NPR

Freida Lee Mock, Wrestling with Kushner

From Sept. 11, 2001 until the 2004 presidential election, filmmaker Freida Lee Mock followed playwright Tony Kushner.

The resulting documentary, Wrestling With Angels, tells the story of Kushner's life and reveals the inspiration behind his work, from the play Homebody/Kabul to the award-winning television adaptation of Angels in America.

Kushner, 50, is a private man. Yet Mock was able to film his wedding as well as his rituals on the opening night of a production.

Mock, who won an Oscar for a previous documentary on Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin (Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision) tells Liane Hansen how she came to pick Kushner as a documentary subject, and what it was like to spend so much time in his world.

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Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From September 11, 2001, until the 2004 presidential election of 2004, Freida Lee Mock followed playwright Tony Kushner around. She's not a stalker. Mock is a filmmaker who received an Oscar for her documentary film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Her new film, Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, tells the story of his life and reveals the inspiration behind his work, from the play Homebody/Kabul to the award-winning television adaptation of Angels in America.

(Soundbite of "Angels in America")

Unidentified Woman (Actress): Greetings, prophets. The great work begins. The messenger has arrived.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: At the age of 50, Tony Kushner is a very private man. But Freida Lee Mock was able to film his wedding, as well as his opening-night rituals.

(Soundbite of film "Wrestling with Angels")

Mr. TONY KUSHNER (Playwright): I go by the fountain sometimes. I usually have to do opening night gifts, because I always leave everything for the last minute, and that helps to kill the day. The only things that are really rituals are I have to sing all the way through Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine. I don't go to opening night performances. I go out and have Chinese food.

HANSEN: From the studios of NPR West, filmmaker Freida Lee Mock explained why she chose Tony Kushner to be the subject of her documentary.

Ms. FREIDA LEE MOCK (Documentary Filmmaker): Well, I had heard about his reputation as this extraordinary new voice on American contemporary theater because of the epic Angels in America, but I hadn't seen that play before I actually heard him speak at a graduation. And he was given an honorary doctorate at this university, and he was told he could speak, but only for one minute. His one-minute presentation was so powerful as a story and an experience. He was funny, he was incredibly connected to social and political concerns, he was very inspiring, and he had the entire audience of probably a thousand-plus people just reeling with laughter and inspiration and quite swept away.

HANSEN: There is a commencement speech in the film.

(Soundbite of film "Wrestling with Angels")

Mr. KUSHNER: What to say to the graduating class of 2002, to you vibrant young people leaving college and entering the great world beyond, just in time to be trampled flat by the four horsemen of the apocalypse?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUSHNER: Duck might be a good place to start.

HANSEN: Did you want to recapture that moment that inspired you?

Ms. MOCK: Yes. I thought that for many people, I being one who may have heard about Tony Kushner but may not have been that familiar with his work, but I felt that a film that actually captured the essence of his voice and his sort of being, character, would be a way to kind of bring an audience into being curious about this person who happened to be a playwright, who happened to be a citizen very involved in this, you know, engaged with the world and his country, that that would be a way to kind of bring an audience to this film and take them on a journey about an artist and in this case an activist.

HANSEN: How did you convince him to do it?

Ms. MOCK: Well, you know, I just wrote him a letter and sort of sent him some of my works, my past films, and I think he was familiar with the one I did on Maya Lin, the woman that designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And it was just a letter that sort of sat with him, I think, and finally we talked to each other on the phone. And after the conversation he was curious and seemingly interested enough so that I felt, well, I think we should meet each other in person, not just on the phone, because I'm on the West Coast, he's on the East Coast.

So after we met in New York, where he was actually rehearsing Homebody/Kabul in the East Village at the New York Theater Workshop, it pretty much went from there. He said, all right, and that's what's important for a writer or a filmmaker, is to have that cooperation from the subject.

HANSEN: Do you think the presence of the camera had an effect on him?

Ms. MOCK: You try as a filmmaker to just be this anonymous fly on the wall, but I think the subject always sees you lurking in the background, you know. And you're aware and then ideally you've had a relationship you can perhaps get lost in the immediacy of your relationship with the film, with the director, if it's an interview or - but I think when you're involved in what you're doing, say, during rehearsal, being involved with your colleagues, collaboration, or speaking with students, I think after a moment you do get lost in your activity, and you don't really see us.

HANSEN: You're present at some very personal moments in his life, his wedding, for one.

Ms. MOCK: Yes. I mean, you know, I knew from his printed schedule there were a lot of these public events or, you know, productions, etc., but obviously the very intimate, private moments were not on the schedule, but I would just hear. And so I found out that he was getting married to his long-time partner, Mark Harris, and so I asked him, and ultimately I sort negotiated the idea that I wouldn't be coming in with, you know, a big crew, you know, to interrupt or interfere with his very personal moment. So I promised that I'd use a very tiny camera, the size of baked potato. But as I said, it actually came out to be kind of the size of two baked potatoes. So I'm happy to say that he felt, or both of them - Mark, he felt comfortable enough that we could be there and capture a moment that was very personal and meaningful.

(Soundbite of film "Wrestling with Angels")

Unidentified Man: As you may have noticed, this isn't your typical wedding. The fact that you're all here raises our good fortune and joy and happiness so exponentially that it seems insane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: I think my six-year-old grand-niece, puzzling about this wedding announcement of two men getting married, declared one morning, I know, Mark is Tony's company-keeper. There you are. Mark is a great company-keeper.

Ms. MOCK: And the same time, too, with his father's 80th birthday, it gave us a chance to really go to the roots of his upbringing, and so to both be with a very personal moment with his family and the great celebration of his father's 80th birthday.

HANSEN: What was it like to interview his father, particularly, you know, his father talking about accepting his son as a gay man?

Ms. MOCK: Yes. Well, his father, as you can see in the film, is an incredibly wonderful, charming, articulate, talented, really, as a musician. I mean, he's the conductor of the Lake Charles Symphony, he's the long-time conductor, and he trained as a musician. You know, he received a Masters at Julliard as a clarinetist. He was wonderful in his candor, and particularly that moment when he realized his son was probably gay.

(Soundbite of film "Wrestling with Angels")

Mr. WILLIAM KUSHNER (Father of Tony Kushner): I wrote him a letter. I said I wouldn't be proud to be Tchaikovsky's father. Tchaikovsky, as you know, was homosexual.

Ms. MOCK: So that was kind of a stunning, you know, admission. But later he tells us that he reversed in his feelings and realized he deeply loved his son, obviously, and accepted him.

(Soundbite of film "Wrestling with Angels")

Mr. WILLIAM KUSHNER: Finally, I wrote him a letter, and I said if I were Tchaikovsky's father, I'd be so proud I couldn't see straight. And lo and behold, I've turned out to be Tchaikovsky's father.

Ms. MOCK: It was wonderful, though, to see him - to hear him, actually, have that sense of transformation and acceptance.

HANSEN: What do you think you learned about Tony Kushner and his process that you didn't know before you began this documentary?

Ms. MOCK: Well, I found out how much he draws upon his family and personal life and the influence of his Jewish culture. But while it's very specific to the family, there's a universality about his work, you know. And that was sort of clear to me how much one can easily draw, and make art, out of what may seen ordinary or mundane events. But as an artist, he can create something beautiful, whereas others may experience the same thing or read about the same things, may not be able to make quite that kind of art.

HANSEN: That's the insight that you want audiences to have, an insight into actually what motivates this creative mind?

Ms. MOCK: Yes. What, actually, I'd love for myself and for the audience, too, is not only to understand kind of what are the forces, you know, that motivate and influence an artist, but also to see how this, in his case, he engages his characters within a larger context of timeless and timely issues. But at this core, these are very - they are set in very intimate, human dramas, you know.

HANSEN: Has Tony Kushner seen it?

Ms. MOCK: Up to now, up until I recently saw him, no, he has not seen the film. Everyone in his family has seen the film, many of his friends. I've heard from him that he's received a lot of comments. But he says he doesn't like to see himself. You know, I empathize with that point of view, so I understand he's not seen it yet.

HANSEN: Freida Lee Mock is the director of the documentary film Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner. Freida, thank you so much.

Ms. MOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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