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Academy Award-Nominated and Tony Winning Alumnus John Logan Speaks to Students

Laura Schellhardt, senior lecturer of Theatre, moderates a talk with Logan for undergraduate playwrights.

John Logan (C83), a Northwestern School of Communication alumnus known for his screenplays for Gladiator, The Aviator, and both Skyfall and Spectre in the James Bond series, spoke to MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage students in the Norris Center Tuesday, October 10.

Logan, who won a Tony Award for his play Red about artist Mark Rothko, touched on the craft of writing, the tricky business of research, creating characters, and his experiences collaborating with some of Hollywood’s most renowned directors, including Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Sam Mendes.  

“The only way you’ll build a career of any length is to be a hard and tenacious worker,” said Logan, who wakes at 4 a.m. every day to write. “I always contend that anyone can write one good screenplay. But to build a career in the arts? To join the people who spend their lives doing this? You have to be ferociously dedicated to what you do. Allow no compromise in how hard you have to work at all times, because if you don’t, someone else will.”

Logan, who spent ten years working as playwright in Chicago before his first break-out movie, Any Given Sunday, was made by Oliver Stone, said he focused on his writing while shelving books at the Northwestern law library and learning how to tighten his belt, sometimes literally, on a thin diet of canned tuna and bone-in chicken. Success, he said, hasn’t changed his drive to tell good stories, and he advised students to keep focused on their storytelling.

“Remember the cardinal rule: keep your head down and do your work. Nothing else matters. The fame doesn’t matter. The awards don’t matter. The red carpet doesn’t matter. The house doesn’t matter. The pools don’t matter. The famous people you know don’t matter. None of that matters,” he said.

Radio/Television/Film department chair and MFA writing director Dave Tolchinsky moderated the talk, and told Logan how much he acts as a role model for students. “Your career has been a success commercially and critically, going back and forth between plays and film,” he said. “It’s just amazing you’re able to keep expressing yourself in these different ways.”

Logan, who called himself a dramatist rather than screenwriter or a playwright because of his preference of working in different mediums, talked about Northwestern being a critical launching point.

“Northwestern trained me well, but also my closest relationships, my most important relationships were formed here,” he said.

Logan addressed undergraduate playwriting students.

Logan, who most recently created the Showtime original series Penny Dreadful, also advised students to be prepared for every meeting and to “know more than anyone else in the room” about the story you’re trying to tell.

“I worked with Michael Mann, a brilliant director, and we developed a film called The Aviator that Martin Scorsese eventually directed,” he recalled. “And I spent about four years researching Howard Hughes, and I remember an early meeting I went to and he said, ‘Tell me why Hughes was so interested in the Catalina wing on a plane,’ and I didn’t have an answer, and I felt ashamed, to be sitting there trying to create something and not knowing myself because I hadn’t done my homework… So do your research.”

He also warned, however, that too much research can be its own form of writer’s block.

“(It) can also be a little dangerous, it can be siren’s song, because it can keep you from writing,” he said. “Writing is scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but research is fun. No one is judging my research. You get to the point where you have to be honest with yourself and say I know what I need to know and put the research away.”

Logan, whose protagonists often grapple with complicated internal and external conflict, said that characters drive his stories.

“I hate plot. To me, plot is the meat the burglar throws at the dog. It is the unhappy thing you must have to do great characters. To me, the joy of being a dramatist, is to take the most complicated character you can and then turning him to the light so the different facets are illuminated. No heroes. No villains. Everyone is a saint and a sinner. The joy of a dramatist is saying, ‘Oh, you think this person is the devil? Oh, look… they’re not.’”

Logan also spoke about the difficulties of starting his career at a time when there weren’t many openly gay screenwriters. “It was this little private battle every day,” he said, especially since people made assumptions about him sight unseen because his first break-out script was about the NFL. He added that now, with a segmented audience demanding more stories from different groups of people, studios and streaming services want more diversity.

“It really is the golden age for writers,” he said. “Voices we’ve never heard before are suddenly screaming from the rooftops. If you have a unique viewpoint, studios want your stories.” 

Sheikh Munir, a student in the MFA in Writing for the Screen and Stage, said the talk gave him valuable insights into the professional world.

“It was so interesting listening to him speak,” Munir said. “He validated some of the anxieties and fears I have as a writer, but he also showed me how we can overcome them. I always think, oh, that’s someone way over there who had success, but now, I see how it happened for him and how it might be possible for me as well.”

Logan, earlier in the day, met with undergraduates enrolled in the Playwriting module.

– Cara Lockwood