. Certainly her more aggressive or obnoxious statements about living people are pretty much a representation of what she thought.

You’re creating a television series with Sam Mendes called “Penny Dreadful.” What’s the premise?

It’s set in Victorian London and it takes various characters from horror literature—”Frankenstein,” Frankenstein’s creature, elements of “Dracula,” Dorian Gray—and weaves them into this fictional narrative about a woman and a man. It has to do with a school of thinking in academia called horror literature. It’s two fronts. One is, you have to take it seriously. Eliminate the camp, don’t think about the movies. Go back and read Mary Shelley’s version of “Frankenstein.” Go back and read “Dracula.” Then think about why in England, “Dracula,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” were all written within 10 years. It’s called, and I love this, monster theory. The other part of it is, one of the reasons those characters have stayed so vital in people’s imaginations is there’s something elementally recognizable about them, which has to do with alienation. I’ve always wanted to write about being gay. I knew what it was to grow up as a gay young man, feeling attracted to something that was forbidden, feeling alienated because of it, but also knowing it’s who I was. I’m using the metaphors and similes and tropes of these classic horror characters.

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