Hollywood, Scandal And Will Hays
Cinema Junkie / April 22, 2016
The 1922 murder of silent film director William Desmond Taylor inspired playwright Joe DiPietro to write "Hollywood," which has its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in May. Cinema Junkie gets an early behind the scenes look at the play in progress.
Beth: Welcome back to another addition of the KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I am Beth Accomando. Today I am going to give you a behind the scenes look at a play preparing for its world premiere next month at the La Jolla Playhouse. The play is called Hollywood and it’s all about the film industry at a turning point. The focus of the play is the scandalous murder of Director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. A murder that remains unsolved to this day. I speak with the playwright Joe DiPietro, Director Christopher Ashley and actor Patrick Kerr who plays Will Hays a pivotal character in the play and in claiming up Hollywood. He is the Hays that the Hays code is named after and he clamped down on Hollywood’s naughtiness both on screen and off. I also got to sit in on part of an early rehearsal. The play is still being fine-tuned with pages of re writes every day. I hope you will enjoy this early glimpse of a work in progress that’s all about Hollywood. To start here’s my interview with Playwright Joe DiPietro.
Your new play Hollywood draws on a famous scandal from Hollywood in the 20’s. What drew you to this?
Joe: Well, I have always been an old movie buff and I love, love, love… probably my favorite movies are made in the mid 30’s and into the 40’s and early 50’s. So, I have always been curious about when Hollywood was new and movies were new and movie stars were new and I gotten obsessed with this case, that I have just been reading about online about the murder of William Desmond Taylor who in the early days of silent movies was a very prominent director. He is probably one of the 5 or 6 biggest directors in Hollywood and his best friend was a Mabel Normand who was a huge movie star sort of the Jennifer Lawrence of her day and worked with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle was very beloved in wrote the musical Mack and Mable, about here which we sort of know is still in the culture.
He was best friends with her and one night she came to visit and he walked here to her car came back into his bungalow. Shut the door and there was someone waiting for him behind this door and shot him and it was a case that stuns not only Hollywood but the world because this was at the infancy of Hollywood. When there were a bunch of other scandals brewing like the famous Fatty Arbuckle scandal where he was accused of murdering a young woman with a very lascivious method. Which he was totally innocent of but Hollywood was getting a lot of bad press for its immoral behavior of its stars and it was starting to lose money and they were starting to worry about the future of the industry. So, in William Desmond Taylor it was killed no one knew who did it and because Mable Normand was the last person to see him, go and because he had a past that was very suspicious himself.
It became just the biggest sensation since World War 1. Sold as many papers as the Great War and people were fascinated by it, because it was the first time that not only did people feel like they knew who the murder victim was but all of the suspects that the newspapers were throwing at them were famous movie stars. So, it was like a real life movie in this town that people were becoming to understand. I really think it’s the dawn of modern celebrity, what it is. It was really the first case like that.
Beth: Was one of the things that was appealing to you also was that it was an unsolved case. So, you could kind of maybe play around with the story a little bit?
Joe: Exactly, the case was never solved clearly because the LAPD did not want the case solved because all the evidence. It was a terrible investigation. All of the evidence was lost. All of those guys then were on the take…. [Film clip] [00:04:08] and I think the fact that it was unsolved has fascinated people for many years and it can actually never truly be solved because like I said all the evidence was really tossed away and certain people who should have been interviewed weren’t by the police right away. So, the fact that it was unsolved as a dramatist is very exciting because A, you get to solve it yourself but the play becomes more about who done it? It becomes about bigger issues. You know Chris Ashley the Director and myself we keep telling ourselves as we are doing… it is a play and not a TV show or movie. We keep saying how do we make this not a very special episode of Law and Order. How do we do who done it, but make it about larger issues in the culture that still resonates today.
Beth: And what kind of larger issues are you going for?
Joe: Well, you know the 3 of the main characters in this show are 3 women and it’s very much about women in the culture and what Hollywood does to women. Especially then and these were 3 very bright, successful, smart, determined women. It is very much about celebrity culture not only with these women but in general. It is also very much about censorship and the rise of conservatism in Hollywood at the time and obviously that echoes in the country still today. So, there is one speech in it that I wrote that we were reading with the actors the other day and I thought Ted Cruz could have actually said this speech. History repeats itself and echoes through time and thought the one character who I inserted a little earlier than he had influence was Will Hays. Who was the famous censor and came up with the Hays code in the 30’s I believe, that really affected Hollywood for the next 30 years what could and couldn’t be shown on screen.
So, when he came to Hollywood right on top of this Taylor case and he was hired away from Washington by the studios to sort of become Public Relations man to calm down all of this talk of the scandals and things that are going on, but he also soon took more power than they ever imagined and really became the censor of Hollywood and the Chief Moralist of Hollywood. So, Will Hays be very much in this story as the Chief Moralist of Hollywood and like any moralist he believes that morality is absolute and that he’s by any means necessary he is infringing his morality not only on Hollywood but the rest of the nation. [Film clip] [00:07:13]
Beth: This scandal along with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal that your mentioned led to morality clauses being put into actor’s contract forms. Can you explain a little about what that is? So, that people can understand what that was about?
Joe: Yeah, sure. You know Hollywood you have to realize at this time this was the play takes place in 1922, Hollywood was band new and motion pictures as they used to call them were brand new and like any… 20 years earlier there was no motion picture industry, by 1922 it was the most powerful form of communication the world had ever seen. So, suddenly there was a lot of money behind it and there were a lot of people who wanted control of it and also what happened was very young pretty people came to Hollywood to be actors and actresses and because of those days the lighting was rudimentary and they didn’t have lines to memorize because the movies were silent. They could actually go out party and stay out late and have a good time and then show up for work the next morning and do their scenes. So, as a result you had young pretty people suddenly making 100’s of thousands of dollars in the 1910’s and 1920. So, you can imagine people you know people given that opportunity when there are young and they are pretty and they had a good time. Drugs were rampant then in the ways that they were not aware of their effects in the ways that we are. You know we all know cocaine was used in certain products and things. There was a lot of scandal for lack of a better word going on. So, but more the public found out about this, the more they turned on the movie industry and the more and as I said box office had started to go down because of these scandals. So, when Will Hays came to Hollywood he inserted the morality clause which basically says “if you behave in a way that the studio finds you immoral. The studio can kick you out” so, as a result, which means the studio can kick you out for anything. If you were caught, you came in drunk one day to work that would be it. So, it gave the studio ultimate control. So, if there was a player who they wanted to get rid of. They would just be able to get rid of them based on their actions and of course any player who became a big movie star and was making them money they did their best to hide their discretions so they could continue making money for the studio.
Beth: This is called Hollywood your play?
Beth: So, do you within the play do you see anything of the studio system itself in terms of like being on a set or being on a movie because I haven’t seen the play yet. I am just curious if you are inserting any of that into the play?
Joe: Oh absolutely no, I mean the thing about early Hollywood it was really fun and also think about silent movies because there was no dialogue, the actors as they are performing the director would be slightly off camera you know telling them what to do. You know saying look sad or I need you happier, you know they were mouthing a couple of lines of dialogue but that was irrelevant almost. So, you know the play actually starts off with one of our heroines Mary Mills Winter who is a 19-year-old child star sort of an early version of Shirley Temple but who has sort of outgrown that but who is still famous and who is still trying to be a child on camera you know crying her eyes out and the director trying to coax her how to cry convincingly. So, yeah absolutely no we seen Mable Norman hit by a pie. I mean there is a bunch of movie set shenanigans going on which is how they did movies in those days.
Beth: Talk a little but about the way the play is because it does, you talked about it being kind of a who done it and there is also kind of the elements of kind of this film noir also.
Joe: Yeah, will it’s very much even though Film Noir was really in the late 30’s and 40’s when it came to be and our play takes place in 1920. I just think we so associate Film Noir with black and white murder mysteries and this is you know very much in this film. But I think it also has elements in the design of German expressionism. Which was obviously in silent movies a big facet of it and also in Film Noir because I think of the lighting and the richness of the texture of black and white as well as German expressionism is very theatrical. So, Chris Ashley our Director has it’s a very epic play it’s 15 people which is very large for a play. Has multiple scenes like a movie does. So, it moves very quickly in a very theatrical way. So, I think it’s going to be a unique experience because I can’t remember the last time I really saw a noir thriller on stage. So, it’s going to move like a movie and it’s going to be fun as a movie.
Beth: I understand you actually have someone playing musical ques kind of movies style musical ques on stage.
Joe: We sure do. Wayne Brockert who wrote the score here I think got a toy nomination for peter and the star catcher is not only our pianist on stage but he is writing a score a lot of the show is under scored that evoke some of the times of the 20’s but not just silent movie vocabulary which I think is a little pettish now a little cliché when we hear it. There are also some a lot of other obviously large movements in the 1920’s jazz some more experimental a ton of music that he sorts of is drawing from to really make it its own unique mix. But the music definitely underscores a lot of what’s going on in the play and there are also points of the play were we the play becomes a silent movie. Where the murder is reenacted in a silent movie Mueller for lack of a better word, but one thing I am so excited about the play Hollywood is that I do think it’s going to be a unique experience. I don’t think anyone would have seen anything quite like this.
Beth: And how is it working on a stage production where you are trying to pay kind of homage or reference to another medium of film? What’s the point like blending it where you want to keep something theatrical but you also want to reference film, I mean what’s that kind of hitting the right blend and mix?
Joe: Oh, it’s a delicate balance because there was also point in this process where I was like why didn’t I just make a regular movie screen play, but I am a theater animal and I love theater and Chris Ashley is a Theatre animal and so he was the first director that I gave the script too and I thought can we actually do a film like representation on stage that has to done on stage. That’s not that if you basically translate it to a movie you would have to rewrite the whole thing, because it’s written for theatrical vein. So, a lot of it is how you don’t have close ups on stage so the dialogue needs to be a little I don’t know stylized you know stylized you know from what we know from 30 and 40’s movies. But it has to be its own unique animal. So, like I said you know we are working hard not to make it a Law and Order episode. There are definitely some prelease procedural scenes but every time those get too long or too complicated. We are like no, no, no let’s make this about the people like let’s have the thriller who done it aspect the part of it and we are going to give you that and we are going to tell you who we think did it. But, let’s also make sure it’s about the people and the larger themes at work here.
Beth: Now much research did you do into this? Did you want to try and find out everything you could about what had happened or did you want to stop at a certain point so that you are kind of creative juices could flow without kind of being curtailed with what you knew as fact?
Joe: That’s an excellent question. Whatever I do an historical piece. I always research, research, research my brains out of it. I read books, I read websites. There is not a whole lot about this murder, shockingly but there are several books. There is a huge website that is called Taylorology. Which is epic and massive and I have also read a lot of books just on the time period and saw movies and did research on that way, but I am a believer you research, you research, you research then you put the research down and write the play. Because it can be overwhelming like you know we are dealing with at least 4 or 5 main characters here. You can write a play about each of them just in this time period. Basically at some point you have to put it down and say okay, where is the drama in this and what’s the story I want to tell I do not want to manipulate these characters and I am very concerned as we out the play up, to make sure the general feel of it is historically accurate. But I am also not a slave to it. There are certain things that I have changed.
There are certain things that I know did not happen that I put in the play. Just to give it sort of dramatic heft. But I do think the feel of the play will honor the time and period and also since this is not an it doesn’t deal with an important political time or anything like that. It’s about movie people. I felt I has a little more leeway to sort of make things up to juggle the truth a bit which is also for dramatic purposes. It is also interesting about these characters like many people come to Hollywood they made themselves up. Most of them would have other names you know their other lives and they came to town and said this is who I want to be and most of the people who were in the show became very good at that and became other people and very famous successful period for a while.
Beth: Do you think what happened in during that time period in terms of the morality clause and Will Hays coming in. Do you think we are feeling any impact of it still today in Hollywood?
Joe: Well, you know the amazing thing about Will Hays in is code. I mean he was in Hollywood for 35 years or so and the Hays code really stuck around till the mid 60’s when suddenly all these European art films you know were coming over and then suddenly people started cursing in movies. The Hays code was eventually replaced in the 60’s when the times changed too quickly for the Hays code by the rating system which we have today. Yes, so, I don’t know if Will Hays himself whether his influence is still felt but there are certainly people like Will Hays. I mean there are always moralists and there are always censors, but in trying to write Will Hays I mean I really wanted to write a real person.
I mean I might not agree to his politics I mean he was very right winded he was very conservative. But I wanted to write a real person who really believed in something and I will say as a fan of the movies of that era there is something to be said about artists giving limits and they have to work around those limits and some of those movies are really witty and adult and sexy because of the restraints. More so than some movies today which is un-restrained and are not as sexy and not as witty and not as adult I think in many ways. That was not Will Hays purpose. His purpose was to, he had an agenda which he wanted to impart on the country which he did, but you know but having this some great art came out of that time too, so you know, I think like anything it’s not black and white.
Beth: Well, it’s interesting because there is that where the restrictions I think did create an atmosphere where people had to be more clever but the films that came out between 1930 and 1934 those pre-code films are amazing and I go to the turner classic movie festival and they always show one or two of those and you watch them and you go wow, they were making films like that back then.
Joe: It’s amazing with that code which I think came late mid like a precut 34 maybe it’s amazing what that code how that clamped down on stuff and those early films. You know there is nudity there is ménage and there are all sorts of things and they are very adult you know they are really smart and many of them hold up and yeah you know and of course the other side of that what happens if the Hays code never came what happens if they just sort of kept pushing the boundary and pushing the boundary and pushing the boundary. I also love that some of the people that got away with the most in those early days were like Cecile Deville and the people who did the bible epics, because they had the sex and violence because it was in the bible. So, there excuse was well this prostitute was in the bible so, they had an orgy in the bible and they had violence in the bible so we have to show it as it was and so that’s how they got away with it which was the ultimate irony.
Beth: So, how did you fall in love with this time period of early Hollywood movies?
Joe: Like anything when I was growing up for whatever reason I loved, I grew up in the 1970’s and before VHS tapes and there were all of these old movies on television. I grew up in New Jersey right outside of New York and there was something called the 4:30 movie I still remember came on 4:30 every weekday and had like chopped up versions of about sunset boulevard and all about Eve and King Khan and all of these sort of great movies that were so well written and I sort of think I got my love of dialogue from them actually. I don’t know why I was somehow drawn too these types of films early on more so than some more contemporary films that came on, but then as I got older and then I went to college and started going to art house, to see art houses which showed these old movies which exited then the way they don’t know. You know I really just feel in love with them. I have been seeing some of those films on the big screen.
I remember the first time I saw Sunset Boulevard which I keep thinking about because of Norman Desmond which is very much echoed the woman that Mary Mills Winter who is in one of the main characters in this show, who was a huge movie star in 1919 and 1918 and who is forgotten now and really became Norman Desmond I mean it was like a real life Norman Desmond by the time she died. I think she died in the early 1980’s. I just you know I just sort of fell in love with them and the black and white photography and the dialogue you know and that early movie stars were really just compelling to me.
Beth: And you mentioned Sunset Boulevard you kind of just her name Desmond kind of echoes back to the murder.
Joe: Yeah, and I read somewhere you know some movie buffs who think that’s where he got the name from. Just that era you know the silent movies and yeah, Norman Desmond with the William Desmond Taylor did he influence her maybe and Mary Miles Winter if you come see the show is as compelling as real life character I think I have ever come across in Hollywood and she became Norman Desmond she went a little crazy, lived alone in this I don’t know gothic mansion by the end of her life, still talked about the old days like they were yesterday. I think really happy I think when her career ended she was, she grew happier than she was when she was a child star and its fascinating and its unique what Hollywood can do you know with kind of fame and money and attention can do to someone especially when it happens when they are so young. When they haven’t fully developed as an adult.
I remember once of all people I will never forget this quote. Whoever played Danny Partridge in the Partridge Family gave a quote on the television show once and he was a child star with a troubled life and he said the problem was one day we are cute and the next day we weren’t and our careers were over and that’s exactly what happens you are cute and then you are kid and you are not and suddenly you are not and then you have to deal with that, which is hard.
Beth: And not everybody can turn into like Uncle Fester … wasn’t he like a child star?
Joe: Maybe you know people see like a Jodie Foster who was child star who went to become a terrific actress and director and you know it seems perfectly normal so but who knows but it’s a tough thing and you know this is you know every time I work on this play this is the early days of Hollywood when there weren’t role models or weren’t examples they were making it up as they go along. You know what they used to do in silent movies. There would be a fire down the block so they would all jump in a car with a camera and an actress and out the actress in front of the camera and fire and scream and write a little movie about it. You know it was sort of seat of the pants for a lot of years. So, it was an amazing time and a very rich time to sort of explore on stage.
Beth: Do you think people coming to the play need to know anything about this case or you prefer them coming with nothing?
Joe: Yeah, no I think you could come as long as you have seen a movie in your life and you know what that is you can come and I think hopefully you will enthrall and thrilled by Hollywood. Now, because we present everything you need to know about the murder about who he was and then we developed the people around especially these three women and Will Hays a Censor and what they meant to him and what they meant to the birth of Hollywood and how this death affected them all, you know and as I said it’s the beginning of celebrity culture which is a major theme in this play and there will be nothing in this play that people don’t recognize that still doesn’t happen today.
Beth: You described yourself as a theatre animal have you ever done films screen play or worked in film at all?
Joe: No, I used to work in television when I was much younger. My show Memphis which we started here at The la Jolla Playhouse and I sold the screen play. I wrote the screen play to that and I sold it to that and that’s in the Hollywood mill right now. But no I never really worked in movies I always loved theatre more. I would like to work in old movies. I would like work in 1940’s movies so well that’s not going to happen. So, I like contemporary theatre right now.
Beth: So, did your love for theater emerge at the same time you were watching these films?
Joe: Yeah, I did I was… I grew up New Jersey right outside New York and my parents would always take me to see shows when we were little. We take the family to see shows that was sort of an Italian American family and I think of the tenants of that was you should culture your kids. So, they always took us too museums and plays and you know trips to historical sites. So, I fell in love with theatre and the first show I ever saw on broad way I remember it like yesterday was 1776. I remember where I was sitting and when the lights came up and the continental congress that great early image of everyone sitting around. I was just hooked put a folk in me I was done and I just loved theater and I thought I would love to be involved in theater.
I don’t know how I was just a little kid and then I started to write and then as I got older and I discovered plays and straight plays and I started reading plays and seeing plays and then I just started to write and I wrote for a long time and no one cared and I went and got a job in advertising out of college and I was there for about 10 years and I started writing one act plays that turned into full length plays at night until just by force of will and constantly trying to get better at it. I sent in some plays that started getting accepted at little theaters here and there.
Beth: And why do you think you gravitated more towards theatre than film? Is it because as a writer, writers tend to be a little more respected in the theater world?
Joe: Yeah. That is an understatement. I do I have had some flirtations with television movies and so I sort of know what’s that’s like and the control the writer gets in theater is amazing because unlike film and television. In theatre a playwright owns the copyright to his script. So, if you are a producer and I give you the script you can say I want to do this but I can change this and if I say no I don’t want to change this and then the producer can say I am not doing the play, but they can’t take the play and give it to another writer and say change this and in movies and television that’s exactly what happens you are considered to work for hire if I sell you know paramount studios a script. They can take it and they own the copyright and then they can hire other writers to do what they want which is why many screen writers pull their hair out all the time. This is what I know and in theater we have other frustrations which is how do I get my play produced you know how do I get it seen? So, what I know you are always in control as a result I think you have more respect and there is a better sense of collaboration in theater than often times that happened in Hollywood.
Beth: Now the production that you are working on currently of Hollywood here at the La Jolla playhouse is your script locked at this point or are you still kind if finessing it?
Joe: Oh no we are two and half weeks into rehearsal right now and I am still finessing it. It’s an epic production it’s 15 people, it covers much ground in terms of its time period and locations and even though it’s a straight play it’s almost like putting up a musical because there is a lot of elements of the director Chris Ashley and I, who Chris runs la Jolla playhouse and worked together many times so I think we are very good collaborators. We enjoy at this point trying new things, that’s sometimes Chris will say oh, what if a new line there or and we were just talking last night, talking about the actors and I had an idea for another scene. So, Chris was like lets’ try it. What’s wonderful about La Jolla Playhouse is that you get 4 weeks’ rehearsal. Which is like a Broadway rehearsal schedule. It is rather uncommon in regional theatre. So, you actually have time to plan to play around and since, it’s a new production you know once you give your script and you hear an actor say it, it’s a whole different animal than what you heard in your head. So, especially when you have great actors like what we have in Hollywood, here.
I think I would be a fool to not to sort of play around with it and rewrite and hear different things and other things that I write I was like oh what did I do? What was I thinking I got a better idea? I just came up with a better idea last night after rehearsal and I was talking to Chris and one of the actors in it and she was asking a question about her scene and what her character does this and then we were talking about another aspect of it and I was like me go home and rewrite that. So, I wrote a new page and I think it’s better. So, that kind of stuff is exciting actually.
Beth: So, how long did it take you to get from the germ of this idea to the draft that you sent over to Chris?
Joe: I have been fascinated I wouldn’t say obsessed, but maybe obsessed but fascinated by this case for many years. So, what I did was I first wrote just sort of an outline of it and early on I thought maybe this was a musical. Just because the time period is so evocative you know early Hollywood this glamour. These characters by nature are larger than life. I thought that’s all context for a musical, but then it’s very hard to write a musical about a murder because musicals need to stop for songs and murder mysteries don’t want to stop for songs murder mysteries want to be fast. It is hard to write a musical fast, it’s hard to write a murder mystery fast because they both need to keep the locomotive of the story going. So, I wrote sort of a bad draft and talked to couple of song writers and then I was like I am going to turn this into a play and then trick about turning this into a play because it is a murder case sensually your lead character dies off 15 minutes into the play.
It’s almost like psycho when they kill Janet Leigh 15 minutes in and you have to figure out now who is this about? And I think the typical thing and my first thought and typical thing was oh, I most of the times when people write these murder mysteries you out a detective in the middle of it and you follow the detective and you make the detective a character and you give him a problem that has to be solved along with the murder. I was like I don’t want to do that it seems like a movie and I am not interested in a detective and I love these characters and these real life people were more interesting to me than that.
So, it took me a while to figure out years literally and I kept coming back to it to say well what is the center of this like I know director is going to say who do I follow? Who does the audience follow in a play? And then when I was just you know my massive research on the show I just read an article that said that Will Hays the famous censor came to town like 2 months actually a month before the show the murder happened and he was hired by the studios to run this new thing called the motion picture distributors of America which was essentially this new arm that so for public relations and also to keep Washington off their back as Washington was starting to come in and were saying we may have to censor you and they were like no, no we will do it ourselves and we need someone to cover up all the wrong doings that they were doing. So, they hired Will Hays and once I realized that he was there at the time. I thought oh, that’s and interesting lead character a censor who sort of comes in and you know basically clean up this mess public relations mess for Hollywood and then eventually takes over Hollywood in many ways. So, quick answer to your question is that it took me longer than most plays because I didn’t know what my in, my angle on it was, like what was my angle on this? And once I figured out in it probably took about a year, I wasn’t just working on this but probably a year to really get it into something that I was ready to show Chris and then Chris and I really liked it and we did a couple of reading where we just basically just hire actors to read it out loud and then you hear it and then you can see what comes… you can see what people are interested in and what comes to life or not. So, yeah it’s been a couple of years since that whole process has started.
Beth: You mentioned that Will Hays is not a character that you necessarily agree with in terms of his politics. So, how difficult was it to make him kind of this lead character that you follow through when he might not be necessarily the most appealing character like a character that you maybe identify with the most?
Joe: Well, I love writing people who aren’t me. I think it’s a really wonderful thing I mean one of the reasons I like writing dramas because you get to write people who you agree with. People who you know you disagree with and you know you have to find the common humanity I mean he was someone; he wasn’t out to do evil. He was out to… it was what his morality was and he really thought that this was the right thing to do. So, I think the gift that writing has given me is that I realize early on that we are all the same, we are in different bodies but we all want the same things. We want to love someone; we want to be loved we want a purpose in life. We want to feel like what we do matters and sort of everything else I think gender and sexuality and politics and all that is just a shell.
So, once you figure out that you just have to sort of put yourself in his point of view and say okay this is what he wants and what would a person how would they go ahead and do this? And the thing about Will Hays, he actually what he really was and he had to be to do all this was he was charming like he was very good at public relations. So, I thought that he can charm the newspapers and charm the studio heads. He must be able to charm a lot of people and so that was really helpful with him. In the play when I wrote his autobiography and you know he was sort of this guy from Indiana. He was sort of this local guy who sort of made good, I thought can you imagine being this local guy and come to Hollywood and there is all this so many famous people and how do you actually get control of them?
You know if have to be steel your reserve and you have to really believe in what you do. . . [Film clip] [00:35:15] but you have to have a certain charm and so I gave me sort of like you know mid-western charm that maybe he puts on just as the actors that come to Hollywood create their own personas. He creates his own persona in this. So, you know it was great fun writing him and I am still as I tweak I still you know keep writing more things for him, because it is actually enjoyable to try and get into someone’s head.
Beth: I am really looking forward to seeing it because Will Hays as a character in Hollywood having brought in all this censorship is someone that I have always kind of probably maybe demonized a little bit. I don’t know. So, I am very interested to see your perspective on him.
Joe: Well, also our actor playing him Patrick Kerr is fantastic actor and one of the reasons we cast him because he is so warm hearted in life and charming and so he brings that to Will Hays which is I am curious to what you think of him now because he really does, I mean Will Hays is you now like him to not he is an important figure. Guess we will see it, but as I said it also gives the play Will Hays and the rise of conservatism in Hollywood gives the play a real conflict in the centre of it for all of these characters who otherwise who just want to be movie stars and artists and express themselves and let this very glamorous life he is the sort of every play needs a conflict and Will Hays is the conflict on top of the murder mystery. I think the Will Hays character actually makes it a play and not a you know a law and order episode.
Beth: So, as you are approaching kind of the final version of Hollywood what are you feeling most satisfied with or most proud of about this production?
Joe: I think its unique. I don’t think anyone seen a play quite like this in both its production and the story. I can assure you there weren’t 20 scripts that was competing with here that took place during the silent movie era. I think its unique and it has hopefully a lot of wit like old movies when they started having dialogues especially the early black and white ones have and I think you know these characters are very compelling because they are larger than life, but they are very compassionate and they are put through the mill in this show and most don’t come out too well. Most were sort of destroyed by this scandal one way or another. Even the ones who were perfectly innocent. So, I think it’s really going to be quite the ride and I think ultimately it’s a very touching show which is a weird thing to say about a murder mystery. But I think especially with this cast which is wonderful you know it is going to give you a lot to think about when you leave.
Beth: All right thank you very much.
Joe: All right My pleasure. [Film clip] [00:38:33]
Beth: That was playwright Joe DiPietro. Here is my interview with Director Christopher Ashley. He is also the Artistic Director of the La Jolla Playhouse. You are currently working on a production of a play called Hollywood. Tell me about this time frame and kind of how the play references Hollywood itself and movie making?
Chris: So, the play Hollywood is set in 1922 in the world of silent films and it was kind of a famous case in its day. It was one of the big celebrity murders, famous the way the OJ trial was famous in our lifetimes. Lesser known now but it was a huge media event. The death of a silent film director. William Desmond Taylor and everybody in Hollywood was a suspect at some point. Mabel Normand, she was quite famous from kind of getting pies in the faces, maxim movies and kind of child star at the moment Mary Miles Winter was kind of big candidate for being the killer and his butler and a former valet and all kinds of different people were at some point in the cross hairs of the press and it’s kind of noir who done it and at the same time as Hollywood is trying to figure out who killed this director, Will Hays arriving and he has just been appointed a Head of the Motion Picture Association of America and if you know your Hollywood history. You know he went on to create something called the Code. Which was a real censorship it was a very strict set of rules about what you could show and not show in Hollywood movies. So, basically early days of movies, movies were vert alive had like really could show physicality and sensuality and drug use was shown. Really the full spectrum of American life was on screen, but once the Hays code came in movies turned into sort of Doris Day ethic. So, we are watching a man arriving in Hollywood who is going to clamp down the Sodom and Demure aspects of Hollywood and make sure that everything that comes out of Hollywood is clean as a whistle. So, it’s a moments of Will’s kind of cesspool, drugs and murder and everyone is sleeping with everybody. Hollywood was a rough and randy place. There is a guy who is arriving to clean it up. [Film clip] [00:41:04]
Beth: And Will Hays is actually kind of the character that takes you through this story, correct?
Chris: Yes, he ends up being the narrator of the show. This guy from Indiana who is the post master general before he was brought out to Hollywood really like the most red state person imaginable is brought in to kind of govern Hollywood and he is the eyes we see the show through.
Beth: Talk about the style the play is done in because there are moments when it is kind of being on a movie set like a silent movie?
Chris: Yeah, directing this is sort of a Directors dream the show weaves in and out of silent film. So, we see the murder as though it was silent film murder and then there is different people tell you who the suspect is, you keep seeing the murder from different people’s perspective, but it always kind of falls back into silent film and then back to reality. We have a live pianist on stage who is scoring it very much the way a silent film would be scored. It’s very fun to kind of figure out how in the current stage vocabulary do you say silent film and for many years you say this strobing idea right like you throw a strobe at it and you know it’s an early film. It feels too familiar to me. So, we are actually playing around with … whenever we are in a silent film we project onto actors all the imperfections of hairs and little blemishes that old film gets. So, suddenly people have that old film look to them, actually projected onto their skin which is incredibly fun. We also have a group of actors who are incredibly confident in navigating between really kind of grounded naturalistic acting and the very expressive and motive 1920’s film style. So, for an actor it’s a real meal. They get to act kind of across the whole spectrum of styles and our designers are having a field day.
Beth: You talked about how you have Will Hays coming in trying to clamp down on Hollywood. Is this also kind of the cult of celebrity too?
Chris: Very much so, this is a moment… the moment I think America figured out Movie stars are sexy, interesting, fascinating, fun and we are going to be interested in every tiny detail of their lives. So, it was kind of the moment that you know photo play and leader life magazine were all kind of deeply involved in reporting the lives of these movies stars and they became they had no privacy shortly from 1922 on, paparazzi became a huge thing. No matter when you go out, out into the world. You are constantly being photographed and there is a very aggressive barrage of the people who want to take your picture and publicize you. [Film clip] [00:43:57] and definitely this was the beginning of the American cult of celebrity.
Beth: Now another thing that happens after Will Hays coming in is this notion of the morality clause. How does that come into play in this story?
Chris: Will Hays was actually in life brought into Hollywood because there was a big backlash against Hollywood and there was sense like religious groups many kind of middle American kind of social groups and political action groups were very upset that Hollywood was basically pedaling smut. As a sense they were basically high class pornographers and at the lives that they were living was very kind of rude as well. So, in the last in this election when Ted Cruz talks about New York values that’s the same impulse then as now. This idea that Hollywood and New York are someone suspect they give themselves too much permission and there was a really ground swell of angers and really like descending box office at this moment in the 20’s, which feels very much like a lot of the forces that are fuelling the Trump campaign currently. There is a sense right now that all the politicians are having to deal with how angry and upset Americans are in a sense that something has gone awry that’s very much true in the 20’s as well. So, Hays was the guy supposed to come in and create a sense for America that the movies are on their side and are cleaner and more moral than the things they have seen before.
Beth: And how have you been familiar with this the murder case of William Desmond Taylor before Joe brought you this play?
Chris: I know a little bit about it. There is a great graphic novel about the murder that’s been around for 20 or 30 years that I really love. If you watch late night television you probably would have come across it, but definitely if you say about this murder, most people don’t know about it anymore. It’s really kind of receded into the mists of history, but it was the biggest event ever in its moment and it really does rhyme and resonate with the world that we live in today.
Beth: So, did you do any research into the case itself or did you just work off of the text of the play?
Chris: There are more research books in the rehearsal room than you can believe. The walls are covered with pictures of the actual movie stars, the actual figures the DA’s the studio heads are very wonderful dramaturgs Shirley Fishman has been kind of dealing out biographies and different research materials. The cast has delved deep into it and at this point they are all much more expect on the individual points of history and fact in their character’s life than I am. So, they are constantly bringing wonderful new tit bits that they discovered in one of the biographies that they read over night.
I definitely dug into it but one of the things that’s amazing about this case is some much was written about it and all of it disagrees with itself. Like the fact about what were the facts incredibly subjective the police really bungled the investigation from the first moment they let the studios come in and kind of clean up the crime scene. So, nobody got into trouble who was an employee. So, there was like no finger prints. The body was moved all the letters and all the like his personal correspondence was taken from the house. So, definitely the question of what really happened is a fantastic guessing game and very hard to pin down the actual fact.
Beth: This play is not in its final form right at this point in time. So, what’s its process like of fine tuning it as you go along?
Chris: So, it’s a brand new play. This is a world premiere production and what that means that the playhouse is every day in rehearsals Joe is rewriting. We are restaging the rewrites; it’s very much an evolving script every single day. I would say a 100-page script we probably had 400 pages of rewrites in 2 weeks, what does that mean every page has changed 4 times. The actors love being part of the creation of a new play and really kind of the character is being written to respond to how they are acting it, which is big fun for the actors. The stage management is kind of pulling their hair out. They are trying to organize the many, many you know 100’s of pages that are being generated every 30 seconds and it is one of those great experiences were your creating something absolutely new where the playhouse gets to be greenhouse for you know a new seedling and where the author is incredibly both excited and respectful about what the actors are doing and very much vice versa. I mean the actors love acting for Joe and the Joe arrives the next day with a scene that’s takes all of the strengths of what they were doing and also great new opportunities. So, the beginning of the day when we do rewrites has a slightly Christmas morning feeling to it every day.
Beth: And tell me about the role of William Hays and how that has evolved during this process, because he is a really interesting character for me it’s interesting because you know I kind of vilified him because he brought in the code and cracked down on the movies and so having him as the central character is really interesting and do you present him as you know charming, likeable? Talk a little bit about the evolution that character has gone through.
Chris: Yeah, Will Hays, I too like I started this process thinking Will Hays is the Devil. You know like he was the censoring Chief of Hollywood of half a century, but the actor has taken a very kind of human approach and the writing is you are watching this guy accumulate power but when he walks on stage at the beginning of the show there is kind of a Jimmy Stewart, Ah, shucks I am so lucky be here, I am so impressed. I am such a fan. You know he really enters the play with a great degree of charm and humility and as the play goes on, he sheds both of those things.
Beth: And how is the actor Patrick Kerr plays him, so how… what kind of part did he play in evolving that character? What kind of input did he have?
Chris: You know Patrick has … I have worked with him many times over 30 years and we were both at Yale ay roughly the same time. He brings, he has done incredible amounts of research. So, he really knows the history of Hays and bring that into the rehearsal room. He also one of those actors that can really make anything work. You know his incredible ingenuity and incredible craft, sense of humor and depth of humanity that is really startling. So, if it’s not working on Patrick that you know there is something that you actually have to grapple with in the writing which is actually the great way to work on new writing you can really depend on that actor to bring out everything that’s there and he is so excited to work on anything new and if you don’t change it, he will come back and like spend every night working and reworking it until he has squeezed every bit of juice out of the orange of the text.
Beth: And what appealed to you in particular about deciding to put this play on?
Chris: I love the period. I personally love the who done it aspects of the murder mystery. I also think there is something about the 1920’s and here we are almost a 100 years later that seem like a version of the same moment. There is this sense that America has gone off the rails. The Americans are angry and that something has got to change and got to change really soon. Like it’s almost that pre-revolutionary feeling and I turn on the television every day and watch these politicians trying to channel that anger of the American people and I think that’s this play it’s really about the 20’s and really about a murder mystery, but there is also something that seems very familiar about the moment and it’s exciting to also explore the 20’s while you get to explore the current world.
Beth: All right. Well, thank you very much.
Beth: That was Director Christopher Ashley. Now, for my interview with actor Patrick Kerr, who plays Will Hays. You may also remember him as the geeky Noel Shempsky from TV’s Frazer show. [Film clip] [00:52:36] You play Will Hays in the new play Hollywood. Tell me about what you feel about this character? How do you describe him?
Patrick: He is a deep conservative and he is from Indiana. So, he has a very strong conservative background. He was the Post Master General of the United States. So, he went to school at in southern Indiana in Wabash County. He went to Wabash college which is one of the only colleges still exists that are exclusively a men’s college, which is pretty interesting and I have been watching videos on YouTube stuff about Wabash college and seeing these tours and you know this Southern Indiana people have a little bit of a southern accent which is interesting, but it’s close to Louisville and its between Louisville and Indianapolis. So, I have been interested in who is this guy and what makes him tick. He is like deeply religious, deeply ambitious and he sort of a he is smarter than… he hides his intelligence in a Gee Willikers Gosh, Oh Golly, You know kind of persona. Which is really fun to play as an actor, but he is he has that kind of fire inside that people who are truly moved by passion, you know have.
He is sort of a… if he were today he would be a member of the tea party don’t know if he would be an absolute fundamentalist because he would truly be a literal interpretation of… but perhaps he would be. But he is certainly a puritan, very smart, I think he has a lot of short comings in his sort of world view. I think he isn’t very inclusive. There is a little scene he has with a guy who has foreign and he has a suspicion of foreigners I think and he has a bit of contempt for people who are libertines sexually and people who are not god fearing. Salt of the earth mid-American kind of guy. He is that guy with a brain.
Beth: The scene that you were just doing, you were kind of spurring a bit with the police detective.
Patrick: Right, right. He was actually the District Attorney.
Patrick: He goes to the District Attorney to there has been a murder a famous Hollywood Director has been murdered. It’s the scandalous murder of William Desmond Taylor which I guess happened in 1922. And it rocked Hollywood it was on the heels of the Fatty Arbuckle travesty What the playwright Joe DiPietro has done is had Hays sort of at the same time coming in sort of trying to solve maybe be at least interested in sort of who committed this murder. The murder has never been solved. People would say that it has been covered up and stuff like that but he has his suspicions and Hays is meeting the District Attorney and he discovers in the scene that the District Attorney has really sort of not done very good police work. When the body was found of this famous director and it smells a little bit like the District Attorney is in the pocket of the movie studios which he was, seems to be. So, he has a very strong interest in protecting all the movie people in sort of being indented in this crime.
Beth: And what do you enjoy in playing this character?
Patrick: I like him because he is so different than I am. He is so different. He sorts of like hides his intelligence like in Gee Shucks Golly, Kind of thing and I am just the opposite I try to always seem much more intelligent than I am. So, I like that about him. He is very different. His political views are completely than I he is very, very conservative and I am the opposite. He has a very strong faith which I don’t. I am not, I wouldn’t say I am an atheist but I don’t … I have nothing but questions. I don’t feel like I understand God and I think this guy Will Hays feels he understands God and knows God’s intention for us, which I don’t presume to do.
Beth: It in interesting having Will Hays kind of be the character that guides us through this because most people if they are familiar with it at all probably have this vilified image of him oh that’s the guy who brought all that censorship into Hollywood. So, how is it being this character that weaves through here and do you think that he is a character that audiences are going to like or find appealing?
Patrick: Yeah, I think he is and I think he is funny and I think he is very much a man of the people. There’s this sincerity to him that is he is truly committed to what he is sort of doing and the truth of the matter is that the reasons he was able to… he brought all this censorship in and stuff like that in a way he helped Hollywood because Hollywood was sort of going through a very hard time and because of all this scandal America wasn’t ready for that. Hollywood was a product that was too illicit, too elitist, too permissive, the atmosphere for the average American in the middle of the country that’s who you are making your movies for and the people in the middle of the country this time were finding Hollywood immoral.
So, it was actually in the producer’s interests to sort of tone down the content of movies to have a more broad based appeal to the country that was very Christian at the time. Very Christian and very sort of not permissive were as Hollywood was an excessive kind of before the Hays code, I mean there was a lot of… I mean you can see old silence where there is a lot of nudity and there is a lot of sort of drug abuse and prostitution and anything went. I think that America started to sort of say we don’t want this there were strikes called. There were boycotts of movies made by religious organizations. There were complaints registered by the catholic church you know all the churches. So, Will Hays actually at least at the beginning was doing sort of the industry a favor whether he was sort of doing the artistic sort of freedom a favor is questionable and as it snowballed as time went on. When it became like a little tube later like it escalated in the 40’s and the 50’s and you could see Lucy and Ricky had to have twin beds and absurd rules trying to legislate more absurd rules like if you are going to sit on a bed. If two people are on the bed there has to be one foot on the floor at all times. Those kind of like really minute laws legislating morality become absurd, but in the beginning it may have been a raining and it might have been necessary. At least for me the actor sort of playing the part I have to convince myself is that’s what is the case.
Beth: You talk about how he kind of brought the level of censorship to movies, but in addition to what was on the screen part of what he did to was the notion of the morality clause for actors also.
Patrick: All right, yes, yes. That’s a good question. That’s a little harder to swallow sort of legislating people’s personal lives which he did there was a moral clause that he brought into being that every contract of every motion picture player had to sort of sign a morals clause and I know that in today’s day and age. Now, there are still these kinds of things that are being done to people like sort of teachers and stuff. I have a friend whose mother is a teacher and she decide to retire. She is of a certain age. She is close enough but she could have continued but now they are instituting a similar kind of thing for her to sort of like sign and she morally objects to it, on the grounds that my personal life is my personal life and I am not sort of making a promise about my personal life. It does not effect in any way my ability as a teacher and by extension we could say any artist would say.
I know wonderful actors who are completely immoral and you know people who have a lot of excesses in their life and they can’t save any money or maybe get loaded way too much and they are brilliant actors you know what I mean. I don’t think art particularly lines up with morality and a clean living you know. If it were the case, you know it’s too performable you can’t put your fingers on it that way.
Beth: Well, thank you very much.
Beth: Thanks for listening to another addition of the KBPS Cinema junkie podcast. I am off to Monsterpalooza and hope to bring back some interviews for you. Then next week it’s the TCM Film Festival, Mecca for all those who think of cinemas as their churches. Remember to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and to leave us a review. You can also find Cinema Junkie at kpbs.org/junkiepodcast so till our next film fix I am Beth Accomando. Your resident cinema junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place