SCRIPT TO SCREEN: The Varied Paths of Playwright-Screenwriter-Director-Producer, Alexander Dinelaris

On Jan. 11, 2015, we watched 3 men join Alejandro González Iñárritu to receive their Golden Globe awards for the best screenplay, Birdman. One of these men was Alexander Dinelaris Jr., a multi-hyphenate New Yorker. A.B. Lugo was prescient enough to interview Mr. Dinelaris in December, 2014 for El Blog de HOLA, a blog that supports, promotes and informs the Latino acting community. During the interview, Mr. Dinelaris discusses his background and how it inspired his writing, how he writes, how his success in playwriting opened the doors to screenwriting and how important it is to stay true to your voice and learn your craft.

Reposted with permission.
Original posting: El Blog de HOLA - Dec. 11, 2014 by A.B. Lugo

Alexander Dinelaris is a man of many talents– what we call in Spanish "polifacético"– he is a playwright, screenwriter, director, producer. He has worked with some of the giants in this industry, from filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu to music icons Gloria and Emilio Estefan. His work has been seen on stages across the U.S. and on London's West End. 

His play, Red Dog Howls, has its world premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop, where it was directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and starred Kathleen Chalfant, Alfredo Narciso and Florencia Lozano. He then wrote the book to the musical The Bodyguard (based on the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and featuring the songs of Whitney Houston), where it was directed by Thea Sharrock, starred Heather Headley and Lloyd Owen and had its world premiere at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End. After running in London for two years, it will embark on a tour of the United Kingdom in 2015, with future productions planned for Australia, Germany, East Asia and Broadway.

He is currently working on the libretto for the musical On Your Feet! (based on the story and music of Gloria and Emilio Estefan), which recently had a workshop in November 2014 in New York (with direction by Jerry Mitchell and choreography by Sergio Trujillo).

On Thursday, December 11, 2014, he received a Golden Globe nomination for co-writing the screenplay for Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.

UPDATE: On Jan. 11, he won the Golden Globe for best screenplay, Birdman.

Meet el polifacético Alexander Dinelaris.

Where did you grow up? How did you get started as an writer-director?

Sarah Paulsonat left, and
Fredrick Weller in a scene
from Still Life.
I was born and raised in Washington Heights (in New York City) until I was of school age and then I moved out to East Rockaway, Long Island.

In high school, I was cast in my first musical, as Tevye in our production of Fiddler on the Roof. I feel in love with theater and the rest is history.

I quickly found that I was interested in directing theater and pursued that through college. I really didn't start writing until 1999. Eventually, a play of mine entitled Folding The Monster got some attention and soon Danny Aiello and Rosie O'Donnell did some staged readings for various theater companies in New York. 

Things progressed and after my father died, I wrote a play called Still Life. That was really the piece that changed my life.

What is your writing process? 
For me, most of the time I spend writing is about structuring a piece. I don't feel safe writing if I am not fairly sure what the structure of it is. So I begin with research and then go straight into structure. I will spend months doing that, and when I finally feel comfortable enough with the shape of it, I proceed to procrastinate for long as humanly possible. When I can no longer keep it in, I will fly somewhere on my own (Isabela, Puerto Rico, and a place called Villa Del Mar Hau is one of my favorite spots).

I will stay there with barely any internet or phone service and a lot of coffee, wine and rum and I will work day and night for about 10-14 days until I have my first draft.

That process has become much more difficult, you can imagine, with the births of my two daughters Amalia and Aleyna.

I first met you at a production of your play Red Dog Howls, which dealt with a man dealing with his Armenian grandmother and confronting the past (specifically the Armenian genocide). How did this play and its brutal subject matter arise?
The loss of my father to pancreatic cancer was very difficult for me. A few years after he passed away I came to understand that some of the things in my family history that I was told were not true at all. There was and is a mystery surrounding the Armenian side of my family. But more than that, I was about to become a father for the first time. And somehow I thought that the dysfunction and sadness that I had grown up with would somehow be passed on to my children and that thought terrified me. So I wrote Red Dog Howls about a man who, in order to find his own identity, would have to travel through the horrors of his family's past so that he might finally put that pain to rest and remove the "curse" from his family line.

I was able to see your directing work when I attended a production ofStephen Fechter's The Woodsman, produced by Oberon Theatre Ensemble (for which you are Co-Artistic Director). What do you like about working in theater versus working in film?

Stewart Walkerat left, and
Gabe Bettio in a scene from
Stephen Fechter's The Woodsman
(directed by Alex Dinelaris).
I love the very live and communal energy of the theater, when you are telling the truth and the audience becomes personally involved, there is an electricity that can't be produced anywhere else within the spectrum of storytelling. I also love the collaborative aspects. I love designers. I love stage crew. And most of all, I love actors. When we are all chasing down an honest moment, hunting for real answers, it is as exhilarating as anything I know.

You are also known for writing librettos to several musicals (Zanna, Don't!The Bodyguard, the upcoming On Your Feet!). What are the challenges and joys in collaborating with a composer (or team of composers) in writing a musical?To be clear, I did not write the book of Zanna, Don't! It was written by its composer-lyricist, the brilliant Tim Acito. I was brought in later to help restructure the book a bit and create some additional dialogue and scenes. It was a wonderful experience.

Dinelaris with
Emilio Estefan.
As For The Bodyguard and On Your Feet!, the difficult part of those musicals is that the songs and their lyrics already exist. So finding a way to make them fit into the story and seem organic, making them actually move the story forward is an incredible challenge.

With Gloria and Emilio Estefan, we also got to have them write a few new songs, so that was a thrill for me. I was in Puerto Rico writing the first draft and I called Gloria and said I needed a new song. I told her what the scene would be about and she was so excited that two days later she had a version of the song (that she wrote with her talented daughter Emily). She left a message on my phone where she was singing some of the verse. Gloria Estefan was singing to me on my cell phone! I have to admit, I still haven't erased that message. 

How was your experience having a musical (The Bodyguard) on London's West End?

Heather Headley and
ensemble in The Bodyguard.
London is an incredible city with a theatre tradition steeped in history, so being there was a thrill for me. I have to admit that the process of mounting that musical was incredible frustrating for me. In the end, I was not 100% satisfied with what ended up on the stage. But that is part of the theatrical process as well. And I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. Not to mention I developed a love for ale, and got to work with two wonderful actors that I am still friends with today, the luminous Heather Headley and one of the finest actors and men I know in Lloyd Owen.

How did your collaboration with Gloria and Emilio Estefan come about for the On Your Feet! musical?Nick Scandalios of the Nederlander Organization had seen the first reading of The Bodyguard musical, which he admired. He approached me and asked if I would be interested in meeting the Estefans and talking to them about a musical based on their life and music. I said yes and flew down for a meeting in Miami. I honestly didn't think I wanted to take the job having just come off The Bodyguard, but Nick was very persuasive. And after a few hours with Gloria and Emilio I knew I wasn't going to be able to say no.

You are also one of the screenwriters of the critically acclaimed hit filmBirdman (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), which has been receiving a lot of awards buzz. I saw it, it is a magnificent picture. How did you get involved in this project?

Alejandro had read my play Still Life a while back and loved it. I met him and helped him with his early work on the early drafts of his film Biutiful.

When he first conceived of the idea for Birdman, he called me up and asked me if I would like to write it with him and his writers from Biutiful. I was excited by the insanity of the original idea and I said yes right away.

With Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), you worked with a Latino production, in that the director (Alejandro González Iñárritu), co-screenwriters (González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bó), cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) and score composer (Antonio Sánchez) are all Latino. How was that collaboration?

Birdmanat left, flying, and
Michael Keaton in a scene
from Birdman.
Latino or not, the people you just named are some of the most talented people working in film today. Being able to sit on stage in the St. James Theatre on Broadway [where most of the film is set] and work through scenes with Alejandro and Chivo (Emmanuel Lubezki) was one of the most thrilling times in my career. They are working on a level of visual storytelling that is dizzying. This entire collaborative process (especially getting to know and work with my dear friend and writing partner Nicolás Giacobone) has been a joy from the start. That we are receiving kind words and some awards attention is just a bonus. Alejandro lead us down the rabbit hole and we survived. It will be a story I tell my daughters when they are older.

This time has been incredible for me. My mother is Cuban-Puerto Rican (maternal grandfather from Havana, maternal grandmother from Ponce). That I have been able to work on an enormous Latin musical and work with my Latin brothers on Birdmanhas been a blessing. Even now, I am talking with [filmmaker] Guillermo Del Toro as we hope to work on a new script together. My grandparents would have been very proud!

Do you have any advice for upcoming writers and directors (who just happen to be Latino) on how to succeed in this business of show?

I only have two pieces of advice. The first is, be thorough and be prepared. Keep learning about structure and form. It is absolutely the secret weapon for success in dramatic writing and I feel I owe my entire career to the fact that I never stopped reading and learning about form. 
My second bit of advice is stay true to your voice. Don't try to be or sound like anyone else. If Birdman proves anything, it is that the world and more specifically the audience is desperate for originality. The only way to be original is to stay true to your voice. Take chances. Make your characters do things that genuinely upset or embarrass you.

You will discover that when you are willing to do that, to lay it all on the line, to let it cost you everything, people will respond. I am very sure of that.

# # # #
Left to rightAlexander
Gutiérrez Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone.  
After running in London for two years, The Bodyguardmusical will embark on a tour of the United Kingdom in 2015, with future productions planned for Australia, Germany, East Asia and Broadway.

On Your Feet! is scheduled to premiere on Broadway in October 2015.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)leads all other motion pictures this year with seven Golden Globe Award nominations. Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts it is currently playing in U.S. movie theaters.

For more information on Dinelaris, click here.


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