Writing the Frontier
Michener grad Kieran Fitzgerald pens The Homesman
"Oh, I'm so used to it, I didn't even know she was there until you mentioned it," Kieran Fitzgerald deadpans as we settle into our table at the Driskill, a Chronicle photographer snapping photos above us with her bright flash bulb.
"Actually," he admits, after my laugh, "I haven't ever been interviewed about screenwriting until now."
Life is changing fast for Fitzgerald, who has worked steadily in Hollywood for the past several years but is only now starting to see the fruits of his labor arrive at local multiplexes. His first major feature, The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones and starring Jones and Hilary Swank, opens Friday in Austin.
Fitzgerald has met me at the Driskill in part because it's Austin's clearest link to the frontier era that The Homesman depicts. We're also here, of course, to throw back a few. I've known Fitzgerald since he arrived in Austin in 2007 to attend UT's Michener Center for Writers. He's had one foot in Austin ever since, keeping a room in town even as his business trips to Hollywood have become more and more frequent.
Fitzgerald describes The Homesman as "a kind of reverse manifest destiny road trip." It follows a frontier woman (Swank) and a "rapscallion" (Jones) who team up to carry a wagonload of three women deemed insane from the Nebraska frontier back east to Iowa, where they can receive proper medical care. The screenplay, which Fitzgerald wrote along with Jones and Wesley Oliver, is based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout.
"From the outset, the going mantra in our mini writing room was that we were essentially unpacking the absurd idea of westward expansion," he says, gazing out over the Driskill's cowhide upholstery and Western-inspired wall hangings. "We inflicted so much suffering, both upon the people we were slaughtering along the way and upon ourselves. In particular, the trials and tribulations of women go almost completely un-talked about in cinematic language."
Working with Jones, a true method actor, was an adventure – in particular when Jones tried to multitask writing and preparing for his role as U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln. "We'd be trying to work, and Tommy would get teary talking about abolition," Fitzgerald says.
Later, the three writers pounded out the screenplay on the set of Hope Springs, a geezer rom-com that Jones headlined along with Meryl Streep. As Fitzgerald tells it, Jones would run back and forth across the street of the small town where they were shooting, first to film a scene with Streep, then to edit a bit of Homesman dialogue that Fitzgerald had just composed.
"I'd never worked under that kind of pressure before, and for me it was really constructive," Fitzgerald says. "You didn't have much time to think about whether it was good or not. You just whipped it off and we'd be immediately talking about it as part of the movie."
The urgency he learned writing The Homesman has served him well on more recent projects, he admits – including on his latest, an Edward Snowden biopic for Oliver Stone set to start shooting in January. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is attached to star.
But that's a tale for another night, after a gag order has been lifted on the top-secret project. Suffice it to say, from the Old West to the new frontier of digital-era outlaws, Fitzgerald is making a home for himself on the bleeding edge of cinematic storytelling. And he's doing it right here in Austin.