Steven Peros is an award-winning playwright and filmmaker with credits in Film, Television, and Theatre. His research into a mysterious 1924 death on board William Randolph Hearst’s yacht (in the company of Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, and Louella Parsons), led to his original screenplay, The Cat’s Meow, which Lionsgate brought to the screen in 2002, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starring Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Jennifer Tilly. The film appeared on a dozen year end “Ten Best” lists, including Film Comment and major dailies from coast to coast. In the world of theatre, the Los Angeles World Premiere of The Cat’s Meow, his play on the same topic, had an extended nine-week run, garnering rave reviews from The Los Angeles Times, Daily Variety, CBS Radio, and many others in the print and radio press. Steven also directed the Los Angeles World Premiere of his full-length play, Karlaboy, a ghost story set against the studio system of 1950’s Hollywood, for which he received a Drama-Logue Critics Award for Outstanding Achievement in Writing. Also in the Old Hollywood vein, Steven penned three episodes of AMC’s Emmy-award winning 2001 comedy series, The Lot. On April 15th, Paladin will distribute Steven’s first feature as director, Footprints in U.S. theaters. A mystery set entirely on Hollywood Boulevard amidst historic landmarks including Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and The Egyptian Theatre. Steven recently completed his second feature, The Undying, a supernatural thriller starring Emmy nominee Robin Weigert (HBO’s Deadwood) and Wes Studi (Avatar). Steven has been a frequent contributor to MovieMaker Magazine. His writing on film has also been published in New York’s Newsday and Village Voice, Scr(i)pt, Moving Pictures, and South Bay’s Weekly. He is a graduate of New York University’s Film School and a member of the Writers Guild of America.
Check out Steven’s plays available from Samuel French
Q. Your play The Cat’s Meow has proven to be successful on both the stage and the screen. What drew you to the story, and why did you decide to create a stage version as well as a film?
A. The speculation behind the suspicious death of film pioneer Thomas Ince was first relayed to me by the late great film historian William K. Everson when I was an 18-year-old film student at NYU. It stuck with me. Two years later I started to research the tale and was fascinated by the crossroads that the gathered guests were at in their respective private and/or professional lives. I am drawn to biographical works that convey the essence of the subject within a few choice days rather than running a two-hour race through someone’s entire life story. To capture these people—Hearst, Chaplin, Davies, et al—all in a tale that spans only two days was an exciting challenge. It was written first as a screenplay in 1990 and was nearly made a half-dozen times. In 1997, I turned the unproduced film script into a stage play and that production reinvigorated interest in the screen version. Because of Writers Guild credit rules at the time, the screen credit is somewhat erroneous since it was technically a screenplay before it was a stage play, although the stage production gave me insight as to ways to go back into the screen version and make improvements.
Q: In Karlaboy, the protagonist’s current reality blends with the past. How did you achieve this effect on stage?
A. I was very influenced by the works of Peter Shaffer—Amadeus and Equus—as well as David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. I was compelled by the tradition of a dynamic, articulate, and ultimately tortured protagonist telling a tale in the present and seamlessly weaving us in and out of scenes from the past. Rather than have my protagonist—Harold Bachman—speak to the audience, as they do in the aforementioned influences, I chose to bring in an interviewer, who has his own dramatic journey. I directed the World Premiere in Los Angeles. We created a gloomy lighting scheme for the present and a bright hopeful scheme for the past. There is also a neon light design mentioned in the text. In the flashbacks, it is lit; in the present, it is burnt out. Ultimately, as in the three plays mentioned earlier, it is the lead actor who is the real key in blending past with present. We had one actor for the lead in the LA premiere—but I have offered the choice in the text of having two actors—older and younger versions.
A. I’m attracted first to characters, story, and theme. I’m also attracted to Hollywood history as a place to mine drama. I’m still not sure why, and in some ways, I don’t want to overly intellectualize the reasons, lest I lose my sense of wonder and exploration. But I’m sure it has something to do with the isolated world Hollywood can be: “A land just off the coast of the planet Earth,” as Elinor Glyn says in The Cat’s Meow, if you’ll kindly forgive the self-quote. The individual moral rules, the struggle between self and society, the uniquely odd business of immortalizing one’s dreams and self image, and the great demands all of the above puts on one’s heart, mind, and soul. My entry point to both plays was very different, but not from their period setting, per se.
Q. When and/or how did you know that you wanted to create plays?
A. When I was a boy, I moved pretty quickly from prose storytelling to one act plays. I’m not sure why exactly, only that I enjoyed inhabiting other lives and voices and ideas without the omniscience of prose storytelling. Even when I did write short stories, I gravitated towards first person, writing from the POV of the protagonist, which is basically one really long theatre monologue. Starting in third grade, I would write, produce, direct, and star in plays in my backyard, dragging my friends into the cast. We focused on morbid horror and sci-fi tales, the first being “Murder of Mister Hyde,” which answers the rarely, if ever, asked question: what happened to Dr. Jekyll’s butler after the original tale ended. My God—You’re right! I do have an obsession with period stories!
Q. What inspires you to take on a new project?
A. An idea that won’t go away. An image, a character, an evocative line of dialogue. Sometimes I can recall when I had an idea, but rarely, if ever, can I recall where it came from. Writing to me has always felt like channeling. And I’m far from the first writer who has felt that way. While I have enjoyed stories of good guys and bad guys, I have never gravitated towards them in my writing. Jean Renoir’s dictum that “everyone has their reasons” has always been at the forefront of my inspiration. I want to explore people on their own terms, in their own words, and through their actions, thereby creating situations and choices that compel the viewer to unavoidably examine their own values as well as the values of the person sitting next to them. Now more than ever, art needs to inspire compassion and empathy rather than divisiveness.
Q. Have you ever come across a production that made you see one of your plays in a new or unexpected way?
A. One production of The Cat’s Meow brought live music into the play—a chanteuse singing 1920’s era songs on point—or as counterpoint—to the goings on, during transitions. This worked very well. Still another regional production had the best performance I had yet seen of one of the lead roles. I will not mention the role because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I have written what I believe is my best work yet. A contemporary three-character play called Second Story Man. After two produced plays that had period settings and large casts, I wanted to create a work akin to those that had moved me in my life: with a small cast, one contemporary set, and that could be produced by any theatre group, no matter what their financial limitations. It’s the story of two people who forge a relationship under the most unlikely of circumstances. A reluctant thief climbs in a woman’s window and from that point forward, their lives are unalterably linked, with repercussions that will ripple for generations. The play explores concepts as large as Marriage, Children, Parents, Adultery, God, Death, and the legacies we each leave behind. And it’s also funny. Second Story Man is the most personal work I have ever written. Reaction to my first staged reading was extraordinarily supportive. For more information, feel free to check out my website: http://stevenperos.com/.
Q. Footprints, an original movie that you have written and directed, will open in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on April 15th. Do you approach writing for film differently than you would writing for the stage?
A. I am very excited about, and proud of, Footprints and I urge your readers to come out and support it when it opens. The old adage is that “Theater is Telling and Film is Showing”. That’s frequently accurate, as when I turned The Cat’s Meow from a screenplay into a stage play. All those private looks really won’t register beyond the first two rows. But the great film director, Sidney Lumet, has always taken issue with this dogmatic approach, insisting that the right words, said by the right actor, is as cinematically vital as any non-verbal visual. After all, how often do people find themselves quoting favorite lines from films, as opposed to visuals. Footprints is a magical mystery taking place entirely in one day on Hollywood Boulevard as a woman awakens on the footprints of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with no idea who she is or how she got there. She spends the day interacting with a host of boulevard characters, so while it is a mystery, it is also, in a way, a series of mini one-act plays as she journeys from tour bus driver to superhero impersonator to faded B-Movie star, all on a journey to discover who she is and where she’s going. Like all of us.