Torn Pages From a Life

Coleman Hough

Coleman Hough

Recalling posters from what was arguably Hollywood’s
last Golden Age-the 1970s-the poster for Steven Soderbergh’s new,
indie-vibed film, Full Frontal, bears only three key personnel
besides its cast: the director, writer and producers. If you don’t
recognize writer Coleman Hough’s name from her equal billing with
powerhouse Soderbergh, it’s because this is her first produced screenplay.
Her stage plays Angel and Mr. Charm, At Night and Alphabet Soup were produced by Theatre of NOTE in Los Angeles,
and her poetry has appeared in Southern Poetry Review, The
Louisville Review
and The Asheville Review. Currently
living in New York, here Coleman talks with MM about her screenwriting
debut, working with Steven Soderbergh and how the “real world” informs
her writing.

Steven Peros (MM): This is your first produced
screenplay and it came about through your friendship with director
Steven Soderbergh. Can you tell us a little about that friendship
and how it eventually grew into the development of
Full Frontal?

Coleman Hough (CH): Yes, Full Fontal is my first produced screenplay, but in 1996 Steven hired me to
write a modern adaptation of Julius Caesar and he was going
to produce it. I set it in the new age and called it The Infidels. [It is] all about a spiritual leader named Julia C. who runs
a camp called Camp Co-Create; she is killed while murdering a cow
and her murder is covered up by her co-creators. The timing was
never right for that one and I think people who read it thought
I must have been insane. Anyway, Steven and I loved working together,
so we tried to find another project. Two summers ago, I wrote a
short play called Shipping and Receiving that he was interested
in putting on film-and that short play eventually became Full
Frontal
, the movie.

MM: The script was sent to prospective cast
members with a rather unique set of rules,  three of which relate
to script. Rule 7: Improvisation will be encouraged. Rule 8: You
will be interviewed about your character. This material may end
up in the finished film. Rule 9: You will be interviewed about the
other characters. This material may end up in the finished film.
At what point was it decided that improvisation would become a part
of the process?

CH: Improvisation is always part of the process.
I don’t think Steven is alone in encouraging actors to improvise.
Writers improvise; directors improvise. Why should actors be left
out of the fun? Basically, it was code to the actors for “relax
and breathe.”

MM: How did you feel about that?

CH: I was happy to watch how this gave them
the freedom to experiment and come back to the script with renewed
energy. When Steven interviewed the actors in character, talking
about their character or another character, it was thrilling to
hear how generous they were with their responses-as if they’d planted
the character so deeply inside themselves; you could hear the bloom.

MM: In what way were you involved in deciding
what would or would not make it into the film?

CH: Steven asked me to write a list of questions
he would ask the actors. But beyond that, I had no say. I wanted
no say; I was curious to see what it would become. Once I had written
the script, Steven, the crew and the actors took over. It took on
a life of its own. Some things were left out, some things were added.
Some things multiplied, some things deepened. The final cut stayed
true to the script but, of course, in the process it became greater
than the sum of all its parts.

MM: Some actors are better or worse with
improvisation. Were any steps taken to ensure you were assembling
a cast that knew how to improvise?

CH: No, just a cast that responded to the script.

MM: Given the evolutionary nature of the
script, it would seem like Soderbergh would have wanted you on set.
Was that the case?

CH: Yes, I was on set. But my security pass
said “guest.” Steven graciously invited me to be on the set, but
I didn’t do any rewrites or have any tantrums. I listened on the
headset and watched it all unfold. Steven always encourages an atmosphere
of collaboration. It was a relaxed set: great food and a high energy
that allowed for play. That was the whole point of making Full
Frontal
. Since I had already done my work, I was relieved to
be off duty.

MM: Were you involved in the editing process?

CH: No. I saw a cut before they locked picture,
though. Again, I didn’t want to be involved in doing Steven’s job.
He did not sit in the room with me at 2 a.m. while I rocked back
and forth and conjured the dream that would become Full Frontal.

MM: You’ve written a number of plays that
have been performed in New York and Los Angeles. What similarities
do your plays share with
Full Frontal?

CH: My characters all share an operatic scale
of suffering that is muted by having to survive the day to day.
Everyone speaks in code: enduring silences, searching for words
that won’t explode and make a mess of things. I love to create uncomfortable
situations. I often live them. Full Frontal started with
a crazy conversation I had with a friend about a birthday present
I had given her on her fortieth birthday. She had been offended
by it and waited a year to tell me. After our evening together,
I wrote down our conversation word for word so I could understand
it. My plays and Full Frontal all share torn pages from my
own life.

MM: Like Short Cuts and Timecode, Full Frontal is, among other things, a commentary about contemporary
life in  Los Angeles. You’re presently a New Yorker. How much time
have you spent in Los Angeles?

CH: The week I moved to LA the Gulf War began.
and more news followed. Earthquakes, fires, floods, riots, OJ. I
lived in LA from 1991  to 1995. I worked as a temp at Disney by
day and wrote for two theater companies at night and all other non-Disney
hours. Living on the fringe of the movie industry was like being
a spy. Those four years were packed with drama and absurdities.

MM: So the big question: Which do you prefer?
New York or LA?

CH: I prefer living in New York. I prefer driving
in LA.

MM: In the opening paragraph of the production
notes, this film is called “a movie about movies for people who
love movies.” Do you agree?

CH: I think it’s catchy. There’s a certain
ring of truth to it.

MM: Do you have a drawer full of unproduced
screenplays or does this represent a playwright’s first stab at
writing for film?

CH: I am dusting off The Infidels and
a few others that I mailed to myself as proof that I had written
them.

MM: Tell us a little about your writing
process. Are you a morning or night writer? Computer or typewriter?
Coffee or tea?

CH: I like coffee-iced-strong, or steamy latte
without foam. I write in notebooks at night. I make lists. I am
a compulsive list-maker. Every now and then something from my list
interests me. I took a fiction workshop in LA that changed my writing
life. I am serious about the list making. Taking inventory-laying
out some choices so when something dead ends, there is more on a
page you can turn to. I studied with a writer named Irene Borger;
she gave me the most powerful tool to open that door in my head
that often gets stuck. I am grateful to her for showing me how to
fill my notebooks with all that I need. She also gave me a practice
to which I am devoted which consists of 30 minutes at a time. No
editing, just 30 minutes of hand action-be it typing or printing
or scrawling. It feels a bit like diving into cold water, but once
submerged there is pleasure and relief from gravity.

I do not have a certain time of day that I write.
I feel as if I am always writing-stashing away notes in my head
about something or another, some conversation overheard or one that
I’ve had.

When I write it has usually taken me a few hours to
circle into it: I make coffee, refill my water bottle, check my
email, update my address book, hang up my clothes from the day before,
rearrange the furniture. And then I do the 30 minutes at a time
thing. When I am starting something, this is the best way. To behave
as if I’m drunk-crashing through windows, falling off ledges.

MM: What are you working on now?

CH: I am writing The Katharine Graham story
for HBO. Nerve.com is promoting Full Frontal with a relationship-themed
column I will write for a few weeks. I have been commissioned to
write a short play for The Victory Project, which is a post 9/11
project to be produced at Columbia University in the fall, and I
will direct a short film that I wrote called A Tale of Two in September.

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