What effect did writing "Angels in America" have on your life?
It changed everything in my life. I mean, it gave me a kind of a freedom and chance to really concentrate on my work, in terms of economic security, and it was overwhelming in the amount of attention that it got. I was given a kind of platform for political talk that I didn't have before because I'd written a famous play. And that was fun because I'm somebody who's interested in politics and political talk and political action....
Can you describe the process of getting the play made into a film?
I don't believe that every play must be made into a movie in order to prove its worth. Cary (Brokaw, the executive producer of the play) ...asked me, can I show this to Mike Nichols and I said, "well of course, that would be thrilling, but I can't imagine that he is going to want to do it."
...And I was thrilled that he wanted to do it, and we met and talked and we really got along, as we have continued to get along. I think he's an amazing man. ...anybody who really knows what they're talking about is going to say Mike Nichols and HBO pulled off a kind of a miracle here. This could so easily have not worked, and it worked because everybody committed themselves to it so ferociously, and, astonishingly, without any friction.
Did adapting the play into a film give you more opportunities as an artist?
I made some mistakes that I think people make when they start out writing screenplays. I thought, you know, I have to give the camera angle, and I failed geometry and I don't have any idea of how to do that. It's not something I've ever thought about...but I always felt that was part of what a screenplay is, you have to construct the shots. (And Mike Nichols) said, don't do that. That's what I do. That's what the D.P. does. That's what the designer does. You give us the story and the dialogue and then we'll make that stuff up.
...And there are things that you couldn't do in a play that you can do on film, obviously. I learned about the difference in language. A lot of language from the play was preserved, but I learned that not all of it could be because of the intimacy of the screen experience... you don't have the kind of cooling distance of a theatre space. You don't have an audience watching, (and the need to) sort of refocus its attention over and over again...
(Mike) wanted to have Al and Emma play all these different people. Just like we did in the play. And I thought immediately, okay, this is somebody who gets that there's something in this story about that kind of dream-like thing of seeing the same actors playing different people, giving you the opportunity to think about the similarities...what is the connection between a nurse who keeps telling a patient, "stay put," and an angel who's saying the same thing. Why is Emma playing both of those parts?
And also, it keeps you thinking critically. It engages you in a different part of your brain because you watch Meryl Streep play Ethel Rosenberg and she's astoundingly moving and scary and great, and you're also watching Meryl Streep playing Hanna. I love that, and that's what you get in theatre that you secretly don't get in movies.
...I think there's value to the power of a really, sort of almost overwhelmingly convincing illusion that's sometimes both working and not working at the same time, and I think that's what theatre is about. ...You believe it and don't believe it simultaneously, which engages a certain part of your brain that has to do with being skeptical about the nature of what you're experiencing in life. That's why theater is important. You learn to go out into the world after you see a play that you really loved and look at politics and love and all sorts of other human phenomena in the same way. It's real and yet it isn't.
Do you have a favorite moment from making the film?
I constantly had a kind of "I can't believe this is happening" (feeling). It still happens to me. When I did a Newsweek interview and I'm in a room with Emma Thompson and Al Pacino and Meryl Streep and Justin Kirk and Mike Nichols, and I feel like, what the hell am I doing here? Everyone's sitting there talking to Meryl and I'm thinking, this can't really be happening.
When we filmed the last scene, the epilogue. And it was January. And it was scheduled weeks in advance that we would be filming on the set of the Bethesda fountain. And we all went down and filmed it, and it was literally exactly the day that I had written about. I wrote that last scene in Perestroika, sitting on the head of the fountain, on a day in January when the sun was out but it was cold at the same time, and the sky was incredibly blue, and it was unbelievably beautiful and chilly and all those things.
And as a matter of fact, I think I just wrote that day into the scene, and many years later, fifteen years later, whatever it was, we got together to film this last scene and God and nature cooperated and we had the exact day that the screenplay is describing, it's like, there it was. And it was just so astonishingly moving.
We shot it in very few takes. And the way that it was set up, I'd been watching it on the monitor and I thought, these people are so smart. And that last shot of them going up the stairs and everything... We sort of finished the shot at the end of the day, and the sun was going down. (It was) a lovely, lovely feeling, and I think that was one of the nicest days.
You gave a commencement speech at Vasser in 2002. One of the things that you said to the students there was, "The world will end if you don't act." Do you have any sort of intention that the audiences should see this film and take some sort of action or should be exhorted to some kind of action from watching the film?
I don't believe that it does that. I really don't. And I don't think you should write a play or make movies with that necessarily in mind. I mean, I wouldn't say you should do it or you shouldn't do it. Maybe some people can do it. In my experience, art doesn't have that affect. I think that when you make art you're doing what you do, when you watch art you're engaged with something dreamlike
...And in fact one of the reasons that we need art and value art is that ... it allows you a confrontation with something that's almost too frightening or too upsetting or too wonderful to encounter in waking life, (and) it gives you a safe environment in which you can encounter it. And the safety of the environment is actually quite specific... that you're robbed of action, sitting in the dark, and you're not expected to do anything.
...Even if they're talking to you, they are talking to you as part of a fiction, they're not talking to you. And you talk about it afterwards, but you remember what you want to remember and you believe what you want to believe and you do what you think you need to do with this information that you've got. But the interpretation, the deciphering of it is up to you.... A real work of art, something with real sophistication and complexity and depth is basically asking all sorts of questions. And then you have to find those answers for yourself. If you think the questions are valuable. If they have answers...some questions don't.
What I'd like to believe is that this country is engaged in a great debate. It's always been engaged, and that's what democracy is, really. Different people floating propositions about the meaning and the comforts of life. And then other people responding to those propositions, saying I agree, I disagree. If I agree, then this is what we should do. If I disagree, I propose this as an alternative. I believe that art can be part of that debate.
What I would hope for, (is) that people will watch it and come away with a sense, if not new questions to ask, then at least a sense that you yourself are not the only one asking these questions. If enough people ask these questions they bothered making a whole movie about them. And then you argue with your friends. I loved it, I hated it, I loved this when it happened, this happened because that happened. That kind of dialogue is what one actually can answer.
Do you think the changes over the past ten years culturally and politically will change what people perceive the questions to be in the film?
Yes, the play was written during the Reagan era. It started in 1987-88 when Reagan was still President and it was worked on and developed during the years when the first Bush was President and became a big hit when Clinton was President. And I think part of what made it a hit, in addition to whatever its own intrinsic values are, it became a hit because of extrinsic events. It happened to coincide with the returning and the rejection of Reaganism by the American people when they elected Bill Clinton. And it was performed everywhere on Earth during the course of the year, and it is now coming out on HBO during what, in my opinion, is this kind of appalling and frightening and profoundly dangerous re-occurrence of Reaganism in the form of the second Bush administration.
...It was written long before 9/11 happened. But it is a play with an apocalyptic sensibility. We're still very much children of the millennium. We're a millennial generation. This play, I think... (has) something to say about that.