Theater News

Polly Draper’s Labor of Love

The TV and stage star discusses the joys and tribulations of making her new film, The Tic Code.

Polly Draper and Christopher George Marquettein The Tic Code
Polly Draper and Christopher George Marquette
in The Tic Code

“That which doesn’t destroy me will make me strong” might well be the motto for Polly Draper, who spent five arduous years bringing a very personal independent movie to the big screen. Despite the kind of resistance that would deter (if not crush) most first-time filmmakers, the screenwriter, co-producer and star of The Tic Code–all of whom answer to the name Polly Draper–stayed true to her vision and made the very movie she set out to make. The Tic Code opens on August 4 with awards from film festivals all over the world and a bubbling buzz about its unique story and iconoclastic vision.

Draper is most famous as one of the stars of the landmark TV show Thirtysomething. Among theatergoers however, she is known as a hardworking actress who has appeared in more than 100 productions. You might have seen her in the Obie-Award winners Top Girls and Rum and Coke at the Public Theater, or Crazy He Calls Me on Broadway. More recently, she was in John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and a Bone and replaced Natasha Richardson in the Broadway production of Closer.

In 1989, Draper made a guest appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show and met her future husband: Michael Wolff, the program’s bandleader. We mention this because it played a pivotal role in Draper’s future filmmaking. As the couple began dating, Draper thought Wolff (a jazz pianist) was acting strangely. “I didn’t know what it was,” she tells us. “At first, he was laughing at all my jokes, which was great. But then I said things that weren’t all that funny, and he laughed at those things, too. I waited a little while before I asked him what that was all about; maybe it was the second or third date.” Wolff told Draper that he had Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder. To his surprise, the news didn’t scare her off.

Years later, when casting about for an idea for a screenplay, Draper thought of writing a film about Tourette’s. “Michael said, ‘Please don’t write about it,’ ” she relates. “He was very closeted about it. He thought people weren’t noticing.” Later, he changed his mind and embraced the idea after his 10-year-old cousin started showing symptoms of the disorder. Famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks (author of Awakenings) describes Tourette’s as “characterized by an excess of nervous energy and a great production and extravagance of strange motions and notions: tics, jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses, outlandish kinds of play.”

Polly Draper and Gregory Hinesin The Tic Code
Polly Draper and Gregory Hines
in The Tic Code

Draper soon discovered that it was easier to convince her husband about making the movie than it was to convince the studios. There were a lot of obstacles. “The interracial romance was stalling people,” she says. In the movie, Draper plays the single mother of a gifted child (Christopher George Marquette) with Tourette’s. She falls in love with a black jazz musician (Gregory Hines) who also has the disorder.

“They wanted it to be a white guy,” Draper says, shaking her head. “They showed me graphs that, if it’s an interracial romance, you get zero points on the foreign charts; but, if you have two white people in a romance, then you get lots of points. It all cut down to these numbers. I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but it’s very important to the movie that he’s black, even though being black is not his issue. He’s the king of his world, and interracial romances are very common in the jazz world. He doesn’t have any hang-ups about his blackness. His hang-up is about something else–the Tourette’s Syndrome. That’s the thing he’s really ashamed of, but he throws it off on being black.’ ”

The irony is that, by virtue of having Gregory Hines attached, the film got some hefty funding. (The Tic Code also stars stage and screen vets Camryn Manheim, Fisher Stevens, and Carol Kane.) But the obstacles continued. Though executives said they loved the movie, they wanted to change it. “They were distressed that it was Tourette’s Syndrome,” Draper says, shaking her head again. “They thought it was too weird and it would freak people out too much. That was hard for me to take, because my husband has it and I didn’t think it was weird. I thought it was fascinating, and I thought it was an important part of the movie.” Some of the execs suggested changing the character’s Tourette’s Syndrome to a drug addiction; Draper still can’t believe that one!

Another reason it took so long to make the movie was the fact that a child is its star, yet The Tic Code is not a children’s movie. “It’s an adult movie,” Draper says. “There’s a romance, swearing, adult issues. They didn’t really know what category to put it in. That’s what makes the movie so interesting, but so hard to sell–at least up, until now. They were all marketing concerns.”

Rather than keep fighting, why didn’t Draper simply adapt her screenplay for the theater? “I didn’t think it would work as a play,” she answers thoughtfully. “It’s so much more dramatic to see the tics in close-up. It would have to be done in such an extreme way if it were on stage.” Draper adds, laughing: “I’ve just finished writing a play that everyone says should be a movie.” (Titled Getting into Heaven, the play recently had a reading in Williamstown.)

The Tic Code took a heavy blow when director Norman René, who had committed to making it, became ill and died of AIDS. The movie is dedicated to him. Draper eventually settled on Gary Winick to direct her work. Still, the battle wasn’t over.

“There was pressure to turn it into a cable film,” Draper recalls. “As soon as you have a disease in something, it becomes a ‘disease of the week’ movie. But there are no trips to the doctor in this film, no lengthy explanation of Tourette’s. In fact, it isn’t really about Tourette’s. At the end of a ‘disease of the week’ movie, you’re glad you don’t have that disease. That’s not what you take away at the end of The Tic Code. You look at it and say, ‘This is about me.’ ”