Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner says his goal in life is to have adventures. And adventures he has had -- artistic adventures, adventures of conscience, adventures of the heart. Many of these excursions have taken him to glorious creative meadows, and a few have led him down into the abyss.
In the 1980s, Nyswaner wrote the screenplays for "Mrs. Soffel," "Love Hurts" and his directorial debut, "The Prince of Pennsylvania," and he reached a career peak in 1993 with his Oscar-nominated script for "Philadelphia," the first major film to address AIDS and homophobia. With his adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel "The Painted Veil" opening today, Nyswaner returns to the big screen for his first feature credit after 13 years of wandering a professional and personal wilderness.
"Veil" stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as Walter and Kitty Fane, an unhappily married English couple who move to rural China under British imperialism in 1925 to fight a cholera epidemic and their disgust for each other. "A love story in reverse," as Nyswaner recalls director John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore") describing it, the screenplay has received an Independent Spirit Award nomination and the National Board of Review award for adapted screenplay, a satisfying payoff to a frequently abandoned project.
"I think I was a junior in high school ... ," Nyswaner jokes of his initial involvement in the movie, when he and producer Sara Colleton began pitching the book 10 years ago. "There were many times when I completely gave up."
After his first draft, in September 1997, Nyswaner figures he wrote at least 35 drafts, many of them in significantly different directions, for a variety of temporary producers, directors, actors and financiers who were never all available to make the film.
"It's my job to make whoever the current team is happy," says Nyswaner, who did several free drafts over the years under Norton's committed guidance. "But in doing those notes and trying to keep everybody on board, it's my job to hold on to the soul of the project: that two people find themselves and love and forgiveness by undergoing this incredibly dramatic and exotic adventure."
Holding on to his own soul became a struggle in the years between "Philadelphia" and "Veil." During that time, Nyswaner was still working: He wrote a play, scripted the Peabody Award-winning movie "Soldier's Girl" for Showtime, wrote two TV projects and worked on stalled feature projects, such as "A Trial by Jury" for Sam Raimi, which got back-burnered when "Spider-Man" opened to $115 million.
But more devastatingly, he also had a "psychological and substance-abuse crash and burn" when he fell in love with a gigolo, "which is a nice word for what he was," and became addicted to drugs. In 2004, Nyswaner published a wry memoir called "Blue Days, Black Nights" that described that difficult two-year period of his life. (He's been sober many years.)
"Not unlike the characters in 'The Painted Veil,' I was deluded," Nyswaner says. "I was falling in love with something that wasn't true. That somehow this person, who made his living by seducing people, would miraculously fall in love with me and save me. If you look at 'The Painted Veil,' [the British] are trying to make China something that it isn't, and Walter has this delusion of who Kitty is and that's what he falls in love with. So it's a process that I'm very much familiar with."
This point was heartbreakingly realized for Nyswaner when, after his lover died, he tried to make arrangements to bury him next to the man's parents and discovered that everything he had told Nyswaner was a fabrication -- even his name.
But these risks of the heart have also led Nyswaner to some of the most fulfilling aspects of his life and career. After the success of "Philadelphia," he spent years speaking at churches and colleges around the country about HIV/AIDS and gay civil rights. And that activist streak is breaking through into his screenwriting again.
Nyswaner is working on the first draft of a project he says he was "born to write," called "Dover," about the evolution/intelligent design trial that was decided in Dover, Pa., a year ago today. He has also co-written with Rudy Joffroy a screenplay for a Mexican-financed film called "The Devil's Highway" that details the true story of 24 Mexican workers who crossed the border illegally near Yuma, Ariz., in 2001 and were nearly wiped out after getting lost in the desert.
"That's who I am," Nyswaner says of taking on controversial subjects. "I describe myself as a provocateur, in my life and in my work. Otherwise, what's the point?"
He's making a list for the holidays