By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The project took over his life. Wright would sell his used car to fund yet another trip to Germany. He borrowed money from his parents to pay rent. Then suddenly, Wright discovered his transvestite hero had feet of clay.
After the reunification of Germany, people were allowed to obtain the files kept on them by the East German Stasi. Charlotte agreed to let Wright request her dossier. "It was such a challenging document," Wright says. "It was in a very dense, bureaucratic German. It took me two or three years to understand it."
But one thing was very clear: Charlotte had signed an oath to the secret police and betrayed another antiques dealer, who ended up dying in prison. Charlotte minimized her duplicity, saying she'd misdirected the Stasi, that she was their least useful spy. Wright didn't know what to think.
"It was weird," Wright says. "I'd come to love Charlotte as a friend, but I had learned troubling information about her. I wasn't sure I wanted to break the story [in the play]. With no journalism credentials, I didn't feel like I had the requisite authority."
Wright would later discover that one out of every three East Germans was an informant for the Stasi. But he found himself stymied. He didn't know how to tell her story.
"I felt dwarfed by it," he says. And there was a certain amount of cowardice. He had unwisely signed a contract with Charlotte giving her final approval of the play, and Wright feared she'd nix it if he was honest. Though he received a fellowship from Princeton to complete the play, every time Wright sat down to work he was met with writer's block. Nothing was more boring than a biopic, but he could find no dramatic narrative. Only confusion and lies and a shape-shifting survivor.
Sitting down to write with the Marquis de Sade as a muse, Wright had no trouble with writer's block. The result is grim and fascinating stuff. The French marquis lives in an insane asylum, confined for his obscene literary efforts and bizarre behavior. The nobleman smuggles his filthy sex stories out to his printer with the help of a virginal laundry maid.
Learning that the lascivious tales are whipping the country into a tizzy, the madhouse doctor decides the Marquis' words are too dangerous and pressures the asylum priest to put an end to it. The priest first takes away de Sade's quills and paper. The Marquis then writes on his clothes with blood, the bed linens with wine and the walls with his own excrement. Stripped naked, he whispers a story to the next inmate, who passes it on, until it ultimately reaches the laundry maid, who writes down the words. One inmate takes the lascivious tale literally and rapes and kills the girl. But he refuses to keep quiet. The Marquis loses body parts—tongue, hands, feet, penis and finally his head. At the end of the play only his bloody torso is left.
The reaction to Quills is illustrated by a couple who attended a workshop performance and indignantly got up to leave. Wright watched them head to the back of the theater when the man heard something intriguing. The couple turned and came back in. A few scenes later, they made another exit only to be reeled back in by the dialogue. "They watched the entire play poised to leave," Wright says. "That was torturous but really invigorating to see."
Quills had a healthy run at an off-Broadway nonprofit theater. Though well-reviewed, it never moved to a commercial theater. Presumably the market for a violent exploration of sadomasochism and the limits of free speech isn't large enough to put butts in the seats.
Now Wright realizes that Quills was not only a play about the nature of expression but also his "breakup" play, written as he and the psychiatrist split. "It was an attempt to process what had happened to me," Wright says, "while trying to address questions in the culture that were really large and demanding."
When its success brought interest from Hollywood, Wright believed the play was impossible to transfer to film. "I owe the whole movie to Kate Winslet," he says. Fresh off the success of Titanic, the actress got a stack of scripts from the studio with the promise that her next movie could be anything she wanted. She plucked Quills from the pile.
Wright signed with Fox Searchlight, which asked him to write the screenplay and allowed him on the set during filming. The playwright discovered he had to make significant changes to make the story work onscreen. "The play is fairly camp," Wright says. "There's comic hyper-violence. A lot of the humor is in the stagecraft. On film, those things can seem flip and cheeky. Film is painfully literal. The violence is not metaphor. It's graphic and traumatizing to watch. I had to create a story that was less stylized and more psychologically driven. But the themes are the same."