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Capra's Closet

In & Out
Andy Schwartz

The Script Doctor Is In: Screenwriter Paul Rudnick (left) on the set of 'In & Out' with director Frank Oz (center) and producer Scott Rudlin.

Screenwriter Paul Rudnick uses classic screwball conventions for his outing comedy, 'In & Out'

By Richard von Busack

There's a delightful gag in Paul Rudnick's script for the film Jeffrey. A pair of men kiss, and we cut to the interior of a mall theater somewhere in America. A pair of grossed-out teenage couples watching the movie with us shriek "Eeeeeww!" at the repulsive sight.

In his screenplay for Frank Oz's new comedy, In & Out, Rudnick again disarms the homophobes by using the cinematic language of a Frank Capra film. Rudnick claims that what he had in mind was a story about a standard Jimmy Stewart-style small-town hero being "outed." Indeed, Howard Brackett (played by Kevin Kline, white-soxed and bow-tied), the last of the small-town high-school English teachers is thanked by a former pupil, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), on the Oscars show for being a gay role model.

The structure and populist humor of In & Out reflect Rudnick's study of the classic comedies of the 1930s; he's a critic (under the persona of New York mom Libby Gelman-Waxner in the "If You Ask Me" column in Premiere). Rudnick has also fixed the scripts of some troubled productions, including the hits The First Wives Club and The Addams Family.

I went to interview Rudnick because I thought he was one of the few people today who know how to make a mainstream movie funny.

Metro: I've just been reading Oliver Stone's novel, and I wonder if the scenes in To Serve and Protect, the film within a film for which Matt Dillon wins his Oscar, were inspired by the similar scene in Born on the Fourth of July.

Rudnick: Oh, "homage" is the word. It was such an opportunity to figure out how many Oliver Stone--and A Few Good Men--clichés you could meld together. Where would Oliver Stone be without those months in 'Nam? He'd be writing Melrose Place.

Metro: I'd just suffered through G.I. Jane, too, so I was pleased to see the military courtroom scene in To Serve and Protect had such tony underlighting, with all of the light coming through the windows. The judges in these courtrooms must be going half blind from the murk.

Rudnick: In the Stone movies and the whole spate of military films, all of those people who weren't even born during the last war are always quoted saying, "They made us go through two weeks of actual boot camp, so we knew what hell was!" Of course, Demi Moore's in great shape, but I don't think she's a Navy SEAL yet. It's that Hollywood sense that "rehearsal is hell." Maybe, eventually, when they have actors explaining their own brush with war, it will be something like "Well, you know [pregnant pause, indicating that some experiences can't be expressed by mere words], I watched Platoon. I was ready, man."

Metro: Notice those one-armed pushups Demi Moore was doing? When Scorsese had Travis Bickle doing them, it was to show us that he was going nuts; in G.I. Jane, it's supposed to show us how empowered Demi Moore is.

Rudnick: I thought it was a reference to Jack Palance's one-armed pushups on the Oscars. You know, Jack Palance could be a Navy SEAL [groping for a title]: The Oldest SEAL, G.I. Seniors, a cross between Cocoon and G.I. Jane! Let me get my agent on the phone!

Metro: Of course, the movie parody in In & Out looked right because you had Ken Adam doing the production design. He's my favorite production designer, because I'm such a James Bond nut.

Rudnick: He's the best. He's also the nicest person, too--another example of people who are legends in their profession and yet so modest. They think you don't even know what they do.

In & Out
Andy Schwartz

Breaking News: Nosy newsman Tom Selleck grills Matt Dillon and supermodel Shalom Harlow in 'In & Out.'

It Takes a Village

Metro: I take it you were deliberately trying to make the town of Greenleaf look too perfect, so that In & Out would feel like a fable.

Rudnick: We always wanted to have a sort of "enchanted village" quality.

Metro: Barbra Streisand worship exposes Kline's character's sexuality. Is Streisand-fancying really a homosexual secondary-sexual characteristic?

Rudnick: Sadly, we have to admit that there are heterosexual Streisand fans, and they are legion. Streisand is a vision for Kline, like Bernadette would be. It's like he was touched by the gods. I hope that Streisand takes this as an affectionate tribute. If she doesn't, I hope she realizes that the lines were made up by the actors.

Metro: I'm presuming that the trigger for In & Out was Tom Hanks' thanking his old teacher from the podium of the Oscars.

Rudnick: Yes, very much so. Scott Rudin, came up with the idea of a teacher being "outed" on the Academy Awards, but we wanted a fictional story, because the teacher that Tom Hanks thanked was already openly gay and retired. At first, I was hesitant, because I couldn't figure out where the story would go, and then I had the idea of the guy being outed the weekend he was to be married. And then things began to click.

Metro: One thing I really liked was the structure; instead of sticking with the lead character, you followed a detour to deal with the fate of Joan Cusack as Emily, the spurned bride.

Rudnick: We always wanted it to be an ensemble piece. It takes a village to "out" a school teacher. But in the casting we wanted everyone to be funny. So many comedies are built around one funny guy.

Metro: And they run out of steam two-thirds of the way through the film.

Rudnick: And we wanted to have a Wilford Brimley, a Debbie Reynolds or a Joan Cusack in every corner of the town.

Metro: One of the things I also liked that it seemed that In & Out, without being raided from old movies, was made with the understanding of how the old screwball comedies worked. Was Preston Sturges an important model?

Rudnick: Oh, absolutely. I have such affection for Sturges, and for films like Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth. Those movies were so stylized; they could be very emotional, but they could also be very physically broad. I love that stuff.

There's a trap in just trying to remake those movies that you'll end up with curdled nostalgia. Using characters that wouldn't have appeared in those movies--gay characters, Entertainment Tonight reporters--is a actually way of reactivating those technique and those structures. We did want to have a Sturges/Capra feel, to ask the question, what if Jimmy Stewart were outed?

Mr. Fix-It

Metro: You're said to have rewritten The First Wives Club. I don't remember if it was a credited rewrite or not.

Rudnick: It wasn't.

Metro: Are there any other films that you've doctored that might be less well known?

Rudnick: Actually, I have more of a reputation for doctoring scripts than I warrant. The only ones I've doctored were The First Wives Club and the first Addams Family movie--the second one was my own script. The Sister Act was an early project for me that was rewritten by half of Southern California, so I took my name off of it.

Metro: How did you become a screenwriter?

Rudnick: Chance and luck. It began with an off-Broadway play that I wrote 11 years ago, titled Poor Little Lambs. It had a wonderful cast that went on to bigger things: Kevin Bacon and Bronson Pinchot. The play was optioned and reoptioned for the movies. It was never made, but because I was hired to write and rewrite the screenplay, it became a terrific education in Hollywood studio filmmaking.

I spent a decent amount of time in development hell writing scripts for which I was quite nicely paid but which were never made. By the time you're through with them, you're glad they're not being made.

Metro: How did you become a writer?

Rudnick: I'm from New Jersey, and I was just a theater freak from birth practically, so that has always been my focus, and I always go back to theater. I just grew up going to plays, reading plays, always getting as close to the theater as possible--going from community theater to drama clubs, walking in to second acts of shows for free. Everything else happened by surprise and shock. The fact that I wrote some novels, magazine work (which I continue to do) and movies are just outgrowths of loving plays.

Metro: Regarding Libby--what was that thing that Libby used to have about Kevin Costner? The man is so bland!

Rudnick: She never really had a thing about Costner; she's a Daniel Day-Lewis gal.

Metro: Even if Daniel Day-Lewis never comes back to this century?

Rudnick: As long as he wears a loincloth. He does have a boxing movie coming up, which Libby feels is a direct response to her criticism: "Daniel, we don't want to see you involved with the IRA unless you have your clothes off." She's just become a bit partial to Brendan Fraser because of George of the Jungle. She's sharing Brendan with her young daughter, Jennifer. And she will always maintain a corral in her heart for Dennis Quaid.

Metro: Though I know it's bad manners to remember lapsed crushes, I still recall that she used to have something of a crush on Costner.

Rudnick: He always seemed a bit passive for her taste. He has the blond streaks on his soul. She did not choose to dance with those wolves. He's got a new movie coming out: The Postman.

Metro: It's set in postapocalyptic times. Again.

Rudnick: Can't go wrong there; who's going to correct you? At least, you don't have to worry about lawyers. There are certain films that bring out the math-club nerds in everyone. The apocalypse is up there with dinosaur antics.

Metro: If Costner could be an Amish farmer after the apocalypse that would be the best. It would kill two birds with one stone, because you'd have a hero who was morally superior to everyone: We Amish were right all along! Who's laughing now? My math-club nerd streak is inflamed by Star Trek. Whenever I see the aliens coming back to haul the Earth's chestnuts out of the fire, I'm crying all over the place. Or that scene where Jodie Foster is having the symbolic orgasm in Contact: "I'm ready! Now! Now! Now!"

Rudnick: I thought that machine looked like the trillion-dollar version of those carnival machines where the claw picks up the stuffed bunny, only they had Jodie instead of the bunny. It would have been better if she traveled across time and space and met Lt. Uhura. There'd be cross-referencing. A whole new set of convention halls could have been filled.

The $230-Million Comedy

Metro: You must have met Patrick Stewart during the filming of Jeffery. What is his attitude toward having become such a famous man from the Star Trek: The Next Generation?

Rudnick: Sometimes, if people get that kind of fame a little later in their careers, they appreciate it more and are less troubled by it. Everywhere Patrick goes, he is mobbed. He's not just gracious with his fans--he enjoys it. This is a guy who appreciates their affection. So he doesn't dismiss it or treat it as a terrible burden. He has a blast. In England, there's always a terrible resentment against success, so he may be glad to be in a country where success doesn't bother everyone so much.

It was so funny, in Jeffrey, he was playing a gay character--and still the women were trying to bribe their way on to the set to get close to him. They were unbelievable. He's a great role model for other celebrities. Tom Selleck is like that, too. They clearly enjoy their success and have figured out a way to appreciate their good fortune, rather than going into endless therapy about it.

Metro: Do you ever think you'll direct?

Rudnick: Never. Never ever. I've been offered projects to direct, but I've turned them down. I've always felt that I could personally bankrupt a studio. If they push me hard enough, I will say yes someday, and that will be the end of Warner Bros. I'm so impressed with people who can direct. It's rare gift, there's so many wonderful actors, there are a batch of good writers, but directing requires such multiple skills, one in a billion.

I wouldn't dream of approaching it. And I'm so passive-aggressive. If an actor misbehaved, I'd either cower in a corner or I'd be like Patton: I'd slap him silly. And so, never, ever, ever. But if it ever turns that I do direct, watch out. It'll be the first $250-million romantic comedy: Heaven's Gate would be nothing.

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