LOS ANGELES — Working in Hollywood is always nice at the beginning, says playwright Tom Stoppard, as well as at the end. "It's those middle bits that are hard," he laughs in response to a question about the process of producing a film.
According to Britain's preeminent living dramatist ("Travesties," "Arcadia," "The Invention of Love") and sometime Hollywood screenwriter, this middle period usually consists of "having to modify what you've done because somebody else has persuaded you that's what you ought to do." With movies, he adds, "there's a period when you're making it better and when you're making it worse." The hardest part, of course, is knowing which is which, he reflects, somewhat ruefully.
If critical and popular acclaim are any indication, this student and lover of the Elizabethan playwright mastered that tough second act when he helped create the hit Miramax film "Shakespeare in Love," which has received 13 Oscar nominations, the most of any 1998 film. In the running for a best screenwriter nod, along with co-writer Marc Norman, Mr. Stoppard reflects that while plays may be harder to write, "Movies are harder to make" because they involve so many people in the creative process.
Stoppard adds that, since he has never written an original screenplay but has been called upon numerous times to polish or tweak existing scripts, "I find collaborating on a screenplay to be a sort of holiday from the difficult days when you're trying to invent a story" on your own.
The fundamental premise of "Shakespeare in Love" was put in place by Mr. Norman, an industry veteran who says that he got the idea from his son, Zach, who sold him on the notion of portraying Shakespeare as a young man. "I couldn't get a handle on it at first," recalls Norman, "but I didn't want to go back to my child and tell him I couldn't do the story." With that motivation for his pen, Norman said he hit upon the essential storyline of a playwright struggling both with his desire to rise above the ordinary and the demands of an entertainment industry that was being created along with his career.
"The industry as we know it today was essentially born in Shakespeare's time," Norman points out. Before that era, playwrights and actors had no home theater and no backers or regular audiences. "They were itinerants, performing in the streets," he says.
In order to bring the young bard to life, Norman put what he calls an "American spin on the story" by showing what moved Shakespeare from everyday to extraordinary, and by entering into the heart of the young man. He "was interested in examining the process of genius appearing in everyday life, what that would look like."
The movie shows the young Shakespeare transforming from a run-of-the-mill playwright to a world-class writer as his own bittersweet love affair unfolds. While historians agree that the playwright's career was transformed during the creation of "Romeo and Juliet," few historical records of his private life exist. The connection between a conjectured love affair and the final play was an extrapolation by Norman, who penned the initial draft.
Stoppard likes the idea that a tumultuous moment in a writer's private life might trigger greatness, but he suggests that it's really impossible to know the genesis of genius with any certainty. "You can't account for it," he says.
He also shies away from the notion that a writer's own life is always his source material. "I'm not somebody who drops a bucket into himself and draws up the next play," says Stoppard, adding that he prefers to look outward for his ideas.
Indeed, Sir Tom Stoppard is best known for works that tackle such intellectually bracing topics as quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and Marxist ideology. It may come as a surprise to his fans - for whom his linguistic pyrotechnics and intellectual savvy embody the best the English language has to offer - that he actually was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia and has never attended university.
After the equivalent of a private-school secondary education, he took his first job as a journalist at the age of 17. Ever since then, he has approached his work with the research instincts of a newspaperman, digging into the topic du jour like an investigative reporter, giving up the search only when the latest play is complete. His current passion is 19th-century Russia, although what he will do with the topic is not yet clear.
As Stoppard reflects upon this career, he has one regret. He wishes that he had taken the time out for four years of college, a period he regards as the only clear opportunity life offers for pure reading and reflection.
Maybe then, suggests Stoppard (without whose name and intellectual cachet, says co-writer Marc Norman, "Shakespeare in Love" would never have gotten made), "I might actually be the man everybody thinks me to be."