Donald Margulies is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter and a professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale. His most recent project, The End of the Tour, is a movie about David Foster Wallace. It is based on a book by David Lipsky called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself about the experience of interviewing Wallace on a five-day roadtrip in 1996. The movie generated backlash from Wallace’s widow and friends, but glowing reviews from critics. Margulies makes several cameos.
YH: What was the process of turning David Foster Wallace into a character like? What kinds of sources did you use?
Margulies: I decided at the very beginning that this was not going to make a conventional biopic, in the sense of it attempting to tell the story of a person’s entire life from cradle to grave. What interested me about the challenge here was that through the window of a five-day period, when things were going very well for David Foster Wallace, he was at the pinnacle of his success as a writer—that window of time gave me a very unique opportunity dramatically. What I needed to do was to take David Lipsky’s book and interview transcript and to carve out a dramatic narrative from material that was certainly interesting but not dramatic.
YH: How did you go about structuring that narrative?
Margulies: It was a challenge, but for me a thrilling process. I decided really from the beginning that David Lipsky was the protagonist of this story, that it was really about a young writer encountering David Foster Wallace. That even though Wallace was in the foreground of Lipsky’s recollection, in my take, I was putting him sort of in soft focus in the background and moving Lipsky to the foreground, which is why I chose to bookend the movie the way I do. I have to say that David Lipsky was very generous with me. I spent hours talking to David Lipsky. And David was very generous with telling me what was going on when the tape wasn’t running. He shared moments that he gave me permission to use that are in the film but not the book—moments that some detractors have accused me of making up. But in fact they happened, and they were useful to me dramatically. I’m talking specifically about the encounter at Julie’s house when Wallace accuses Lipsky of coming on to his former girlfriend Betsy.
YH: I think this is, in a lot of ways, a movie about journalism. So how did you approach that dynamic between writer and subject?
Margulies: That was one of the things that attracted me to the story, not just the biographical aspect of it, but I saw something fascinating in the kind of tango that exists in a journalist-subject relationship. It’s sort of a microcosm of a relationship in that there’s a sort of meet-cute, and there’s the equivalent of the first date, and some revelations are made, some deceptions perhaps are made. There are squabbles, there’s some sort of reconciliation. All this in microcosm in pursuit of a story.
YH: In the movie, Lipsky tells Wallace about this idea that if people are reading you, and your writing is really personal, then reading you is another way of meeting you. Wallace seems to agree wholeheartedly. I’m wondering if you agree with Lipsky’s statement that reading Wallace is another way of meeting him. And is the same true of watching a movie about him?
Margulies: I think that it’s really impossible to know another person completely. And who a person is is not in a medicine cabinet or a box in their living room. It’s not really knowable. But I do think that somebody like Wallace was able to sort of infiltrate people’s psyches. He had the kind of voice that people, when they internalize it, feel like he’s speaking directly to them. Not all writers have that ability. But I do think that Wallace had that gift and it can create in the reader a sense of knowledge and intimacy that may not really exist. But it’s still an approximation of who that person is. It can’t be entirely the person. It is a representation of a person. So yes, it has some truth. I agree with the idea that because writing is such a personal endeavor and if people are responding to it, they’re certainly responding to facets of what the writer brings to it.
YH: And so do you think that such a connection can exist by watching a movie, like The End of the Tour?
Margulies: Even though it doesn’t pretend to tell his story, much of what is said are things that he said and things that he believed. Even though I’ve created a dramatic context for it, it gives people sort of an introduction to Wallace. It certainly doesn’t answer the mysteries of who this man was. It gives us perhaps some clues but certainly not answers, and that’s the kind of writing that I like to do with things that are not adaptation, with things that are wholly mine. My goal is not to answer questions for readers or audiences but to give them food for thought and to have them contemplate what they’ve gleaned from a story.
YH: I’m wondering what you think David Foster Wallace might say about the character that you have constructed of him?
Margulies: Well, I dare not think. I think that whether he would have approved of it or not, I would imagine that it would kind of mortify him, frankly. But also he certainly used people he encountered and facets of his life in his work the way all writers do. And for a figure like Wallace, who permeated and commented on our culture, I think that it’s sort of inevitable that he would become a subject. He’s been gone for awhile but I think that if one thing the film were able to do was bring him back into our cultural conversation, I think all for the good.
YH: To get stars like Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg must have been exciting. What were those two like to work with?
Margulies: One of the requirements that we had when casting this film was that we needed two actors who were incredibly verbally dexterous. We needed to utterly believe that these two guys were making up what they said on the spot, that they weren’t just reading transcripts. Jason and Jesse were able to infuse the words with a real thought process. So I think that we were really blessed with the miracle of casting these two men—both of whom are writers, incidentally. So they have some organic sense of the process of sitting alone in a room and creating something that wasn’t there before. They both really leapt at the opportunity to take on this project. They worked under grueling circumstances, shooting this movie in -15 degree temperatures in Grand Rapids Michigan in a very concentrated period of time. It was 26 day shoot, and they worked for next to nothing on it because it was a labor of love. As it was for most of who did this film, most of us did not do it to get rich, believe me. We were passionate about telling this story.
YH: In a way the ending is conclusive, but it also leaves open and unresolved their dynamic.
Margulies: It’s very telling that as Lipsky pulls away and he’s looking in his rearview mirror, hoping, hoping that Wallace looks back. I think that speaks to the kinds of intense attachments that occur between people who are strangers, who do have a shared brief experience, and for whom that experience meant two very different things. That’s really what that moment for me is about. Lipsky’s hoping for that final connection and Wallace is just moving on and scraping the ice off his car.
—Interview transcribed and condensed by the Yale Herald