Author Interviews

Funny Stories Behind Screenwriter's 'Shudder'

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Paul Rudnick is a screen writer, playwright and humorist whose work appears frequently in The New Yorker. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would shy away from fame. But Rudnick ended his first foray into making a major Hollywood movie by politely asking that his name be removed from the credits. Guest host Lynn Neary talks to humor writer Paul Rudnick about his new collection of essays, called I Shudder.


Paul Rudnick is a screenwriter, playwright and humorist whose work appears frequently in The New Yorker. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would shy away from fame. But Rudnick ended his first foray into making a major Hollywood movie by politely asking that his name be removed from the credits.

The movie, "Sister Act," starring Whoopi Goldberg, went on to become a big success. Rudnick's take on the behind the scene machinations that went into the making of it is just one of many funny stories included in his latest book, "I Shudder."

Paul Rudnick joins us now from our New York studio. Good to have you with us.

Mr. PAUL RUDNICK (Screenwriter, Playwright, Humorist): Oh, thank you so much for having me.

NEARY: So, let's begin with "Sister Act." Why exactly did you try to disown this film?

Mr. RUDNICK: Well, here's the short version. What was intended as a satire of movies like "The Singing Nun" and TV shows like "The Flying Nun" and all of those hug-happy, sugary nun flicks, turned into one of those. Though by the time the Disney people got through with my original script, it formed very little resemblance to what I intended.

So, I thought it was best to bow out as gracefully as possible, and Disney didn't quite see it that way. They wanted me to keep my name of the film. So, what we finally settled on was the choice of a pseudonym, but Disney had full approval of whatever name was selected.

Because first I wanted to say screenplay by Goofy, and they didn't go for that. Then finally I, kind of out thin air, the name Joseph Howard. Joseph actually was the name of a character in a story I'd written, and Howard is my brother's middle name. So, it now says on the screen in "Sister Act," written by Joseph Howard, which still sounds to me like someone who helped found the Mormon church.

NEARY: Now, you actually spent time at a convent doing research for that movie, which I was very surprised to learn.

Mr. RUDNICK: Well, it was a several year process as I went through many drafts of the script. And I'd find myself out in Los Angeles on the Disney lot discussing the difference between a Benedictine and a Franciscan order and all sorts of people dogma in rooms filled with Jews - myself included.

So, finally, Bette Midler, who at that point was going to star in the film, said, you know, I think Paul should go to a convent for some hands-on research. So, I was shipped by bus to the Regina Laudis Convent in Bethlehem, Connecticut, which was a revelation to me. It was fascinating. It ended up not fueling the film almost at all because real convents are very different from those in Disney romps.

NEARY: Now, being gay is very much a part of who you are. It's a part of the way you write, what you write about. And you've written that when you were growing up you thought everybody was gay.

Mr. RUDNICK: I did. I think I was enormously and appallingly egocentric. I was very sort of pleased with my life in the suburb of Jersey, so it didn't occur to me that anyone was different from me. But basically, I just didn't divide the world into gay and straight. If I had to make any kind of differentiations, I would put people into folks from New Jersey and folks from New York, and that seemed like more than enough judgment.

NEARY: That suburb of New Jersey was Piscataway, New Jersey. And you write about that in this book. And I'm not sure you're going to win any friends there with your description of the town. But I would like you to read at least a little portion of that description. And it's on page 212, starting I was raised.

Mr. RUDNICK: Yes. I was raised in the suburb of Piscataway, where the Chamber of Commerce sponsored a promotional billboard picturing two cartoon Native Americans in feathers and striped war paint. One of these braves was shading his eyes with his hand and scanning the horizon above the caption: They went Piscataway.

Piscataway is also the home to many industrial parks, where gracefully landscaped acreage surrounds the buildings that market bath towels, silicone breast implants and napalm.

NEARY: Was there such a billboard as that: They went Piscataway?

Mr. RUDNICK: Oh, absolutely. I must say, I loved Piscataway. It was a great place to grow up because it was a suburb and suburbs are pretty much designed for the worship of small children, which is what I was at the time.

NEARY: You know, you had written - in so many different media - you've written novels, essays, films, plays. And I wondered if there was one that you like more than the other, or if there's one where you're able to express yourself more that really sort of reflects who you are. Which one do you like best?

Mr. RUDNICK: It's funny. It's a hard question to answer because I've been continually surprised. I never expected to become a screenwriter or a novelist for that matter or to write a book of essays. But what I've learned is to let the content absolutely dictate the form. The essays in "I Shudder" were about subjects and people that I tried to fictionalize at various points, and I felt I wasn't doing them justice. I really wanted to celebrate some very special men and women.

And suddenly, when I tried the essay form and tried nonfiction, that felt right. So, I've learned not to pick favorites. Although, I must confess, there is something about theater where there's the live response. There's working with the actors. There's a family feeling there and a certain high that you get, especially when you work on stage comedies, when the audience is with you and they're shooting the whole experience that much higher that really can't be duplicated anywhere else.

But it's on the other hand when you write books, you have this ultimate god-like control, and that is extremely tempting. And when you write movies, it's kind of wonderful and a little scary, because when I worked on "The Addams Family" films, I remember sitting in my little New York apartment and typing out Gomez and Morticia enter a decaying French bistro.

And then a few months later I walked onto a soundstage in Hollywood where hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent to build this decaying French bistro. And I suffered an immediate panic attack where I thought, oh my god, couldn't we have used this money to send some kids to college or build some huts? You know, so that the budgets in Hollywood can be both exhilarating and daunting. So, yeah, no. They're all my children.

NEARY: Paul Rudnick, his new book is "I Shudder." Thanks so much for being with us, Paul.

Mr. RUDNICK: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

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