SPLICED interviewed Paul Rudnick September 3, 1997 at the Ritz Hotel in San Francisco.

Link to: "In & Out" review

Too much Rudnick?
Link to: The feature version of this interview, which is only about 1/6th as long.

"Out" with it!
The full Q&A with "In & Out" screenwriter Paul Rudnick

Paul Rudnick has a huge mouth, almost like a Muppet. This condition probably comes from laughing too much, something he seems wont to do.

A playwright and script doctor with an sweetly acidic sense of humor, he has a talent for inventing outrageous stories and oddball characters that somehow still feel familiar and common.

He works on the edge of the mainstream, writing films like "Addams Family Values" and doctoring the dialogue in "The First Wives Club," always adding irony that plays slightly to the darker side of humor.

He also writes a humor column for Premiere magazine under the guise of Libby Gilman-Wexner, a scatterbrain movie critic Rudnick describes as "pure movie-going Id."

His plays, like the AIDS scare comedy "Jeffrey" (made into a film in 1995), tend to address social issues, but never too seriously.

"I'm a big laugh whore," he says. "So when I write anything, I just always think, is this going to be funny?"

His latest project, a movie about a sexually ambiguous small town teacher who is "outed" on national television, sounds at first like something dreadfully weighty. But nothing is ever serious when Rudnick has a hand in it.

Starring Kevin Klien, "In & Out" follows English teacher Howard Brackett as his life fall apart when a heartthrob ex-student wins a Best Actor Oscar and thanks Howard in his acceptance speech, then adds "...and he's gay."

Inspired by real life -- Tom Hanks thanked a gay teacher when he won for "Philadelphia" -- "In & Out" spins off into farce with small town prejudices and a media invasion that puts Howard in the spotlight. To complicate matters further, Howard is a week away from marrying his already nervous and insecure fiancée (Joan Cusack).

"It (is) based on an event that could only happen in an age of the Oscars and global television," Rudnick says. "I think a human being can only be embarrassed on that level in this particular time and place."

Even though the film takes place in a small Indiana town and has what Rudnick calls "a demented Frank Capra feeling," it is peppered with savvy, sharp gibes at Hollywood, starting with the Oscar ceremony at the beginning of the movie, complete with a dead serious clip from movie star Cameron Drake's war epic in which he plays a gay soldier.

SPLICED: Did you write the Cameron character (deliciously deadpanned by a bottle blond Matt Dillon) with any particular star that you were mocking? A lot of people are saying he's a Brad Pitt.

Paul Rudnick: Well, actually, not with any one star. It was a little bit more the Viper Room crowd. In Hollywood there's that style of a male starlet that makes a great show of refusing to bathe.

These are guys that make upwards of $12 million a picture and somehow can't afford a new black T-shirt. You know that all of their social behavior tries to deny their actual status. These are guys who are world famous, who have agents and managers and fan club presidents and body guards, and yet they kind of prefer to be seen as shuffling along with a Marlboro butt hanging out of their mouths in the worst part of town.

And I always think, But you got to the worst part of town in a limo with a supermodel on your arm. You can't see yourself as a Jack Kerouac figure any more. It's Hilarious. There's nothing like fake humility and a kind of downwardly mobile personal style that's as much fun for satirical purposes.

S: You wouldn't necessarily expect the kind of biting satire of Hollywood coming out of this movie that takes place in farm country. When you started out, did you have that in mind? Like the clips from the Oscar film, which were hilarious.

PR: Oh, "To Serve and Protect." Oh, I'm so glad you think so because that's actually one of my favorite things in the movie. It was so much fun to write. I mean, I love to write Hollywood satire and it's all so weirdly accessible the world over.

I think it's amazing how savvy people are about the movie business. People on the most remote farm of rural Wisconsin know what an opening weekend is and they can quote the numbers on "Air Force One." It's terrifying how much people know and the fact that they seem almost more obsessed with the mechanics of Hollywood than with the actual story telling.

So it's so much fun to play with, especially because I wanted to make it clear in the movie very early on that this was not going to be some sort of solemn liberal experience. That this movie would not be a lecture on gay rights or feel like medicine in any sense.

So I just had a ball writing the movie you were not going to see, "To Serve and Protect." I think Frank Oz, the director, had such a blast filming it because he got to use every possible movie-making cliché, all of the stuff he was forbidden to use otherwise.

(Rudnick wrote a column from the set for Premiere magazine in which he quotes Oz as asking "This is supposed to be really stupid, right?")

And I keep thinking that I want to write all of "To Serve and Protect" now (laughs), the award-winning motion picture.

There was one scene that we never shot, but that I did write. We were going to visit Cameron Drake, the movie star, on the set of the film he was currently making, which was going to be another solemn, quality Hollywood effort. It was called "A Call to Honor" and it was a Civil War epic, and Cameron was going to be playing a plantation owner who was in the process of freeing his slaves. (Laughs.)

We were going to try to get, you know, Laurence Fishburne and Vanessa Williams to play the slaves. It would have cost a fortune to cut, so we never shot that scene, but Hollywood is so rampant right now that it's just a delicious target.

S: I can just see Laurence Fishburne saying "Yes, Mas'a," doing his best Morgan Freeman...

PR: It was! Because the slaves were all going to be uneducated, yet naturally noble, and it was going to have the slave owner completely tormented so that it was going to be a wrenching experience of the type that will win Academy Awards in the worst possible way."

S: Now, I understand that you were on the set pretty much throughout. Was there much studio meddling? Because while the movie pushes some boundaries, there are a couple things in the film that make it seem to me like the studio was a little nervous.

PR: Right. There actually was a fairly low degree of studio meddling. The were actually very supportive of this movie, especially Sherry Lansing, the head of Paramount, was terrific about it. And I think that's very much due to Scott Rudin, the movie's producer, because people tend not to mess with him. He's very protective of his projects. And because he's very successful, which is why I think they grant him that kind of authority.

But it's also incredibly rare for a screenwriter to be on the set and to be included in the process as much as I was. And that's due to Scott, and Frank Oz especially, who weren't threatened by having a writer around.

I love to rewrite, and I think it's so necessary for comedy, so if I can see a line that's not working and get rid of it, that makes a better movie. And if an actor is suddenly doing something wonderful, maybe I can take it a step further. So that you've got that very necessary team work. You know, movies are collaborative. So in those terms this was a terrific experience.

Yes, the studio...I mean the scene that had made them nervous was the kiss."

(About half way through the movie, an "Entertainment Tonight" type reporter, played by Tom Selleck, makes an enormous pass at Howard.)

S: Of course (it made them nervous). But it is the funniest thing in the movie.

PR: And it's the center of the whole movie.

S: It's the casting, too.

PR: Completely! Completely!

S: A guy grabbing a guy and planting one on him that goes on and on and on...

PR: Right. Well that, I think the length is completely the secret of that kiss. It's a way of saying, the movie says, 'We mean this. Get over it.' And it's why it's so funny. Because if that kiss were some brief peck on the cheek, the audience might be offended, they might be turned off, the might feel the movie was cowardly. There'd be a whole range of equally unpleasant and deserved responses, but because the kiss won't let go, and it gets funnier and sexier as it goes, the audience gets into it, and their initial shock just turns into tears (of laughter).

S: It reminded me of the kiss in "Jeffrey," except in "Jeffrey" the laugh comes from that seemingly random cut-away where you show the two teenage couples on a date reacting appalled at what they're watching in the movie.

PR: It's fascinating because same sex kisses are kind of the final frontier in away. There have been a lot of movies that have dealt only with gay sexuality and sometimes an audience will be fine with that, but gay romance is seen as oddly more threatening. I think because that's when movie stars really enter the national fantasy system, you know, the swoon bank.

I think one of the functions of movie stars is to go on great dates and share great kisses for the rest of us, and when two men, that's a new development -- or two women for that matter. So it's fun to play with that particular envelope. That's discomfort that can quickly turn into wild laughter and approval.

I think the audience, even the mass audience, is so yearning for romantic comedy, but because people are sophisticated and we're living in an age of such overwhelming divorce, people are very wary of buying into a love story. They're cynical or they'll feel foolish if they invest themselves in a couple, gay or straight. Which is why the movie makers have to keep finding new angles to keep romance on some level possible.

What I thought about with the kiss in "In & Out," if that was a man and woman, you could never get away with it. It would be seen as sexual harassment. Because what Tom Selleck says, "You know what you need?" -- grabs the guy and kisses him.

If that was a woman, that would be a lawsuit. So the only way you can have that screwball pleasure is to find a new way in. I think it's why a movie like "My Best Friend's Wedding" ends with the girl not getting the guy. Whatever you think of that movie, it's a new development in the history of romantic comedy.

An audience will, you know, accept all sorts of fantasy if it's action-adventure -- you know, if they're being given total license to not believe what they're seeing. But they take romance in a weird way more seriously. They have personal experience in that area. Maybe they've never been to another planet, you know. Maybe they've never fought with Colombian drug lords or Arab terrorists, but they've been on a date, so don't try to fool them. And ("In & Out") is a romantic comedy first and foremost.

S: You do something very well, with both "Addams Family Values" and "In & Out," which is that you balance a broad-based appeal that will sell across middle-class America, but at the same time it has outrageous and risky twists. It looks like a studio film and parts of it feel like a studio film, but every once in a while you throw something in there that is completely unexpected. Is that a conscious effort on your part to balance those two?

PR: Well, it's intentional in that I enjoy both sides. It's funny, because I've actually thought about this. Because sometimes I wonder, gee, should I only be interested in low-budget independent film making because it is somehow automatically more honest? Which I think isn't true. I think there are plenty of terrible low-budget movies, and plenty of low-budget movies that aren't particularly funny or aren't entertaining or aren't moving in any way.

So I think budget and scale of filming and ineptitude is not necessarily a sign of quality. And that there are aspects of studio filmmkaing that are pretty irresistible. There's a certain access to star power, to elements of design, even to a certain wonderful Hollywood gloss, that are factors that I love working with.

So it's not a question of, oh, dumming down the movie for the mainstream. In fact what I try to do is respect the audience a little bit and give them a little more credit. Often people on the coast can be very condescending to everyone they fly over. You know, the there's a sense that the mythical audience member in Peoria won't get something.

Well that man or woman in Peoria now has a computer and cable television, and has been watching the networks for 50 years. So that audience member is far savvier than people imagine. I think there's very little, world-wide, that everyone doesn't get. It allows you a lot more freedom...so it's something I try not to worry about.

I wanted "In & Out" to feel like a screwball comedy, only with all of the very contemporary twists. And to take the kind of stars who might ordinarily be seen in more conventional situations, and put them in something a little fresher, with all their glamour and all their sex appeal intact. That's were someone like Tom Selleck and Debbie Reynolds (playing Howard's marriage-minded mom) become hugely valuable.

S: Tom Selleck was brilliant casting. The minute I saw his name, I knew he was going to be gay. They wouldn't have cast him if they weren't going to make him gay because it's such a fantastic irony. But he was so good.

PR: Oh, he's terrific. And he pursued the role, and it's amazing because, you also realize, you could have another terrific actor in that part and it wouldn't have that extra dimension because it's not Tom Selleck.

The minute Tom Selleck comes into a room or on screen, the air changes. It's a real movie star magic syndrome. And he's also a leading man, you know? He's a sexy hunk. So when he grabs the guy, or the girl, you want that to happen and (like) if Cary Grant, instead of grabbing Katherine Hepburn, went after Randolph Scott.

So it's fun to play with those elements of more mainstream movie-making and something more subversive.

S: It's kind of like taking what you expect from the picture and pushing it out. Like I say it has the flavor of a mainstream comedy, but it isn't one.

PR: Right.

S: Am I making sense?

PR: Absolutely. Some of the directors who are my personal favorites are like John Waters or (Pedro) Almodovar, who make wildly, often underground movies, but you can tell how much they love Hollywood. That's the spirit that everyone was after.

S: Well, "In & Out" seems like the flip side of that. Where it's the studio movie, but it really loves the stuff Hollywood doesn't do. I see some studio head visiting the set during some outrageous scene and getting really nervous about it.

PR: We had, I think also...once again, with Scott and Frank who are men with such track records that the studio often tends to leave them alone -- which I think is smart business because you don't hire people you don't trust -- and the studio was very familiar with the script because it had taken three years to finish it. So there wasn't any sense of surprise.

And I think something that the studios have been discovering -- Sherry Lansing and I were just talking about this -- that a lot of proven formulas are not working any more. When the audience turns out for movies like "The Full Monty," because it's one they wish Hollywood comedies were.

When an awful lot of huge budge films, like the latest "Batman" movie, suddenly aren't doing so well, then you can't rely on those formulas anymore. When they're something fresher coming along and it's a big hit, often people in Hollywood will wonder how that happened.

The smart people say, you know, that talent was involved and because the people cared about what they were working on and because they weren't talking down to the audience and assuming that all anyone wanted to see was a new Batmobile on ice.

Also, "In & Out" did not cost $120 million, so you're allowed to be more adventurous when there's a little less economic risk involved. But that's also why it's fun to work on these movies is because the cast, the people involved aren't making these movies as career insurance.

S: I expected to see more negative reaction from the townspeople. Is there a reason that was avoided? Because if that were to really happen I could see graffiti on the guys house from people that are just massively homophobic.

PR: It's interesting you should say that because there was a draft where there was graffiti on the guy's car, actually. In many of the drafts I played around with creating far more villains for the story, far more people who were openly and viciously homophobic, and it kept drifting into movie-of-the-week territory.

It kept becoming a soap opera, and I had hoped that the audience wouldn't need to be told that any longer. Of course, there's still an enormous amount of prejudice in the world, but I wanted the movie to go to a more interesting place somehow.

There was a draft where the local militia involved, (but) it just became a little to easy in some way. Like forced poignancy and forced political correctness.

It suddenly became a matter of choosing up sides. OK, here are the bad guys, but of course no one would ever identify with the bad guys. It made the politics of the movie so elemental and preachy, and I never wanted the movie to feel like a lecture.

Also because I wanted the movie to have a kind of demented Frank Capra feeling. You know, Jimmy Stewart against the world -- What if Jimmy Stewart were outed? That's a lot more fun than an evil school board.

Something else I wanted to explore was the fact that leading a closeted life doesn't just effect the person in the closet. It involves a amount of lying and dishonesty that effects everyone around them and the people that care about them.

S: I wanted to ask you about the character of Howard Brackett. It seems interesting to me that a guy could reach that age not realizing that he's gay.

PR: It's an interesting question, because it's not necessarily that he hasn't realized it. I think there are levels of denial and escapes that are involved there. I think there are people who are just in such a panic over their sexuality that they can tell themselves all sorts of lies.

He may very well have known he was gay quite early on, but it just wasn't something he could deal with. I think it's very possible -- I think it's sadly possible for people to have lived in that kind of lifelong denial and fear.

S: OK. In you're piece in Premiere you wrote "Joan Cusack is god." Explain that one for me.

PR: Oh! And beyond! She is just helplessly funny. She is a gift to any movie and to certainly to any writer because she can't not be funny. The minute she reads something, I have to think many times over -- OK, were those lines funny or was it just because Joan can make me laugh at will? There were moments where everyone -- I mean, the crew, Scott, and Frank and I -- would have to shove coffee cups in our mouths to stop from laughing and ruining the shot because Joan is so funny.

She also is completely fearless, which you need for comedy. That when Joan is running down a highway at 4 a.m. in a wedding gown, she's the one who decides she also needs to fall on her face.

S: It's like she has irony on a leash and she's taught it to do tricks.

PR: Yes, yes! Well, she's incredibly smart, and you always get that. It's why she can take any pratfall and you never worry that she's going to lose an arm because you know Joan Cusack would only lose an arm if it was going to be really funny. Something she and Kevin both have is that they're both brilliant actors who are also inspired physical clowns, and that's such a rare combination.

You know, I'm sure Joan could play any tragic heroine if she wanted to. Although I'd kill her. But she just has such an arsenal of comic technique and raw emotion. She is total audience identification. The audience feels a total possession about Joan Cusack. They also feel that way about Kevin, too.

S: I have to ask you about, and forgive me for saying it this way, the "I am Spartacus" bit at the end.

PR: Yes, yes.

S: Is that something that was all the way through all the drafts? Because that's one of the things that feels like studio influence.

PR: Well, there's certainly a strong element of fantasy in that moment, where you've got this whole small town coming to the support of the little guy. It's a Frank Capra moment. It's far more about the way small towns behave, it's the way families behave.

Even if you rob a bank they'll say, "Yes he committed that crime, but he's our bank robber." That's what that moment was about. Certainly gay school teachers, gifted gay school teachers, should never be threatened or fired or treated poorly. So yes, the movie makes that point.

When you're dealing with gay issues in a movie, there is a certain tightrope there, in terms of, do you make a political document that reflects my personal beliefs? Sure. And this movie does. Or do you want to make a wildly entertaining movie? So hopefully you create some middle ground there. But, you know, political movies tend not to be very funny.

S: If you don't mind, I'd like to ask you about your own coming out. Obviously you're drawing from experience here and...

PR: I'm not gay! How dare you! (Huge laugh.) I'm calling my attorney! (Laughs again, then turns slightly more serious.)

I was pretty much born out. I think that, maybe because I was the most self-centered child imaginable, it took me many years to realize that there were straight people. I assumed everyone was gay because I assumed everyone was like me, because I was such a terrible brat.

And then once I'd really looked around the neighborhood, I thought, "Ah, there do seem to be some differences here," and I was graciously sympathetic to the heterosexual population. (Laughs.)

But it just never occurred to me that there was anything wrong or particularly different about my life or my family. My family was wonderfully supportive.

If you want to offend your family, don't tell them you're gay. Tell them you want to be a playwright, because that spells far more doom. (Laughs.) I was in no way in Howard Brackett's situation, but I did grow up in a suburb, so I know what it's like town where everyone has to know everyone else's business.

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