How HBO, Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner Brought Angels in America to the Screen

TV Features Angels in America
How HBO, Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner Brought Angels in America to the Screen

Recently, on a date, I began spewing Louis’ “Democracy in America” monologue, in public, at a bar. But my date knew the words, and had acted out the entire text of Angels in America with Playmobil figurines. I’m not sure what compelled my mother to show me HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Angels when I was 10, but that speech in particular—how it cross-cuts between Louis’ self-loathing-fueled tirade and Belize’s annoyed face and Prior Walter’s doctor appointment—had me entranced. Emma Thompson with wings busting through the ceiling. Al Pacino saying, “A homosexual is…” wagging his finger at his doctor. It was all so mesmerizing.

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Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a once in a lifetime text; its 2003 adaptation for HBO, directed by Mike Nichols and written for the screen by Kushner is a once-in-a-lifetime miniseries. Though the context of its ideas and themes—of AIDS, of radical politics, of faith, of identity, of love (which is never ambivalent)—had changed and evolved by the time the play, which premiered on Broadway in 1993, jumped to TV, it nevertheless brought an already essential dramatic work to an even larger audience, buoyed by ecstatically beautiful performances from Ben Shenkman, Justin Kirk, Mary-Louise Parker, Al Pacino (in arguably his best role), Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson, and Meryl Streep. Though it registers somewhat differently than the play, whose Broadway revival/National Theater transfer begins previews on February 23, Nichols’ Angels in America is still one of the most impressive stage-to-screen adaptations ever crafted.

Isaac Butler, theater director, writer, and teacher, and Dan Kois, writer and editor at Slate, among other places, set out to map the oral history of Angels in America in their new book The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascendance of Angels in America, based on their Slate feature. They devote one of their chapters to the tumultuous history behind the Angels screen adaptation, and I spoke with them about their research, Robert Altman’s involvement, Mike Nichols, and the Jewishness of Angels in America. [Editor’s note: The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Paste: In the text of Angels in America, when Prior is visited by the Angel, he quips, “That’s very Steven Spielberg,” which is also what you named a chapter of the book concerning the play’s history with screen adaptation. So I was wondering what your research process was for this particular section of the book. What your approach was.

Dan Kois: We started out by talking to Cary Brokaw, who was the producer of HBO miniseries, and who, over the course of almost a decade, was the person most responsible for shepherding the project through its various incarnations as different directors sort of took a crack at trying to make it happen, and who stuck with it and kept pitching it around and eventually made a connection with HBO. And then Cary connected us to everyone else who we needed to talk to. He talked us through some of the other people who had been associated with it, and got us connected to some of the actors who had been on the show, [including] Mary Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright… Cary was the beginning because he was the guy who sort of stuck with that project for a decade. He really drove that bus. And then Isaac took a fun trip to Michigan, tell him about that.

Isaac Butler: Yeah, so at some point one of us—I really, genuinely don’t remember who—was like, well, you know, we had always heard, there had always been this sort of rumor floating around that Robert Altman was going to make a movie out of Angels in America, and then it just never happened, you know? It was floating around in the ’90s, I mean. Then we found out that that was not a rumor, that was a real thing. I think Dan found that out when he spoke to Cary, so we asked Tony about it and he of course told us lots of wonderful and hilarious things about his experience with Robert Altman. And then at some point we have the idea that—you know, Robert Altman is a legend. He’s one of the most important, you know, American filmmakers. His papers might be somewhere where we can go read them, and if there were, there might be stuff on Angels. And then we found out that that was true… [T]he University of Michigan Ann Arbor has this amazing collection of film directors’—actually not just directors’, but mostly film directors’—papers. And so I flew out to Michigan to go look through these, you know, the box of info they had on the Angels in America film adaptation, which was incredible. I mean, we found a couple drafts of the screenplays which Tony wrote for Altman, which Dan I know really enjoyed those.

Kois: And Tony had no memory, he said, of what was in those screenplays. He has vague memories of writing that but couldn’t remember what he had put in. And so then finding them was just incredibly useful in thinking about—in figuring out how this movie might have worked, and how Tony tried to adapt his style to what he believed would be like an Altman-esque version of it.

Butler: And the reason why, what makes this so amazing is, you know there’s an interview before Tony and Altman got together that we read where Tony says, “Angels in America is just Nashville.” Like, the structure is Nashville. Nashville is hugely important to this play… [I]t kept overlapping dialog, coincidences. You can sort of imagine the camera panning from one character to another across the street, and those two characters don’t know each other, and then we follow the next person. And then the weirdest thing that happened when I went through those papers is that a friend of mine’s name was in one of them. A person I had worked with in a social justice context was mentioned in one of the documents. And I wrote to her, like, “Hey, are you” — that’s this woman Liz Manne who is interviewed for the book — “Hey, are you this Liz Manne?” and she said “Yeah, I co-founded Fine Line we were going to produce that movie.” And then she was enormously helpful, not only in speaking with us and giving us the whole background of it, but finding us, and vouching for us with, the other people who were involved in that deal.

Paste: That’s really amazing. I know that Robert Altman had a past history to some degree with play adaptation. Kushner mentions that he adapted [Christopher Durang]’s Beyond Therapy.

Butler: He did Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean [Jimmy Dean], he did Secret Honor. There’s a couple others, right Dan?

Kois: Yeah, I think so. He did at least three or four play adaptations. There’s, I mean, a period in—he did Streamers, I think. There’s a period in the ’80s when he was just having trouble getting stuff financed, and he sort of went through a kind of chamber movie period where the stuff he could make work were scripts that he or someone else would adapt, a play script and someone else would adapt them, there were just a couple of characters, and not that many sets, and that was what he could get financed… And Angels would have been an entirely different kind of project, right? That was—you know, that was post- the Altman renaissance, which took place in the early ’90s with first The Player, and then with Short Cuts, which were, you know, two movies that reminded Hollywood that Robert Altman was a genius and that when he set his mind to it he could make something really amazing. And it was in that light that he approached Angels, and Angels was not meant to be a small chamber piece. It was meant to be something extravagant and big. Initially it was going to be two movies that Fine Line was maybe going to release in theaters a couple months apart from each other to maximize the publicity. And then he had you know, “big movie star” in mind for it, the kind of people he had been casting in Short Cuts and The Player. He wanted Robert Downey, Jr. for Louis and he wanted Tim Robbins for Joe, and Pacino was—

Kois: Still Al Pacino!

Butler: Was always in for Cohn. Yeah. Yeah. And then Spinella was still supposed to play Prior. You know, I found some of the budgeting memos where they were trying to figure out what this thing would cost, which are hilarious documents in and of themselves. We used a quote from one of them in the book: “We renamed the budget the smoldering pit of hell.” You know, this is a movie that was going to cost $30 million. Like, that’s a big deal. What they were shooting for was a big deal in the early ’90s, particularly when you’re adapting a play.

Paste: And having read some of the drafts of Kushner’s original screenplay for Altman, was there anything that still made it to the HBO adaptation?

Kois: Everything that’s in the HBO adaptation reflects I think a real, conscious decision to go back to the text of the play. I don’t think any of those flourishes, any of the added material in that Altman screenplay, ended up in the version that Mike Nichols shot, which is, with very limited exceptions, the play on screen.

Butler: Yeah, I mean, the Nichols version cuts a few things from the play. You know, Roy’s monologue is shorter, “Democracy in America” is shorter, stuff like that. And there’s a little tiny coda for Joe Pitt—the text of which is in our book, in the Nichols version, but I don’t even know that Tony has looked at the screenplay since the Altman version went into turnaround. The sense that I got was that it had been a very long time since he has looked at them.

Kois: Yeah, I don’t think he went back to them when the Nichols deal with HBO finally happened. I think he just started fresh.

Paste: And what do you think Nichols did with Angels or brought to Angels that no other director could have?

Kois: I think the easiest answer to that is that he brought those actors.

Butler: I don’t think—I think in 2003, it was not at all common for big name movie star actors to do HBO, you know? It wasn’t—that just was not a thing that actors did, but now they all do TV. Meryl Streep is going to be on HBO again next year with Big Little Lies, but the notion of getting Meryl Streep and Al Pacino and Emma Thompson to do your HBO movie was, like, bananas in 2003. And it took someone with the kind of history and clout and connections as Mike Nichols to make something like that happen in that context. There are very few directors in that period, the beginning of the 21st century especially, who were lauded and successful and artistically amongst the elite of both stage directors and film directors. You know, there’s almost no one. That list has very, very few names on it. It might only have the name Mike Nichols on it, I’m thinking, but you know, of that time period. You really needed someone like that who had that kind of reputation and that kind of ability and the ability to read a play and see how it could be a movie and speak in both of those vocabularies at the same time in order to make Angels happen, I think.

Paste: And I know that a bunch of the actors in the film were involved in other productions of Angels, particularly Jeffrey Wright as Belize. Isaac once sent me videos of Jeffrey Wright’s performance on stage, one of the reels from, I think the Tony reel, and I was wondering if you could talk about kind of the different registers certain actors have to channel depending whether they’re on stage or screen?

Kois: Jeffrey talked about that a lot when we talked to him about what it was like moving from doing it on stage to doing it on a screen 10 years later, and he just found it very rewarding, I think, to get quiet and small with the character who had to be big and flamboyant when you did it on a stage—in part because, I think, Jeffrey really struggled with aspects of that character when he was just like doing it on Broadway. Getting in touch with the physicality I think was hard for him, though I ended up thinking he was incredibly wonderful on Broadway. Getting in touch with a quieter, more interior, more focused and intense version of Belize I think was something that Jeffrey really enjoyed doing on screen. I mean, it’s worth noting, the actor in the movie who had the most experience with Angels was Ben Shenkman, who was a great resource for this book and a great interview and an incredibly nice dude, and who played Roy Cohn in a workshop production with NYU of Perestroika in 1993, then played Louis in San Francisco in ACT, then played Louis in the movie. So he had this very broad range of experiences with the show and had lived with it for years and years and years. And so talking to him about those two characters and hearing the ways that he saw his Louis change, even in that very first “Democracy in America” scene—the first scene that they shot for the movie—hearing the way that that experience changed him was pretty remarkable.

Butler: Yeah, I just tried to find the page in the book where he talks about it and I did. It’s on page 321. You know, he basically thought in particular that Louis, the humor of the character, would not translate to film, and it meant that he had to find a different line of attack that was more about emotional truth and vulnerability. I think [that’s] an accurate summation of what he said there. Yeah, and it scared the shit out of him a bit. You know, when you’re playing it on stage, you can just say, “Fuck Reagan” and everyone will scream and cheer for you. But in a movie, it doesn’t register the same way.

Paste: It’s interesting you mentioned the humor of the play, which in my experience was not necessarily focused on in Nichols’ adaptation. I was wondering if you could discuss the different registers of drama and humor between the play and the film adaptation.

Butler: Sure, well, I mean, I think it’s different. Part of it is, I think it’s incredibly hard to switch the medium of this play—not all plays, but this play—from stage to film and have the comedy survive… [B]ecause so much of the humor in the play is really about, you know, that we’re all in a room together watching it, and it’s about that the way those punchlines are delivered, and it’s about the timing of them, and it’s about that you know this is all going on live, and trying to maintain that while you’re cutting—editing, I mean—from shot to shot or while you’re going a lot closer and a lot more intimate is really hard. A lot of the comedy in Angels in America—and Angels in America is, amongst other things, one of the funniest plays of the 20th century—a lot of the comedy in Angels in America comes from the sort of very big moments, these very big feelings blown out in a way that the extreme intimacy of film I think creates a hurdle, you know? Personally. That’s my take on it, that it’s as much about actually shifting the medium than anything else.

Kois: I also think that that movie was made to be like, an important statement and an Emmy machine, you know? It was like a factory for taking Emmys, which it did. Which it did, and, you know, in many respects I think that film is a huge success in the sense that it takes, especially, the dramatic and emotional moments of the play and puts them on screen in a very vivid way and gives you access to the sort of deep interiority in a lot of these performances which you could never necessarily get on a stage. But Mike Nichols was not trying to play the comedy particularly hard at all.

Paste: I just think it’s interesting given Nichols’ background in comedy.

Butler: Yes. That is true. [Laughs]. That is true. But also, Mark Harris said in our book… that Nichols does have an interesting relationship to his own reputation for being great at comedy. And that draws him to serious work and wanting to do serious work throughout his career. I’m definitely not saying Mike Nichols is self-loathing, and that’s why the jokes don’t work in Angels in America, or something like that. But what I am saying is just, it wouldn’t surprise me if Nichols had certain feelings about what a great, serious work this play was and the way to do it justice was to focus on a beat to beat level [on] the interpersonal drama between the characters.

Kois: Right, and I mean, what Harris noted, which I think was right, is that [Nichols], late in his career, really wanted to sort of take the swings at like the benchmark plays of the 20th century, you know? He did Death of a Salesman, he did Pinter, he did Waiting for Godot, and Angels sort of fits in that category. And you know, Mike Nichols was a funny guy and I think he got why Angels was funny, but I think the appeal of Angels for him had much more to do with putting his mark on like, one of the great works of drama of this century, of that last century, and creating like what he believed could be a definitive version.

Paste: Absolutely. And Harris also kind of alludes to The Sopranos being something that could pave the way for this HBO adaptation, and I was wondering if you could talk about Angels’ legacy, within the context, specifically of TV movies and miniseries in general.

Butler: I mean the big thing is that Angels has actually sort of legendary titans of the screen in it. It has Meryl Streep and Al Pacino in it… Colin Callendar [then president of HBO Films] said that had really never happened before, you know? So The Sopranos is a breakthrough moment that we all know that establishes TV can be this serious medium where the most interesting dramatic art can be happening, right? But The Sopranos has, you know, heretofore largely unknown, “Oh, that guy is from True Romance—”

Kois: The E Street Band.

Butler: And a guy from the E Street Band, and a bunch of journeyman stage actors, and old school character actors. Which is nothing like what you have with Angels, with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, you know? It was not seen as them having trouble in their careers so they needed to go do television, right? It wasn’t seen as a recognition that they needed to do something different. It was that you could do a project on this scale for TV. And so I think that had a huge, huge, huge impact. Some other project probably would have come along and done it, but Angels is the one that did it, and that’s why we can have something like, you know, Big Little Lies with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, and next year Meryl Streep on it.

Paste: And in the time since, and a little bit before Angels, HBO has made some prestige-y LGBTQ films like The Normal Heart, Bessie, Behind the Candelabra, and in the early ’90s they made Citizen Cohn with James Woods. But none of them have seem to have had the same legacy or impact that the Angels film adaptation has had, and I was wondering if you could talk about that, why you think that is.

Butler: Part of it is just Angels [was] first. Angels got there in terms of size and scope, prestige, etc., first. I mean, The Normal Heart was nominated for a lot of Emmys. But Angels came earlier. And we tend to have a—if we’re constructing our narrative, we tend to have a bias towards the things that break the ground.

Kois: I would add—there was something that HBO ran significantly earlier than Angels that I think did have a huge impact, which was And the Band Played On. Which, you know, the reporting on that book now is troublesome in retrospect, but as a prestige project that brought AIDS into the household of a lot of Americans in a way that they hadn’t thought about before, And the Band Played On was a pretty single achievement. It did great at the Emmys and did great ratings for them and made money, too. But it didn’t have big movie stars, it didn’t sweep the Emmys, and it wasn’t an adaptation of the sort of universally understood best work of art about the AIDS crisis and queer life of the last 30 years. What elevated the HBO Angels was that it was Angels in America.

Butler: I’m glad you mentioned And the Band Played On, Dan, because I remember—that was appointment television when that came out. At least for me and everyone that I knew. This thing about the burst of—you know, the discovery of what HIV was, and the early days of the political and medical response. And everyone from Matthew Modine to Phil Collins was in that movie.

Kois: I forgot Phil Collins was in that.

Butler: Phil Collins, he’s the bathhouse proprietor in San Francisco.

Paste: You quote Monica Pearl, who is a professor of English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. She says, “The fact that the subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, did not make it in the title of the adaptation suggests on the one hand something about wanting to pander to a mainstream audience, but it also suggests that the country has become more aware, not only more open, but more aware to the ways that homosexuality was important to the American landscape and American history.” And I was wondering how you felt about that quote, and also the exclusion of the subtitle for the HBO film.

Kois: I mean, I actually have no idea why they excluded the subtitle. Maybe they excluded the subtitle because it’s too long for the TV Guide. I do think that there was—you know, the years between 1993 and 2003 in terms of the role the gay life played in “mainstream American culture,” the evolution in that time period was remarkable. Almost as remarkable as the evolution between 2003 and 2016. And so I do think that partly just in its very existence as a prestige project on the biggest cable network with big stars in it, the movie of Angels had a very specific thing to say about the mainstream meaning of gay culture. On the other hand, as was pointed out by Trip Cullman in our book, there were basically no queer people on that set. And so, you know, it took another 10 years or more for there to be a prestige-y HBO adaptation of a crucial play about the AIDS crisis that had a lot of queer people involved in its making. And that’s a miracle that that happened.

Paste: Could you talk a little bit about Trip Cullman’s role on set as assistant director to Mike Nichols? Reading that section kind of reminded me of the reaction to Andrew Garfield’s extemporaneous interview at a talk back for Angels.

Butler: I interviewed Trip, and when I asked the question it was more like, “What does an assistant director in a film do?” For our readers who don’t know film. And then he said, “Oh, actually, what my real role was, was that I was the sort of point person for questions about gay authenticity, because I was the gay man on set. So when they needed to stage the cruising scene and see whether it felt authentic, they would ask me about it.” Which I think is fascinating. I think that Angels in America is a play that has had people play Louis and Prior who aren’t gay at various points in its history—or Joe, for that matter, or Roy. I think that the movie—I don’t think it’s like they set out to make a movie that had no gay people involved in it, but that is what happened.

Kois: There’s a very narrow field of openly gay actors in 2002 who I’m sure Mike Nichols felt like he had access to. A lot different now. It was a lot different with maybe The Normal Heart.

Kois: The Andrew Garfield controversy was really interesting. That happened right as we were drafting that chapter—in fact, only a few weeks after we had interviewed Andrew for the book. And Andrew was very honest in his conversations with me about the fact the he knew he was embodying a character who represented a lot of things for a lot of queer people. And that meant a lot to him and he was doing his best to access parts of his personality that he really hadn’t accessed before. And part of doing that role for him was accessing this sort of inner drama queen that he had never really thought of as part of himself before, that he shied away from, he said. To see him speak very from the heart about how close to this role he had grown to feel, and how much it meant to him to be doing this part, and then watch him get plucked apart afterwards in a way that nearly anyone in the age of social media can be plucked apart, was a bummer. We did our best in the book to show at the very least I think he’s coming at this role from an extremely honest place. I don’t think he’s being disrespectful and I do think that Tony, for example, thinks that what he’s doing is really, as he says in the book, honestly, authentically gay in a way that knocked Tony [out] when he saw that performance.

Butler: The thing that Andrew Garfield tapped into with his performance as Prior that I think is really fascinating is the extent to which Prior is a performer… He leaned into that sort of drag background—Prior’s background is in drag. His fabulousness is used as a source of strength. Which is something that Tony said many times in interviews with us. I think Jason Isaacs said to Dan, “Tony said to me once, ‘The thing you have to know about Prior and Louis is that they’re screaming queens and they want you to know that immediately when you meet them. And people who are telling you you’re doing it too effeminately, don’t listen to them.’” We asked Tony about that and Tony said, “Yeah, their effeminacy is a source of strength. Prior is an incredibly strong person, you know, and it’s his fabulousness that’s his strength.” I really feel like Andrew Garfield charts that in really exciting and thorough and lived-in way that I found anyway very moving.

Paste: I know that Isaac and [Slate senior editor] Sam Adams joke about the Jewishness of television. I was wondering if you could elaborate as to the origins of that and how it’s shaped your approach to critical thinking and television and entertainment in general.

Butler: Sam Adams edited the piece I did on Slate about Transparent, and ever since that has been a running joke of ours. Because you know, one of the things that particularly Jewish grandparents like to do is if they see an actor on television they know is Jewish, they’re like, “That guy is Jewish.” It’s like a weird thing that the Jews do, and so it’s been a running joke between him that’s like, “This show is Jewish” or “This actor is Jewish.”

Paste: That’s fantastic.

Kois: I’m a goy from Wisconsin, so I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

Paste: I’m a gentile from Connecticut, so.

Butler: I will say, Angels in America—it’s an important queer play, it’s an important play about the AIDS crisis, it’s an important political play, and it’s also one of the more important works of Jewish literature, particularly in the second half of the 20th century… The speech that the Rabbi gives at the beginning — “You come from the shtetl, you carry [it on your] back” — we shouldn’t forget that’s Mike Nichols’ background too. That aspect of [the miniseries] I actually find quite moving… even when it’s the goyish characters talking, its concerns and its tastes and its ideas are very thoroughly Jewish.

Paste: I recall that one of the people that you talked to mentioned that Nichols came to America at nine, not speaking English, and has very much a close relationship with his Jewish identity throughout his work.

Kois: Yeah. He came over on those ships, you know, same as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz did. Sarah Ironson and everyone who is in that first scene.

Paste: So, back to the name of the chapter. What do you think a Steven Spielberg adaptation of Angels would look like?

Butler: [Laughs].

Kois: It sort of depends on whether it’s like—the Steven Spielberg of ’93 I think would have made a very different version of it than the Steven Spielberg of today.

Butler: Great point.

Kois: I mean, that was right around Schindler’s List time, right? And he was just at that moment, sort of, staking a claim for himself as a filmmaker of very deliberate moral seriousness. And I think if somehow he had gotten the keys to the Angels machine in 1993, I think it would have been like Mike Nichols, but with even fewer jokes. Like, better special effects. I think the Steven Spielberg of today, who I think is a much more sleek and surprising filmmaker, and who I think really has been basically ever since Minority Report, I think [he] might make a very different and funny [film], and maybe even he would be like the one guy who could convince Tony to make the one hour, 45 minute version of the whole thing that the studios wanted for so long.

The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascendance of Angels in America is now available in hardcover from Bloomsbury.

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