Oscarwinning filmmaker meets Pulitzer playwright
In the 1980s, when America was reluctantly beginning to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, no one would have predicted that within a decade, a seven-hour play detailing the disease’s effects on society would achieve national acclaim. Nevertheless, in 1993, "Angels in America" won a Pulitzer Prize and swept the stage at the Tony awards.
The playwright, Tony Kushner , admits he was as surprised as anyone. In a "Salon" interview he recalls thinking the script was doomed, referring to it as "this preposterous, lengthy thing that would be the end of my very short and not very distinguished career."
Instead, the epic opened a national dialog about the politics of AIDS, and established Kushner as an innovator in American Theater.
Kushner’s work also gained the admiration of documentary filmmaker Frieda Lee Mock, who has a fascination with artists and their creative processes. With a little prodding, she says, Kushner agreed to allow her a glimpse into his life.
The result is "Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" which premiers this week as part of the Sundance Film Festival Spectrum program.
"It is a story about an extraordinary playwright and the things he grapples with," said Mock who believes Kushner has a gift for relating enormous national issues like race, sex and religion to intimate human experiences.
During the three years it took to make the documentary Mock says, "the revelation was how much he is loved. He is such an exciting thinker. People love him and adore him."
Since "Angels," Kushner has continued to write groundbreaking, but lesser known plays, she explained.
Mock’s documentary includes scenes of Kushner writing and rehearsing a new play entitled "Homebody/Kabul" about a British family’s search for their mother who disappears in Afghanistan. According to Mock, Kushner wrote the play, which addresses the Taliban and other Islamic groups, a full year before 9/11. It is another example she says of Kushner’s prescience.
"He addresses what is ahead of us," she says.
"Wrestling with Angels" also introduces the audience to some of Kushner’s other projects including the revival of a 60-year-old children’s opera about a Czechoslovakian concentration camp, a play about Laura Bush that addresses issues related to terrorism and war, and an autobiographical musical about growing up in a Jewish household in the Deep South during the civil rights movement.
"I wanted to capture the essense of what he does, the power of the play’s words and characters," said Mock who just finished postproduction of the film.
Mock is no stranger to Sundance. Previous festival movies include "Return With Honor." Mock also earned an Oscar for her documentary "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" about the woman who designed the controversial Viet Nam Veterans Memorial. And, in 2002, she served as a Sundance Film Festival juror.
Nevertheless, after submitting "Wrestling With Angels," there were a few nail-biting moments. When she didn’t hear from Sundance on Thanksgiving weekend when the initial program announcements were made, Mock says she assumed her film had not been chosen. "It’s pretty daunting odds. Of 3,000 only 120 make it," she said. But it turns out the call went to her office and the good news was waiting for her on Monday.
That meant stepping up the editing and mixing process and making travel arrangements to Park City. "My stomach is turning until I see the finished product," she said in December.
Most of all Mock hopes her film will give more people the opportunity to experience Kushner’s view of the world.
"When people meet Tony and hear him speak they go away with a new sense of possibilities and hope," she said.
"Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner" is scheduled to screen:
Saturday, Jan 21 at 12:45 p.m. Broadway Cinemas V, SLC
Sunday, Jan.22 at 5:30 p.m. Prospector Square Theater, Park City
Monday, Jan. 23 at 6:45 p.m. Broadway Cinemas V, SLC
Saturday, Jan. 28, noon, Egyptian Theater, Park City
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