On the Phone With John Logan

On the Phone With John Logan

Moving easily between film, theater and television, John Logan is one hell of a busy and in-demand writer, something he acknowledges in this interview. Among his credits are the screenplays for Gladiator (2000), The Aviator (2004) and Skyfall (2012). Red, his play about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, won the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010. And his TV drama series, Penny Dreadful, has been renewed for a second season. When we talked, Logan was heavily involved in the final previews of his first-ever Broadway musical, The Last Ship, which opened Oct. 26 at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Francis Lewis: You’re coming down to the wire. How have previews been going?

John Logan: They’ve been great. This is my first musical, so I’m still completely learning the form. The old trope is true: You learn about a show in front of an audience. We’ve been listening intently, and every night we watch it like hawks. Then we discuss.

FL: Looking at the trajectory of your Broadway career, you’ve progressed from a two-hander (Red, 2010), to a one-woman play (I’ll Eat You Last, 2013) to this large-scale new musical. How’s that been?

JL: There’s the artistic answer and the structural answer. I’ve always loved musicals. The first musical I remember seeing was a high school production of West Side Story when I was in elementary school. I have no musical ability whatever, but I’ve always wanted to work on one. A musical is constantly surprising. And with a musical there are constantly new challenges, which is the best thing in the world for a writer. The way musicals evolve, or at least my experience of this one musical, is that it’s fairly hand in glove because it’s a puzzle and the pieces are so interlocked. I’m learning about the finely nuanced detail, where the book scene ends and the song begins, and how this flows back and forth. When does the book scene do the job? And when does the emotion require music? I’m learning all of that in collaboration with Joe [director Joe Mantello] and [composer] Sting. The most rewarding part of the collaboration for me, honestly, is the sense that we sit at the table and, if there’s something that’s not working, we all solve it. There’s no balkanization. There’s no sense that this is a book department problem. We all look at it and say, ‘What can we each bring to the table?’ I have to give all the credit to Joe Mantello, who is the captain of the ship. He’s so experienced at this. He’s working with a composer/lyricist who’s never done it before, and he’s working with a book writer who’s never done it before. He has such a confident vision.

FL: So you’re the first mate?

JL: We all say, if Sting is the admiral and Joe is the captain, then I’m proud to be the first mate.

FL: Sting’s autobiographical stake in the The Last Ship’s story is well-documented, but I understand there’s a similar connection behind your involvement. When Joe Mantello approached you about working on a musical, you didn’t know what it was about. Then when you read the existing book …

JL: It was a shocking sort of realization. My father went into the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast when he was 16. I spent my life growing up, as did Sting, with the reality of shipbuilding and a shipbuilder for a father. So I find this a very personal piece of theater.

FL: Intensely moving?

JL: It is. Perhaps to an almost unprofessional degree, I find the show deeply personal. It’s sort of like writing a play. You only write plays by searching, by private motivation. This musical takes that same drive and inspiration. It gives me grounded emotional footing.

FL: Is there a moment in the show, a scene, a song that really gets to you?

JL: There is. There’s a sequence in the second act, a song called “Underground River,” where they talk about the legacy of passing on work and tools from fathers to sons. In many ways, the show is about unity and about family. Because Ii know what it was like to stand outside the shipyard, outside that life that my father was part of, I find that personally moving. But I’m not sentiment about what the life of building ships was really like. It was hard, it was brutal, the day was long. If you didn’t have orders, you were on the dole. But it was the life of the men in the shipyard and the community around them. It’s a way of life that has almost disappeared. In this changing world, I think there’s a real lesson in that.

FL: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

JL: It’s hard to say. I would hope they would walk out with a feeling that they’ve been treated as adults and with respect and that we’ve told a story from the heart, without irony, without winking. It’s a very open-hearted show, and that’s a rare thing.

FL: You write about real people—Mark Rothko in Red, Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last—and now characters based on real people in The Last Ship. Is that something you look for in a project?

JL: No. I’m just a history buff. A library dweller and reader. When I open Shakespeare, which I do all the time, I will as frequently go to Richard II or Henry IV Parts I and II as I will to Hamlet or King Lear. I think real personalities and real life provide a great lens through which to view things that I at least think are interesting.

FL: What’s it been like running back and forth between Broadway, movies and TV?

JL: Thankfully, the schedules have worked out really well, so there hasn’t been conflict. It’s exciting to do. To think that somehow the fates conspired and that, in a month or two, I’d have a movie in production in London [Genius about book editor Max Perkins, starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman], a TV series shooting in Dublin [Penny Dreadful] and a Broadway opening: I certainly wouldn’t have planned it that way, but it’s heartening, if a little tiring.

FL: Do you have a favorite medium?

JL: The stage, without a doubt.

FL: So, working on The Last Ship hasn’t put you off musicals?

JL: It’s made me hungry for the next one.

FL: Looking forward to the next James Bond as well [the 24th Bond film in pre-production and for which Logan has written the screenplay]?

JL: As is the world!

The Last Ship, Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave. 877.250.2929

Check out the slide show below for scenes from The Last Ship.