Prior Walter won’t be lip-synching Abba songs, but Tony Kushner has told POZ Biz that P.J. Hogan, director of the camp classic Muriel’s Wedding, is set to direct the film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Angels in America. “It’s full speed ahead on the movie. We’re going into pre-production in the fall,” Kushner says. Any word on casting? “Lots of word, but unfortunately I can’t say anything about that. Lots of people that you would have heard of,” the playwright adds cryptically. “There are a lot of really great people who want to do it.”
In typical style, Kushner is flouting Hollywood’s conventional wisdom that any movie more than two hours long is box-office poison: He is making not one but two epic-length Angels movies. “The screenplay length is about six to seven hours for both films,” Kushner says. “In fact, [Hogan] wants me to stick some things back in that I cut out of the play.”
Kushner selected Hogan this spring to direct the film, after director Robert Altman backed out of the project because he felt the budget wasn’t sufficient. Although he is hard at work polishing up the Angels screenplay and swamped with numerous other projects -- including a novel, two new screenplays and a play about the relationship between the British textile industry and American slavery -- Kushner took time out to reflect on Angels, AIDS and the current political situation with POZ Biz.
The brilliant jumble of emotions and ideas that came to be Angels emerged from Kushner’s personal and political meditations about life in the ’80s. “It was interesting to me that the epidemic had struck at exactly the moment when we were being told by our elected leaders that selfishness was the greatest form of social benevolence, when crazed individualism, which makes for very bad caretaking, was becoming the national ethos,” he says.
Kushner was devastated by the mass suffering wrought by AIDS, though he was not affected as dramatically by the epidemic as other gay men. “I have two very close friends who are positive, but are largely asymptomatic. On an intimate level, I’ve been spared what a lot of people have had to go through in just losing all of their friends. That hasn’t happened to me,” says the playwright. Kushner thought that caregivers were a neglected element of the AIDS story. “I felt when I wrote the play that insufficient attention was being paid to the difficulty of taking care of catastrophically ill people. There was an automatic assumption that it was an easy thing to do. It just isn’t the case that people do it readily. Especially men. The way that men are constructed socially -- especially in this country -- is as sort of individualistic loners who deny their own connection,” Kushner says. “The fact that the gay community was reacting so magnificently seemed [like] a transcendence and a triumph.”
Last March, Kushner was called upon to defend Angels when officials in Charlotte, North Carolina threatened to shut down a local production of the play for violating community decency standards. After a judge let the performance proceed, Kushner addressed the opening night audience denouncing the censors as “fundamentalist bigots.” “It was sort of exciting and scary. The theater was incredibly brave at great risk to itself financially. It stared these guys down and won. The whole city was mortified by the publicity,” Kushner says. “It may result in the overturning of the town’s obscenity statutes.”
In Prior’s final speech at Bethesda Fountain in New York City’s Central Park, he pronounces to the audience: “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.” So how does Kushner view the country’s swing to the right? “I’m in a certain amount of confusion and despair, myself. I had really believed, naïvely, that 1992 was a transformative year in that 13 years of Reaganite nonsense was enough and that people were really starting to look at how appallingly bad life had gotten in the United States. I didn’t think that Clinton was a great man, but I thought that his election was a harbinger. I think there’s an incredibly intimate connection between homophobia and AIDSphobia. The Right is tentatively exploring how AIDSphobic they can be. I think that we will see all sorts of monstrous things proposed. It’s a time when one should neither be optimistic nor despairing, but hopefully people will be active,” Kushner observes. “There’s a lot up for grabs now.”