Kelly Masterson [Interview]


Hello Folks! We are headed to the proverbial writer’s room again for our latest interview. Today we have the absolutely legendary playwright & screenwriter of projects such as the legendary Sydney Pollack directed Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead which usually lands respectably somewhere on many different lists of my favorite films. It’s Kelly Masterson, Everyone!

For years, Kelly was writing plays that were controversial and mind-blowing in their time, as they tended be geared towards such “astonishing” things as being gay and the importance of social justice and environmental torture that non cis-white dudes were (are) bringing down on to people they did not agree with. Can you imagine the audacity of Mr. Masterson? How dare he? I kid of course. While I have not been privy to these works, I have had the great fortune to see his work that was written for the screen. And while Snowpiercer originated as a graphic novel, knowing his previous work in the world of the theatre, it’s easy to see why Kelly was the best person for the job when it came to writing the 2013 film that would be directed by the forthcoming Academy Award winning director, Bong Joon Ho.

We are so very excited to have Kelly join us here at TWS to learn a bit more about this legendary figure. So Folks, please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant writer, Kelly Masterson!




What inspire you to get into the world of writing and entertainment in general? Was it something you have strived to do since your youth, or did you happen to find yourself in this world one day?

I started as an actor when I was 10 years old performing in community theater plays and got bit by the show biz bug.  I had an aunt and an uncle who were Broadway performers and that was my first dream.   I wrote my first stage play while I was in college with the intent of starring in it.  I never studied writing but read every play I could get my hands on.  I was influenced by Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Niell (that should be pretty apparent in my work). 

In the early 80’s, there were exciting contemporary playwrights that inspired me – Lanford Wilson, Peter Schaffer and, the one that blew my mind, Harvey Fierstein.  His play, Torch Song Trilogy, made me want to write plays.  I wrote a play about five men with AIDS living in a hospice (Touch).  It won a local playwriting contest in Las Vegas and was subsequently produced in San Francisco and Boston.  Again, it was written primarily for me to act in.  It opened off-off-Broadway in 1987 and, while I was not in it, my husband was.  We moved to New York where I tried to be an actor.  Alas, I had no luck.  Over time, my scripts stopped being vehicles for myself and rather expressions of themes and stories that interested me.  Early stage plays were either gay themed or about social justice.  It was not until I started writing for the screen that my themes became more universal. 


What was your first paid gig in the world of writing and/or entertainment? And were there any sort of lessons learned from this experience that still affect your work to date?

My first performance was in the role of Sir Jim in the play Sir Slob and the Princess (I know, what a bombshell!) at the Huntington Beach Playhouse.  My first script was Happymattox (I know, how horrible), a musical comedy about Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee.  Luckily for me, no copy exists.  My first screenplay was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.



Your debut original screenplay Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead will always be not only one of my favorite heist films, but just one of the best stories ever brought to screen in my opinion. I am curious to know what made you want to bring this story into the world? 


I read a book by John Burnham Schwarz (Reservation Road) that had a fascinating structure.  It told the story from one point of view before backing up and telling it from a second. I stole that structure and made it even more complicated by pursuing three POV’s in Devil.  I wrote it without knowing where it was going to go so I was surprised by it.  It was very dark and maybe that is because it was a very harsh winter while I was writing it.  I wanted to write about fathers and sons.  I wanted to write about obsession.  Each of the three male characters have obsessive behavior they cannot break free of even though it leads them to tragedy.

And when you first heard that the legend himself, Sidney Lumet was interested in working on what would unfortunately turn out to be his last project?

It was May 15, 2006 that I learned that Sydney Lumet was directing.  I was working at a bank in New York City.  My lawyer called me and asked if I was sitting down.  I sat down.  She told me she just learned from the producer that Devil was greenlit with Sydney directing.  I was also told the casting for the first time that day. I was so overwhelmed and happy.  I wrote it 7 years earlier and it had bounced around for years and I came to think it might never happen.  My lawyer and I celebrate every May 15th.  

I don’t really have the words to describe how grateful and lucky I am to have had Sydney direct this movie.  It was his last.  It was my first.  It has made my career.  I quit the bank on August 1 of that same year and have worked as a writer ever since.  I am so proud of the movie that Sydney made out of my script.



And of course, it would behoove us to ask about your 2013 film Snowpiercer, as it is another wonderful story that is an incredible analogy for the struggle of class warfare and social injustice. Can you tell us a bit about where in your mind this story was coming from? And do you believe the message you wanted to convey was carried on the screen?

Snowpiercer existed as a graphic novel before Director Bong Joon Ho and I adapted it.  So, the bones of the story already existed.  Director Bong and I discussed early on in the process the themes of inequality, injustice and revolution that we wanted to emphasize.  This project was such a joy to work on.  Director Bong is a wonderful collaborator and, of course, an amazing, visionary director.  He is also a wonderful man.  The success of the movie, and the clarity of its message, are terrific achievements and I am proud to have been a part of them.


What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?


I have written another script for Director Bong and hope that he will find time in his very busy, post-Parasite schedule to make it.  I have a few other feature projects in the works, including one which we hope to shoot this summer, Covid willing, to be directed by Steven Shainberg (Secretary) and starring Juliette Binoche.  I have a few TV projects in development.  I am lucky to get the opportunity to continue writing.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

From the silly: my dog chasing birds on the beach; to the profound: the prospect of Joe Biden’s inauguration which is tomorrow as I write this.  These made me smile today.


About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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