Frederick Mensch is a long time screenwriter and, more recently, a playwright. His latest film Nightingale, starring David Oyelowo (Selma, Interstellar), was featured at the LA Film Festival, and was recently produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment for HBO. As a playwright his work has been developed in Chicago through Chicago Dramatists and Three Cat Productions. In a friendly, candid interview he shared with us the history of Nightingale, how his background as a screenwriter affects his playwriting, and the plans for a Nightingale stage adaptation.
STAGECLOUD: You are a diverse writer, both a playwright and a screenwriter with a film school background. How has writing for film influenced your writing for theater, and vice versa? Have these separate experiences informed one another over time?
FREDERICK MENSCH: I’m a relatively novice playwright, but I went to film school and have been writing screenplays for years, and as a consequence I think my stage plays have a stronger narrative drive than they might have had otherwise. On the other hand, I love the theatricality and drama of the stage, and I’m no longer afraid to go there in my screenplays, as you’ll see in Nightingale.
S: Nightingale has such an intriguing premise, with Peter as the only onscreen character. Why did you choose to tell this unique story?
FM: I wanted to tell a story about a man consumed by his own loneliness, and I felt like the best way to do that was to isolate him in one location, with no human contact whatsoever. This was a huge technical challenge, but I knew if I pulled it off I’d have something close to the perfect indie script – low budget, but with a great, splashy, challenging role for a movie star. That’s how we were able to attract David Oyelowo.
S: Given that you are based in Chicago, how did your script find its way to the 2014 LA Film Festival? What led to it being picked up by HBO?
FM: I gave the script to my manager in L.A. and tried to market it through conventional means, but I didn’t get very far. Finally I placed the script on the Black List website (https://blcklst.com/), where it was downloaded by Producer Josh Weinstock. He asked if he could give the script to a director he knew – Elliott Lester – and I said sure. Elliott loved the script and within a couple of weeks had secured financing. We were in front the cameras within four months, which virtually NEVER happens.
Once the film was complete, we entered it in the L.A. Film Festival, and it made a bit of a splash there because it’s such a bold, unusual piece of filmmaking. At some point the film was screened for Brad Pitt and his executives at Plan B Entertainment, and they loved it. They came onboard as Executive Producers and took the film to HBO.
S: In addition to Nightingale, your play Pursuit of Happiness was recently presented as a reading with Chicago's Three Cat Productions. Any current plans for that play or any other upcoming theater projects?
FM: That reading went really well, and I’m trying to find a suitable home for the play now, preferably here in Chicago. I’ve also retained all theatrical rights to Nightingale, so that will be an upcoming stage project, as well.
S: Film is, of course, much more popular and widely consumed in our culture than theater, even though, theoretically, people should be able to have equally fulfilling experiences with both art forms. What is something about theater you wish more moviegoers understood? What might we do as a culture to encourage more moviegoers to occasionally attend plays as well?
FM: Much as I love movies and television, there’s an intimacy and excitement to live theater that simply can’t be replicated on screen. That said, it’s not up to the culture to encourage moviegoers to attend plays – that’s on us! We need to produce plays that are exciting, relevant and affordable. That’s the challenge.
For more information on Nightingale, you can visit www.hbo.com/movies/nightingale