RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, we've been talking with the contenders in a category that doesn't often get marquee attention: Best Adapted Screenplay. Three writers have been nominated for "The Ides of March": Grant Heslov, George Clooney and Beau Willimon. The movie is based on Willimon's stage play, called "Farragut North," which was inspired by his experiences working on several Senate and presidential campaigns.
We caught up with Beau Willimon recently. He started off by describing the day he got a call that some guy named George Clooney wanted to make his play into a movie.
BEAU WILLIMON: I was driving a car out in Long Island at the time and I got the call on my cell phone. And it was one of those Hollywood fairytale moments when my agent said to me, Warner Brothers would like to option the play to make into a movie. And how does that sound? And I think that's the point where I almost blacked out and drove the car into a ditch. But apparently, I said that sounds great, so let's do it. So, we obviously optioned the movie rights before we even had the production up on stage.
MARTIN: We should say, for people who haven't seen "Ides of March" or who haven't seen your play, it does focus on a Democratic candidate.
WILLIMON: That's right. Mike Morris is a governor and he's running for president, played by George Clooney. But at the center of the story is his press secretary, Stephen Myers, played by Ryan Gosling. And Ryan finds himself faced with a number of ethical choices, sort of tricky gray area that political operatives often find themselves in. And in his desire to win, has to decide whether to go down the moral fork in the road or the more self-serving and ambitious and hubristic side.
(SOUNDBITE OF "IDES OF MARCH")
MARTIN: Where is your starting point in the process of writing the screenplay?
WILLIMON: I saw the movie is an opportunity to reinvestigate these characters, to add new characters, to broaden the scope of the story. We also had the opportunity to bring Governor Morris, George Clooney's character, into the film. In the stage version it was purely behind the scenes, you never saw the governor.
MARTIN: How did that decision come about, to elevate the governor - the presidential candidate - into a main character in the film?
WILLIMON: Mostly because movie time works - it operates so fast. On stage, you can have a 20-minute scene and it feels like it goes by in a heartbeat. And on film, you rarely see those sort of 20-minute scenes and it's not as much about the talking, it's about the doing. So when we brought the governor in, and we knew George is going to play him, we thought, well, what can we do to really amp up the stakes and to really get the story moving along at warp speed and truly make it life or death?
And we arrived at the choices we made. I don't want to go into great detail about it because...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WILLIMON: ...I don't want a ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet. But certainly, the stakes get very high.
MARTIN: Was there any dialogue that you had written for the play, that you were in love with, that just didn't make it into the movie?
WILLIMON: My favorite parts of the play are these monologues that the characters, Tom Duffy and Paul Zara, get to give. You know, one on loyalty, the other on the purgatory that political operatives end up at in the end of their career and political gamesmanship.
MARTIN: You're talking about Paul Zara, Tom Duffy. Those are the campaign managers in your play. And in the film, they're working for competing campaigns.
WILLIMON: Those were probably my two favorite parts of the play. And both of those remained almost entirely intact.
MARTIN: Was your personal writing process any different when you sat down to write the play, as opposed to when you wrote the screenplay?
WILLIMON: It was very different. When I wrote the play it was about six months after having finished my work on the Dean campaign, and I hadn't written anything for a while...
MARTIN: You worked for Howard Dean...
WILLIMON: That's right.
MARTIN: ...when he was running for president.
WILLIMON: I hadn't written anything for a while, so I was really itching to write something and politics was on the brain. Usually when I write a play, I put months of thought into who are the characters I want to focus on? What are their stories? But when it came to the movie you're looking at, you know, a lot more characters and a lot more scenes. And you really have to plot out things I think in a lot more detail in terms of your outlines, just so you don't shoot yourself in the foot writing yourself into a corner you can't get out of later on.
And so, yeah, very different processes but I knew these characters. I knew the core of the story and that gave me something to hold onto so I didn't feel lost at sea.
MARTIN: Beau, thank you so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it
WILLIMON: Thank you so much, Rachel.
MARTIN: That's Oscar nominated screenwriter Beau Willimon, speaking with us from Venice, California. Willimon, Grant Heslov, and George Clooney are up for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film "The Ides of March."
Next week, we hear from screenwriter Peter Strawn about adapting the beloved novel and meet miniseries, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.