- Warren Leight
- 48 years old
- Grew-up in Sunnyside, Queens and the Upper West Side; now lives in West Village
- Writer of No Foreigners Beyond This Point"; Tony winning playwright for Side Man; Co-Executive producer and writer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent
Simply based on the description of No Foreigners Beyond This Point -- two young Americans teaching English in China in 1980 -- we feel obligated to ask if this is a modern Chinese version of Anna and the King of Siam/The King and I?
I hope not. There's a struggle when you write anything that's set in China to not have it turn into another white man's burden play. There's a bad tradition of pieces set in the mysterious East, and this is an attempt at … it's a pretty real version of what life was like in 1980s China, when the country was coming out of the Cultural Revolution. It's a pretty stark version. There's very little in the way of quaint Chinese, very little of those bad soundtracks.
But it is also about two cultures learning about each other, right?
Yes, definitely, and can you bridge these cultural gaps, and can you even understand the person that you're living with. The Americans come over as a couple, and I don't know that they're any more able to understand each other as they're able to understand the Chinese or the Chinese are able to understand them. So there's a little bit of that, but it's a harsh story. China in the 1980s was a much tougher place to be than people might suspect.
So 1980 is when you actually went there yourself?
I don't make much up in my writing. I was 23 I guess, and I followed a girl who I'd had a crush on from high school who was going to teach English in China. I mean, the play deviates a bit from there, but we lived in China for eight or nine months. The country was just coming out of the Cultural Revolution, and I'd gone to a good college where they taught us that the Cultural Revolution was a great social experiment. Then I get there, and this country is on its knees. What had happened in China in the '70s, word hadn't gotten out yet, and they weren't supposed to tell us.
Was your primary reason for going actually just following this girl?
I don't mean to sound that shallow, but I would not have gone had I not run into her on the street and had she not told me that she was applying to teach English in China. I had taken a class in China after the Revolution, but I was hardly an expert.
One of the jokes in the play is that the school, they would rather have really skilled foreign experts, but it's a rinky dink school and we were the best they could get. We weren't officially sanctioned as foreign experts; they had to call us guests. They were probably hoping for more accomplished teachers, and we were probably hoping for running hot water.
Did you find a contrast between the obviously harsher "Cultural Revolution" in China and the more subtle but definite cultural shifts here in the US in 1980 as well? The post-Vietnam backlash to a more conservative Reaganite revolution that was about to come?
While we were in China, Reagan got elected. It was the end of an era, but I don’t know that when we left the US we knew that. We were still part of a generation that didn't believe a word our government said. We got to China and found that none of our students believed a word their government said. They looked at Nixon as a hero, and in fact, their government told them that American had lost in Vietnam, and they didn't believe that. There's no way that could have happened. And we would say, "No, no, that's pretty much true there."
The school wanted us basically under house arrest. They just wanted us to give accents and phrasing but not to say anything with any content and never to be alone with any of the students. The students were desperate to find out everything that had happened outside of China since time began because they knew nothing of the outside world.
What prompted you to leave after just eight or nine months? Did the term simply come to an end?
Among other things, I was starving to death. By the time I got home – I'm of average build, I'd say, and I weigh about 165 pounds – so I got home and I weighed 113.
They didn't feed you?
They were doing the best they could. We were eating better than the students. First of all, there wasn't much available, and we were probably supposed to get 80% of our calories from rice. I just couldn't eat popcorn bowl sizes of rice every day. So it was tougher than we anticipated. Meanwhile, they were treating us 10 times better than themselves. The two of us had four rooms in the faculty dorms. The students were eight to a room, and the teachers two to a room. So we felt a little bit in their company like opium traders -- living there like neo-colonialists -- compared to how everyone there was, but I was starving.
Have you ever wanted to go back?
In the last few years I've thought about it. The life we had there was a tough one to have immediate nostalgia for. I wrote a lot while I was there about it, and I came home trying to get a book done. My alleged agent at the time said something like, "China don't sell," and so I put the book aside and didn't look at it for 20 years.
Speaking of this 20 year lag, your last play Side Man was about a time during your youth, and this was 20 years ago; can we expect a story about writer of television procedural crime dramas somewhere around 2025? Does a lot of your work take a long time to gestate?
Well a couple of things have gone on. You have to make a living, and theater doesn't allow playwrights to make a living, really. So you've always got to have a bit of money backed up if you're going to try to work on a play, or you have to be very lucky and be the darling of a theater company. But it's pretty tough to carve out the time you need to work on a play unless you have some money you can run down. One of the reasons it took so long to get to Side Man, aside from whatever emotional issues were involved, was that I couldn't afford to be a playwright.
Was that true even after Side Man and the Tony?
Side Man made me some money but not … playwrights in a different era might make a big haul, or I guess if you wrote Doubt this year, but Side Man was never commercial in a way that I might have dreamt of it being. It ran a long long time, but it was always a bit of a struggle. It was the greatest writing experience of my life, but financially, the best thing about Side Man, I suppose, is that it led me getting hired by Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and the truth is, a couple episodes of Law & Order can take care of you far better than a play can. And that's too bad.
You've written now for all three media, and yet it almost seems like the things you've written for TV, stage and film could come from three different writers. Are you more comfortable writing for one form over another? Side Man and No Foreigners are both memory plays and that's a more personal kind of expression than The Night We Never Met, Dear God or Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Dear God … that was actually once a good screenplay until Garry Marshall got a hold of it. And you can quote me on that. That's just a tragic example of when bad directors happen to good screenplays.
The bad metaphor is that I think of theater as my jazz. It's my voice. I come from the set of Law & Order where I'm shooting an episode now, and I come to rehearsal at 2 PM, we go to one in the morning, and I'm invigorated by it. That probably doesn't happen going in the other way.
On the other hand, I find writing a Law & Order script one of the hardest things that I've had to do. It's not necessarily my world or my voice. What I have is enough technique to figure out the different jobs and work within the rule book of Law & Order or the rule book of a Hollywood screenplay, or something like that, but a play is yours.
You said that Side Man got you hired for Law & Order. What do you think Law & Order godfather Dick Wolf saw in Side Man that said, "Hey, let's bring him on for a procedural police crime drama"?
I see your point. To give credit, it was this guy Rene Balcer, the show runner of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I guess Dick Wolf knows me, but I don't see a lot of him. Rene likes writers with a voice and people who have some ability to handle themes. Our show is much less of a procedural than CSI. We don't have 18 close-ups of broken bones and … I mean, I can't even watch those things.
He asked to see a TV episode of mine and at that point I had written one TV episode, for 100 Center Street. So I said, "Here's my latest TV episode." I didn't say, "Here's my only TV episode." And that showed him I could write the four-act structure of TV. I suppose he responded to my ability to write characters, which is funny because on Law & Order, it's all plot.
Original series fans are excited that Chris Noth as Det. Mike Logan is returning to the Law & Order universe on your show. How has it been to write a new but well-established character?
He came back last season for a one shot, and I co-wrote that story. He and Annabella Sciorra are paired up now as another team of detectives in the Major Case Squad. What's fun about it is that after three years of Detectives Goren and Eames [Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe], it's fun just to have new detectives to write for. Chris Noth's character is more intuitive than analytical. The note on him is that he can spot the crook in the room. He's capable of being a bit of a bully. It's a different voice. And three years in, that's a godsend.
After making a living as a writer for as long as you have, why suddenly come to TV writing now? Only a couple years ago?
The thing that guided my whole career was that I didn't want to move to LA. I'd rather be here stringing together 85 different jobs in a year than be out there and have to get really excited about a very special episode of Blossom or something.
I actually made a living for a while writing pilots, which I also showed Rene I guess. I had never written a TV episode, but [network execs] kind of liked my voice and said, "Why don't you write a pilot?" So I wrote maybe six different pilots that they would never make, but they would almost get made. I was known as the guy who wrote the pilot that almost got made and was really different. I'd go to another network, and they'd swear they wanted something different. Every year it would come down to me and one other show, and the other show would be seven people, a mom, a widowed mom and a widowed dad and their seven kids in a bed and breakfast in Malibu.
Then there was some point when I turned back to theater in the '90s, and I was at some dinner party. There were all these very successful screenwriters, and they were really bitter and drunk and mean, and they were all making a really good living writing things that didn't get made. Maybe one movie every five years.
And with Garry Marshall, when I finally had a green light and it was Dear God, and I saw Garry Marshall's rough cut, I thought, OK, this is considered good in LA. I'm having a go movie with a name director, and I've never been more miserable in my life. So that's when I went back to writing Side Man.
So between Dear God and the very underrated The Night We Never Met, you haven't had the best experience working in film …
It's a nice little movie, and that I never got to direct again is an utter mystery to me. Every now and then I run across people who say, "You know, that's the most underrated romantic comedy of the '90s," and I go, "Thanks." But it flopped.
You just said why you've never been able to direct again. We just assumed that for some reason you had just chosen that you didn't want to direct again.
No I liked directing. I had a lot more control of that than obviously Dear God, and it's a much better movie than Dear God. I find the more involved in a production, the happier I am. Law & Order, the strange thing is that they need you on that set. They're knocking one of those things out every eight days. You get involved every step of the way. Directing a movie was tremendously satisfying.
It took me about 2 1/2 years to put that film together. That cast [with Matthew Broderick, Sciorra and Jeanne Tripplehorn, among others] was very gracious. There was no money in it for anybody. Before it came out and bombed, I was getting a bums rush where everybody was offering me all kinds of things, and I was trying to work on my next screenplay. Then once it came out and bombed, I guess I was in movie prison for a while. It didn't catch, so nobody was necessarily willing to write the next two million dollar check to make a movie.
Is that something that you're looking to do again in the next couple years? Write a screenplay and direct again?
Yeah. The great thing to do would be to do the David Chase thing, where after years of hacking away for other people, he got his own show and turned it into The Sopranos. Also, I have a screenplay of Side Man that when I finish my TV season in May I plan to go back to, and to get to direct that would be … I certainly know that world pretty well, and I don't really want to hand that play over to someone else.
Why do you think Side Man struck such a chord with people? It ran for a long time; longer than most Broadway shows.
People connected. What I inadvertently wrote was a bit of a father-son story and a children of alcoholics story. I knew I was writing in those worlds, but what I didn't understand is that a lot of people would come up to me and go, "Oh I saw that play, and I just cried. I mean that was my dad in the play." And I'd always say, "What instrument did he play?" and they'd reply, "No, he was an accountant. But he would just sit behind the newspaper and I never really knew who he was or how to talk to him." On some sort of basic level – and in a way I think No Foreigners is similar – the inability to connect and the pain that that causes is what people were responding to.
But going back to that waiting 20 years thing, because I took so long to write it, when I got to it, it wasn't the "Fuck you Mom and Dad" play that a lot of those things turn in to, and I think people kind of liked the illusion that the writer was at peace with his past.
Was it difficult writing a play that was so emotionally personal for you? Was it even harder to see performed? Was it cathartic
It was all of those. It was absolutely cathartic. It was the end of a certain amount of quote-recovery work-quote in my life. So much of my life has been spent trying to rescue other people, so there was something emancipating about writing the story. Sometimes reading reviews that would describe the play, I would suddenly become aware of how other people perceive it. When you're in the middle of it, you don't necessarily have perspective on it. There were times I would get upset or have a moment of self-pity by reading somebody's description of the narrator's childhood. I would think, "Oh, that sounds bad." It sort of distanced things for me.
Then I lost both of my folks in the last few years, and at the moment, I'm not really interested in watching a production of the play. They just did one in Brooklyn Heights which I heard was quite good.
Did your parents have a chance to see it?
Yeah. Well, my mother, I actually told her not to go. I didn't know that she needed to revisit her more extreme moments. But she read it. Her shrink read it first, which is sort of weird. Her shrink said, "Well you weren't that far out were you?" and my mother said, "Oh yeah, I was way farther out than that. I should have killed him when I had the chance." She was not exactly apologetic about things.
My dad really liked it, but he saw it very much through the idea that finally somebody told "our story," and by "our story" he didn't mean the family – he meant the story of musicians. Over time I think he began to understand the emotional stuff. Interestingly he saw it more as an indictment of my mother. At one point he said, "Well, you know it's very hard for me to relive all those things your mother did to me." So that's how he cushioned himself, I think.
They obviously knew it was about them. But each one thought it very clearly depicted the pathology of the other.
You alluded to this earlier, but, you're working on the new season of Criminal Intent, and you're in rehearsals for an Off-Broadway play. Are you just a workaholic by nature?
No, I'm very lazy. I have friends who say, "If I go a day without writing, I'll fall apart," and I think, That's odd. If something has to get done, I'll do it, so the TV job is suited to me because I'm good on deadline. The great thing about the play is that, you find the play in the room with the actors and the director, and you just keep cutting and trimming and adding and listening to the actors.
With Frank Wood [who played the father character in Side Man], he couldn't eat and act at the same time. There was a scene where the actors had to eat soup, and he had a whole bunch of lines, but he couldn't do that if there was soup in front of him. He could only focus on his food. I thought, that tells me something about his character, and I took all of his lines out of that scene. Everybody else is talking, and he's just binary. He's eating his soup.
What I've learned is that if actors aren't able to make something work, that tells you something, because if you cast correctly, they're right for their part. So if something comes with difficulty to them, that may be a clue that it's not right for their character. To me, we're finding this play as it goes on.
Since you don't describe yourself as someone who absolutely has to write every day, what is it about writing that appeals to you?
You know, I guess there's two kinds of alcoholics; there's also two kinds of writers. I'm a binge writer. I've always been a binge writer. Again, that's why TV is fine for me. You know, I'll have three days to write a whole script, and I'll go 20 hours a day for two days or something like that. There's something about just disappearing into the world and coming out with a first draft that's a bit of a narcotic for me I suppose. Something happens when I get into that world, that I don't have any sense of time. I'll look up, and 14 hours will have gone by, and I'll stand, and my legs are all cramped up. I have writer friends who set the alarm every morning, wake up, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at the typewriter. I don't understand what they're doing.
I love being done with a first draft and then figuring out what I have. The difference between playwriting and TV writing -- TV writing, you never write a word of your episode until you've plotted the whole thing out. In theater, I don't necessarily know where it's going when I start, and so your subconscious does take over, especially if there's a deadline. Usually I'll book a reading of a script I haven't written yet, and as the deadline approaches I have to get there, you know. And then things happen because your subconscious takes over. And then you have all this time to go back and make it into something that hopefully is meaningful.
Things to know about Warren:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
My whole apartment was furnished off the street until I was 35. [Specifically], a 27 drawer metal filing cabinet, each drawer perfectly sized for holding scripts.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
The empire of Mario Battali.
NYC confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
Mister Softee vanilla cones from the truck.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
A quiet open northern view of midtown Manhattan … from my high floor terrace.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
A west coast friend of mine, a successful opera singer, was coming to New York to audition for Master Classes at Lincoln Center. At great expense, she hired one of the best pianists in her city as her accompanist. They worked together for two months, but unfortunately, the day before their flight, he took ill. She arrived without him for her 10 AM Saturday audition. She had just a few minutes to try to walk the rehearsal pianist through the pieces she’d spent dozens of hours preparing. The New York pianist just kept nodding as she pointed to every variation and diminuendo and crescendo. She couldn’t even tell if he was listening to her. She walked into her audition sure all her time and effort had been wasted. The Saturday morning audition pianist would have to sight read as best he could. Then she began to sing, and to her shock, he accompanied her more with more technique, and feel, and empathy, than she’d ever experienced in her musical life.
On her way out, she thanked him effusively, and he shrugged. Just another gig he was pasting together with others to make ends meet. She went home, resumed her career happily, and never tried to sing in New York again.
No Foreigners Beyond This Point presented by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company is currently in previews and officially opens on Sunday with performances through Oct. 16 at 45 Below at The Culture Project (45 Bleecker St., at Lafayette). Tickets are available through TheaterMania by calling (212) 352-3101 or visiting www.theatermania.com. Performances are Tues-Sat at 8 PM plus matinees on Sat and Sun at 3 PM. Law & Order: Criminal Intent has its season premiere this Sunday at 9 PM.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei