Before a recent live performance held in Manhattan’s Times Center, the film director Jason Reitman told the audience that there were to be no recordings of the event, no cameras and no opportunity to watch it later on YouTube. It was less of a warning than a point of pride – “because nothing”, he said, “is live any more.”
The event was part of a series that started last year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Comprised of six staged read-throughs of classic film scripts including John Hughes’ 1985 American teen-drama The Breakfast Club, Rob Reiner’s romantic adventure The Princess Bride (1987), and the Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, Reitman’s Live Read events soon became some of the most talked-about cultural happenings in LA, with tickets for each event at the 600-seat Bing Theatre selling out within minutes of being posted online, and queues of local residents circling the block for standby seats.
Reitman is the director of the sophisticated dark comedies Thank You For Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009) and Young Adult (2011), which are rare for being both commercially successful and old-fashioned; unlike his father, Ivan Reitman, who directed hits including Ghostbusters (1984) and Kindergarten Cop (1990), Jason Reitman makes films with more witty dialogue than spectacle, which is to say those that are usually overlooked by big studios. (He once said that a Ghostbusters III as directed by him would feature a lot of people sitting around talking about ghosts, without doing any busting.)
The idea for the Live Read series came from Reitman’s “table-reads” – informal gatherings to which he invites Hollywood actor friends to his home to read aloud the scripts he is working on, so that both director and actors can play with a script’s dialogue without the pressure and hassle of camera crews, schedules and budgets.
The real motivation behind the Live Read series, however, was to counter a cultural shift – that, as people increasingly watch films on their laptops and smart phones, the communal experience of going to the movies is being lost. Elvis Mitchell, curator of Film Independent at LACMA and former chief film critic at the New York Times, explained that he wanted to make “each event feel singular – so that, if you’re not in the room, you miss it.”
Trying to explain the success of the series to me, one friend suggested that, for people living in LA who are usually working “in the industry” in one way or another, the idea of a live reading of a film script is “basically their equivalent of experimental art”. But, if a scarcity of live events is symptomatic of LA, the number of literary readings and theatrical performances aimed at bringing people together around art in New York can result, paradoxically, in its own form of social malaise, the nagging feeling that one might be having more fun elsewhere. This, according to Mitchell, is a problem that is affecting people’s experience of films in cinemas everywhere. “You can tell when there’s a slow bit in a movie,” he told me, “because people start checking their iPhones to see which restaurant they’ll be going to after the showing.”
It was fitting, then, that the first Live Read in New York (co-sponsored by Film Independent and the New York Times) should be Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy The Apartment (1960) set in a Manhattan in which people move constantly around each other, wedged side-by-side in offices, elevators, theatres, bars, without ever quite connecting, let alone settling down. In the film C. C. Baxter or Bud (Jack Lemmon) lives alone in a bedsit on 67th street but, hoping for a promotion at the insurance company where he works, lends his apartment to senior colleagues so that they can entertain their mistresses there, while he himself has little luck with Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the office’s elevator girl, with whom he is in love. It’s a film Reitman described as “quintessentially New York, and an influence on most romantic comedies made since.” It is also, as one audience member in the queue noted, responsible for disseminating a linguistic tic still heard today: “Premium-wise and billing-wise,” says one of the company men, “we are 18 per cent ahead of last year, October-wise.”
Unsurprisingly, the crowd waiting outside the Times Center on Manhattan’s 41st street was comprised not of tanned, cap-wearing film-industry people but rather of shirted, bespectacled New Yorkers who might have been either insurance workers or film buffs.
One man, a high-school librarian who had travelled from New Hampshire for the reading (and who said he watched The Apartment every year between Christmas and New Year, when the movie is set, as a “sort of holiday antithesis”) told me that he was interested in how classic films become “iconic, set in stone,” unlike plays, which are constantly being reinterpreted. “Remakes can seem a bit disrespectful,” he said, citing Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which one critic called close to plagiarism.
The identities of each cast member for the reading had been announced via Reitman’s Twitter feed in the days preceding the show. Paul Rudd, an actor known for his parts in the films of “frat pack” director Judd Apatow, among them Anchorman, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and who appeared in the LA Live Read of The Princess Bride in December, would play Bud. Emma Stone, known primarily for roles in romantic comedies such as Superbad and Friends with Benefits, was cast as Miss Kubelik. Sheldrake, the (married) head of personnel with whom Kubelik is having an affair, a part originally played by Fred MacMurray, was the Oscar-nominated actor James Woods (Once Upon a Time in America). Lena Dunham, the 25-year-old auteur of HBO’s hit new series Girls, had been cast to play the ditzy phone operator Sylvia but was unable to at the last moment, so “mumblecore” actor Greta Gerwig (who stars in Whit Stillman’s recent campus comedy Damsels in Distress) had stepped into the breach.
Reitman’s ability to rustle up celebrity casts has been a crucial factor in the success of the Live Reads. In LA in November last year, his staged read-through of The Apartment starred Steve Carrell as Bud, Natalie Portman as Miss Kubelik, and Pierce Brosnan as Sheldrake; in his reading of The Breakfast Club, Andy the Jock was played by James Van Der Beek (still best known for the teen TV series Dawson’s Creek, though about to star, with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, in Reitman’s next film). Sometimes Reitman has used casting to make movie-world in-jokes – as when in the read-through of the sex-satire Shampoo, Kate Hudson took the part of Jill, a part played in the original 1975 movie by her mother Goldie Hawn, or as when Cary Elwes, who had played the romantic lead in the original The Princess Bride, played the villain Humperdinck in the December reading. Other decisions took a more interpretative slant on the original – as when Elvis Mitchell, who produced the 2008 documentary The Black List, cast Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 crime film Reservoir Dogs with an almost entirely black crew of actors including Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard and Laurence Fishburne.
As Mitchell and Reitman soon discovered, actors enjoyed the experience of reading an entire part in one sitting, rather than piecemeal, as they would have to do on a film-set – and they enjoyed, too, that the series had created something of an exclusive club. When Reitman approached the “frat-pack” comedy actor Seth Rogen at the Spear Awards to read the part of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, Rogen agreed immediately, and then flew from Louisiana, where he was shooting a film, for a single night to read the part. “As more actors hear about this,” Mitchell told me, “the more they want to be a part of it.”
On a spring evening at the Times Center, the audience applauded as the actors took their places in an on-stage row of seats. Paul Rudd, wearing a three-piece suit, sat next to the tiny Emma Stone, whose blonde hair was in a 1960s-style ponytail with a sweeping fringe for the occasion. It was hard not to stare at her, which James Woods, perhaps in character, did frequently. The audience applauded Reitman, dressed in the director’s requisite plaid shirt, and offered direction in the form of reading Billy Wilder’s stage directions aloud and looking nervous as Jason Sudeikis took on the voice of the Chinese waiter.
LA audiences, perhaps accustomed to a more pre-packaged kind of celebrity appearance, responded enthusiastically to the unrehearsed performances, particularly, says Elvis Mitchell, to the mishaps. He recalls fondly the moment when Sam Elliott, reading the part of “The Stranger” in The Big Lebowski (a part that he had also played in the Coen brothers’ 1998 original), interrupted himself mid-sentence to say, “I’m sorry, my eyes aren’t as good as they were, let’s start again” – or when Terrence Howard, playing Mr Orange in Reservoir Dogs, spoke over Reitman to declare that he wasn’t ready to die yet.
Gavin Polone, executive producer of TV shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and film industry columnist, suggested that the success of Live Reads might also have something to do with the new public interest in “the making of movies, as opposed to simple celebrity gossip”. In the past films were presented to the audience in their finished state, says Polone, but audiences now expect to see more of the film-making process, from “teasers” before trailers to DVD extras featuring directors’ cuts and interviews.
As the New York event revealed, scripts carry with them the timing, phrasing and mood of the original. Rudd and Stone’s performances were impressive, serious and absolutely evocative of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Behind the stage were a selection of film stills depicting the different settings for each scene, with the pictures of the original actors removed to allow the audience the imaginative freedom to recast the parts in their minds.
The audience hooted at moments that were funny because the script had dated: “The rent is $84 a month,” Reitman read from the description of Bud’s apartment. And sighed at moments that would never age: “Why can’t I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?” asked Stone, to which Rudd responded, “Yeah, well, that’s the way it crumbles – cookie-wise.” The overall effect was comforting, like a jazz riff on a familiar tune. At one moment, the man next to me, who later explained that he had seen the film 20 times, drifted off.
For other members of the audience, the tension of the live event brought out the vulnerability of Wilder’s characters and the unusual darkness of his script, in which Miss Kubelik attempts suicide in Bud’s apartment, having been left there by the treacherous Sheldrake. It’s a film that captures those odd paradoxes of urban living – how easy it is to feel lonely when surrounded by people, and how difficult to find a moment to oneself. According to Mitchell, he and Reitman only noticed after the season of readings had ended that many of the films they had chosen for live readings dealt with “being lonely and vulnerable and having to trust that the relationship to the world will pay off in some way.”
In an early scene – read simply as stage directions by Reitman – Bud, after waiting for hours for a colleague and his mistress to leave his apartment, settles down on his sofa with a ready-meal to watch a film on the television, but finds himself frustrated first by terrible Westerns on the other channels, and then by sponsorship announcements. Finally he turns off the set and goes to bed. Lonely people, Wilder suggests, reach for films as company – but films don’t always make us feel better. The search to have a fulfilling experience of art – not what to watch, but how – remains.
“Film has always worked best when it’s live,” Mitchell concluded. It took me a moment to realise that he was not referring to staged events at all, but rather to that oddly irreplaceable urban experience of sitting in a room with hundreds of strangers, watching the same film together, in silence.
Dirk Maggs on adapting radio for live peformance
“Douglas Adams wrote two radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy before developing the plot in the subsequent five novels. For the show that is about to go on tour [www.hitchhikerslive.com] I have adapted all five books, though the original radio show was very much in my mind during this process.
“In parts the adaptation sounds entirely the same as the radio scripts, but it also adds something to the universe created by Douglas. He was great at ideas but less good at plot, so the only thing I have to provide on occasion is a structure in order to make the thing a story with a beginning, middle and an end.
“The show features the original cast, all performing radio-style, reading scripts into microphones on stage, allowing them to remain like the characters they played 30 years ago. If it were a conventional theatre performance with the actors in make-up and wigs to make them look younger, it would be unconvincing.
“In parts of the books characters go from one reality to another, and that’s trickier to do on stage than it is in the theatre of the mind. We solved that with a rather neat trick involving a lot of physical action that is impossible to communicate on the radio, but I think will make the show funnier. There is a slight pantomime element to the production which obviously wouldn’t be there if we were just recording for radio.
“We are, though, recording the show and making it available online, allowing the production also to encompass the theatre of the mind. The thing about radio is that it bypasses the very literal optic nerve that television and film have to pander to. And of course it sneaks through the side door and paints a picture in your imagination and the scenery is always better.
“There are a lot of issues regarding this feedback loop, having an adapted stage radio show finally appear as a radio show. I think some of the gags will work better visually and some will work better aurally. In all radio shows incorporating live audiences there is often one gag for the audience in the room and another for the audience at home.
“Whether people come to see the stage production, or listen to it online, it’s a great opportunity to introduce new audiences to the books and to the radio series.”
As told to Chay Allen