By David G. Anderson
It is not difficult to discover personal characteristics of great playwrights scattered liberally among the characters they create within the scope of their works. So it is with Ron Hutchinson. This autobiographical aspect is not as easily recognized in the specifics of his plays, but in the underlying themes that are unmistakably his life. Early in his career, there was a high concentration of what Hutchinson himself calls the “Irish Experience” viewed from outside Ireland. Having lived in Southern California for the past eighteen years, his horizons have broadened and so have his Hollywood enlightenments.
Hutchinson was born in 1947 near Lisburn, Northern Ireland. He moved with his family to Coventry where he attended school. After leaving school, he had varied experiences ranging from gutting fish, working as a clerk in the Department of Defense, and investigating claims for the British Department of Health.
An examination of his Irish experience reveals, “The playwright, Ruari, in The Irish Play, declares that he is ‘trying to understand my country . . . my countrymen . . . myself.’ Hutchinson said . . . of his most successful play, Rat in the Skull, ‘I wanted to write this play to sort out my personal reactions to what was going on in Ireland. . . . You find out who you are in the process.’ This certainly feels like a work imperative. For the first time, Hutchinson’s abrasive comic dialogue and his preoccupation with performance are concentrated into a sustained scrutiny of the self-awareness and self-understanding catalyzed within an Irishman by his presence in England” (“Ron Hutchinson,” Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St James Press.) In a 1992 interview, he further confessed, “I don’t write about Ireland because I have a political agenda. I don’t believe that I have . . . the solution . . . No . . . I feel I was expelled from paradise when I was a child . . . that’s why I write with passionate feelings and rage” (Dictionary of Literary Biography: Ron Hutchinson, p. 1).
Already an acclaimed British playwright, Hutchinson also has become a prolific screenwriter and “hired gun” script doctor. He has written literally dozens of stage plays which include The Irish Play, Flight, and his self-proclaimed best drama, Rat in the Skull. Among his screen plays are Emmy Award-winning Murders Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, The Burning Season, The Josephine Baker Story, Fatherland, The Tuskegee Airman, Traffic (nominated for three Emmys in 2004), The Ten Commandments, and Marco Polo.
In navigating the prickly Hollywood landscape, Hutchinson has gained precious knowledge through twenty-five years of collective experiences. When asked during an exclusive telephone interview with the Utah Shakespeare Festival, if there was a specific horror story that precipitated the writing of Moonlight and Magnolias, he laughed and remarked, “Not really, Hollywood has been good to me. Is there an abundance of crazy, driven, slightly off kilter people out here? Yes, and they all want to leave their indelible imprint on the precious celluloid.”
“The inspiration for ‘Moonlight’ came when I was visiting my father in England. I was reading Daily, Daily, the autobiography of Ben Hecht’s week rewriting Gone with the Wind, and literally from one footstep to another, it struck me, wow—this is classical farce. Can you imagine? All the elements are there. Three high-powered individuals lock themselves in a room existing on peanuts and bananas, and they are ever mindful that the clock is ticking, in a total pressure cooker situation.”
There was no stretch of the imagination for Hutchinson to identify with Hecht. “I’ve been all around the world in closed hotel rooms from Libya, to Morocco, to Mexico hammering out new scripts with ulcer ridden, catatonic producers ever present. The most memorable was a few years back when they flew me to the Kalahari Desert in Africa to assist with Flight of the Phoenix. The pressure is immense, there is craziness all around, but somehow you hammer it out. I enjoy the challenge and fun of it.”
“Moonlight and Magnolias,” he confesses, “was really more of a celebration to correct the image of film’s golden age writers, directors, and producers than an indictment of Hollywood. Though Hecht is the voice in the play, the hero is the producer David Selznick. Too often today, the producer’s image is that of the sleazy, behind the scene guy, who rakes in the money. Selznick had everything on the line: his fortune, reputation, and his marriage. The producers of yesteryear are the ones upon which the industry was built. I’ve had the great fortune to work with some outstanding producers who aren’t afraid to make the tough decisions.”
So much of the humor in the play is driven by the tension between Fleming and Hecht. When asked if there was a director he had worked with in the fashion of Fleming, Hutchinson laughed again, “Actually, I did have a person in mind in the casting. Fleming is a lost director of the golden age, a man’s man, a real tough guy. I had the great opportunity to work with John Frankenheimer on several occasions. John was six-feet-five-inches tall and full of aggressive energy. To John, directing was a full contact sport. Once again, it was my intent to shed today’s image of the director who has a scraggly beard, a backwards baseball cap, and a shaggy green belt.”
Frustrated by today’s film industry, Hutchinson lamented, “The people in the industry are way too worried about the costuming, scenery, casting, and staging. They will have all this in place and then realize, hey—we have to do something with the script. This mess is total garbage. Unfortunately, the script has become a complete after-thought, and there are millions of dollars at stake.”
Greatly affected by the recent screenwriter’s guild strike, Hutchinson managed to remain busy. “I teach a class every Friday at the American Institute of Film on screen writing. The problem is—does the world really need another 20,000 screen writers? Fortunately, I also have my theatre work, and, last but not least, my British passport! I spent all of January in Dublin. I’m currently working on a murder story in Ireland for the SciFi network, and on a play about an intriguing Iraqi soldier.”
“Comedy is much more difficult than drama,” Hutchinson confides. “You have to deliver. It’s like basketball; either you score or you don’t. It’s tough, especially if you have a drama-driven background.”
Fortunately for us, Ron Hutchinson has led a life full of drama and comedy. He’s been able to effectively translate that to stage and screen leaving us as he put it, “A celebration, it doesn’t matter how nuts things get. It’s a matter of surviving it, but you can’t take it too seriously.”