Chopping in High Cotton: Robert Schenkkan on All the Way and Hacksaw Ridge
Robert Schenkkan discusses the dramatic potential of President Johnson, how to adapt your own play for the cinema, and why the best idea in the room wins.
After Bryan Cranston wrapped production on the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, the next project for the actor who brought us Walter White was playing U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way.
Cranston’s association with the play began at the American Repertory Theater, followed by a very successful Broadway run, and ended with a film adaptation of the play on HBO, which Schenkkan – both a successful playwright and screenwriter – adapted himself.
During the critically acclaimed Broadway production, Cranston was awarded the Tony Award for the Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, while All the Way also won the Tony Award for Best Play.
In 2016, the film adaptation premiered on HBO, starring Cranson along with Melissa Leo as Johnson’s wife Lady Bird Johnson and Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King, Jr. The film version was directed by HBO’s go-to director for political dramas, Jay Roach, and produced by Steven Spielberg.
All the Way focuses on the first year of Johnson’s presidency, when the former Vice President was serving out the final year of President John F. Kennedy’s term after his assassination in November 1963. During that period Johnson dedicated himself to passing a Civil Rights bill against staunch opposition from Southern Congressmen from his own political party.
The play focuses on Johnson’s remarkable political skills and personal insecurities, both because of and in spite of his larger-than-life personality.
Schenkkan grew up in Austin, Texas, not far from Johnson’s hometown of Stonewall, Texas. Though Schenkkan initially started his career as an actor, he later increasingly devoted himself to writing. His one-act play series The Kentucky Cycle, which covered 200 years of three intertwined families in the Appalachian Mountains, was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He also found success on film and television, writing 2002’s The Quiet American and episodes of TV’s The Pacific.
In addition to All the Way, Schenkkan also co-wrote the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II drama about the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest honor in the U.S. military. The film, which was directed by Mel Gibson and stars Andrew Garfield, debuted at the 2016 Venice Film Festival to an extraordinary response.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Schenkkan about why President Johnson is such a fascinating character, adapting his play for the screen, and why Hacksaw Ridge took ten years to realize and is “unlike any other war story you have ever seen in your life.”
What inspired you to write about this particular period in President Johnson’s life?
I grew up in Austin, which is the hill country where LBJ is from, and his presence is very much felt there.
My father had a very odd little connection with LBJ. He was a pioneer in public television and radio, which was brought to Austin by the university to be the first public television and radio station in the entire southwest. The first job was to go to then-Senator Johnson and get his permission because it would’ve been a direct competitor with the Senator’s own media empire. Or should I say Lady Bird’s media empire because it was in her name, as he was always very careful to say.
I’m pleased to say that he not only gave his permission, but as President he would go on to sign into law the bill that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Growing up, LBJ was thought of as a friend and a good man in my family. There’s a family story about an invitation to visit the ranch, making the trip out there, our station wagon getting stuck in the mud, and Senator Johnson driving out in his truck, getting out, and putting his own shoulder to the wheel to get us out.
It sounds a little apocryphal to me. [Laughs]
I’m too young to remember it, so I asked my older brother once if he remembered meeting Johnson. He said, “It’s funny, I don’t remember Johnson so much as I remember how incredibly respectful our father suddenly became around this strange man.” My dad was from Red Hook, Brooklyn, so he was a pretty tough character.
LBJ has always been in my head from that standpoint. He’s such an extraordinary character in just pure, raw dramatic terms. This guy was amazing.
The typical description of LBJ given by anybody – it could be a friend or an enemy – would go something like, “Well, he was the nicest, cruelest, most generous, selfish, care-giving, sadistic son of a bitch I ever met in my life.” Bill Moyers once said, “The 11 most interesting people I ever met was Lyndon Johnson.” This is an extraordinary character and I’m always drawn to character.
He really fundamentally altered the political landscape in this country. He changed the country in ways that we’re still experiencing and raised issues that we’re still fighting about. Never more so than this crazy election season. Great character and an important story that really begs to be explored are the reasons why I wrote the play and then the movie.
Can you explain the process of adapting your play for your screenplay?
I have to say this was a sheer pleasure. This was my second time working directly with Steven Spielberg after working with him on The Pacific. He’s such a political animal.
When Steven, Bryan Cranston and I brought this to HBO, what I said at the time was, “Look, I have no interest in just shooting the play. What I want to do is a complete cinematic reimagining of this story.” Everybody was on board for that.
It’s obviously recognizably the same story with many – but not all – of the same characters. I took a really hard look at how I could best tell this story on screen now that I had all the things that cinema brings that I did not have in my toolkit when I was working on stage.
For example, I cut enormous chunks out of what originally existed. I wrote many new scenes. I eliminated characters and expanded characters. It felt very fresh to me.
One example is the scene I wrote that is in the very beginning where LBJ enters the Oval Office at night after he makes his surprise announcement to the Joint Houses of Congress that he’s going to go all in on Civil Rights. It’s largely a scene of silence. While LBJ had been in the Oval Office many times, this is the first time he enters as President. It’s still full of Kennedy’s memorabilia, so the dead president’s presence is everywhere.
I know Bryan from working so closely with him for two and a half years, and I knew what he could deliver just through the expressions on his face. The way he takes that room in – you can literally feel the mantle of power and the weight of that coming down and crushing on his shoulders. It’s a such a fantastic cinematic moment. You couldn’t really do that on stage, while in film you can get right into Bryan’s face and see it right in his eyes. That’s one expression of what I sought to do.
Another would be to take an existing scene – in this case, the scene in which LBJ essentially woos and pressures Hubert Humphrey into supporting even this truncated version of the Civil Rights bill.
On stage, that takes place in the Oval Office. It’s a funny scene because we get to see LBJ work and observe this duel between the two men. But I had read that LBJ owned an aquacar and that he had this habit of taking unsuspecting guests for a little drive around the ranch, pretend to lose control of the car, and drive it into the lake. When I read that, I just about fell out of my chair and thought, “Oh my God, that has to be in the movie!” [Laughs]
It’s a fantastic visual. So I moved that scene out of the Oval Office, rewrote it, and put it in the car so the culmination of LBJ’s pitch is losing control of the car. Again, that’s something you couldn’t do onstage – there’s no way to make it work. But what a movie moment!
I was constantly searching for things like that to give new life to existing material or to write something completely different. I wrote some completely new scenes for Anthony Mackie as Dr. King, and I did things for Melissa Leo as Lady Bird that are completely different from what they were in the play.
All in all, it was easily the most satisfying filming experience of my career to date because I felt that this was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing my vision actually brought to screen.
I’m going to be immodest here for a moment – at the premiere in Los Angeles, as Steven and I were walking in together he stopped me outside and said, “You know, I just want you to know that this is the best stage-to-page adaptation I have ever seen.” As we say in Texas, that’s chopping in high cotton.
Senator Russell has an even more antagonistic role in the film than in the play. Why did you expand his role?
For starters, I got Frank Langella, who brings so much to bear.
Sometimes when you’re working on a problem with a screenplay, if a character or scene is not working the immediate impulse is to go hammer-and-tongs at the actual event itself. But sometimes it’s really the context that leads up to it or surrounds it that is actually the problem.
In this case I reduced the complexity of the plot by about a third, which is a pretty substantial amount. That gave me more screentime in which to expand characters like Senator Russell and Lady Bird. But it also allowed these characters and these through lines to emerge, breathe, and take focus. I think that was a big part of the Russell-LBJ success that we had in the adaptation.
I think it works better in the film than I’ve ever seen it on stage, and I’ve seen some wonderful actors do it. But it just acquired a weight and an importance that wasn’t true before.
I think that was because of the way I shaped it – the reduction of the material around it and simplifying what was a complicated series of plot loops to bring renewed focus to this with some very fine work on the scenes themselves and the dialogue between the two men.
Of course, I have to say that both actors are very, very smart actors and their observations, questions, and suggestions were very helpful. I never take umbrage at a good idea. It doesn’t matter to me whose idea it is. In the moment the best idea in the room wins, and in this case these two actors really brought a lot to the table.
We recently interviewed Robert McKee, and he said “Acting is the best preparation I know to become a writer.” You have a background in acting: how has that affected your writing?
I was a professional actor for almost a decade, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. I did a lot of film and television. Quite honestly, it’s how I learned to write.
I never studied screenwriting. I never read any books about screenwriting or playwriting. I learned by being on the set and watching people work. I tried to figure out why I felt something worked or didn’t work.
I did the same thing when looking at scripts with the material I was given to work with as my own process of trying to understand structure, character, and dialogue, and why the writer was doing this or didn’t do this, or why this works or why it doesn’t work.
Beginning as an actor was very much part and parcel of my becoming a writer. I also think that because of that grounding I have a very clear appreciation on a gut level of the building blocks of dramatic structure. As a consequence, I know how to talk to actors in a way that I think is helpful.
Sometimes I’ve seen writers throw way too much at an actor when it’s a much more precise and finite kind of nudge that they need to get them going in the right direction. I’m sure that having been an actor has been helpful in terms of how I talk to actors and how I respond on a set.
I don’t think it’s the only way to become a screenwriter, but it’s how I became one. It was a critical part of what I am and how I became what I am.
You co-wrote the screenplay for Hacksaw Ridge, which received rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival. Can you talk about your work on that screenplay?
I worked on it for about ten years, or as I like to say after that standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, “One minute of applause for every year of my life I spent on this project.” [Laughs]
I was hired in 2006 by the producer, Bill Mechanic. He and David Permut had acquired the life rights to Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to be recognized with the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism at the Battle of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa.
I loved the material from the beginning. It’s an unbelievable story. You have a character who is so unique. He is deeply religious, but not in any claustrophobic way. He’s not there to convert the heathens or sit in judgment of anybody else. In fact, he’s seemingly uneasy about his own salvation.
Simultaneously, he’s intensely patriotic and desperate to serve his country, and not in any of the approved safe avenues available to a conscientious objector at the time. He wanted to be in combat. He not only won’t kill – he’s a pacifist – but he won’t carry or even touch a gun.
Oh yeah, and he’s also a vegetarian and doesn’t work on Saturdays because that’s his Sabbath. [Laughs]
Imagine the U.S. Army in the middle of World War II dealing with somebody like this. Talk about a fish out of water! Of course, they did everything they could to get rid of him, and yet this man goes on to display a level of heroism that few of us will ever come close to. It’s a war story unlike any other war story you have ever seen in your life.
It’s a great character and a really compelling story, which happens to be true. It comes at a time where there’s so much violence in the world, and so much of that violence is centered on religious grounds. Here is somebody whose religious faith is predicated on one of the oldest religious laws there is – to love thy neighbor. That’s great cinema.
Truthfully, I joined up in 2006 having no idea that the journey was going to be as long as it was! [Laughs]
The reason for that is that even though I wrote the script pretty quickly, we were set up at Walden Media. Walden’s one rule was no R-rated movies. We sent my script out and the response was immediate and enthusiastic, and we had a number of A-list directors say that they’d love to do it. But as soon as they heard that restriction, they would just throw up their hands and say they couldn’t shoot Okinawa as a PG-13 movie.
We were stuck in this awful, frustrating limbo for a long time. It wasn’t until many years later that Bill was able to get the rights back and we were able to go forward unencumbered.
What was interesting about all this is that when Bill hired me in 2006 and asked who I would like to shoot the film, I said Mel Gibson, little knowing that it would be years before that would happen. I just think he’s done an extraordinary job.
Mel is a terrific filmmaker, and Andrew Garfield is going to be up for every award. Mel fills the screen with action but keeps your focus exactly where he wants the focus to be. Above all, he keeps the emotional heart of it alive. He’s not just blowing shit up and throwing bodies around – he is telling stories in the action itself.
All the Way is available now on DVD and Blu-ray by HBO Home Entertainment.
Featured image: Brian Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way. Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO