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A conversation: Christopher Hampton revisits 'Tales from Hollywood'

October 13, 2010 | 10:24 am

Hampton Few playwrights are as intimately acquainted with the movie business as Christopher Hampton. The British dramatist has penned numerous screenplays during his career, winning an Oscar for "Dangerous Liaisons" in 1989 and a nomination for "Atonement" in 2008.

Hampton is one of the few major playwrights to tackle the subject of Hollywood for the stage. In the early '80s, Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles commissioned him to write a play about the German émigré experience in L.A. during World War II. The result was "Tales from Hollywood," which had its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982 in a production directed by Gordon Davidson and starring Paul Sorvino.

"Tales from Hollywood" is a large ensemble drama that follows the intertwining careers of Bertolt Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann and other prominent European writers who fled to L.A. in the '30s and '40s to escape the horrors of the Third Reich. Hired by the major studios, they set to work writing screenplays but spent much of their time griping about life in exile. The story is narrated by Ödön von Horváth, a real-life Eastern European playwright whom Hampton has fictionalized for the play.

Since its world premiere, "Tales from Hollywood" has been seldom seen in L.A. theaters. (Former Times theater critic Dan Sullivan wrote that "Hampton has fun with the assignment. But the material won't catch fire.") Starting Saturday, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West L.A. will mount a rare revival production, directed by Michael Peretzian, who happens to be Hampton's former agent. The production is scheduled to run through Dec. 19.

Hampton will be present for the opening-night performance of "Tales from Hollywood" on Saturday. The playwright recently spoke with Culture Monster by phone from London, where he was finishing a screenplay.

What are your memories of the play when it was first produced in L.A. in 1982?

They didn't really like it the first time out. Gordon [Davidson] did a very good production, but it was like people took it personally. It's really good to have it back in L.A., though. The idea in 1982 was to do a series of plays about L.A. ... but unfortunately the only one they wanted to do was mine. It did dawn on me that it was an ungracious play, but it's true to the experience of the émigrés. I did quite a bit of research and I talked to a lot of people, including Billy Wilder, whom I went to see. He asked me why I wanted to write a play about the people who didn't make it in Hollywood, like Mann and Brecht.

Tales What's your opinion of the play looking back on it now?

It's the favorite of my plays. It's sort of the general consensus here [in Britain] that it's the best of my plays. So I feel very warmly toward it. You never know at the time -- some plays improve with time and others do the opposite. This one I've been extremely fond of because of its subject matter. It's not that it's an autobiographical play, but I put my own feelings into it -- being a displaced person.

Are you referring to growing up abroad?

Yes, I grew up in Egypt. Then I was sort of left at school [after coming home to Britain] -- I felt myself a foreigner in England.

As a European playwright who has spent time in Hollywood, how much of your own experiences did you put in the play?

There's definitely some of me in the play. One of the first jobs I had was to write a script based on Marlowe's "Edward II." [One of the characters in the play receives a similar commission.] The detail at the end of the play where someone cracks his head on the pool, that happened to me. The play's a very odd mixture of complete truth -- there's nothing invented -- but in the middle I have a fictional character, and the device seemed to work.

What were some of the things you discovered in your research?

Nelly Mann [the wife of Heinrich] was a notoriously anti-Semitic person. And then I discovered she was Jewish -- which you wouldn't want to invent. It's a real image of her complete despair and uprootedness in this very strange company -- and often depending on how old they are. At that period in Hollywood, foreign directors and technicians were able to adapt much better than writers because they weren't losing their language.

What do you think of the 1992 TV version of the play, starring Jeremy Irons?

We did it a few years after the London staging. It was shot in a studio at Ealing. But probably the most successful version of the play in terms of the critical response was a Polish television version. It's a resonant play in Poland. For some reason, the translation was successful. I went a few years ago to Warsaw to see a stage version of it. It's a play that has a lot of resonance there.

How has the movie business in L.A. changed over the years, in your estimation?

There was a moment in the early '80s when I wanted to work on films and wanted to live in L.A. I spent a lot of time there working on this play. Researching took three or four months, and then the couple of months when the play was put on. But I sort of decided at that point that it was probably more sensible to live in London. I like L.A., but I think what's changed is that the kinds of films I do, the mid-range dramatic film, has become an endangered species. I'm sure this is just temporary, but there seems to be a dearth of these films. It's the kind of film I like and one with a solid audience, and I think we ought not to lose the knack of making them. 

You still manage to find steady work in the movies. David Cronenberg recently turned your play "The Talking Cure" into a movie.

Yes, in fact I'm going to see it in Toronto after L.A. I wrote the screenplay based on my own play. David had read it and hadn't actually seen it when he contacted me. For some reason, the title has been changed -- the movie is called "A Dangerous Method."

 -- David Ng

Upper photo: Christopher Hampton. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Gerald Hiken, left, and Paul Sorvino in the 1982 production of "Tales from Hollywood" at the Mark Taper Forum. Credit: Jay Thompson / Center Theatre Group

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