George C. Wolfe has never been one to shy away from tough material.
The legendary director and playwright’s extensive credits include The Colored Museum (writer), Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk (co-writer and director, for which he won a Tony Award), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (both parts, another Tony Award for director), Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (Obie Award for direction), and many more.
Throughout his career, he has tackled, with nuance and care, plays that cut to the essence of the American experience, and all the messes the promise of the American Dream has left in its wake.
His latest film is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on the book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot. It tells the story of Deborah Lacks’s search for information about her mother (the titular Henrietta), whose unique cancer cells were taken without her consent and used by the science community for research, revolutionizing many forms of disease treatment. (The “immortal” part of the title derives from the fact that this cell line, HeLa, can replicate infinitely without dying.) Wolfe and Co. deftly handle themes of familial legacy, self-discovery, the nature of immortality, and questionable scientific ethics in a compact, powerful package.
I recently got the chance to speak with George C. Wolfe, who was promoting the home video release of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
First of all, congratulations on the film. It’s an incredible film. First of all, I want to ask how you got attached to this project? What drew you to being involved in co-writing and directing this film?
George C. Wolfe: I don’t really quite— It’s sort of a series of steps. My agent sent it to me and said it had been in development at HBO for a while. There had been two prior drafts, a couple of earlier — or maybe more than that — drafts of the script. I read the book when it first came out. So I read the most recent draft of the script, and I reread the book, and then I instantly — well, I don’t know that I instantly — but I fairly quickly went, “I think I— This book is expansive and it’s brilliant, and it’s amazing, but you can’t tell the entire book.” […] Because the story is so complicated, I wanted to find a very simple way inside, and I became drawn by the emotional intensity of Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, wanting to know. Wanting to know about her mother, wanting to know about the science. And by virtue of wanting to know about her mother, she wanted to know about herself. And she wanted to fill in these blank spaces. And I realize we are all like that. We all have an incredible desire to know who made us. Even if we don’t like them we still want to know them, because in knowing them we know ourselves. So I found that to be very powerful and a powerful doorway into a story that is about science and ethics and who owns your cells, and all these other complicated more ambitious ideas. So I thought I had found the door into a very simple, emotional story which then would allow one to explore these other, really more complicated ideas.
So that’s sort of how you arrived at the— because you’re telling the story of telling the story, and that’s how you arrived there?
Wolfe: Exactly. And also I was really drawn by— I found Deborah to be a really, you know… Henrietta was an incredibly fascinating woman, clearly incredibly charismatic, a nurturer both in life and via her cells. But I was really drawn toward both Deborah’s ferocity and her damage, and her need to know. And I just found that very compelling, and it sort of resonated inside of me, just because I, you know— And also I was intrigued by the fact, I’m always particularly fascinated by the idea that someone who is not necessarily well educated can be very very smart. And so I love those dichotomies, and I found it really fascinating that this woman with a limited education was bristling with curiosity and a desire to know. And so I just found [her] heart and her personal ambition… They resonated with me.
[Oprah’s] performance of Deborah in the film is very nuanced and kind of hard to watch at times because if was so affecting. Was it hard to find the balance of the character on set?
Wolfe: I mean, well, when you’re on set you’re just going. You know. In some respects, when you’re on set, what you’re trying to do is fundamentally create an environment so artists— so the actors can feel free to explore and to make bold choices, or simple choices, or elegant choices, or flawed choices, and so you’re just trying to create a safe space so that therefore they’re free to do what they need to do. And then while they’re doing it, you hope that you can very subtly suggest light variations or, you know, and give them adjustments that they will then do. And then in the editing process, that’s where I think you begin [to] play around with calibrating it. I think it’s a mistake to with filming to… What’s the word I want? I was going to say “tamper,” but that’s not right, because directing is nothing but tampering. I think it’s very important to create… That the corral surrounding the actor is very expansive, so that therefore they’re not bouncing up against your vision, but they’re being free and expressive, and you’re getting as much variety as you possibly can. So therefore when you then go into the editing process then that’s where you’re calibrating, really.
And how long did that calibrating process take in the editing room?
Wolfe: As far as what’s going on in the editing room, I have no idea. [laughs] I mean it was a— I think we finished filming at 2 o’clock in the morning (I remember this because it was my birthday on September 23rd), and then like, a week later I’m in the editing room. So that was the first of October, November December, January, February, March… A long time.
So, when you are writing or directing a story that is based… That is a true story, is there any sort of additional pressure in telling it — like getting it right — that’s not there with something that’s pure fiction?
Wolfe: I think the thing which magnified it is I’m in communication with Rebecca Skloot, who not only wrote the book, but is going to be a character in the movie. I’m also then listening to recordings of the Lacks family. I’m meeting Henrietta’s descendants. I’m meeting Deborah’s brothers. I’m meeting Deborah’s children. I’m meeting all these people who are tangentially or substantively connected to the story of Henrietta Lacks. We’re going to Johns Hopkins where she was. We’re going to places in Baltimore where she was. We’re driving down the street, people know we’re film, they go, “I’m a Lacks, too!” I mean, you know, so you’re feeling this incredible sense of responsibility, so you’ve got to try to find the balance between honoring that which is, and feeling free to do creative storytelling that is informed by the truth but not suppressed by the truth, if you understand what I’m saying. And that’s a challenge. That’s a significant challenge. You know, it’s a very intimate story for Rebecca Skloot. It’s a very intimate story for the Lacks family. And so, you try to engender trust, and also you want to start to protect your right to discover the best way to tell the story, because you’re not writing a book, it’s existing in screenplay form. You’re moving things— they’re dimensional people that are moving through space […] It’s a very different form. Sometimes you need less, and sometimes you need more. And so you’re calibrating all of that and trying to honor the essence of the truth while translating the truth to this new medium where the truth happens in a completely different way. If that makes any sense.
Yeah, it does. In some ways it seems like when you’re putting something on film that you’re making the story become… More… I don’t know if “real” is the right word, but real than when it’s words on a page, which are more abstract to me at least.
Wolfe: I think that’s very true. But I also think there’s an incredibly… I think when you read material you — if the writing is really good — you’ll project the vulnerability onto the words. When you’re doing a film, or theatre, or TV, the vulnerability is embodied by another human being. And if they do it well, it evokes your own vulnerability inside of you. So it’s very very different. You’re seeing frailty reflected. Whereas when you’re reading, you’re projecting the frailty.
Thank you so much for that. I’d like to take the last couple of minutes here, do you mind if I ask about your upcoming production of The Iceman Cometh?
Wolfe: You can ask. [laughs] I’m in the process of figuring it out myself, but go ahead.
Sure. I guess same question as the first one. How did that happen? How did that sequence of events fall into place?
Wolfe: Hmm. I don’t know. It was sort of… I’ve known Denzel [Washington] for a long time. Scott Rudin is the producer, he was telling me that Denzel was wanting to come back to Broadway, and he was considering a number of plays, and would I be interested? I went, “We’ll see.” And then it ended up being Iceman, and then I read it and then… You know, I just sort of said yes. I don’t quite know. I went, “Oh! This is interesting. What happens if I go in this world and live in this world and explore that?” So it sort of was… It was offered to me is the simplest answer. You know, Denzel, he and I have networked together, we’ve talked about working together. So it all just sort of all came together.
I mean, you’re a very accomplished director, and The Iceman Cometh… That’s a looong play.
Wolfe: It’s a very long play, yes it is. [laughs]
To you, is that show daunting at all with how long and dense it is?
Wolfe: Well, it is right now, but, you know… I mean, I directed [Tony Kushner’s] Angels in America on Broadway, and I remember at one point going, “Oh my God. It’s two parts at three-and-a-half hours. It’s seven hours of theatre! How the hell am I going to do that?” I was overwhelmed. And then I went, “Well, you do it like any other project: one scene at a time.” And that’s because if you stand back and look at the enormity of it, your choices and your thinking is going to be very very general. And that’s not your job. Your job is to try to animate every single moment as fully and as deeply as you possibly can so the audience is engaged in the journey. And if, you know… Anytime you begin any project, there’s a degree, hopefully, there should be some aspect of it that intimidates you. Because then it creates inside of you some kind of… desire to solve and to overcome it. And I think that is the case with Iceman right now. I’m in the middle of going, “Okay. How the hell do we do this?” And that’s my favorite part of it. Is the figuring it out and the thinking it out.
Thank you so much for your time. It was really an honor to be able to speak with you.
Wolfe: All right, great. Well, thank you very much, it was fun.
The movie is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD September 5, 2017.
[Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]