We guarantee that even if you don’t know the name Paul Rudnick, you’ve probably quoted him before.
The New Jersey-born humorist/playwright/screenwriter first made a splash with the Broadway comedy I Hate Hamlet. His subsequent off-Broadway play, Jeffery, announced him as a major talent on the rise. It also proved wildly controversial, as one of the first (and to date, only) comedies to take on the AIDS crisis. Rudnick migrated to Hollywood thereafter, working on the film adaptation of Jeffery as well as the scripts for Sister Act, Addams Family Values, In & Out, and the remake of The Stepford Wives. Throughout his career, Rudnick has also won attention as a columnist, penning essays both under his own name, and under the pseudonym Libby Gelman-Wexler.
Now Rudnick returns to his roots–and controversy–with the new HBO special Coastal Elites, helmed by Bombshell director Jay Roach. The show features five actors–Bette Midler, Issa Rae, Dan Levy, Kaitlyn Dever and Sarah Paulson–playing a character coping with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, as well as the chaos of the Trump Presidency.
Queerty snagged time with Rudnick before the premiere of Coastal Elites to chat about the special, its origins, and his next big outing: a musical version of The Devil Wears Prada with music by Elton John. Coastal Elites lands on HBO Max September 12.
Where do these five characters come from for you?
Well, it sort of burst forth about a year ago. I began working on the material sort of because I couldn’t stay away. I was still responding to our national anxiety attack. Everybody I knew—the second we got together on the phone, or online—people were angry and so heartbroken. And that’s on every side of the political divide. They were just so passionately involved in the political life of the country. And I thought it was something I needed to write about.
The characters just made themselves known. It’s my favorite kind of writing—they insisted on being heard. Miriam, the character played by Bette Midler, was the first one. She’s very much a tribute to my mother and my aunts, who were all teachers and librarians: hardcore New Yorkers who loved the theatre and politics. They were the best kind of hardliners. Then everything else flowed from there. Mark, the character played by Dan Levy, also arrived quite quickly. We were originally going to stage the pieces at a theatre event at the Public Theatre in New York. Jay Roach, our director, was going to put it on stage in front of a live audience and film it for HBO.
Clearly, that didn’t happen.
But then the pandemic happened, and that became impossible. Then HBO and our production team came back to us and said maybe there was another way to go about this. The overwhelming concern was for the cast and crew.
So we had a COVID advisor and every protocol in place, testing and disinfecting. Then Jay and I started to talk about how this might work. What happened was that the piece ended up being really very well suited to this new quarantine format. It was always intended to be monologues: you know, a very intimate, one on one experience. When we were able to get this extraordinary cast, suddenly you have a front-row seat with Bette and Isa Rae and Kaitlyn Dever and everyone else, it just felt absolutely right for the material.
So you did shoot remotely?
We shot it all remotely. Jay was in California, I was in New York. Everybody else was spread across the country. And it became very exciting and satisfying because people were so dedicated to it. These are strong pieces, very emotional, funny and heartbreaking. So we needed actors with that entire skillset, and oh my God, did they deliver.
Yes, they do.
I was so thrilled with how everything worked out.
You’re right, the format is so well-suited to the times we’re living in right now. It shocks me that you’ve been working on it so long.
Because we were working so quickly, I was able to re-write everything extensively to adjust for everything else that was going on. I wanted to show how the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests impact the character’s lives. We wanted a sense of immediacy, and this is where the country is this second. And I did it with input from Jay and our incredible cast. They’re not just good actors, they’re all very smart. And Dan and Issa are terrific writers as well, so they became great resources.
It shows. How involved were you with casting? Were these parts written for the actors?
No. It would be too dangerous. Usually, if you write for people of this caliber, they’ll end up not able to do it for some reason, and you’ll be heartbroken. This was our dream list. This was the list where you make up the people you’d kill for, but who would never be able to do it. Through every possible good luck, they all said yes. It was thrilling to watch them dig into these characters and cut loose. I think they liked the opportunity of being able to deliver full-scale portraits.
It’s funny. While we were shooting there was this fancy app called Two-Take that would make it look like film and not video. So we would talk to the cast on Zoom, and Jay and I would talk to each other on text. And we became like preschoolers. It was all exclamation points and OMGs.
It was also like a sporting event, where you’re just breathless seeing the turns they’re taking. And they would do full takes of these pieces. Bette just poured it on one day. Afterword, she turned to us through the camera and said “Was that ok?” And we just wanted to run through the lens and hug her. So it was really a one of a kind experience.
That’s so encouraging. It’s such a gift to an actor to be given a role that’s both experimental and very traditional at the same time. For someone like Dan Levy who got into acting through writing, it’s wonderful to see him do something written by somebody else.
I adore him from Schitt’s Creek. He also—and he shares this with the entire cast—has such an instant connection with the audience. They trust him. You always know you’re not going to get a lecture from him. He’s too much fun. He was a joy.
It’s interesting that this started as a theatrical piece. We hear so much about the difference between language in film, and language in theatre. Film is more concise, theatre is more florid. What steps do you take in the adaptation process to make the dialogue more economic, and better suited to the camera?
What I’ve always been after, in a sense, is the quality of a song in musical theatre.
The sense that people are in such a crisis a point, and people are feeling such overwhelming amounts of emotion that the only way they can be understood, is through a song or a monologue—something that powerful. There are a lot of blurred lines in this whole piece between theatre and filmmaking. Even in the acting: it would be a very different experience on stage, where the audience could respond. And I watched these actors navigate that degree of comedy and drama to adjust their performances for the camera. I made sure the language was always colloquial so that it felt natural to them. If anything felt awkward, I’d immediately change it. This cast—they’re like tuning forks. You always know when something is working. So it was a question of Jay’s guidance and the performers as signposts to work into the material together.
You’re a man known for great one-liners, and Coastal Elites is no exception. How do you find a perfect one-liner?
Well, thank you so much. I try to ground it in character. I like writing very smart, very verbal characters. That’s sometimes the one-liners and wisecracks feel natural to them—they’re not shy. I like writing people with a lot of confidence, and a lot on their mind. I think there’s a screenwriting tradition from Preston Sturgess and Nora Ephron to Quentin Tarantino—geniuses—where people are in love with words. And the actors love that. They don’t worry that it’s too much. They just wrangle those speeches. It’s a great joy. And I do know people who talk that way–
They’re naturally funny. It’s not something explicitly that LGBTQ people do, but we’ve certainly honed the art. I guess there’s even a schoolyard element. If there are bullies out there, and all I have is my smart mouth, let me see how far I can take that. And I come from funny family. That was good training.
One element I really want to brooch with you: Mark, Dan Levy’s character, talks about playing a gay superhero, and all the outrageous questions he’s faced about monogamy and his love life. This is a broader cultural conversation right now. Is it appropriate to demand casting directors only hire known gay actors to play gay parts?
I mean, I’m someone who’s used wonderful gay performers whenever possible and wonderful straight performers as well in gay roles. But there are actually union and legal structures in place—which I quite approve of—you don’t ask anyone, gay or straight, about their sex life. That isn’t what qualifies anyone for a role. If you’re doing it right, you’re judging people on their talent.
Yes, thank you. Precisely.
There is, I would say, with gay performers, because of the point we’re at with the culture, there is an understanding and grasp of gay style that gay performers tend to have in their bones. That’s to be celebrated. Also, part of the reason I wrote [Mark’s character]–Dan told me he’s been through all of this—we’ve got this first generation of openly gay stars. There’s a handful of them: Dan, Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer. It’s an amazing group. For years, there was the argument that we don’t have equality in casting because there wasn’t an openly gay leading man. Now we’ve got great examples.
Then again, I know from the actor’s point of view, they love playing gay roles but they don’t necessarily want to be cast exclusively as gay characters. There are other actors that love spending their careers in a gay world.
So I applaud all of that. Where I always come down is in favor of infinite flavor and infinite variety. There are as many ways to be queer as there are anything else. So what you want are actors who can reflect every facet. I’m a huge fan of Pose, and I think if you cast pose without trans actors, that would be shameful because there are still so few opportunities for trans actors. To take that away from them—the one show dedicated to their experience and cast it any other way—would be an insult. And I’ve worked with so many amazing queer performers. Any moment where we can take a great gay performer and give them a chance, that’s always a great idea. That doesn’t mean that everyone who is queer is talented, but plenty of them are.
I’m also lucky that I’ve been around long enough to have been part of a wave of gay culture. A lot of it was due to the AIDS crisis. If AIDS ever had a virtue, it was that it helped people be seen. There was this sense of a dam bursting, and all these gay writers and performers and directors and people at every level that it’s been a joy and an honor to watch them and see where they take the culture. And that’s ongoing. There are so many writers and directors and queer performers of color that are just getting a chance to show what they can do.
Obviously, this is a highly political piece. It would be very easy to really smack down Trump supporters. It would also be really easy to turn on urban liberals, simply for the sake of trying to appear more balanced. How do you strike a balance? How do you approach giving a character a political point of view without beating the audience over the head with it?
Actually, what you just said was the key. I wanted the piece to be surprising. No one wants to see another lecture. I think we’re all overwhelmed with op-ed pieces, and websites and tweets. I thought by using characters and very specific, idiosyncratic voices, you can get at all the contradictions: the way you can love your family but hate their politics. The way you can stop speaking to someone you used to be close with because of the awful things they support. So that’s what I wanted to get at rather than do bullet points.
I think people who watch the show, the reaction so far has been one of the best possible: surprise. They see that other voices are represented. Coastal Elites, the title, is deliberately provocative. Is it a slur? Is it provocative? Is it a geographic reference point? I think it’s something that has become supercharged in this day and age. So I thought let’s explore that. The characters, very few of them are privileged in any way. There a retired school teacher. There’s a nurse. It’s about that level of diversity—not just of skin color, gender or preference, but of opinion. It’s about how do you contain this particular battlefield in your head. Right after the election, I went to my doctor.
He’s a very circumspect man, not very political. And he looked shell-shocked. He said everyone coming in, whatever the reason, wanted to talk about the election. He said it was overwhelming.
I thought this is not just me, this is everybody. Even with Trump supporters, you’d think they’d be terribly happy. They have their man in place. They have their agenda on the move. And they seem terribly upset and angry all the time. So something has gone so wrong for everyone. That’s what I wanted the show to be about: we’re all in this together, we’re all at each other’s throats. What do we do about it?
That’s a fantastic way of explaining it. Listen, I could chat with you all day about your work and your life. But I’m sure you have better things to do with your time. Last question: What’s the status of The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical?
That is part of our global heartbreak. Like everything theatre, it’s on hold. People are figuring out at what point we can have actors on stage and audiences in seats. At the moment, no one knows. I’m waiting along with everyone else. I have Devil Wears Prada and a play called Guilty Pleasure that was supposed to be produced at the La Jolla Playhouse this fall, and has been pushed back a year. So I would say watch this space. There will be some word soon, but it would be foolish to predict. Nobody knows what’s happening. But it’s well on its way.
Anything else you want to add?
Thanks so much for doing this. I love Queerty. I check in every day!
Happy to hear it.
Coastal Elites debuts on HBO Max September 12.