Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (B.A., Drama, 1975) has been keeping busy these days. The film Hacksaw Ridge, co-written by Schenkkan and directed by Mel Gibson, has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. The Great Society, the follow-up to the Tony Award-winning All the Way about President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s time in the White House, is currently enjoying its Texas premiere in a production at the Zach Theatre in Austin. And Schenkkan has his hands in multiple ongoing projects, both in film and theatre—he’s written a film about the Manhattan Project for Robert Redford to direct, and he’s currently writing a movie for Amazon and Joseph Gordon Levitt set in the Reconstruction Era. He’s also written a new play called Building a Wall, which will premiere in April at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles and The Curious Theatre Company in Colorado. He took time out of his busy schedule recently to tell us more about his work and creative process.
A lot of your work is inspired by real events and real people. What's your creative process like when you're dealing with a real event or a real person? How do you inhabit that time period and the people who were part of the story?
I do a lot of research. I cast a pretty broad net and try to get as much information as I can. And then I begin to make choices. I'm not a historian. I'm not a documentary maker. I'm a dramatist, so I have a point of view. That means that I will take liberties and will change the facts as they suit me and as they suit the story. I have between two and three hours to tell my story on stage, so I can't tell the whole thing. So as soon as you start removing, start making decisions, you're altering the narrative. But I also alter the narrative because I have a point of view, and I think that's why people come to see my work—because they're interested in what I have to say about this.
So, to that end, I will condense and compress time. I'll write scenes that didn't happen, I'll create characters that didn't exist, I'll write dialog that wasn't said, while I may also use actual dialog from the period or people or scenes and events that we clearly know happened. The one rule that I adhere to in these circumstances—and I think it's an important one—is that I can take these liberties, but the thing I can't do is have a character who's clearly based on a historical figure, whether they're living or dead, I can't have a character say or do anything that is really antithetical to who they were. And that's my rule.
When you were writing All the Way and The Great Society, did you think about how it could reshape the narrative of LBJ’s legacy and bring attention to it?
I wasn't consciously thinking of the fact that we'd be running up on these anniversaries. That was just happenstance and a good piece of fortune. I was very clear when I was originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write this first play, All the Way. I said, "I really want this produced in 2012 because of the presidential election." So everybody signed on for that, and that's what we achieved. It did exactly what I hoped it would do in terms of providing an interesting conversation between the play and what was happening in contemporary America. But then it sent us into this kind of chute where all of these other anniversaries came up, and those began to engage with both plays. and I do think they have contributed to a renewed interest in LBJ and a re-evaluation of his legacy—particularly his domestic legacy, which got overshadowed by Vietnam. I think that's a good thing. I'm very proud of that. He was in many regards, an extraordinary politician who did a lot of good things for the country, and much of that suffered under the foreign policy mistakes for which he must also bear responsibility.
It took 10 years from your first draft of the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge for the project to come to fruition. After the film being in limbo for so long, what was it like to see it come to fruition?
It was great. I had seen an early version—not finished yet, some green screen still missing, no scoring—in a private screening room in [producer] Bill Mechanic's house in Beverly Hills. I didn't see the finished movie until we screened it at the Venice Film Festival. At the end of the movie, the audience stood up and applauded for 10 minutes. Mel [Gibson] and [actor] Andrew [Garfield] and myself and all the actors were seated in the back, and the audience, when they stood up, they turned to face us. It was just so moving. They applauded until we walked down into the orchestra and embraced and shook hands. It was just an amazing experience.
Did you know when you were an undergraduate that you were interested in writing as a career?
I had this fantasy of an Orson Welles kind of career to act, write and direct. Two out of three isn't bad, I guess. I never really directed. I did act and write simultaneously for about a decade, and I had a good career as an actor. I was able to support myself and later a family within the industry. But the writing was just so much more satisfying, and after The Kentucky Cycle, I pretty much stopped acting and focused full time on just the writing. And that's what I've done ever since 1992.
How did your experiences as a student in Plan II and Drama set you on your career path?
I had a great education at The University of Texas. I really did. I loved my Plan II professors and courses. My experience in the Department of Drama was very unusual because I was a joint major. I didn't really fall into the acting category and so I wound up with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama, But it gave me an enormous amount of flexibility and freedom to select within the department. So, between the work within the Drama department and the work outside in Plan II, I really felt like I got an extraordinary education. I'm very, very grateful to the University of Texas.