Great Britain-based Mark Searby, movie critic and broadcaster for BBC Radio, author of the 2017 career study Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man, writes and/or produces video content forEntertainment Focus, New Empress Film Magazine and Screenjabber. In 2018, he talked to Eric Bogosian about the stage-to-screen transformation of his seminal, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Talk Radio (1988), working in an intense and invigorating collaboration with director Oliver Stone. The incendiary film, which won Bogosian Chicago Film Critics Association honors as 1988’s Most Promising Actor as well as the Silver Bear Award for Outstanding Single Achievement at the 1989 Berlin Film Festival, marks its Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray premiere February 19.
MS: When did you read Stephen Singular’s book? And why did you decide to turn it into a film?
EB: Neither the play, nor the film, is based on the book Talked to Death. We acquired the rights when [producer] Ed Pressman decided to do the film, as there were many similarities between my fictional character Barry Champlain (who first appeared onstage in 1985 in the earliest version of Talk Radio in Portland, Oregon). Singular's book came out in March of 1987. The play opened the same month that Singular's book came out. I read it while I was performing the play at the New York Shakespeare Festival and I was struck by how my fictional Barry was so much like Alan Berg. When it came time to do the movie, I sensed that optioning the book would remove the distraction of the character similarities. As Oliver and I planned the plot of the movie – which is different from the play; the play concentrates only on the action in the studio. The play does not end with a death – and understanding that we now owned Berg's life story, I borrowed elements from the book: the basketball game, the wife/ex-wife and the assassination. However, Alan Berg was nothing like the character I play in the movie and there is no attempt to "portray" Alan Berg.
MS: Why did you choose to stage it as a play?
EB: Well, like I said, the play is not an adaptation of the Singular book. I began writing the play before Berg was assassinated. I was actually motivated by John Belushi's overdose and death. I wanted to write something about how a performer will do anything to please an audience. Even if he dies doing it.
MS: What were the biggest challenges you faced when adapting the screenplay?
EB: Working with an Oscar®-winning screenwriter and director, who at the time was the most sought-after director in Hollywood, created a power discrepancy, of course. I was new and unknown. But the movie is essentially the play, so all the beats were there. I had performed the character onstage over a hundred times. I knew the material inside and out. It was fun working on the screenplay. Oliver could get difficult at times; he would be blunt in his criticism. But in the end, we fashioned something that works according to its own terms.
MS: How did you view Barry as a character?
EB: Barry began his life as a character as one of my characters in my monologue shows. But he had more depth and resonance for me than most of my characters (as he was a performer himself). So I wanted to explore him more fully in a full-length play.
MS: Did your opinion change of him after moving from the play to the film?
EB: The character in the play and the film is the same guy. I only took the exploration further in the film (as in the flashbacks).
MS: You had been doing monologues from very early in your career. How challenging were the ones in Talk Radio – especially the one at the end of the film?
EB: The monologue at the end of the film came naturally as a "result" of the beats that precede it. The whole trick with this movie and the play was having a typical listener (Kent) actually show up and spend time with Barry. This throws Barry off and tips him into coming face to face with his whole mindset. His off-balance approach to life has led to this crisis. Everything in the play and the film is about this. It is a portrait of a performer, from my own personal experience. For me, the key line is in the bathroom with his wife. He's just gotten his first job and he's asked his wife to be his producer. She replies, "It would ruin our marriage." He says, "Fuck our marriage." Ambition trumps the personal.
MS: Barry has a girlfriend and an ex-wife who both feature in his life but never truly get near him. Do you think he was ever capable of loving someone?
EB: Barry is a narcissist. Which Oliver has accused me of being.
MS: How did you see his relationship with his audience?
EB: He seeks love from his audience. But of course, that never works. That is the conundrum of the performer. We've seen it again and again. It's what kills us.
MS: The final unravel of Barry is an incredible sequence. Was it tough to shoot?
EB: The beats at the end of the "story" (before the assassination) are the beats of the play. I had performed them hundreds of times. It was a natural headspace for me. Oliver, of course, increased the pressure with his manic film style, but I like pressure. I do well with it.
MS: Were there any scenes/dialogue that you wanted to include in the film but weren’t able to?
EB: The play has more humor.
MS: Talk Radio has an amazing cast. What was it like to work with Alec Baldwin, Ellen Greene, Leslie Hope, John C. McGinley, John Pankow, etc?
EB: McGinley and Wincott did the play with me in New York (as did some of the callers, especially Michelle Mariana, who had been with the show from the beginning). So we were already in sync. Alec was a rising star when we did the film. I loved working with him. I loved working with Ellen Greene as well.
MS: What was your working relationship like with director Oliver Stone?
EB: At that moment in time, Oliver was enjoying being king of the hill. With that power he could be something of a bully. But I didn't give a shit. I knew I was good. I knew my script was good. The ball was in his court. He brought his genius. I loved working with him because he's so smart and so hard-working. This was my baby. I wanted it to work. And in many ways, it did. What could be better?
MS: Do you think, in this day and age of everyone having a voice whether it’s via social media or a blog or a YouTube channel, that Shock Jocks like Barry are becoming less relevant?
EB: Clearly, in the age of Trump, personality still has tremendous power. The mass media only amplifies it.
MS:You have such a huge and impressive body of work. Where does the film version of Talk Radio rank for you?
EB: Talk Radio is the jewel in my tiara, for sure. I probably had more fun with my play subUrbia (the two times the play was staged in New York in 1994 and 2006 and the 1998 film). And probably my monologues, (when I perform them) are what I'm best at. But there is no question that Talk Radio was the culmination of many things I was thinking about and its manifestation was very, very satisfying. (We also did it on Broadway in 2007 with Liev Schreiber and Sebastian Stan and that was very nice too.)