Craig Lucas
Writer-director Craig Lucas on the set of The Dying Gaul.

Most people would settle for any one of Craig Lucas’ illustrious careers, but the multi-talented Lucas is always looking for a new challenge. After a decade as a Broadway performer, Lucas had a second incarnation as a playwright. Then, in his late thirties, he burst onto the Hollywood scene with his script for Longtime Companion. Fifteen years and four produced screenplays later, Lucas decided it was time to try directing. Along the journey, he’s garnered two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sundance Audience Award, a New York Film Critics Award and literary awards too numerous to mention.

Lucas’ directorial debut, The Dying Gaul, is adapted from his play of the same name. Starring Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard, this noir-ish thriller set in present-day Hollywood tells the story of Robert, a struggling screenwriter, who is blinded by the glare of money and glamour and thus becomes ensnared in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with a powerful studio executive and his wife.

The Dying Gaul premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and is in theaters now. Meanwhile, Lucas’ musical play, The Light in the Piazza, is running at Lincoln Center and he is busy adapting another of his stage plays for the screen. Small Tragedy will go into production in this month with Lucas, once again, at the helm. Here, Lucas talks with MM about making the transition from writer to director.

Nancy Hendrickson (MM): The late Norman René directed many of your plays as well as your first three films. How much did his directing style influence you when you embarked on the task of directing The Dying Gaul?

Craig Lucas (CL): I learned most of what I know about directing from Norman René. Norman really was the rare director who was good at all of it. He really knew how to work with actors and how to help the writer. I haven’t worked with anyone else who had that particular skill set. When I’m working with actors or designers or anyone, I always find myself quoting Norman. One thing he used to say was that the most essential thing you have as the director is your point of view. Without it there is no center—no guiding force.

MM: Can you tell us something about your point of view on The Dying Gaul?

CL: I felt that Jeffrey and Elaine, the studio executive and his wife, needed to be well-educated and marvelous people. She had to be lovely and he had to adore her. The reason he slept around wasn’t that she was a cold fish; it was that he was greedy. He wanted it all and thought he could have it all and there would be no cost. I wanted you to love those people so that, when they did something questionable, you’d sort of understand and go a little bit of the way with them and if something bad happened to them you would be crushed.

MM: When you’ve written the script, though, isn’t your point of view already established before you become the director?

CL: Oh, no. Those roles have to be separate. I felt, by the time we started shooting, we had to have paid the writer and killed him off because I couldn’t be on the set and know how to interpret the script if I was also responsible for the script. I wanted that job done. I’ve been working the same way with the film I’m doing now. When people ask, “What do you think as the writer?” I say, ‘Look. I have access to the writer’s phone number but I’m having trouble with him.’ And when they ask, “What’s your problem with the writer?” I say, ‘He wants more money!’

One reason it’s important to get rid of “the writer” as quickly as possible is that the writer—or at least the writer that I am—is quite needy. As a writer, you’re vulnerable. You’re dependent on other people to execute what you’re doing. I discovered a completely different person when I was directing. I discovered someone who was absolutely unthreatened by dozens of problems. And I loved it! I found that, by filling up my life with responsibility for others, I was much more joyous than I’ve ever been just taking care of myself. It’s like being a parent. You might be afraid of lightning, but you can’t let the children know. So you have to not be afraid of lightning and suddenly you feel very strong.

MM: What were some of the challenges you faced as a first-time director?

CL: Well, it was incredibly scary, being responsible for so many people and so much money. I was so petrified that, for several months, I did nothing but prepare. But I was shameless about telling people we were going to hire that I knew nothing and that I needed all the help I could get. So we hired a cinematographer who was interested in helping me—who didn’t feel that that was “not his job”—and we hired an editor who had worked with lots of first-time directors. I was very upfront with all the actors and designers about the fact that I didn’t know anything except what I wanted to express and they seemed to be relieved.

I’ve since heard that a common fault with first-time directors is that it’s hard for them to make up their minds, but I did not have that problem. I’d directed some in the theater; I had also been on every set and every movie that Norman René ever directed and, because I wasn’t intending to become a director, I had been paying attention in a very easygoing way—which is a good way to learn. So I found that I knew a tremendous amount that I didn’t know I knew about how you put together a movie. I knew that a lot of it was about decision-making, and that your decisions come from your point of view.

MM: What kinds of decisions were you asked to make on The Dying Gaul?

CL: Well, I was asked, for instance, if Jeffrey and Elaine’s house should be pretty or if it should it be cold and ugly. I said, ‘It has to be gorgeous!’ If we’re rooting for this screenwriter and he takes $1 million and sells his soul, it had better be for a good-looking house. If he sells his soul for an ugly house, I’m not interested in him.

The big executives I met in Hollywood had beautiful taste and beautiful homes and were well-read and well-educated and incredibly nice people. I’ve never met a crass person in Hollywood—ever. I thought it was incumbent upon us to make a film about the world of movies that was not a satire. Let’s see that world for how beautiful and sexy and all-consuming it is.

MM: I found the visuals in this film very compelling. It was stunning to look at with interestingly composed shots, which surprised me because I’d always thought of you as primarily a verbal artist.

CL: I had a sense in my gut, before we started, that the camera would be like a shark, or like the eye of God, and that we had to feel, from the way the “eye” was moving that something terrible—really terrible—was coming. Fortunately, I was able to find a cinematographer right away who liked that idea that the camera was kind of stalking these people.

I wanted the audience to be watching carefully for each little, incremental lie that was leading the characters inexorably to this place that was not going to be redeemable.