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GRAFF, TODD – CAMP

KNOWING ARTHUR 
Todd Graff made good use of his contacts to get, Camp, his first feature film made including the legendary Arthur Laurents, he explains to Andrew L. Urban, and is now looking to the future, hoping to avoid being immobilised by fear of what to do next.


If you can say “Arthur Laurents is a good friend of mine and he told Stephen Sondheim that he should read my script…” you are helping to perpetuate the notion that it’ not what you know but who you know. Todd Graff, whose script for the musical, Camp, is the script in question, can and does say that. The 40 year old ex-actor now writer and director met the great Laurents (writer of works like West Side Story, The Way We Were and Gypsy) in 1986 – then in his acting stage – when working on an off Broadway production of Birds of Paradise which Laurents directed.

"a mentor"

“We became close friends, and he became a mentor figure for me,” says Graff. Camp is dedicated to Arthur Laurents, “who is enormously important in my life. I adore him; I’m here in Sydney and he’s in Switzerland skiing – and he’s 86 – but I talk to him or email him at least 5 days a week. He’s a truth teller, the biggest no-bullshitter ever – to a fault. There are times when I think it’s a big mistake, including with me. I think he crosses the line with me sometimes. But it’s reflexive with him and he can’t be any other way.

“He’ll read your scripts, watch cuts of your film, talk about shows, share a Chinese meal, talk to you about your boyfriend problems …”

Laurents may well talk about boyfriend problems with Graff, having been in a relationship himself with the same man for 48 years. “He has real insight into long term relationship issues.” Graff has now clocked up 13 years with the same man – perhaps thanks in part to Laurents. 

But back to Camp: the film is set in Camp Ovation, where young would-be performers go in the summer, honing their skills staging musicals – usually old ones. When handsome and straight Vlad (Daniel Letterle) arrives and is bunked with gay guys like Michael (Robin de Jesus) the campus is thrown into a tizz. The girls, like the plain-jane Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) and the flashy temptress Jill (Alana Allen), make a bee-line for Vlad during and in between rehearsals. Meanwhile, heavy drinking used-to-be great musical creator Bert Hanley (Don Dixon) arrives and injects even more turbulence, but his unsung work becomes the fuel for a brand new musical to stage on the big final benefit night – before special guest Stephen Sondheim.

Camp Ovation is in fact Stagedoor Manor, the place where Todd Graff went at 14. The film is partly based on his experiences there, it was shot there (“we couldn’t have done it otherwise”) and the Manor provided the all important atmosphere.

"first feature" 

It took four years to get the film financed, and Graff puts that down to several reasons including that his script pre-dated Moulin Rouge and Chicago. “Musicals were a dead genre in Hollywood. And partly that it is my first feature and that’s always hard to finance. Then there are other issues in the film; there are gay kids in it, my lead kid was going to have terrible acne, and my lead girl was not going to be a Julia Stiles, but plain. So many things that made it unappealing to Hollywood so it was tough to raise the money. Until we found Killer Films and they raised the money independently.”

And here’s another ‘who you know” element: Graff wrote the script on spec and gave it to Danny DeVito, who was going to direct another script Graff had written (but didn’t). “Danny’s company Jersey Films had produced Erin Brokovich and Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty and Out of Sight…so I brought it to him and asked him to produce it with me because I’m going to direct it. He read it and liked it and his partners liked it. So finally, they took it to Killer. They came on board immediately and found the money immediately.”

The first day on set was bad. It was shot in Manhattan, and the scene never made the final cut. “I had a steep learning curve. The early stuff I shot was not a patch on the later stuff I shot. The first day was the worst of all. I blew it with my coverage, I screwed up in technical terms – crossing the line so that eyelines don’t match when you’re cutting from one to another… my script supervisor kept telling me but I didn’t understand what he was talking about. It was not a great day. Thanks for bringing it up! I think I’ll go to the shrink now…” he laughs.

While we’re on sore subjects, I bring up a missing credit in the Camp production notes; there’s no mention of his adaptation of The Vanishing for the 1993 American version of the film. “Would you put it in your credits?” he snaps back. “About the worst movie ever made. Anybody who wants to can work out I was involved with it but I’m not going to deliberately trouble them with it! 

“It’s a piece of shit – well, there are some people who even like that film, and I don’t think it’s particularly my fault that it’s bad. It’s the second movie I wrote; I was not in a position to be turning down jobs and the guy who directed it (George Sluizer) directed the original Dutch version. I thought, well, it’s stupid to remake a great Dutch film but he’s the guy doing it so OK. But then it was like one long, slow car wreck…”

"excited about his future prospects now"

Moving on to happier subjects, Graff says he’s excited about his future prospects now, post-Camp. “It’s a weird thing: the film has done well and I know I can make another film. I get sent a lot of scripts - so I’m just trying not to be immobilised by fear about what I’m going to do now.”

Published March 4, 2004

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Todd Graff

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