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Paul Rudnick and His Coastal Elites

The dramatist describes his star-filled HBO project about "our national nervous breakdown."

From stage works like Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told to films including Sister Act and In & Out, Paul Rudnick has proved time and time again that he's one of the master comedy writers of our time, and one who's not afraid to hide a big, beating heart behind all the laughs.

This weekend, we get to experience the latest laugh-out-loud, big-hearted Rudnick comedy, HBO's Coastal Elites. With a jaw-dropping cast made up of Bette Midler, Dan Levy, Issa Rae, Sarah Paulson, and Kaitlyn Dever, the monologues that make up this work will air Saturday, September 12, at 8pm ET. Rudnick promises that, even if you don't agree with the politics, "I don't think anyone can resist those actors."

Paul Rudnick
(© David Gordon)

Tell me about the origin of this project. I know it was supposed to be performed at the Public Theater, and there are a lot of references to the Public in it.
I started writing the whole thing about a year ago. It just poured out of me. It was so in response to our national nervous breakdown and the fact that everyone I know is angry and heartbroken all the time. At first, I wasn't even thinking of what the final form would be. These characters just wanted to be heard. After I'd written the first batch of them, our wonderful director, Jay Roach, came onboard, and he was going to stage them in front of a live audience at the Public Theater, but it would be filmed for HBO. The divine coincidence is that all the references to the Public and the actual locations were there long before staging it there was even a possibility.

My mom, which is very much who Bette's character is a tribute to, lived near the Public, went there all the time, and she would go to that Starbucks on Astor Place. Having the show staged at the Public seemed like fate. The pandemic made that impossible, but then HBO and our production team had an idea about filming it remotely.

I'm sure that process was a first for you.
I kept trying to compare it to theater rehearsals or shooting a movie, but it becomes both of those experiences distilled. When you're shooting a movie, there are hundreds of people on the set, there's a lot of downtime, you're schmoozing people, we had none of that. And when you're rehearsing in a theater, you can rehearse another scene, you can take a walk around the block, you can have run-throughs. In this, the total focus was on one actor at a time and these lengthy, wildly emotional speeches.

The safety of everyone involved was the most essential element. We got a Covid adviser and made sure that everyone was quarantined and tested, and then we shot the pieces all over the country. Jay is in California, I'm in New York, the actors are all over the map. It was very unexpected and very exciting, and it still remains theatrical in the best way. The pieces were always intended to be monologues, and when you add the intimacy of the camera, it's kind of like you're even closer. It's the best seat in the house.

How much updating did you do to the individual monologues after the decision was made to film remotely?
Quite a bit. I was very grateful that I could include elements of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, and how they impact these characters lives. I wanted it to feel like the most immediate time capsule. The actors are not just talented but all really smart, and, like Dan Levy and Issa Rae, are great writers. They were wonderful about sharing ideas. Jay also has the ideal background for the piece. He directs these world-class comedies like the Austin Powers series, but also has such political chops from Recount and Bombshell and Game Change. I really valued their input.

Was this the cast that was going to do it at the Public? Did you really get all of these folks to sign on for a long run?
It was going to be, not a full run, but a week of performances. Usually when you shoot theater for film, you shoot it first with an audience and then without an audience, so you can have the camera people onstage as well. I think that's how they did it with Hamilton and the other plays and musicals that have been shot, not just as archival records.

It was mostly serendipitous. Bette had become very interested in the role and was trying to make her schedule work to do it at the Public. She was shooting other projects at the time. Once shooting remotely became a possibility, we made up a ridiculous dream list of people who we'd kill for and never get. And they all said yes. It was the wildest kind of luck. When I try to think about what this particular cast shares...They're insanely hilarious. They're comic masters. But they're also astonishing actors, so they can go from the most highly skilled comedy to heartbreak within two syllables and that's what I always dream of for anything I write. Whatever people think of the piece and the politics of it, I don't think anyone can resist those actors.

It must have been surreal to watch them all perform over Zoom.
We used this software called QTake to film, and then at the same time, Jay and I could talk to each other and the actors over Zoom, and then on top of that, Jay and I would text each other during filming. When these actors got going, Jay and I would text each other like we were in middle school. The number of exclamation points and O-M-Gs. It was thrilling. They'd shoot these in single takes. It was like watching an Olympic event. I remember, at the end of Bette's, Jay and I were just floating. She turned to us on Zoom, and said "Is that OK?" And we both tried to leap through the camera and say, "You have no idea how OK that was!"

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