You've probably seen at least one film written by Scott Z. Burns, and there are a lot of them, across a variety of different genres, too. Take, for instance, the 2007 action flick The Bourne Ultimatum, inspired by Robert Ludlam's novel of the same title. And the comedy caper The Informant! from 2009. How about the medical thriller Contagion or Side Effects?
What do those last three titles have in common? They were all directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh, a frequent collaborator of Burns' for nearly a decade. This month, the Hollywood gents are working together again, this time off-Broadway. Soderbergh is set to direct Burns' play The Library at off-Broadway's Public Theater, which begins March 25.
The drama features rising film star Chloë Grace Moretz (Carrie) as a young woman who survives a school shooting and is willing to tell her story to anyone willing to listen. But her story keeps changing. It was Burns' desire to explore the subject of narrative that propelled him to write the drama. TheaterMania had discussed that exploration with Burns as he began rehearsals.
After years of working in film, you're making your first foray into theater. Was this a planned detour?
It was interesting how this came about. I had read a book, Columbine, that was written by Dave Cullen. [Film producers] Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall had read it as well. We talked about doing it as a movie but everyone felt it was way too dark to get much studio interest. There was one little part of the story that dealt with the aftermath that really haunted me. It somehow felt to me like it wanted to be a play more than it wanted to be a movie.
So the play is based on a true story?
The play was sort of inspired by the story of a woman who survived Columbine, named Val Schnurr. In the aftermath of the shooting, there were great many misconceptions and myths that percolated up out of the grief. I became really fascinated by the notion of narrative, and how, when something happens, there are all these different stories that are clearly influenced and governed by a variety of agendas, and a lot of people's different experiences, and their pain. Around the same time I read Columbine, I read a really great book by Nicholson Baker called Human Smoke, which was this alternative history of World War II that reinforces this notion that participants come up with stories that don't jive with one another, and then we are left to reconcile our differences.
How did Steven Soderbergh get involved?
Steven was aware I had been writing the play and we would talk about this notion of narrative and how most of life comes down to people taking turns telling each other what happened to us. After we finished Side Effects, we went out to lunch, and I was very sad that we were saying goodbye on a movie level. I said, "Would you ever consider directing a play?" He said, "Are you asking?" And I said, "Yeah, I think I am." And he said, "All right, I'm saying yes." It was great for a number of reasons. He's been an incredibly generous collaborator with me for ten years now. The idea to continue and take the shorthand we've developed across to a new medium is really great.
From a writing standpoint, what is the biggest difference you've noticed in working on a theater piece, as opposed to film?
The biggest difference that I can tell you so far is that there is no camera. If you're a director — especially if you're Steven and you operate the camera — the camera becomes a big presence every day. With the elimination of the camera, there's just Steven and I and the actors. The question of, "How is it different to write for the stage than it is for the screen?" I think is better as, "How is it different to write for the stage as it is for the camera?" That's really the missing thing — the camera and the outside world. You don't have those two things in your arsenal, you have to rely more on the actors and more on the words. You also lose the great luxury of editing after the fact. In a sense, rehearsal becomes a stand-in for editing.
How about from an experiential standpoint?
When you sit around in movie meetings, you talk about the experience in a different way. You're almost reluctant to talk about the thematic ideas of a movie, lest someone from a studio come in and laugh in your face. It's an incredibly beautiful thing about theater and that's actually where you start the conversation, at least from a writing standpoint. There's a lot of joy in that for me.