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To Write About Myself:
Interview with Ron Nyswaner, screenwriter for Philadelphia

To Write About Myself:
Interview with Ron Nyswaner, screenwriter for Philadelphia
by Greta Christina

The thing that most captured my attention about Philadelphia was not the directing, or the camerawork, or the editing. While all of these were certainly skillful, they didn't carry the film beyond competent filmmaking craft. Even the acting, which was superb, was not what made this film stand out for me. What I found most compelling about this film was the script.

Which is why I wanted to talk with Ron Nyswaner, the man who wrote the screenplay for Philadelphia. An openly gay man, Nyswaner says that he welcomed the chance to put his personal experience as a gay man into his work. "I hadn't really had an opportunity before to write gay characters in a feature film," he told me. "This was the first time to write about myself, in a sense. I don't think all art should be about yourself; if the only thing I could write about was middle-aged gay white males, I'd have a pretty boring repertoire. But there was an excitement in being able to expose a little more of myself in a screenplay than I had before.

"Jonathan Demme and I talked about making a movie about AIDS in 1988," he said. "That had to with a friend of his just being diagnosed, and a member of my family being diagnosed at almost the same time. We spent a couple of years having brief conversations about what the various approaches to the story might be. Then in August of 1990, we attached the whole civil rights/courtroom drama aspect to the issue of AIDS and came up with the two characters, Joe Miller and Andrew Beckett. I started writing in August of 1990, and then spent two plus years -- up to October of '92 -- pretty much working almost exclusively on this project."

Not surprisingly, one of Nyswaner's strongest motivations for writing this screenplay was his own experience with the AIDS pandemic. "Whether it was just luck, or whatever, AIDS had not struck all that close to me," he said. "I had not really lost very many friends to AIDS, although of course it was something that any compassionate person was caring about. Then when somebody I was very close to was diagnosed with it, it really struck close to home. I think that I approached this project as a way of dealing with my fears, my sadness, and my anger over what this person was dealing with. I think that's the way a lot of us are, we work out our own personal things -- it's like doing therapy -- we work it out in our work. So it was sort of a release to be able to deal with these issues."


Despite the hype surrounding the film (or perhaps because of it), Nyswaner is somewhat modest about the film's status as the first mainstream Hollywood production about AIDS. "I think there were other films that broke some ground, like a film that I really admire, Longtime Companion. It played to a much smaller audience then we're hoping to play to, but I think that people saw that there was an audience of some sort for this subject matter." He gives a great deal of credit to smaller, independent films about AIDS, and says that they "helped me to have the courage to take on the issue."

When I asked Nyswaner why it had been possible to make Philadelphia in 1993 (as opposed to five years ago), his answer surprised me. "I've been told by executives from TriStar that this picture was very easy to green-light," he replied. "They've had more struggles over other pictures. (It had) a script that people liked, with a brilliant director who had just won several Academy Awards, with two great stars who are campaigning to play the roles that they want to play."

"In the movie business at this point," he added, "everyone's lives had been so affected by AIDS that everyone felt a personal need to try to do something. When a story came along that appealed to studio executives as being entertaining and having the possibility to bring in a large audience, then they reacted, I think, mostly with relief."

Nyswaner also commented that the participation of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, two of the biggest box-office draws currently working in the industry, had a great deal to do with the realization of the project. "I think Tom Hanks is the perfect actor to be in this movie at this time and play this role (Andrew Beckett), not only because he gives such a good performance, but because of what he brings to the movie. He's beloved by America, he's like America's son, and I think that's a great quality to bring to a movie like this.

"Now, Joe Miller being played by Denzel Washington was a surprise to everybody. Denzel approached Jonathan and suggested himself for the role. He was never scripted as a black man; that came as a surprise, and Jonathan responded immediately to it. But watching the film, I think that's very successful. I think Denzel just transcends. He's not a black lawyer, he's just a lawyer. People of all colors flock to his movies."


Although I found Philadelphia on the whole to be both a very powerful and a very entertaining film, there were a number of decisions made about it that I questioned. Among these were the lack of physical affection displayed between Andrew and his lover Miguel (played by Antonio Banderas), and Andrew's failure to use the resources in the gay community for support in his legal battle. I asked Nyswaner about these decisions, as well as others that I approved of but was curious about.

On the subject of gay physical affection (or lack thereof), Nyswaner seemed almost apologetic. "I think it's something that sort of happened," he said. "It's not the result of a series of conscious decisions. There were a couple of scenes in which we were a little bit more intimate with the two men. It's funny, in some ways they were scenes that only served that purpose; and in a drama, if a scene only serves a social purpose and doesn't push the story forward, what happens when you are editing the movie is that you cut those scenes out. I think that if we made any mistake, it was to isolate those moments, and not integrate them into a scene that pushed the story and the drama forward.

"There's one scene in particular in which Tom and Antonio are lying in bed together, and Antonio has his shirt off, and they're clearly touching and caressing each other, and they're just sort of chatting. It took place about midway through the film, and when you're halfway into a film and you've built up this suspense and you've got an audience wanting to see what's going to happen next, when you stop and have a scene in which people are having a casual conversation, it stops the movie. It's the scene when people go get popcorn and lose track of what they're supposed to be thinking about. So if that's a mistake, then that was the mistake we made."

When I asked Nyswaner why Andrew had gone to ten lawyers to find one who would take his case, but never thought of going to the ACLU or the Lambda Legal Defense Fund or any of the other legal resources available in the gay community, he offered a much more pragmatic explanation. "The most important story in this movie is about a homosexual client and his homophobic lawyer. That's the core of the drama. So obviously, if he had gone to Lambda, we wouldn't have had that story. That was a little bit of dramatic license. We wanted to make a movie about people getting over their differences and feeling some kind of affection and tolerance toward each other, so we had to bring two men from different backgrounds together to do that."

One of the things that I found most striking about Philadelphia was that, unlike most mainstream Hollywood movies, the casting is extremely mixed racially on all levels, from the stars to the bit parts to the extras. I asked Nyswaner if this decision had been written into the screenplay. "Unless there's a very specific reason," he said, "I don't identify characters as white or black, because in some ways I think it's offensive. You know what people do when they write scripts? They only identify the minority people, because you just assume that everyone else is white. So occasionally, I'll write 'a white American,' just to let people know that they shouldn't make assumptions. But working with Jonathan, I tended to keep most of the characters neutral, knowing that he and his casting director would just have a great time making a real multi-cultural thing happen there." But Nyswaner did say that gender and race were written into a few of the roles. Specifically, the use of a white woman and an African-American man as the legal team defending Andrew's law firm against the discrimination charges was, in Nyswaner's words, "just clever legal strategy."

Nyswaner also spoke about the almost idealistic depiction of Andrew's family. "An element of our film is that Tom Hanks' family is very supportive, they love him very much. Some people think that that's unrealistic. My feeling was that a lot of gay themed literature presents a gay character in conflict with his family; that's a recurring theme, and I even think it's kind of a tired theme. I have met families who are loving and supportive towards their gay children. It's funny that it makes people angry that we presented a supporting, loving family. Maybe they're angry because their parents weren't like that. But I think they should get over it. There are families like that out there. Art can do a great service, I think, by presenting heroes as well as villains, and I think there are heroic families out there, so we wanted to present them. They are sort of idealized and that's OK. There's a long history of art presenting idealized people that we should strive to be like, and I think that that's quite alright."


And when I asked Nyswaner who felt the audience for Philadelphia was, he spoke almost passionately. "When we previewed the movie in Baltimore, we had a focus group afterwards, and a lot of people said, 'I feel like I've entered a world I never knew before. I don't know anyone who's gay, or at least I don't think I do, and I certainly don't know anyone as far as I know who has AIDS. But now after seeing your movie, I feel like I do.'

And we felt so fulfilled at that moment. We felt that we had really accomplished our goal, which is not to hand out a lesson to somebody, but to simply give them an experience. For two hours, you get to know Tom Hanks, and he's this gay guy, and he has AIDS, and he's a human being, and he's really not all that scary. So maybe people will walk out of the theater, and they'll carry Andrew Beckett with them."

Copyright 1994 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Bay Times.


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