Q&A with Oscar-nominated Northwestern alumnus John Logan

Britta Hanson

Running in this year’s Oscar race with a nomination for his screenplay of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, John Logan (SoC ’83) has had a pretty noteworthy year. Throughout his career writing for both the stage and screen, the Northwestern alumnus has achieved quite a lot of success. Hugo marks his third Academy Award nomination, which follows six Tony wins for his 2010 play “Red.” The dramatist extraordinaire took a few minutes to chat with The Current about roller skates, ocean liners and theater mice.

Excerpts:

The Current: Congratulations on your third Oscar nomination! You’ve scripted three movies, Rango, Coriolanus and Hugo, in the past year. How do you keep up with that workload?

John Logan: There’s no trick to it: The answer is hard work. I get up early, I work all day, and I love what I do. I wish there weren’t three coming out in a year, because it is difficult to be writing one thing while in the middle of filming something else. But it’s kismet– each film reaches its critical mass at a different time, and when it does, you just have to go along with it.

The Current: How do you judge the success of a film or play?

JL: Don’t tell the studios this, but nothing to do with box office or nominations. The last thing it has to do with is awards. What marks the success of a project for me is, did I tell the story to the best of my ability? I don’t think being a writer means being true to myself, but being true to the characters, and to their story and to their world. For me success is doing the best job that I can to be true to them.

The Current: Your past work has generally been based in historical events or action. What made you want to adapt a children’s novel?

JL: It was Scorsese. We had done The Aviator together, and we were looking around for something more to do. He sent me the book, and I had a little trepidation, but within twenty pages I wanted to do it.

The Current: Did the intended audience change your process of interpretation?

JL: Quite honestly, no. People always wonder that- in fact it’s been the same question with Rango, which is also a sort-of family film­- but with my job its about the integrity of the characters. I just wanted to be true about the characters. When we were writing this, Marty and I were referencing Dickens and Truffant and The 400 Blows … And any time there was a problem it was always time to think back to what the characters would do, and who they were as people.

The Current: The Invention of Hugo Cabret tells its story in large part through its illustrations. How did you translate their visual message onto the page?

JL: What was important was not so much conveying the physical action in the pictures, but something much deeper: capturing the tone of the pictures, which are very austere, very haunting. I would have five novels spread out over my desk, each turned to a different illustration for reference.

The Current: How did the fact that the movie is in 3D change the way you wrote the script?

JL: That didn’t come into play until a few years into the process, actually. I felt very excited about it, because this is a new technology, and why not explore it? What it meant in terms of the screenplay was very kinetic. It meant looking for opportunities for the camera to move through space, for Hugo to climb through the walls of the train station or run across the halls, to try to give a sense of the space in three dimensions.

The Current: Was Hugo an easy movie to make?

JL: Oh no, it was a long, big, physical shoot. Big movies are like ocean liners: They don’t move quickly. I’m not sure Marty will ever forgive me for all the dogs I added– they say never work with children and dogs, and this movie had both.

The Current: Of all the big and little names you’ve worked with, is there an artist you have most enjoyed working with?

JL: They have all been lovely in their own ways, although, I must say working with Sam Mendes on Skyfall, the latest Bond movie, for the last year has been bliss. I’ve been blessed to work with people who challenge and excite me my entire career.

The Current: Your screen adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, “Coriolanus,” hit Chicago theaters last week. Did you find adapting the Bard intimidating?

JL: Oh, my gosh, I loved it! It was at Northwestern I fully cemented my love for classical drama, and I have always wanted to adapt Shakespeare, especially this play, which I think is very cinematic, very modern. But not in my wildest dreams would I have expected to find anyone else who would have been interested in making this movie! And along came Ralph Fiennes, just as much of a wild man, and somehow the two of us were able to make this movie together.

The Current: You came back to Northwestern this fall for TI’s production of your first play, “Never the Sinner,” which you wrote as a student here. How did it feel to be back on campus?

JL: It was a little disorienting! I’m turning fifty this year, but I get on campus and I feel like I’m 18. I remember meeting people that first week who are still great friends. I look around at the same old buildings, especially the Theatre and Interpretation Center, and think, “there’s where I took playwriting,” or “that’s where I wrote Never the Sinner.” I look at the Lakefill and remember roller skating on it in my freshman and sophomore years. It’s a haunted place!

The Current: You started at Northwestern as a theatre major and a prospective actor. What made you want to write instead?

JL: It was studying for David Downs, who was my acting teacher for three years. I knew I wasn’t going to be an actor– whatever the molecular structure of an actor is, I knew it wasn’t me. But what I was learning was Chekhov and Shaw, and how their theatre worked; it was then that it got under my skin. It was just the greatest experience– It made me what I am today.

The Current: And one last question…

JL: Do you have a final, killer question? Is it my sign? Becaus
e if it is, the answer is Libra.

The Current: A few years ago, you said that screenwriting didn’t give you as much personal satisfaction as playwriting. Is that still true today?

JL: Yes and no; they give different kinds of satisfaction. I perhaps get a more artistic satisfaction from the theatre because of its more direct interaction with the actors and the audience. However, I get equal professional satisfaction from both. I think what is comes down to is at the end of the day, I’m a theater mouse.

-Britta Hanson