There’s a lovely moment during Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee when he’s talking to Michael Richards about his process. Over a cup of coffee in Malibu, Jerry says, “I don’t accept the judging of process. We’re all trying to get to the same island — whether you swim, fly, surf, or skydive, it doesn’t matter. What matters is when the red light goes on.”
But how do creative people get to the island?
Chris D’Arienzo is the Tony-nominated writer of the immensely successful Broadway musical Rock of Ages, a totally endearing and ass-kicking valentine to the tits-and-balls-out hair-metal bands of the ’80s. He was also fired and completely shut out from the unfortunate film Rock of Ages, which features Tom Cruise and his monkey sidekick.
D’Arienzo met me on the Henson (formerly Chaplin) Studios lot in Hollywood, where he is at work on pre-production for his next feature, Always on My Mind, with Nick Nolte and Glenn Close. While we spoke, musicians were laying down guitar tracks on music especially composed for the film about an aging rock star by Elton John and his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. Wearing a Max’s Kansas City T-shirt, D’Arienzo whispered conspiratorially that Sir Paul McCartney was also rumored to be recording elsewhere on the lot. Rock was in the air.
Where are you from?
Chris D’Arienzo: I was born in Hastings, Michigan. My parents divorced when I was young, and I [lived with my mom] in an apartment in Chelsea, so that’s when I saved up paper-route money to go to TKTS and get a matinee ticket to Chorus Line. I was like the nerdy theater dork, by myself.
When did you first start paying attention to art?
CD: Annie was the first musical I ever saw. That was my first real stage experience, and I think being introduced to actors and musicians and a full orchestra and all these things happening live in front me really blew my head off. When the movie Popeye came out, I decided to pull kids from recess and started directing and writing a version of Popeye for us all to do.
And as an adult?
CD: At Michigan State I wanted to be cool, but then junior, senior year, I realized how much I loved theater, so I started auditioning. I got really into the program there. In the course of doing that, some family friends worked for Steven Spielberg and got me an internship, so then I drove out [to Los Angeles] and just started as an intern, and then I was a PA.
And you were off.
CD: The first movie I worked on was Mr. Wrong with Ellen DeGeneres in 1995. That was an amazing experience. It was a complete illustration of how not to make a movie, in every way. You watched a movie fall apart. It can start with the best of intentions and completely unravel. It’s like an asteroid: If dust particles kick that asteroid, it misses the Earth.
How was your experience at Groundlings, the improv troupe that started Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz, and more?
CD: It was fun, but I did it before it got super competitive. I did it because I was working on the Ellen sitcom and the actors that were coming to do that show were all Groundlings, and they said, “You should come do the classes, it’s really fun.” So for me it was no pressure. I didn’t want to be on SNL or on a sitcom, so I wasn’t going in there and competing with my classmates. It was amazing for my writing because it teaches you to trust your instinct not to second-guess yourself. Just put it out there, and that was always my Kryptonite. I loved it.
Did it afford you time to think about what you think is funny, or did you go in knowing what your idea of comedy is?
CD: What they train you to do is to not try to be funny. I’ve had ideas of what I thought was funny since I was a little kid, but [they’re all about] don’t try and win a scene with a joke, don’t try to create an outrageous moment to make everyone laugh — just play it truthfully, and somewhere out of that truth, we promise you, [something] will come out that’s funny.
So they teach you to get out of your own way.
CD: Completely. It was there that I met a writer, Ed Solomon, who thought I was funny, so he hired me to be his creative assistant in 1997. I just sat in the room while he wrote and was there if he wanted to bounce a story with somebody. It was a great gig, really my college. He taught me lots of things no one ever teaches you: It’s just as important to know when not to write as when to write; that you can be damaging to your work. Sometimes we beat ourselves up because we’re not “productive” that day: “I didn’t put in my five hours or my four hours.” I’m not hard on myself like that anymore. If I get a good joke in on a day, then that was a successful day. He was a great mentor.
When did you start writing?
CD: I wrote a script when I first moved out here mainly because I didn’t have any friends and I didn’t have anything to do. I was reading scripts as an intern and I was like, “I know I can do it at least this bad because this is almost incoherent and it has a CAA cover on it.” Tom Schulman, the writer of Dead Poets Society, was speaking, and he said something that was so great and so liberating: Just be prepared that the first thousand pages that you write will be total shit. Just know that going into it. So those early stages, it took the handcuffs off for me, being a chronic pleaser.
He gave you permission to suck for a bit.
CD: Yes, it was great. That’s why I think the art of bombing is so underrated.
What did you find on the other side of that first thousand pages?
CD: That taste is everything. I think that’s what separates people who are great at anything versus people who are mediocre: taste. For the entire process, not just writing. Like casting. Your cast determines if it’s good or not, and not just if they’re talented, but if they’re compatible people, good people. When I was younger, it was all about learning good taste. I was the lone theater guy, I was the guy who would go home and watch old movies. I was in this small farm town, and I wanted to have a voice, I wanted to be different — instead of rebelling with drugs or alcohol, which wasn’t a rebellion because all the teens were doing it.
It’s a smart kid to wonder, How rebellious can it be if everyone is doing it?
CD: When you are in town like that, the way to really be the rebel is to be the guy that carries his journal and a copy of Metamorphosis.
To be “gay.”
CD: I’ve spent my entire life with people under the assumption that I was gay because everything I like is slightly “gay,” and therefore awesome.
Because it’s made by people with taste.
CD: It all comes down to taste. In the lean years, when I was still learning how to write, the thing that got me by was taste. My first script got optioned, and then the next thing I wrote got bought. I got paid to write right away. The downside was that I was learning to write on everyone else’s dime. It caused me to go out of a favor. There was a window of hype with me when I first sold my first thing, and then I panicked. You get locked up.
How do you get good taste? Can you learn it?
CD: I think it’s openness. It’s having a curiosity in the world. How do you get good taste? That’s a novel.
What turns you on creatively? Obviously music. Is there anything you turn to when you’re having an off day? When you want to sit down to work but for some reason, it’s not coming?
CD: Well, music is the easiest pipeline. Whatever you want to feel, you can put on an album that will kind of get you there if you’re one of the people who are open to music. And wine. I’m really into wine.
Where did that come from?
CD: I think living [in California]. Going up to Napa and Santa Barbara, getting to go to these vineyards and watch the process. And once you get into it, the old wines. Drinking things that are older than you are? To drink history? The other night I drank a ‘62 Pomerol. To drink something 10 years older than me? That sort of thing, I don’t know, I just love it. When I want to open my brain wide, I put on some music, open up a bottle.
When I was single I would take a notepad to Disneyland and write there. A lot. I had an annual pass for it. I’d ride a ride, write a little bit till my brain hurt, go eat some lunch, ride some more rides and then write a little bit. I would do the same thing at the L.A. Zoo. Go, look at the animals, write a little bit. Those things free me up. If I can be in an environment that’s kind of a little bit childlike, walk around, absorb some things —
Eat a churro.
CD: Eat a churro. [These trips] were something I would really use to turn on and off. But I’m not a ritualistic person.
Do you journal?
CD: No. That feels like homework.
Do you collect anything?
CD: I collect music. Vinyl, CDs. I love autobiographies from people where it’s questionable whether they should have them. I love the audiobook versions of them.
Do you listen to them ironically?
CD: It starts off ironic but then I get really invested. I will put on George Takei, To the Stars, to go to sleep to. But I love the good ones too: Dylan’s Chronicles; Patti Smith’s Just Kids was read by her, so that’s amazing too; Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.
Speaking of Disneyland, Steve Martin’s history with Disneyland is fascinating.
CD: Totally. Of any artist, I feel more of a kinship with him than anybody else. I completely understand and appreciate and admire the type of artist he is. I understand what he thinks is funny and I appreciate and I admire it and how he approaches a joke. He could stand up in front of the Universal Ampitheater, just pull out a gas pump and go, “See this? I got this. For five bucks.” And then put it back and it was a joke. It was all confidence.
And very specific taste. And complete adherence to his taste.
CD: Unwavering. And then, he goes through this period where he writes Picasso at The Lapin Agile, and his New Yorker articles, and starts collecting art, and he has this really [fulfilled] life. I understand even the bad movies he made, it was very clear, “Oh, you’re funding your love for art and your theater work. You’re doing these so your life is enriched.” I don’t fault him for that.
Why do you think creative people starting out in their careers don’t feel they can disagree with executives?
CD: You have to have a good work ethic, and you want to please people, like anyone who is a good person, and you battle that. But then you have a realization that these people will pick apart your writing over a weekend, after you’ve toiled over it. They decide if it’s “good” or not. And they have no abilities to write. But then it’s demystified — their opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s you’ve ever met, and the reality is that there’s a zillion ways to skin a cat.
How did you move on from that realization?
CD: I checked out and joined Trainwreck as the keytarist and we toured around the country. Doing something fun and creative that wasn’t about a paycheck but was immediate, whereas writing a screenplay, especially for movies that aren’t getting made, is like being an architect drawing plans for buildings that never get made.
And what brought you back?
CD: When I was on this tour I was approached with two things. One, my agent gave me the book that was Barry Munday, and at the same time he gave me that, CAA had put me in touch with producers who wanted to a musical using ’80s hair metal. They sent me some CDs and said, “Go pitch on this, see if they like your take.” So those two things happened, and they ended up being the first film I directed and Rock of Ages, which has been my job for the past seven years.
Going into your first film, did you go back to what you learned after that first thousand pages?
CD: Again it comes down to taste and biting off the directors I really love. I love Mike Nichols and The Graduate, the things he paid attention to, how the sets were. I love Woody Allen, the way he uses the camera, the way he lets scenes just play out. I love the way Kubrick enjoys symmetry. I used a style that was an homage to all of them but also helped me time-wise. Setting up a camera so that a scene can play out in one take allowed me to make my day, because I didn’t have time or money to do it.
When you’re directing, what you’re really doing is forming a religion, and that’s your primary job, gathering apostles. All you need is the right people to be enthusiastic and give their hearts to it and then your job is easy. If you haven’t converted everyone and if your religion is on shaky ground and your church isn’t built right, then you’re fucked.
You took Barry Munday to SXSW. What is that experience like?
CD: The moment you land in that town, you can tell these people love art of any kind and artistic ventures of any kind. They just like people expressing themselves, so it’s the most lovely audiences to screen for. [But] there was literally no distribution for my film. Magnolia, who picked up the film, wasn’t willing to put up the money for the songs I really wanted to use…
A hint of things to come.
CD: Oh my god, yes. Then when they said, “Yeah, we’ll give you theatrical distribution,” it turned out to be that one lone theater on Wilshire at Doheny [in Beverly Hills] that nobody ever goes to and — this felt almost cruel, like a joke — the other was in Juneau, Alaska. Those were the two theaters that showed Barry Munday. In the world.
Now it’s on Netflix, and anyone can watch it whenever they want. Are you precious about your work?
CD: The only place I’m precious is with comedy because there’s a rhythm and a setup and a punch line. It’s much more mathematical than “just go with your feeling.” So that’s the only place I get persnickety.
When Rock of Ages came to you, what happened between the producers coming to you and it originating as a bar show?
CD: It was the first time I saw the writer who had pitched before me [come out] as I went in. Usually they’re a little more savvy about separating people. Anyway, I saw him and it gave me this confidence. It turned me into an actor, which was the best thing for that pitch. I had a Journey concert T-shirt underneath the button-down I had on.
So you were Clark Kent.
CD: I was. I kicked the door open, then I threw my bag in, then I threw my shirt in, and I walked in. I played all the parts, really animated. I played the music.
How long was this pitch?
CD: Twenty minutes. And pretty much the show that’s on Broadway is what I pitched that day. We worked it out in this bar, and then moved it to a bigger bar, then a soundstage in L.A., and then it was like, a couple weekends a month. It became a little event in L.A., this thing of, “Oh, you have to go check out this show…” Then we went to Vegas for 11 days to try it out at the Flamingo, which was horrible and gross, and then it was dead. It was like, “Well, that was Rock of Ages.”
Then I got a call, maybe even a whole year later that was, “We’re going Off-Broadway.” And we went to New York. Everyone was telling us New York audiences were going to hate us.
But it was the opposite. Your L.A. reviews were rough and your New York reviews were glowing.
You’ve said in the past, “Everything about Rock of Ages is a complete mystery to me.” Does it feel like a gift? Not to imply that you didn’t work on it — you obviously worked intensively on it — but does it feel like it just happened to you?
CD: The humble, cool thing to say in any interview is, “It’s a wonderful thing that I can’t explain,” and there is that element, but it can’t be successful if you don’t go into thinking, I know this is the coolest fucking thing ever. I mean, you can dream about what it would be like to be nominated for a Tony, but if you’re making Rock of Ages, and you’re opening it in a climate where everyone said, “This thing is gonna last a couple of weeks, it’s the death of Broadway, they’re serving drinks in the seats, they’re the dumbest grossest thing on Broadway,” you can have that dream of that moment, but then you wake up and think, We’re going to close soon.
What was nice is that it allowed me to just embrace the moment. I absorbed every ounce of New York, putting that show up because I didn’t think we’d be there that long. It was winter in New York, it was snowing, and my apartment was over Times Square. It was all blanketed in white and I’m sitting in my apartment writing my Broadway show. It was just really romantic.
What sort of changes, if any, did you make to the show moving it from Off- to on Broadway?
CD: This is the great thing that Broadway has over the film community, this wonderfully democratic process called the previews. Instead of a boardroom of a bunch of MBAs saying, “I don’t know that an audience would really like that, I don’t think they’ll get that joke,” I would say, “Well, let’s try it tonight, and if it sucks, I’ll pull it out.” And I can safely say that there are 10 jokes in that show that never would have been in if not for the preview process. That’s why I’ll always want to do theater, because other than an opportunity like [the film I’m working on now] where I’m a producer on it and we have our own equity money so we’re not beholden to anyone, there are very few chances in the film industry where you aren’t having to compromise your vision on some level.
How early on in the whole experience did you start hearing about a movie of Rock of Ages?
CD: They sold the movie rights before we transferred to Broadway, and all the movie people were there opening night, so I think they all felt like they had done something right. Before they did everything wrong.
At that point in 2009 you were the writer of a hit Broadway show. You had five Tony nominations. When they came to you as pre-production started up, what was the sequence of events that led to you being locked out of the whole process? How did it get to the point where you had to hear from someone, “They gave Tom Cruise a monkey sidekick”?
CD: I was originally attached to write and direct the film. I presented them a script, and they were really enthusiastic about it. Toby Emmerich, the head of New Line, felt that they were going to spend more money than he felt comfortable putting in my hands as a “new” filmmaker.
My pitch was to visually send up old MGM musicals and shoot it like an old musical, but do it with this music. When you read the original draft, there’s a Busby Berkeley pool number, exploding pyrotechnics from street lamps and trash cans, and it’s very aware of itself.
Singin’ in the Rain via Slayer.
CD: I had a Singin’ in the Rain scene during “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” where it turns into the big soundstage set with the famous big scarf. The way the stage show was an homage to classic Broadway, I wanted this to be an homage to classical musical cinema. I was happy with it, and they were happy with it, but as Toby said, they needed to keep the lights on at the company, so he had to make the decision, he felt, to hire someone who he trusted with the amount of money they wanted to spend on it.
CD: To direct my script. So he hired Adam Shankman, who had made Hairspray for them and had made them a lot of money. Adam, I think it’s safe to say, doesn’t really like our stage show. It was very clear that he thought the stage show was very problematic as an adaptation and simply could not work in a film format. So he got rid of me and brought in several writers to rewrite the script, and I was just…kind of…gone. And then I sort of heard who they cast. And then they made the film.
When the trailer came out, I saw there was a monkey in it, and then I knew what kind of movie it was. And I think America knew what sort of movie it was. To talk about taste again, the one thing I’m proud of, of Rock of Ages the stage show, is that we were incredibly respectful of the music. We executed that music note for note, exactly how it’s supposed to be executed, and that’s why people liked it. Because of the authenticity. We even had Joel Hoekstra as our lead guitarist on Broadway, who tours with Night Ranger.
I’ve only seen parts of the movie, so I can’t comment on the whole thing, but what’s clear to me [from the] the parts I’ve watched is that there feels like an underlying disdain — or at best, dismissive sense — of the era and the music.
They made it like a guilty pleasure.
CD: Exactly. Instead of coming from the point of view of “I’m going to validate this and elevate it,” they embraced the kitsch and just made it more kitschy. They made it more silly and goofy. Not that our show isn’t silly or goofy, but it’s always from the point of view of “This is really good. And if you don’t like Warrant’s ‘Cherry Pie,’ then you’re a fucking dick. Because it’s good! And we’re gonna show you why it’s good!”
But they made the movie that they clearly wanted to make, so I think everyone was ultimately very happy — at least the executives and Adam were very happy. If they were here, they would defend it and I would happily have that back-and-forth about why I think monkeys are hacky in movies…among other things.
But, you know, the good of that experience was that they paid me the biggest paycheck I’ve ever gotten.
To go away?
CD: To write [my draft]. I’m not going to lie, it was a nice chunk of change, and I have a new kitchen because of it. And it gave me the freedom to write Always on My Mind and to be really adamant about writing something really personal and something I care about, that I’m going to hold on to it and see it through to the end. If this one fails, then I really know where I stand as an artist. If I should really be doing this or not.
When you think back on when you realized, Oh, I’m going to get shut out of this, my journey with this is done, is it anger, is it frustration, is it animal sadness, childlike confusion?
CD: It was all that while it was happening. I think if that movie had been universally beloved, if it had made Mamma Mia! money, I would have gone insane and probably quit. But the way that movie was received validated my feelings.
And your taste!
CD: And my taste. It was the same feeling of gearing up for the high school reunion when you were the kid who was picked on, and then when you get there all the guys who picked on you are all fat and bald. Whatever venom you had going into it is washed away. Once it was out there, what am I going to do? Beat up a wounded puppy?
That sort of anger can really eat away at you.
CD: And it did. It really fucked me up.
This town is littered with people who have never gotten over it.
CD: I didn’t understand it. I really didn’t understand. I was so confused. They [had said], “We’re putting [your draft] on the schedule. This is going to be a tentpole movie for us, we love it. You’re the heart and soul of this project.” That’s what I was told: “You’re the heart and soul.”
And then, to be shut out and unceremoniously handed my hat, all of that was incredibly painful and confusing, because I knew that I could do this. I wanted to be helpful.
But what I’m whining about now, it happens to everybody, almost. You can either let it totally destroy you, or you can pick up the pieces and do something else. And at the end of the day? It’s just a movie. That’s the thing I’ve had to come to terms with.
Did you have a mourning period?
CD: I had a real problem. I think the thing that saved me was that I got married. The year I was planning the wedding was the year they made the movie and it came out. I put all my energy into getting married and having an awesome personal experience where we had all our friends come to Hawaii. Getting lost in that got me through the toughest time.
If you were some single guy eating ramen in the Oakwoods, the infamous apartment complex for hopeful Los Angeles transplants, you would have just put a gun to your head.
CD: Probably. My head would be in an oven. But [my marriage] saved me. Then when [the movie opened] and it just sort of laid there like a turd and then just…went away, I was free. I wasn’t tortured about it. I would have loved to present the world with my version of it, but they can go see that on Broadway because it’s still running. All of my hostility and frustration is gone.
When did you remind yourself that you had more work to do?
CD: For 13 years my dad took care of my stepmom, who had Alzheimer’s. Watching and being a part of that, once I was ready to write something again, became what I wanted to write about. That became Always on My Mind. I set it in this world of music, and then set it in the location of Hawaii, because those are things that make me happy. So I wrote this script about this sad thing in my life, but filled it with as much joy as possible.
And I probably wouldn’t have written that if I hadn’t been fired off of Rock of Ages. If I had made and directed Rock of Ages and it had blown up, who knows [what] studio thing I would have gone on to do. Because I’m starting over, and that movie didn’t help or hurt my career, because no one is going, “The guy who wrote Rock of Ages, I want him!” Which is fine.