Q&A with Writer/Producer Becky Johnston
What had you seen in Dante Ariola's work that made you think he was the right fit for ARTHUR NEWMAN?
I thought there was a certain sensibility in his commercials work. Like any commercials, his work tells a story, but he's able to take a situation and turn it sideways. I was moved by a lot of moments in his work that come out of left field -- moments of weirdness and strangeness that are also very funny. His mother is also a big acting coach in Los Angeles, so I had a feeling that he knew how to work with actors. And he did.
Your screenplay has had an interesting gestation period, can you discuss?
I wrote it specifically for Nick Nolte after we'd done The Prince of Tides together because I'd become friends with him on that movie. I wrote it as the anti-Prince of Tides, something small and strange -- more of what I thought was my own voice. I'd done a road trip on my own some years ago and wrote the script in two months. Back then there was no Internet and no cell phones.
Do you think a lot has changed since the time you wrote it, in terms of the world of the story?
When the script was written it was a lot easier for Arthur to hide his identity. In the current film, a character says "I Googled your name and there is no Arthur Newman." I couldn't have written it in the way I did 20 years ago because of the way technology has changed.
The story overall is redolent of a lot of '70s works, like the films of Hal Ashby. Were you inspired by that era of filmmaking?
I loved all those '70s movies but for me the script was more about my own experience of traveling, I'd done a lot of solo road trips where I really watched people on the road so I could make up stories about them. I loved the idea of a person who wanted to run away from his life. Wallace/Arthur was much more of a voyeur in earlier drafts -- he was into making up stories about people; that was the genesis of it. Also I come from a middle class, all-American Midwestern family, my parents were fanatical golfers.
Who is Arthur Newman in your own words?
He appears to be this everyman, a guy who really bought into the idea of the American Dream -- the living embody of it -- and when his dream didn't come true, he just crashed. I saw him as someone who didn't know what to make of himself in the wake of the combined failure of a bad marriage, a kid he couldn't connect with, and his dream falling apart when he couldn't have the life of a professional golfer. He sinks deeper and deeper until he finally says to himself, I don't want to live this way anymore. I'm reinventing myself. I'm going to be the person I've always wanted to be.
The conventional romantic comedy seems to be evolving into something where grey areas, rough patches and meltdowns are welcome and even celebrated -- it's no longer the era of Notting Hill and its quaint rosy glow. It's more like the time of Silver Linings Playbook, where a subject like mental illness can spark an unexpected romance. Or ARTHUR NEWMAN, in which a failed family man and a kleptomaniac find new lives on the road. Why these kinds of films now?
I think people now are wanting so much more to look at the truth of relationships, whether it's with a man and a woman or a woman and woman, or any other combination. We're living in different times, certainly more honest ones. Nobody believes in the depiction of love as it operated in the romantic comedies of the past -- filmmakers are also getting tired of that "sweet" template. People don't want to see those romantic comedies anymore.
Can you discuss the theme of identity in your script?
Identity touches on so many things. It's the heartbeat of what goes on in any intimate relationship, but it also has to do with who you think you are in the professional world. With ARTHUR NEWMAN, I saw identity as this endless prism that you could turn inside the story and refract different colors from. In terms of Arthur himself, there was a lot of Nick Nolte in him when I wrote it, but there were also aspects of my father, who was obsessed with succeeding and who hadn't achieved success. His whole ethos in life was to succeed -- if you didn't, then you weren't the man you thought you ought to be in the world. The character I wanted to write was someone who seemed superficially boring and prickly, so that it would be easy to be put off by someone like Wallace. But in the process of going on this trip, and trying to become another person, I wanted to convey the humanity and goodness of this character -- someone who couldn't take care of another person, or who couldn't express a feeling who over the course of the journey learns to do all those things and more. The goal was to take this generic character and make the audience connect with him on a deep level. On another level, it's about two people connecting by pretending to be other people, which is so relatable now (in the era of social networking). Two individuals take on other identities in order to find a connection -- it sounds so contemporary, but it was true 20 years ago when I wrote it.
You've written a variety of scripts for other directors over the years. What does ARTHUR NEWMAN have that your other scripts do not?
Freedom. The total freedom you have in writing a spec script with a specific person in mind, with no studio or director attached to it. It was the freedom of doing something completely on my own. I've worked for studios and directors, in situations where you're getting notes, for instance -- some of them great, some not. With this script there was no one to answer to.
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