Awaiting the Tonys, No Anxiety of Influence for Jez Butterworth

Jez Butterworth

Jez Butterworth, whose comic drama Jerusalem is up for a Tony award for best play tonight, stopped by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York yesterday afternoon.

The British playwright said that he’d written the play in New York while he was producing the movie Fair Game, about the Valerie Plame affair, starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn.

Jerusalem, Butterworth said, was the result of “moonlighting,” because, in part, he gets so frustrated with the pace of working on films.

“The biggest challenge is just one of endurance,” Butterworth says of movie production. “If you’re going to make a film, then you’ve really got to hang on for dear life for years,” he said. “It bores the crap out of me.”

“The whole aggregate of the experience takes too long for someone like me,” he continued. “There’s just something about having to tell the same story for years.”

Butterworth spoke after a rare screening of Mojo, the 1997 movie version of his first major theatrical success, which also happened to be his first effort as a film director. He said he’s learned a lot since then about movies — he also wrote and directed the 2001 film Birthday Girl with Nicole Kidman — but he said he’s still learning about playwriting, as well.

“It took a few goes to work out what I think a theater is actually for,” he said. “I think that actually being present is very different from film — there’s a whole ritual aspect to it that happens night after night after night, and it happens for real.”

But it was working on the film of Mojo that led to his meeting Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning author of The Homecoming and The Birthday Party, who became Butterworth’s mentor and friend. In the movie, Butterworth cast Pinter as a gangster.

Butterworth is the first to acknowledge his debt to Pinter. “I was bearing the imprint of the last thing that had trod on me,” he says, showing no anxiety of influence. “I was proud of it, too.”

As an example, Butterworth pointed to his 1996 play, The Winterling.

“That was really like Harold,” Butterworth said. “It was entirely inspired by his Nobel Prize speech. He tells you in that speech how to write a play.”

Butterworth says after he heard the speech, he immediately sat down and used it as a template to write the play, which he then showed to Pinter five days later.

“He said he really, really liked it,” Butterwoth recounted. “And I said, ‘Don’t you think it sounds exactly like you, though? Isn’t it totally just ripping you off?’”

Butterworth, imitating the playwright’s resonant voice, quoted Pinter’s response: “First of all, it’s not easy to do, and second of all, if you pick up a trumpet and you sound like Miles Davis, good on you.”