Posthumously produced screenplays are a rarity in Hollywood, and posthumously produced screenplays by American literary legends are practically non-existent. However, that’s exactly what we have in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond: the last, “lost” original screenplay by Tennessee Williams. In the tradition of characters Maggie the Cat, Blanche Dubois, and Amanda Wingfield, Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Fisher Willow, a wild society girl in the 1920s who carts around her handsome beau, Jimmy (Chris Evans), to what might be one ball too many. Director Jodie Markell speaks with Script about directing the last script of a true American poet.
How does Fisher Willow compare to other Tennessee Williams protagonists, females in particular?
Jodie Markell: Williams was fascinated with women who were too smart, too witty, too beautiful, too sensuous, too romantic, too poetic –and how they survive in a harsh world. These women were usually very brutally honest and direct, and Fisher Willow fits right into that group. When you first meet them, it’s hard to take a little, but through the course of the work, you begin to feel for them. That’s what happened when I first read Williams and I was 15, I felt that way. He has a universal appeal and speaks to different generations as well with those characters who feel a little out of depth, out of place in society. Fisher says once, “I am out of my element here,” and I think Williams was speaking for himself there.
What qualities do you think Williams possesses as a writer that set him apart from other literary legends?
Markell: I think he uniquely writes as a poet. He once said, “I put poetry in the drama, I put poetry in the short stories, I put poetry in the screenplays, but I’m really just a poet.” That’s very different from a lot of writers who are more obsessed with the narrative structure or more of a prosaic style of writing, and this [tendency to poetry] takes him into all kinds of interesting territories: There’s a surreal element to a lot of his works; there are characters who talk as if they’re giving arias sometimes; and there’s a lot of humor that’s really grounded in the South — that ironic sense of humor that you’ll see in a lot of the great Southern literature. Also, I feel like poetry is the language of the soul, and Tennessee’s work has a lot of heart in it. He really writes from a place of the heart.
To what degree does subtext inform your directing? For instance, the ambiguity around Jimmy’s sexual orientation.
Markell: I think that for a lot of Williams heroes — the way he described Jimmy [in the script] is that he might be a hero of a romantic ballad — Williams was interested in men who were enigmatic, who women would project upon; they would project their needs on these men. If you look at Sweet Bird of Youth or any of the great Williams plays and stories, often there would be this strong woman projecting onto this man who was enigmatic. Therefore, I think you could read into that ambiguity of sexuality, mainly when Jimmy has a fight with the guy in the bathroom. I love that that scene is there because it serves several purposes: one is that you get a sense that Jimmy is not rejecting Fisher because he’s gay but because also perhaps there’s a part of him that’s sensitive to maybe having those tendencies toward homosexuality. The man approaching Jimmy disturbs him so much that Jimmy has to hit him. I think Williams was fascinated by sexuality and men who could go either way. Really, there’s no answer. Williams didn’t like to answer the question; he liked to pose the question. I think that’s another thing about him. He wrote once about the mystery of revelation of character and he wanted the audience to bring what they bring to it, to find their answers.
For you, as a director and an actor as well, what makes for a strong, vivid character? Is it a specificity or is it an openness, sort of vagueness?
Markell: I think that people are so complicated and every moment in life is so mysterious and complicated that I don’t think any character is ever too detailed. I think that any actor is going to bring a whole wealth of issues and qualities to whatever character he or she portrays that no writer ever foresaw. Yet, there is something like a touchstone to the character where you’ve got to land it, you’ve got to nail it, you’ve got to serve the story that you’re in. So, you want to bring all your individuality to it and yet you do serve a greater purpose in the work and that is to serve the story. So, it’s almost like you’re walking a tightrope, yet you’re going to walk it differently every night — I’m thinking in the theatre. In film, it’s really about moment-to-moment and that’s the most important thing an actor can do is be truthful in the moment: as the character, but in the moment.
What are some differences between Old Hollywood screenwriting, with which I would group Williams, and New Hollywood screenwriting? You’ve obviously had this incredible exposure to both as a contemporary actor and director of this Williams script that was written in 1957.
Markell: [Different] people would answer that question in different ways. I find that, with this material, I did want to expand some of the visual sequences that weren’t maybe written in [the script] but were referred to. I think that is a little different today: We’re able to get a little more poetic with sections of film and tell the story with fewer words. There’s a quote by Arthur Miller referring to Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: “In one stroke, Williams lifted lyricism to the highest level it’s ever been in the theatre.” Williams lifted lyricism in the cinema as well, but Miller also said, and this I think is the difference between classic Hollywood and today, that Williams legitimized pure sensibility as a driving force for dramatic structure. For me, that says Williams’ work is not going to hit on page 27 as the turning point between Act One and Two — no, he didn’t write like that. He wrote with the through-line of the characters, more like Akira Kurosawa would write. He wrote with the characters telling us what they were going to do next, not just with the prosaic narrative structure. In this, I think Williams was ahead of his time when he was writing this way; it wasn’t exactly what everyone else was doing in Classic Hollywood writing. And so, in that way, it’s very modern, like Where the Wild Things Are, like some of the films we do see now that take a more poetic approach.
How important is a sense of location, of environment, both physical and emotional, in approaching your interpretation of the script?
Markell: It’s essential; the environment’s almost like a character in our film. It’s like you can’t take the North Pole out of the Eskimo. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and it becomes a part of you. The South is like a vanishing landscape to me, and I wanted to capture it before it was gone forever. So really it was essential to me that we shot on location, in the South, in a part of the South where there are things that are left there that are still timeless and evoke the period that we were shooting in, in the 1920s. I felt like I hadn’t quite seen the South captured on film in that way before. “Dreamlike” is a key word: It’s a mysterious, haunted feeling that hovers everything there.
What was it like to direct without the screenwriter to correct or fine-tune moments as you encountered them on set?
Markell: That was, of course, challenging. But I felt that all of us — the designers, the actors, myself — we felt like we had a little bit of Tennessee in our hearts, and so we would ask questions, “What would Tennessee do? Would he like this moment?” So an actor would do the same thing: After I’d say cut we’d all be laughing and say, “Oh, Tennessee would find that so funny.” You just got that sense of what he would have done. And I think that’s a really good practice for a director because even if the screenwriter is alive, that doesn’t mean he’s A) cooperative, or B) interested, or even C) capable. I mean, I love screenwriters, but sometimes you ask for something [to be revised] and it actually gets worse. I’m saying even myself as a screenwriter. Somebody asks me, “Would you fix this section?” and I say sometimes, “I might make it worse!” I thought it was just great to find the answer in myself: Directors do that anyway, with a contemporary original screenplay; they will put their vision onto the screenplay and they will find what they want to highlight or illuminate or what they need or what they don’t need. So I had to do that as well.