Jonny Donahoe and Duncan Macmillan Talk Brilliant Things

After seeing the live performance of Every Brilliant Thing at the Barrow Street Theatre, president of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins, brought filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey on board to adapt Duncan Macmillan’s play for television. Here, comedian Johnny Donahoe, who plays the lead in both the play and film, and Macmillan discuss bringing the piece from stage to screen.

HBO: Why did you decide it was important to involve the audience in the performance of Every Brilliant Thing?

Duncan Macmillan: We wanted it to be a conversation with the lights on. Everyone could see each other, everyone could hear each other and everyone could laugh and cry together. The word we kept using was the “gesture” of the piece, as in, let’s not separate us from the audience; let’s do everything together.

Jonny Donahoe: Duncan definitely approached me with that attitude. The idea of trying to be entirely honest and straightforward with the audience, with no barriers or walls is very similar the form that I’m used to as an improviser and a stand-up comedian.

HBO: How did you approach delving into a discussion of depression and suicide within the context of a play?

Duncan Macmillan:
It’s a scary, dark subject that we didn’t want to sentimentalize, but we also wanted to be really honest and helpful about it. We felt it was important to do something that is very rare for British men, which is to talk about emotions. It had to be funny, and it also needed to be open and generous and inclusive of an audience and not scare people off.

Jonny Donahoe: Because the theater is “in the round,” you have this moving set around you of people reacting, engaging, laughing and crying. I’d catch couples taking each other’s hands. That’s why we always insisted it be in the round; it isn’t just that you have to see audience members play characters like “Dad” and “Girlfriend,” you have to be able to see everyone respond to it. It’s where the form meets the content of the piece. Depression is something that affects all of us, whether directly or indirectly, and the only way to deal with it is to be open about it.

HBO: What was it like adjusting the live performance to a documentary film format?

Duncan Macmillan: The thing we talked about with the directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, was how we wanted it to feel like documentary viewers were in the audience, and how we wanted to be aware of the audience as much as possible. We wanted to see that liveness and the playfulness. I haven’t been able to write something like this before and will never again because the variable is hardwired into it. It’s totally down to how Jonny casts people as they’re coming into the theater, how he talks to them and how he creates an atmosphere for people where they feel safe and loved. Literally anything can happen, but the rules are so clear and so gentle that the performance is always wonderful and unpredictable, and tonally, exactly right.

In terms of casting, the audience member who played the dad stands out as a particular star.

Duncan Macmillan: We worried a little bit that he was so perfect, people might actually think he was a plant. We spoke to him afterwards and he said that he was a rabbi and does these speeches every day, so he was totally unfazed by it. It was an incredibly fortunate thing.

HBO: What is the role of music in this piece? Why is it a central part of the storytelling?

Duncan Macmillan: Music is integral. It’s something a lot of people can agree on. Very few people would listen to “Move On Up” and think, “Oh no, I don’t like that. That doesn’t make me feel happy.”

I like the fact that it’s American, predominantly black music, which is being listened to in rainy England by a white man and his son – in this incarnation of the play. Two English men who don’t necessarily express their emotions with much articulacy. Some of it is incredibly upbeat and sexy, and some of it is heart-wrenchingly sad. It was a useful way of building a sense of the father and son’s relationship and how they communicate to each other.

Jonny Donahoe:
Also, the whole play is about sharing. The dad has been sharing music that has helped him with his son, and the boy is sharing the music with the audience. For me, the permeation of that is very beautiful.

HBO: What do you hope viewers of the documentary come away with?

Duncan Macmillan: It comes back to the word we kept using: gesture. We wanted to take the stigma out of talking about your feelings.