Two Gentlemen of Lebowski - Adam Bertocci Interview
As appeared on Onomatopoeia Magazine in Spring 2010.
“Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of pretty much anything ever, but he also just loved a good dick joke.”
The Writer Abideth
Adam Bertocci, author of “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski”
as Interviewed by Bobby D. Lux
A skill required to survive the doldrums of the ever-unchanging world of the desk job is the ability to find things on the Internet to amuse yourself. So if I have to choose between work andHey, check out this link, it’s hilarious, I choose the link every time, no questions asked. Some days, it’s a picture of a normally cute cat making a disturbing or condescending face. Other days, you find your entertainment in a re-imagined version of Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie with Glen Danzig singing backup. And then there’s other days when you strike pure gold.
One morning, just like that, I stumbled onto Two Gentlemen of Lebowski by Adam Bertocci. For the next hour I was absolutely tickled (which is a phrase I’ve never used before) as Bertocci seamlessly weaved the language of Shakespeare into the adventures of everyone’s favorite cinematic Dude and his best bowling partner who also was a dabbler in pacifism (not in ‘Nam, of course). As it turns out, I’m not alone in my admiration for Bertocci’s script. The script flew across the Internet with the speed of Epic Beard Man and since the following interview was conducted (late January), Bertocci has been busy as the subject of international press, meeting with agents, looking at potential book deals, and even visiting rehearsals as several theatre companies are now mounting productions of his script.
Can you talk about how this idea came forth and how you developed the script?
The idea initially came about as a funny idea about a line or two--real famous lines, like "You're out of your element" and "The Dude abides," translated into cod-Shakespearean. At the time, it was just a throwaway joke.
The idea to actually do the script came about a month later; I was in the process of sending out query letters around the movie industry, to generate interest in one of my screenplays, and I was frustrated at the rather low number of reads I was getting. For some reason I got it into my head that actually following through on that silly idea of mine would make an effective publicity stunt. I guess I figured that every group of friends has at least one person who just really loves “The Big Lebowski”, and that would help it spread.
I developed the script very linearly, starting with the character list and plowing my way straight through. Honestly, if I hadn't confirmed that the name Walter existed in Shakespeare's day (it's even in his work) the whole project might have died before the first scene.
On the surface, it seems that The Big Lebowski is an unlikely as choice as any for this type of adaptation, but as you read it, the story has many of the qualities of a work of Shakespeare – mistaken identity, deception, a Player Queen (and Karl Hungus) and so on. Was there any part that stuck out to you as especially Shakespearean in The Big Lebowski?
For me, the obvious element was the fact that it begins and ends with direct address, a prologue and ends with an epilogue--a common enough feature in Shakespeare, and the source of some of the most famous moments ("Romeo and Juliet", Rosaline's goodbye in "As You Like It", Puck wrappin' things up for us in "Midsummer"). So that was a good early encouragement for me.
Beyond that, there are two things that stood out for me. Firstly, the importance of language. The language of "The Big Lebowski" is extraordinarily precise, with every "fuck", every "man" carefully planned in the Coens' script. Furthermore, just as Shakespeare created many of the words and phrases we use today, the "Lebowski" characters create and propagate language as well, and they all end up quoting each other with the same regularity that we quote the Bard.
Secondly, the mix of high and low culture. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of pretty much anything ever, but he also just loved a good dick joke. "Lebowski" is an art film from the Oscar-winning Coen brothers, but it's also a crazy romp about a stoner and the scraps he gets into with his bowling buddies.
You have an excellent command of Shakespearean language. Can you talk about the actual writing process once you decided to write this? How quickly were you able to adapt the dialogue?
The first draft was basically banged out in a weekend... a very intense weekend, to be fair. And that was basically a simple translation of the shooting script into a lazy Elizabethan, laying down the foundations.
Maybe it was just easier to develop the work as a Shakespearean piece, get the good stuff in, once I had it all 'translated'.
What elements of the film were easiest to adapt and which the more difficult?
By far the most difficult element was the profanity. "Zounds" just doesn't have the impact it used to, and there's really no way to get around the fact that a movie with a "fuck" count of 260 is going to need some attention paid to the four-letter words. Everyone's favorite trivia tidbit from "Two Gentlemen" is that the hardest thing to write by far was Walter's outburst to Larry. What am I supposed to do with "Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?" Shakespeare himself couldn't improve on that, and I think I spent longer on that one page than the whole act that surrounded it.
From a more technical perspective, anything involving telephones and answering machines and such was a bit of a pain. Of course, I guess Shakespeare would complain about how his plays suffered under today's technology. The ending of "Romeo and Juliet" would be tough to put together in the age of cell phones.
It's funny but people don't tend to ask me which part was the easiest. I dunno, it was either moving along at a brisk little clip, or it wasn't, y'know? I think the bits with the Knave and Maude were the easiest... simple two-person dialogue, not too much information to get across, and they came late enough in the movie that I'd been working for a while and was used to the process.
What’s your favorite part of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski? What is your favorite line?
For favorite part, I'd have to say the closing. Partially because it's one of my favorite parts of the movie, it just feels so warm and comforting... but partially because I just think the translation all came together there. It's one of the few parts of the play I have memorized, and when I was revising, I'd smile every time I got there.
I have a certain amount of affection for the closing of "Midsummer", which I crib the opening lines of the ending from. It has the same feel as the end of "Lebowski", a friendly goodbye before the magic ends for the evening.
I don't think I have a favorite individual line. It's probably a tie between all the sexual ones. Shakespeare just loved a sly reference to the vagina. Sex, sex, sex, that's all the kids think about these days.
Your script went viral almost immediately after you posted it. How did it spread so quickly, and how has your writing career benefited from the attention?
I've done my best to track the spread via a timeline on the Web site, but the short answer is, it came in three steps. First, it took off on the Something Awful forums, where I'm a member--they've been great to me. Second, it hit Twitter, and got to someone called Drew Olanoff... I actually have no idea who he is, but he's apparently very big on Twitter. From him, it got to Alyssa Milano. And as Alyssa Milano Tweets, so Tweets the nation.
My writing career has benefited, but not in the way I was planning for. Somehow I ended up a produced playwright and an author with an agent. But I did this project to try and raise my profile as a screenwriter, and that corner of the world hasn't really responded yet. I'm hoping that once the play actually opens, or the book comes out (if it does get published), I'll be able to leverage it into something else.
I never really saw myself as a playwright, so I'm not sure what I'll do with that cluster of buzz. But I do enjoy writing prose and nonfiction, and so maybe this whole 'book' thing could work out for me.
Why do you think The Big Lebowski has developed such a rabid following over the past decade? How many times have you seen the film?
I can't speak for everyone, but what I think makes it work so well and helped it build this cult audience is the way it creates these little patterns. It's an intricate little puzzle box, the film, and you learn more about it every time you watch it; you notice how this connects to that, how this character is quoting that character. There's always something new to find in a classic.
I'm about to shock the world and say that I haven't actually seen the film all that much. Maybe fifteen times (and three of those times were after initiating this project). By normal moviegoer standards, maybe that's a lot, but by "Lebowski" fan standards, it's nothing.
It's a film I'm very fond of, obviously, and a film I've enjoyed studying and reading about; it's a film that rewards that level of scholarship. But it's not one of the films I'd consider myself an expert on, nor one of my very favorites or anything like that.
I guess in a weird way that explains why I knew the film was rife for a Shakespearean conversion. It wasn't something I was doing as a conscious, I-must-honor-this-film tribute to "The Big Lebowski." I was serving the words on paper, not my own feelings for the movie; I'm able to view the movie with enough closeness to love it and yet with enough distance to bring some new perspective to it.
What are some of your other projects you’re working on? Talk about your other creative interests and pursuits.
Right now I have one film on the tail end of its festival run, a profanity-saturated monologue about the life and times of James K. Polk, and that's gonna hit the Internet in February. That's my tenth short film for the festival circuit. I'm planning to shoot number eleven this year, a romantic comedy, if I can find the time.
I am continuing to plug my feature film screenplays to Hollywood. This largely takes the form of writing letters and crossing my fingers that someone will decide they wish to read the script.
Ironically, the blowup surrounding "Two Gentlemen" has sort of sidetracked me from all the things of my own that I was hoping to call attention to. I think it's very important to always have something new in the pipeline, to always be working on something, and I confess sometimes I've been guilty of shirking that because of this hoopla.
Are there plans for any more Shakespearean takes on other classic cult films?
Lord, no. I'm not terribly certain the world needs another one of these, even if I could recapture lightning in a bottle. A lot of this project came to me in a flash of insight.
But even if I was able to do as good a job on another movie as I hope I did on "Lebowski," I don't think it'd go viral or provide the same boost to my life. I think people would just smile and move on. You can't force these things.
With that said, I know which films I'd do next if someone held a gun to my head and said 'do one'. But I think I'll keep that to myself. My little private joke.
They are, however, cult films, approaching classic status, so you hit the nail on the head there. (I'm a bit of a stick in the mud about the word "classic." You gotta be real old to get that word.)
How much fun was it to write this?
Great fun. Look, the only reason to do any project is because it's fun. That goes double for fan projects.
I think readers, especially Shakespeare buffs, can tell from the writing that I was having a high old time. If I wasn't taking joy in the mashup process, you'd have known.
My father sort of hit the nail on the head: the reason this project caught on with so many people was because it was supremely pointless, an enterprise taken on for pure love and pure amusement with no guaranteed reward.
I pity the poor bastard who tries to do any similar project and doesn't enjoy it. I really do.
For more information on Adam Bertocci and his endeavors, including Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, visit http://www.runleiarun.com/. To stay up to date on all things Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, join the fan page at: www.facebook.com/twogentlemenoflebowski.