Culture

David Foster Wallace for the Masses: A Q&A with Donald Margulies

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in ‘The End of the Tour’/Image © A24 Films

"That's a terrifying thought!" Donald Margulies exclaims. The sixty-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has just been asked what the dearly departed David Foster Wallace might have to say if, by some feat of Microsoft Word and metaphysics, he were able to mark up Margulies's script for "The End of the Tour." And what might Wallace think of the overall endeavor? "I think a part of him might have thought it was cool to be portrayed in a movie," Margulies guesses, "but part of him might have just been mortified."

In good Wallacian fashion, almost everything we arrive at as truth in our twenty-minute phone call from the Beverly Hills Four Seasons begets an equally compelling, counterbalanced opposite that is equally true. "I'm proud of this movie," he says, "and I'm proud of us having done it. I'm thrilled that people who've never heard of David Foster Wallace will be Wiki-ing him and buying his books." Margulies then digs into the cinematic trope of the writer writing, one of the things his script has been widely praised for avoiding. "It's not inherently dramatic," he says, "and not all that interesting."

"People go to the bathroom," Margulies continues, "but we don't need to see it. I'm not equating writing with shitting, but we didn't want to fall prey to the biopic flashback that explains it all in cliché. It's such a reductive thing to do and this was such a complicated man who was so hip to the way stories are told that it's just not the way to do it, nor did we want to do anything that was remotely post-modern. It's a pretty straightforward narrative for which there's a bookend and it felt absolutely right to frame it with the knowledge that this man is dead. We know that within the first minute of the movie."

Indeed, this summer could be seen as a parade of GMO dinosaurs and CGI Terminators bookended by two remarkable films about creative genius snatched away too soon. "I have not seen that yet," Margulies says of the Amy Winehouse film that opened a few weeks before his, "but I understand it's a documentary. Our film is not. Our film is really a road picture, a small movie about two guys in a car and the American landscape."

The title of David Lipsky's source material, a 2010 book by David Lipsky called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, was probably Margulies's first clue. The property arrived from a longtime manager who "knows me and my tastes very well," Margulies says. "He sent it to me with a note that said maybe there's a play in it. The book is basically the transcript of a five-day conversation. I started reading it and saw that it wasn't a play at all. It was a movie! And I was very excited at the idea of putting David Foster Wallace on the American landscape. Not just talking about it, but seeing this iconic figure at the Mall of America, at the 7-Eleven, at McDonald's."

Indeed, this tilted Americana has been a preoccupation with Margulies since his 1982 debut as a playwright with Luna Park, his adaptation of a Delmore Schwartz short story called In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, and follows him all the way up to his adapted but unproduced five-hour script of Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex for HBO. In the introduction to TCG's collection of Margulies's plays, Michael Feingold, The Village Voice's lead theater critic for four-plus decades, calls "the cruel banality of American life a terrifying wonder-world to Margulies, an arena where public and private mingle, a distorting mirror where we can see a truer reflection of our selves."

"I don't know that it really lends itself to something other than prose," Margulies says of Wallace's own output, like 1996's thousand-page doorstopper Infinite Jest, on whose book tour Lipsky tags along. "The fanaticism that people have toward Wallace has a lot to do with his voice as a writer," Margulies continues. "He was able to achieve this almost uncanny way of articulating aspects of modern life so that in the reading of Wallace, you're hearing that voice in your head. It's as if you're having a conversation with him and that's why people have such a proprietary sense of who he is and how he should be represented in popular culture."

Indeed, this conversation is one that Lipsky transcribes quite faithfully in the source material, but Margulies chose to forgo listening to the actual tapes. "I had Lipsky's transcript," Margulies says, "which was for me sufficient. I was dealing with words. I read it numerous times to deconstruct it, literally taking a pencil to it and finding essentials and discursive stuff that might be fun and illuminating, so I made those kinds of discoveries, but I didn't want to hear the documentary evidence of it. I didn't want to be influenced by the rhythms and cadence of speech because I was creating characters with these names. I needed to create my own rhythm, which is not to say that much of it isn't verbatim, but again, it's all a matter of juxtaposition and context: how I use it."

Speaking to Lipsky was another matter entirely. "It was essential, really," Margulies says, "and he was very generous with his time and his candor. I said to him, 'You guys spent five days together and you never had a spat? And he said, 'Oh, yeah, we did.' So I asked what it was. And that's really where I found my third act. That's the turning point, a line that is crossed so much it is difficult for them to recover and it takes the story to a new level, but what was really exciting was to just use those five days and its microcosm of a life. So many of the themes and obsessions that haunted and stimulated Wallace were covered during the course of that conversation."

It was a conversation that was well received when the book appeared two years after Wallace disappeared, but five years later, Margulies's film seems to have kicked a sleeping bear known as the David Foster Wallace Literary Estate. Margulies quite eloquently deals with Wallace's immediate family in the script by having Wallace nix contact between them and Lipsky. But other agents, such as Wallace's publisher Little, Brown, tried to exert force over the film during its Sundance premiere earlier this year, following in the footsteps of the widow Cobain who pulled her late husband's music and blocked exhibition of Nick Broomfield's documentary "Kurt & Courtney" at that same festival eight years ago.

"This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago," the estate said in a statement published by The Los Angles Times. "That article was never published," the statement continues, "and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie. The trust was given no advance notice that this production was underway and, in fact, first heard of it when it was publicly announced."

When first asked to put his executive producer cap on and discuss the estate, Margulies goes off the record, but we circle back around to it later when discussing Lipsky's initial article for Rolling Stone. "He's been a little evasive about that," Margulies says, "but he never wrote it and said he was relieved that he didn't have to because he felt so much pressure writing it. And I believe that. The experience was so much a watershed in Lipsky's life, obviously, but maybe writing it with Wallace alive might have been just too much of an Oedipal burden?"

So would the estate have received the film differently if the article hadn't been killed? "Maybe," Margulies replies, "I don't know, but again, there's so much proprietariness and protectiveness toward Wallace and his legacy. And I understand that, but I mean, you know ..."

Margulies trails off and, for the first time during our call, blusters, "He lived! He was a real person. He had a real impact on the culture. It's not nonexistent. He affected people who are not just those intimate people. It's certainly a legitimate thing for us to put out there. And all of the permutations of us putting on a show stem from the fact that this guy moved us."