The Politics of the Adapted Screenplay
The author of the play that became George Clooney's The Ides of March talks about the journey from unknown campaign worker to Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
Beau Willimon doesn't like the word "cynical." "I was after authenticity," says the writer behind Farragut North and its subsequent film adaptation, The Ides of March, which competes with four other films for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards on Sunday. "And if that makes you cynical, or you think that's a cynical take, I think that's more in your viewing than anything else."
He's had little reason to be cynical lately. A Columbia graduate and longtime aspiring writer ("I was watching my friends from high school earning a six-figure salaries, and I was trying to make stories"), Willimon eked out a living at factories and coffee shops until the script for his unproduced play, Farragut North, caught the eyes of both George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio. The film, eventually retitled The Ides of March, came out last October to positive reviews and a final worldwide gross of nearly $70 million.
As the writers behind The Ides of March prepare to compete at the Academy Awards, The Atlantic interviewed Willimon about the origins of the story, the process of adapting his work for the silver screen, and the overlap between contemporary politics and Hollywood:
Spoilers for The Ides of March to follow.
Your background is in politics. Were the people you'd worked with concerned when they heard you were writing a play on this subject?
A lot of them didn't even know I was a playwright, and I didn't work on any campaigns thinking, "Oh, I'm going to use this for some kind of material." I worked on the campaigns because I believed in the candidates, and I wanted to see them get elected. And I was so obscure and unknown as a writer. I don't think anyone was shaking in their boots if they heard I was writing a play about it.
Let's talk about adapting the play for the screen. How did your co-writers, George Clooney and Grant Heslov, first come to the project?
When I first wrote the play in 2004, I sent it to about 40 theaters across the country on my own. I didn't have an agent at the time. Months and months and months went by. A lot of them didn't even respond at all, and those who did said "thanks but no thanks." So I figured "all right, this isn't the one," and put the play back on the shelf.
Why did you take it off the shelf again?
I teamed up with my current agent, and he read my work and wanted to send it out. I said, "Good luck. Maybe you'll have better luck than I did." And he did. I think part of it was the fact that an agent was sending it out, and part of it was it was getting close to two years out until the 2008 presidential election. Politics was in the air, it was a very important election for obvious reasons, we were at war. And I'd like to think a little bit of it had to do with the play connecting with readers, and people actually liked it.
So at that time you weren't trying to make it as a film?
I first teamed up with Jeff Richards, who produced Spring Awakening and Homecoming. He came out to lunch with me and said, "I want to put your play on Broadway." So boldened by that, we sent out the play to L.A. I don't know exactly how—I still haven't been able to figure it out—but somehow it made it into the hands of the folks at Warner Brothers. I got that fairytale phone call from my agent one day: "Look, Warner Brothers wants to option your play into a movie, and by the way, George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio's companies want to produce. How does that sound?" I probably didn't respond with actual words—I think it was more like sounds.
Were you brought on to the adaption right away? Was it always the idea you'd adapt your own play?
Yes. That was part of the deal from the beginning. We said that right away. My agent said, "Beau would like to adapt it," and they said, "Great, we want him to." That's also another rare thing. I wrote the first few drafts of the screenplay, and then George decided he wanted to direct the movie. And when he directs movies, he always likes to have a hand in the script. So I turned my screenplay over to George and his writing partner, Grant, and they did a few drafts.
What were their biggest changes to your original screenplay?
Their biggest contribution was the addition of Governor Morris [the character played by George Clooney in The Ides of March]. In Farragut North, you never see the candidate—he is referred to and mentioned many times, but it was my choice not to make him a character, because I really wanted to focus on the behind-the-scene folks. The folks in the shadows.
Do you think the people behind the scenes matter more than the candidates they work for?
I think of a candidate, really, as an idea. Barack Obama is an idea. Mitt Romney is an idea. And that idea is supported, created, shaped, molded, framed presented to the world by dozens of people. There were practical matters, too. You could only have six or seven characters [in the play]—beyond that, it can quickly become unproducable.
Is that something you changed in your early drafts of the screenplay?
In my first few drafts, I added a lot more characters. But you still only saw the candidate in glimpses, only in the background, a short scene here or there. George and Grant made Governor Morris much more essential to the plot. And they shifted the affair [with Molly, the intern played by Evan Rachel Wood] from Paul Zara [the senior campaign manager played by Philip Seymour Hoffman] to the Governor. In the play, Molly has the affair with Paul. They made a bold choice there. I think that was their biggest contribution. And, you know, I think it was a good one.
Were there any changes made that you didn't like?
Nothing that I regret... The scene with Stephen and the waiter [from Farragut North] is a part of the play that I've always loved, because at that point in the play we've been following the political operatives, and their staffs, and their interns so closely and then there's this waiter. The waiter pops to the foreground and reminds us why all of this is actually supposed to matter. That politics does affect each and every one of us—and some of us more than others. An election really can change people's lives, for better or for worse.
Why was it cut?
The way we tackled that [theme] in the movie was more visual. You actually saw these events. You saw people's faces. You saw shots of Denny's, and Phillips 76, and a Target, and a Walmart. It came to be more texture than a character, an in stage I couldn't really create that texture—it had to happen through a person.
As you were adapting the play, did you have an ideal cast in mind?
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At the time, I was thinking of George Clooney as Paul [the character eventually played by Philip Seymour Hoffman] and Leo DiCaprio as Stephen [the character eventually played by Ryan Gosling]. That seemed like the natural fit, and there was the assumption—openly talked about by both of the production companies that they both wanted to be in it—so before making Governor Morris a bigger role, the role that naturally seemed to make sense for George was Paul. Obviously, Leo is an amazing actor, and I don't know exactly why he wasn't able to do the movie. But Ryan was an incredible choice. Just as it's almost impossible to imagine there not being a Governor Morris played George, it's really inconceivable for me to think of The Ides of March without Ryan.
You certainly assembled an impressive cast.
Only George could have done that. I mean, all those people assembled, on one screen, to work for scale.
Having worked in both worlds, how similar is the world of Hollywood to the world of politics?
There's a saying—that Washington DC is just Hollywood for ugly people—and I think there's some truth to that. Politics is theater. A campaign is trying to tell a story. A candidate is playing a role. They're trying to create a narrative. And in the same way that a piece of theater or a movie wants the audience to applaud at the end, politics is supposed to win people over, convince them of a world, suspend their disbelief. Present a worldview. Candidates who campaign do the same thing—and they're trying to win a vote.
Do prefer working in one to the other?
I was always a writer. I had a lot of fun working on campaigns, and I may work on a few in the future, but I was able to do that because I wasn't successful as a writer, so I had some time on my hands. I'm lucky right now to make my living as a writer—and a pretty decent living at that—and as long as I can keep doing that, then my contribution to the world of politics will just be like everyone else's: casting my vote on election day.