Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Delightful Shudders with Paul Rudnick
Combined Edition of 12-16-09 Windy City Times Interview and 11-27-09 Chicago Tribune Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The urbane Rudnick (portrait by Michael Mahoney-Hat Head Studios) and the cover for his new collection of essays
Openly gay Paul Rudnick writes funny. For over 20 years he has contributed laugh out loud quips in essays for the New Yorker and
other periodicals, written hit stage shows like “I Hate Hamlet” and “Jeffrey,” and given Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack,
Bette Midler, and a host of other comedic actors a steady arsenal of zingers in screenplays for Hollywood comedies including “The
Addams Family Values,” “Sister Act,” and “In & Out.” With the recently released collection of essays “I Shudder,” Rudnick delivers
a compendium of all of these – a series of David Sedaris-lite autobiographical essays (including a very funny piece about his
enviable dietary quirk which consists almost exclusively of candy), introduces the world to Rudnick’s latest fictional creation Elyot
Vionnet, a 63 year-old Manhattan residing aesthete with impossibly high standards, and includes a dryly hilarious overview of his
stage and film writing career.
KNIGHT AT THE MOVIES (KATM): Does “The Addams Family” stage musical now running in Chicago have anything to do with the
movies you worked on?
PAUL RUDNICK (PR): Not really. The Charles Addams estate is very complicated and you get either the rights to the original
cartoons, the TV show or the movies – three separate things and I believe that the show has only the rights to the original cartoons
so they’ve had to create a completely original story which is great. I wish them only the best. I’m not particularly connected to that
show – only I’m kind of a first cousin.
KATM: Would Elyot Vionnet, your new character, “deign” to take in a musical version of The Addams Family?
PR: I think he would be entranced with that certain ghoulish high style of Charles Addams. I think he would be delighted.
KATM: He’s a delightful, instantly recognizable character.
PR: I like to think there’s a little bit of Elyot in anyone who’s ever been so aggravated that they start to have extremely violent
fantasies that they will never, thank God, act upon. I think we all carry a certain level of simmering, irrational rage at the people with
the cell phones and the taxi cab radios that won’t turn off and the triple strollers.
KATM: Any future plans for Elyot?
PR: He certainly will continue. I think I’d like to a next volume of “I Shudder” and continue his exploits because I think he’s only
going to become more outraged, more confident and more thoroughly and delightfully crazy.
KATM: I love that he refuses to identify as gay though he clearly is of, shall we say, that stripe.
PR: He judges people so completely on how much they either please him or get in his way that gender becomes small change. But
there is a boyfriend in Elyot’s future that, of course, as do all his relationships, ends tragically bizarre (laughing). Elyot will meet
someone with even higher standards than his own. You can get to that point, you know, where your taste is so good that you can no
longer breathe (laughs hard).
KATM: The backstory on the writing of “Sister Act” is almost as funny if not funnier than the movie itself. It’s a highlight of the
book. Can you talk about how a nice Jewish gay boy like yourself ended up in a convent?
PR: The idea for “Sister Act” was mine and I had developed it over a couple of years for Bette Midler at Disney and there came a
point, many months and drafts in, when I was having a meeting with a whole slew of executives and Bette Midler and her staff as
well and we were discussing the fine points of a Benedictine order versus a Franciscan order and vows of poverty and chastity and
obedience and I looked around the room and realized that just about everyone there was Jewish, myself included so there was a
certain authenticity lacking and someone said, “You know Paul, for some hand’s on research, you should go to a convent” and Bette
Midler said, “Yes, Paul, go to a convent!” so off I went. So off I went to a convent in Connecticut and spent a few days where I
learned a lot about nuns and convent life – none of which could be used in a Disney comedy (laughs).
KATM: The convent also had a rather celebrated resident, didn’t it?
PR: Yes. There was a starlet there from the late 50s and early 60s named Delores Hart who had worked with Elvis in the movie
“King Creole” and she had eventually given up her acting career and become a nun. I kind of stalked her but I never quite met her
– though I did discover that she had kept up her membership in the Motion Picture Academy so she is, as far as I know, the only
nun who still votes for the Oscars. I know far more nun lore than any Jewish boy has a right to (laughs).
KATM: Did they have any idea why you were there?
PR: When I finally met the mother superior – it was a cloistered order so we spoke through some grill work – she could not have
been kinder or more generous but I thought, “If I say I’m working on a Disney farce about a tramp in a habit” I would go straight to
hell. So I lied and said, “I’m working on a novel about a woman who is seeking a more prayerful, sacred life behind convent walls.”
KATM: “In & Out” is a very funny gay mainstream comedy – one of the few to make money.
PR: Thank you. One of the insane things about it is that it was set in the Midwest in Indiana and it was shot entirely on the east
coast in New Jersey and on Long Island and we just always had to be careful not to turn the cameras around to reveal the ocean.
KATM: You have worked as a script doctor on several comedies including “The First Wives Club.”
PR: Yes, that was a lunatic project. When I came onboard it was actually not intended to be a comedy. It was quite serious and the
Diane Keaton character had a troubled marriage partially due to the fact that the couple were raising a retarded child and I was told
to make the retarded child into a lesbian daughter. And of course my initial reaction was, “A retarded lesbian would cover every
political base” and they said, “We don’t think so” so she became a lesbian and everything got funnier and funnier after that. It was
a textbook example of the “you never know” syndrome in Hollywood because while I was working on the film it seemed so ragged
and so loony that I couldn’t imagine it would ever make sense, let alone be a success but Scott Rudin, the movie’s producer who is a
genius, put the movie together and he said, “Paul, you have got to come to the premiere. I guarantee you will have a good time.”
So I went quite reluctantly and the movie was wildly entertaining and ended of being a big hit. You never know but thanks to those
actresses and Scott Rudin it really came together.
KATM: Bette Midler has said many times that when they went back to make a sequel it was turned down. Do you know anything
PR: Well, there were several attempts. I actually worked on one idea for a sequel that sadly became very inappropriate after 9/11
because it was very New York based and about the mayoral race.
KATM: “I Shudder” has a very telling portrait of gay producer Scott Rudin who is famous for his legendary temper but also has a
heart of gold.
PR: Absolutely. He’s the kind of person which fascinates me and who I often adore because they are these outsized personalities –
they’re sort of helplessly who they are – and you can both enjoy them, you can be terrified by them and you can learn an enormous
amount from them. Because especially if you’re going to be the kind of guy who actually gets movies made or plays produced you
can’t be a shrinking violet. Look at this track record – it speaks for itself.
KATM: Can we talk for a moment about what might be your Hollywood Waterloo?
PR: (laughs hard) I can’t imagine what that might be.
KATM: Otherwise known as “The Stepford Wives.” Now I happen to like parts of it quite a lot.
PR: You happen to be so terribly wrong (laughs). It’s just sort of an ungodly mess and that’s funny because there were so many
talented people involved and it just went…south. When you’re working at that scale, with that kind of money and that size of
moviemaking, when things start to turn for the bad it’s very hard to yank that train back on track. I do apologize to moviegoers.
Then, on top of being a very troubled movie, “Stepford” was mutilated by the studio which never helps much either. I’m not trying in
any way, God knows, to defend the movie but the reason it actually makes no sense at all is because the studio decided that it was
too dark for the general audience and they had to lighten the edginess of it. So they took out any logic the film ever possessed. It
was heartbreaking to work on and it’s weirdly difficult to learn from either the successes or the failures in the movie business
because you can never repeat them.
KATM: Have you worked on any movies since?
PR: I did a rewrite on “The Devil Wears Prada” – one of many writers.
KATM: Have you thought about writing another film after your bad experience on “The Stepford Wives?”
PR: I may but that was a little daunting. It did make me think, “Okay, I’m not going to get involved in a situation like that again
until I’m far more sure of my work and of the material.” I’m sure I’ll work on more in the future. It was also time to take a break –
I’d been working kind of nonstop for a few years there and that’s why it was so nice to return to the theatre and to write my book and
ground myself a little more.
KATM: I loved your appearance in The Celluloid Closet – it was the first movie I reviewed – and now I see that you’re in Making the
Boys about The Boys In the Band which I’m dying to see. Can you talk about that for a moment and the importance of being aware
of our gay history when it comes to the arts?
PR: Oh absolutely because both The Celluloid Closet and Making the Boys are wildly entertaining movies on top of being
wonderfully educational. Movie history is always a very popular subject at colleges because you get to watch a lot of movies and it’s
fascinating – especially as progress has speeded up at least a certain amount to see where we were and how far we’ve come.
Certainly, if you’re feeling depressed after Maine or California or any of these desperately awful voting situations and you want to
feel a little better about gay lives and the representation of gay lives you can see how little was even permitted a relatively short
time ago and things are getting marginally better. I think it’s important to remember and it’s important to have a sense of gay
history and gay forebears; to honor the people who got the ball rolling. They can also give you a certain hope for the future.
Remember that wonderful line in Angels in America about “the world only spinning forward” and that applies even to of all places