The Academy Award-nominated writer of Philadelphia talks about his latest rare foray into directing on the SXSW documentary about Tony Award winner Mary Louise Wilson.
Nyswaner follows the irrepressible Wilson, a luminary of stage and screen, as she travels to her native New Orleans to teach her first acting class to a skeptical younger generation.
She’s The Best Thing In It premieres in Austin, Texas, on March 15. Linda Lichter represents world sales.
Did you know MLW and if not, how did you get involved with her and come on board this doc?
I met Mary Louise over 20 years ago. We both owned houses in upstate New York, near Woodstock (and still do). We became friends and were among the founders of a professional theatre company (where Mary Louise developed Full Gallop) and a writers’ group.
What were her feelings about being the subject of the movie?
She was mostly concerned with going to New Orleans and teaching her class. She was new to teaching and wanted to do it well. So she focused on teaching and let me shoot. But she wasn’t hesitant to talk about her life. We belonged to the same writers’ group where we had worked on personal essays and memoirs. So we are each accustomed to using our lives as springboards to art. In fact, Mary Louise will be publishing a memoir this year: My First Hundred Years In Show Business.
Was she happy for you to just shoot or did she need to approve any of the doc?
It didn’t really come up. She knew she could put the brakes on, during any of the interviews, if I touched upon something that made her uncomfortable. But Mary Louise wasn’t interested in creating some pleasant image of herself for public consumption. She believes, as I do, that an artist is obliged to examine him/herself thoroughly, and to embrace one’s own flaws. She’s a comic and the best comics build humour on their mistakes and failures.
You chose to operate the camera too, which is not always a given with a director. Why? What did that allow you to do?
I was usually the “B” camera, working with other camera operators, particularly Phil Dorling. This was primarily an economic decision – the doc was self-financed and I couldn’t afford two camera operators (I worked for free). But, I’m glad I did it, and I shot some footage on my own. Being behind the camera allowed me to figure out – on the run – what was important in any situation that was unfolding.
There is a lot to this woman and she chooses what she reveals about herself. Was it easy to get her to talk?
I chose my subject because she’s a fantastic storyteller. She is always funny. She just can’t help herself. She has a wry view of the world and doesn’t hesitate to express it. And she was developing her memoir (that I mentioned above), so she got to revive and rehearse some of her stories that you can read about, in more depth, when the book comes out.
Were there some things that were a no-go area no matter how hard you pushed? I’m thinking chiefly of her love life. What happened with her only marriage?
She didn’t want to talk further about her love life on film. We hadn’t discussed it before shooting; it came up in the scene when I ask her about her marriage. I think I could have pushed her, but I respect her privacy. In fact, I found her reticence quite moving. That’s why I kept the camera running, even after she said she didn’t want to talk further on that subject. I saw dignity in her reticence. Today, everyone reveals the most excruciatingly personal things on social media – there’s no reticence and no privacy.
The New Orleans students didn’t catch on to MLW’s methods too quickly. What was the mood like off-camera among them before the “animal exercise” breakthrough?
They were frustrated. They enjoyed Mary Louise’s sense of humour and could see she was trying to help them. But they didn’t get what she was talking about and, frankly, she had trouble explaining it. But it isn’t easy to talk about the actor’s craft; much of it is mysterious. Acting is part craft, part instinct, part education, and part talent. How do you talk about all that? But the students went along for the ride and caught on.
What was MLW’s mood and attitude like in the early days of the class?
She was frustrated just as the students were frustrated. And she felt she was letting them down.
Will she go back to teach again?
Mary Louise might teach again, but her acting career is going strong. I’m not sure she has the time to teach right now.
There is a nice tribute from one of the talking heads who says she has accomplished so much by making a life out of theater and acting. How would you assess MLW’s contribution to the arts?
This is a huge question. I’m not sure that you can judge an artist completely by their work, although Mary Louise has an impressive body of work. The point of the film is that the actor’s life is honourable, if one pursues it in the right way and for the right reasons. Mary Louise has pursued acting for 60 years because she wants to get better and better with each performance, not because she wants to walk down some red carpet wearing the right gown. The way she has lived her life, and conducted a fearless, relentless quest to always be better, IS her contribution.
What is she actually doing next?
At this very moment, Mary Louise is on Broadway, with Kristen Chenoweth, in On the Twentieth Century. Her memoir, My First Hundred Years In Show Business, will be published in May.
What are you doing next?
I’ve got two features that will be released this year: She’s The Best Thing In It and Freeheld, a gay marriage-themed true story starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. And I’m on the writers’ staff for the CIA drama, Homeland.