The Pulitzer At 100 redux

Kirk Simon on Paula Vogel, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in The Pulitzer At 100
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in The Pulitzer At 100

In the second installment of my conversation with The Pulitzer At 100 director Kirk Simon we discussed where Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay which is also read by Martin Scorsese) keep their Pulitzers, multiple winners Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times on working hard every day, a Tony Kushner Angels In America accent, Paula Vogel's (How I Learned to Drive) winning headline, Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced), and paying homage to Walter Hill's The Warriors when filming Tracy K Smith's reading of Life On Mars.

In The Pulitzer At 100, Michael Cunningham, with a sheepish grin, states that where his Pulitzer is kept is connected to the fate of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Great Gatsby.

Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel taught Ayad Akhtar, who won for Disgraced
Pulitzer winner Paula Vogel taught Ayad Akhtar, who won for Disgraced

Anne-Katrin Titze: How many years did you work on the film?

Kirk Simon: It took about two years.

AKT: Thomas Friedman says "It's a show-me business." A nice way to start off.

KS: You see the writers, the journalists are very serious and they realize that you can't sit back and say, I've done good work, no one will recognize if I'm not keeping the same standard. Friedman and [Nicholas] Kristof said almost verbatim the same thing. You can't let it rest, you can't let it slide. You got to work hard every day because your readers will know.

AKT: The portrait you show early on of Joseph Pulitzer is by [John] Singer Sargent?

KS: Yes.

AKT: You show readings, workshops with authors and students…

KS: Let me tell you. Paula Vogel I was unfamiliar with before this film. We set up an interview. I read a very brief How I Learned To Drive, which took maybe an hour. And you go: What a powerhouse play this is! And then you do an interview and you find out she is a brilliant woman.

Kirk Simon on Angels in America in The Pulitzer at 100:
Kirk Simon on Angels in America in The Pulitzer at 100: "Tony Kushner's read of it is phenomenal!" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The difference everyone can understand - if you only have an interview, you're going to get 20 to 30 seconds in the film. If I have an interview and a scene, you're going to get a minute or longer. So I did this interview with Paula.

AKT: Where she compares the headline of her winning the Pulitzer to aliens landing?

KS: Right. "Lesbian Wins Pulitzer". Through conversations with her, it turns out that as a teacher - she's taught at both Brown and Yale - she has had six students who've gone on to win a Pulitzer, including Ayad Akhtar, who is in the film. I was so impressed by her. This is in playwriting!

AKT: Oh wow. You didn't include that fact, though, that six of her students won as well?

KS: You know, it's a film about the Pulitzer. It's not a film about pat yourself on the back achievements. So I said, "Paula, we got to do something!" So she had this writers' workshop coming up in the exciting town of Cleveland. And we all trundled out there and filmed that which then gave us the liberty to use more footage of Paula.

AKT: Michael Cunningham comments on all the people and important works that didn't win from Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? to The Great Gatsby. "That's why the prize goes in the sock drawer," he says. Did you ask all of them where they put it?

Martin Scorsese also read from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead
Martin Scorsese also read from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead

KS: Yes. There are certain questions. You don't ask them to everyone.

AKT: They are commenting how it comes in a nice Tiffany box.

KS: The actual truth of the matter is, the Pulitzer is a diploma you get from Columbia University, that looks just like an honorary degree. No one mentioned that. I think all these people have honorary degrees from somewhere.

But they all mentioned the Tiffany's box. It's an impressive item; it's not terribly big; you see it in the film. [Michae] Chabon had it right there, sitting on his desk.

AKT: Is it in a sock drawer for Michael Cunningham, do you know?

KS: Michael Cunningham, as you know, is an amusing interview and he has excellent one-liners. And I don't know what is true and what is not.

Tracy K Smith's reading of Life On Mars is shot as an homage to Walter Hill's The Warriors
Tracy K Smith's reading of Life On Mars is shot as an homage to Walter Hill's The Warriors

AKT: "The newspaper is a first draft of history," is a quote I noted. Some details: Tony Kushner is still editing Angels In America, which is nice to know.

KS: One of the hardest things for an actor to do is to do accents. So when you're reading a piece and there is one accent and then another accent, that's difficult. A lot of actors would turn down that piece if they had to learn different accents along the way. Tony Kushner's read of it is phenomenal!

AKT: Yes, it's such a surprise when he goes into this accent.

KS: Yes, it's like an Eastern-European-Yiddish-type-Rabbi-esque accent.

AKT: I noticed the extreme closeup of Tracy K Smith's mouth when she is reading.

KS: I can tell you that I will occasionally pay homage to films and filmmakers I like. If you watch Walter Hill's The Warriors, that shot is in there. In The Warriors, there are gangs happening in New York and they are in a fight and word gets transmitted through various disc jockeys whom they are listening to through their boom boxes and one is a woman where you just see a closeup of her lips.

The Pulitzer At 100 US poster
The Pulitzer At 100 US poster

She talks to the gangs that way - "I understand, they're at 96th Street right now." I saw whatever that new kids movie is, [Edgar Wright's] Baby Driver. The director loves Walter Hill.

Read what Kirk Simon had to say on John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Carl Bernstein, Michael Chabon, and Martin Baron sharing the spotlight in The Pulitzer At 100.

Coming up in the final installment on The Pulitzer At 100 - Kirk Simon on Natalie Portman in Paris, Liev Schreiber, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides, photographer Nick Ut with Kim Phuc, and Joseph Pulitzer.

Anne-Katrin Titze will moderate the opening night post-screening Q&A with Kirk Simon following the 7:00pm show this Friday, July 21 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York.

The Pulitzer At 100 opens in the US on July 21.

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