James Lapine Talks His New Film and What to Expect From Falsettos

Special Features   James Lapine Talks His New Film and What to Expect From Falsettos
 
Writer-director James Lapine is going into a new kind of woods with Custody, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. Plus, he shares details on the upcoming revival of Falsettos.
James Lapine
James Lapine Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Custody, the new film written and directed by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine, is getting its world premiere this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

The cast features Oscar nominee Viola Davis, Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno, Golden Globe nominee Hayden Panettiere and Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn with Tony Award nominees Tony Shalhoub and Raúl Esparza and Tony winner Dan Fogler.

Here is the complete screening schedule:
April 17 at 8 PM - BMCC Tribeca PAC
April 18 at 6 PM - Regal Battery Park Stadium
April 20 at 3 PM - Regal Battery Park Stadium
April 22 at 6 PM - Regal Battery Park Stadium

The film, according to production notes, “explores the lives of three New York City women, each from different socio-economic backgrounds whose lives unexpectedly intersect at NY Family Court.” It's a marked departure for the author of plays like 12 Dreams, and the librettos to musicals Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George and Passion. He's also scheduled to return to Broadway next season as director of the revival of Falsettos.

Lapine talked with Playbill.com about the film and how it fits into his remarkable career.

It’s great to see all those Broadway people in Custody.
James Lapine: It was so nice to hire people I’ve admired in the theatre. Viola Davis, of course, and Tony Shalhoub and Ellen Burstyn and Raúl Esparza. Then there’s Karen Pittman and Dan Fogler and Stephen Kunken and David Aaron Baker—it’s chock full of New York actors, which Viola loved, after working in L.A. for all this time. She was in seventh heaven. A lot of these people she ended up going to Juilliard with. She really enjoyed the experience of digging in and acting with a lot of New York actors.

I wrote the screenplay a long time ago, and I had thought no one was interested in it. It was a tough subject to sell. I thought of adapting it for a play, but you need that breadth of characters to really paint that picture. It’s nice it came together with Viola.

She’s also one of the producers, right?
JL: Exactly, yeah. It’s how the movie got made. People want to work with Viola, and we’re very grateful because she’s obviously busy most of the year with her television show [How to Get Away with Murder], and she used her small hiatus to do this movie. She loved the script. She immediately jumped on, and said, “I want to do it.”

When I first saw the title Custody, I assumed it was about a marital custody battle, but it’s actually about a single mom whose son comes to school with cuts on his face, and the system suspects she’s been abusing him and tries to take him away from her. So it’s really a custody battle between a mother and the court system rather than between husband and wife. It’s also not just about the mother. You learn the judge’s whole background, the attorney’s whole background….
JL: Custody may not be the best title for it, but I couldn’t think of anything else because I’m not good at titles, but I thought of it more in the terminology of custody rather than the legal terminology of how we are custodians in a sense when we’re parents. I spent a lot of time down at [Manhattan] Family Court and observed so many different kinds of cases, but what I was mostly interested in was the grey zone of it all—the kind of impossibility of a place like that to function properly given just the lack of funds, the difficulty and the bureaucracy. Also, I was just interested in parenting and what it means to be a good parent, what it means to be a child, and we’re all sort of, as they say, children in our parents’ house, so there were a lot of themes in it that went well beyond just the case itself.

Viola Davis in <i>Custody</i>
Viola Davis in Custody Paul Sarkis

Was this drawn from personal experience?
JL: No, not at all. I was interested in what happens when one of these cases go awry, which is the sort of starter background case, which was based on the Nixzmary Brown case [a child who was abused and eventually killed at home in New York in 2004 without the city’s Social Services stepping in to help her], which was in the papers for a very long stretch of time, and I wanted to do something about women. I’m just so fascinated. I don't know why. It became about different female characters and race. I have a friend who’s a judge down there, and I just casually said to her, “I want to come see what you do. I’m curious.” Because I couldn’t imagine her, frankly, this woman as a judge [in that environment]. Once I got down there and sat in the courtroom, it was just so fascinating.

It’s like the best theatre in town. Every ten minutes another case flies by there, and they never seem to end. I just got sucked into it. What amazed me about it was it felt like a place where people had a calling to be there, no matter who they were, whether they were the judge or the lawyer—even the court officers and a lot of the support team. It takes a really special kind of person to sit through those stories day in and day out, you know? And I found a lot of those people, for one reason or another, were driven, whether they knew it or not, to be there.

Davis captures that in her big speech toward the end of the film where she’s explaining to the client, “You say we don’t really know you, but you don’t really know us either and what our motivations are; why we do the thing we do.” It’s a fascinating speech.
JL: That, to me, is the crux of the movie. The theme of the movie is the unknowability of everyone in the most intimate of circumstances. What could be more intimate for people than to have to go in and plead to get their children back or to take children away, you know? It’s just so personal. You are suddenly thrust into the middle of these people’s dramas without even knowing who the people are.

Did working on the film adaptation of Into the Woods help you to prepare for this? Did it help you think as a filmmaker? It’s sometimes hard for a stage director to make the transition to film. You have to think very differently. Custody seems like a very cinematic film, not a stage event.
JL: Well, ironically, I always wanted to make films. I was a graphic designer and a photographer prior to moving into the theatre, and when I dabbled in the theatre, the idea was that it would be some training working with actors to ultimately make films. Then I made my first film [Impromptu in 1990], and I’m very proud of it, but it’s funny. I realized in many ways, I like theatre better. I made three other films after that. The second one was particularly fraught. Not fraught, but it was a studio movie, and that pushed me kind of even further away from making films. But what got me back into wanting to make a film was the documentary I did on Steve Sondheim for HBO [Six by Sondheim]. I shot a couple of sequences in that, and we shot digitally. I had not ever had the experience of working digitally. My three films were on film, you know, which is a very different process, and when I worked digitally, I thought “Oh, this is why I want to make movies,” because it has the speed and the ease of theatre in a way that filmmaking didn’t. So, after doing that, it sort of whet my appetite to make a film again, and that’s why I pulled this out of the drawer and sent it to Viola, and it fortunately came together.

Are there plans to do more films, especially adaptations like Into the Woods?
JL: I did write a screen adaptation recently of Sunday In The Park With George. So we’ll see if that comes to fruition or not.

How is it different from A) the original stage version and B) the filmed stage version?
JL: It’s totally different. When I went back to it, it turned out to be quite a challenge. We had an offer to do it as a film initially, and Steve and I chose not to do it. Going back, I realized there’s a lot of different challenges to it that I hadn’t recognized, not the least of which is that, you know, that show is based on the 100-year history of the painting [“Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte”], but now we’re well past the 100 years, so the whole grandmother character and everything doesn’t work anymore. I feel very good about the screenplay. I think it’s also visually…I mean, I loved doing Custody, but Custody you wouldn’t call a very visual movie.

It’s very different from a lot of your other work.
JL: Totally.

It’s very much in the present, very much contemporary characters, no songs, no dreams….
JL: No.

There’s not a lot of things that one might have pointed to as “Lapinian” sort of touches. It’s a great departure for you.
JL: You’re absolutely right. It’s a huge departure, and it’s funny. I get offered plays that are kind of very straight, naturalistic plays, and I always turn them down because my feeling is that other people do that better than I do, or can do it better. But I think this film I had to make, and I don’t know why. It was a challenge to do something that was very straightforward and dramatic. For some reason, I was driven to do it, and that’s what my wife said. Neither of us can figure out what drove me. I think these characters and this world got under my skin, and I felt that this was an arena that I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to show it. You know, I felt so much for everybody in this situation down there that I felt compelled to tell their story.

It’s different in a lot of ways for everyone involved. For instance, Dan Fogler doesn’t play kind of a sloppy boob character. He plays a straight-head attorney.
JL: Yeah.

Where did you find Catalina Moreno who plays the mother?
JL: She’s incredible. She was in a Kenny Lonergan play. I didn’t even realize that. She came to my attention through her manager who is also Viola’s manager. She was an Academy Award nominee for Maria Full Of Grace. She had sort of fallen off the radar a little bit, so I met with her, and she came in with such an incredible passion for this story, and we met a few times, and she just won me over. Something in my gut connected with something in her gut. She wanted to tell the story and understood it and talked about it with such passion.

The film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. Is it scheduled for a general release or other film festivals?
JL: Well, we’re an indie film, which we’re looking for distributions, so we go to Tribeca and show it to distributors and hopefully get the one that’s as passionate about the movie as we all were in making it to put it out into the world.

How does it feel to have Passion being done in Paris?
JL: Well, it’s thrilling. They’ve already done Woods and Sunday, so my trifecta of Sondheims have had the Parisian treatment. But, you know, I lived in Paris. That movie Impromptu was shot in Paris, and my wife and I stayed behind in Paris for a couple years, and I’m a big Francophile, so I was really happy. They don’t like the musical over there very much, so this has been interesting that Jean Claude [Choplin] has been able to introduce the musical to Parisians.

Have they responded differently?
JL: Yes, you know, it’s funny. The thing about Les Miz, which has been such a gigantic success all over the world except in France... I think he’s been able to introduce it in a way that they’ve embraced it. I don't know. Obviously, they only run seven or eight performances. It’s in a very large opera theatre.

The finances on that, I don’t even want to think about it.
JL: Well, you know, the government supports it. Hello.

Different world.
JL: That’s right. European government supports the arts.

You mentioned Mr. Sondheim when you mentioned your trifecta. Are there plans for another musical with Mr. Sondheim?
JL: Sadly, no. I don’t think we’ll be writing another show together. I love the guy. What can I say? I wish there were, certainly wish there were.

Your next Broadway project is the Falsettos revival. So many things have changed in the gay world since the first part was written in the 1970s. Attitudes were changing as they were being written in the midst of the early AIDS crisis, and now it’s 2016, and gay marriage is legal. Is all that going to be reflected at all or is it going to be directed in period?

Michael Rupert in Falsettos.
Michael Rupert in Falsettos. Photo by Carol Rosegg

JL: It will definitely be in period. I don’t think it can not be in period. One of the impulses to do it was, I took my 23-year-old NYU grad assistant to see The Normal Heart, the revival, and at intermission, she turned to me and said, “I know about AIDS, but was it really like this?” And I thought geez, has time gone like that so quickly? That the whole spectrum of what we lived through at that time is not being told to young people?

There was a period of time we were going to a funeral a week.
JL: I know. So that made me feel like there had to be a way to do something about that. Then, just coincidentally, I happened to be sitting next to [producer] Jordan Roth, and I just casually said, “Anything on our bucket list you want to do?” And he said Falsettos, and I said, “We’ll do it.” So that’s how the ball got rolling on that. André Bishop and I went to the library to look at the original production, and both of us felt…first of all, that it was kind of timeless. But also the first act doesn’t have anything to do with AIDS. It’s the second act that does because it was written ten years after the fact. But, in the end, it’s a story about people, and AIDS is obviously a background to it, but I think it’s going to hold up really well. Maybe I’m being naïve, but hopefully not. I would like to think that a whole younger generation of people will come and see it.

You also had kind of a setback recently with the cancellation of the Barbara Cook show you were writing with Tommy Tune directing.
JL: It wasn’t just my setback. Yesterday was going to be our first preview. It was really unfortunate, and just the stars, no pun intended, did not align. The timing didn’t work out well, and we just couldn’t make our dates to pull it together in time. I think the producer made the right decision to postpone it, and maybe one day it will happen, or it won’t. It was very much timed with the publication of Barbara’s memoir, and what I did was basically adapt the memoir in a way that her storytelling throughout the evening reflected what she had written. It all just took more time than we realized it was going to take, and rather than put a gun against our head to kind of make these dates or kind of postpone it a couple of weeks, I think everybody agreed the best thing to do was take it off the stove for now and then see if we can reconvene, possibly, later.

As a director yourself, what was it like working with Tommy Tune as a director?
JL: I had never met Tommy Tune, and I had a lovely, lovely time with him, and I thought we really gelled well. He’s a fascinating guy, and I found it a privilege to work with him, even briefly, and I liked not being the director, actually. I rarely get asked to just write something, and I enjoy not having that responsibility and just being able to write. I enjoyed writing the Into the Woods movie and having Rob Marshall do it. I mean, it’s fun to just have the one hat on.

Custody, in its way, is one of the most radical things you’ve done.
JL: I don’t know if it’s radical, but I like to do things I haven’t done. It’s what interests me. I don’t want to go do the same thing over and over again. I love Custody because it’s not like anything I’ve done before.

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