Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson

Erin Cressida Wilson

Erin Cressida Wilson is no stranger to the literary
world. A writing professor at Duke University and a renowned playwright,
her work has been performed at theaters around the globe, from San
Francisco’s Campo Santo at Intersection to London’s New Grove. Her
first foray into the realm of screenwriting has proven successful
as well.  

Based on the short story by Mary Gaitskill, Secretary-directed
by Steven Shainberg and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader-has
been gaining wide acclaim since its 2002 Sundance premiere. Superbly
acted, the film is a love story with a twist: our happy couple can’t
seem to show their love in a non-sadomasochistic way. The film is
darkly humorous and uniquely touching, with a message that transcends
the stereotypes. Here, Wilson speaks with MM about the differences
between stage and screen, the most important lesson she teaches
her writing students and why it always comes back to sex. 

MM: Though you’ve tackled the role of screenwriter,
you’re probably best known as a playwright. What are the differences
between writing a script to be performed on stage or in front of
a camera? As a writer, do you discipline yourself differently when
tackling one over the other? Do you have a preference for one over
the other?

ECW: Right now I prefer screenwriting because
of its limitations. I love the confines of the Hollywood film structure.
I find it very freeing because it allows me to write even more far
out things, because I know I can always fall back on the confines
of the three act structure. The well-made play is a structured art
form. But I find it boring because, within the well-made play, there
is very little room for moving out of the confines of an old fashioned
and almost dead art form. But then I also don’t like “downtown”
playwriting because it is often manifested as nonsense word salads.
A career as a playwright is a hard path to forge. As a woman, it
is virtually impossible. The playwriting world is, for the most
part, closed to women.

MM: In addition to your work for the screen
and stage, you also write a monthly sex column in
Razor Magazine.
The subject of sex seems to play a large role in most of your work,
but not in a purely physical sense. Rather, we tend to learn more
about the characters through their sexual relationships (or relationships
to sex). What do you think sex can teach us about a person?

ECW: Thank you. That was so well-worded and
exactly what I hope is achieved with my writing about sex. I think
that sex is an exposure and a revealing of our wounds, our underbellies
and our frailties. I think of sex as a very honest form of communication.
And through it, we can see the core of a person.

MM: How did you first become involved with
Secretary? The film is based on Mary Gaitskill’s
short story. In what way did you use the text in your own writing?
How did you work to add your own details in order to make it a feature
length film? What was the process of adapting the story into a screenplay?

ECW: Steven Shainberg hired me to adapt Mary
Gaitskill’s story into a screenplay. We added the element of self-cutting
at the beginning to give the lead character a problem to overcome.
She must stop destroying herself and find a way to turn her need
for pain into something constructive and loving. And she learns
to do this with the lawyer. I think the most important thing to
keep in mind when adapting anything is to not allow oneself to read
the original document too much. You must give yourself permission
to march all over it, and to trust that the essence of it will come
through. And that is what I did with Secretary. I tried to
ignore the original story as much as possible; then I put myself
into the story until it became mine. This was the only way I could
write it organically. I had to take possession of it. It was important
that I not treat the story as precious.

MM: In the most general terms, the story
is about a sadomasochistic relationship between a young secretary
and her boss-easily the fodder for a late night cable movie. Yet
the film is a truly moving love story. How conscious were you of
the subject matter’s ability to slip into something different? What
steps, if any, did you take to maintain that the story was about
the emotions of two people rather than their actions?

ECW: One way to do this is to make sure that,
as a writer, you are aware of every single cause and effect. You
should always be intimately familiar with every single tiny decision
that leads up to each action. This makes even the strangest action
seem organic. If you are rigorous with this, you can write almost
anything and the audience will stick with it and cheer for the character.

MM: There’s a subtlety to the film-in its
humor and emotion-that usually only exists on stage. While a lot
of this is due to the superb acting, much of it is a result of the
script. Do you think your experience as a playwright helped in successfully
executing the screenplay for this film?

ECW: Yes, I think it helped a lot. My work
on stage has always been character-based and highly dialogue-driven.
Humor is a great device to use to undercut serious moments. You
can become more serious and more outrageous in a script if you undercut
it with humor at the right moment.

MM: In addition to your other many titles,
you are also a writing professor at Duke. Do you think that location
matters when you’re working to pursue a writing career? How does
being in North Carolina for so much of the year-as opposed to NYC
or LA-affect your opportunities?

ECW: I have never gotten a job by hanging out
at parties in LA or NYC. I’m just not that type of person. I have
always gotten jobs by working hard and committing to my writing.
So, when I am far away, in North Carolina, it actually helps my
work because I turn my back on the business and get down to what
matters: the writing. I have, in fact, gotten much more work ever
since I stopped living in New York City full-time. I’m lucky to
also have apartments in NYC and LA, so I can come and go easily.

MM: What is the first lesson you try and
teach your students who are looking to pursue the craft of writing?
What is the most important lesson you teach them?

ECW: Start listening to other people’s conversations.
Notice the way people talk. Notice the rhythms and repetitions.
Notice how they often don’t say what they mean. Notice how they
rarely really listen to one another. Try to decipher subtext in
real life.

MM: What are you working on now? What’s
up next for you?

ECW: I’m working on a new project with Steven
Shainberg, which is the natural progression from Secretary. I’ve just finished writing a new screenplay for director Jesse Peretz
and producer Forensic Films. I have a musical opening next season
Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons called Wilder. I wrote
it with Red Clay Rambler Jack Herrick and Mike Craver. I’m writing
a novel called Photography Lessons. And I’ve got a book of
erotica out called The Erotica Project that I wrote with
Lillian Anna Slugocki.