Q&A: UT Professor Kirk Lynn on Writing with Meg Ryan

The Alcalde spoke with playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Kirk Lynn, BA ’93, MFA ’04, Life Member, about his newest film, What Happens Later, starring Meg Ryan and David Duchovny. No stranger to the story-to-screen adaptation, Lynn has previously adapted his novel Rules for Werewolves into a short film starring Finn Wolfhard, and he currently serves as an associate professor of playwriting and directing in UT Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance.

Catch What Happens Later in theaters now.

First, could you give us your best elevator pitch for the film?

It’s a rom com for grown-ups. It lives in the romantic comedy genre, which I love, but for people with a rich history. Very often, in rom coms, if there’s any baggage, it’s brief. What Happens Later is for people who have lived full lives. These characters have both regrets and desires for one another—and then they also have this great sense of history and self-knowledge and self-criticism that I know I lacked when I was in my 20s … and 30s and 40s. I’m now finally in my early 50s, and, you know, you can see wisdom another 20 or 30 years off in the distance, but I’m approaching it. I might get there. There’s that great phrase, youth is wasted on the young. And these characters, you know—they feel all of the same feelings they did when they were young, but now they’ve matured.

I’m just repeating what David Duchovny said, but somebody asked him why he did this project. And he paused for a second, then he said—very wisely, I think—“I just want to see one more Meg Ryan film.” That’s the best answer.

How did you get involved in the project?

There are four producers of this film, and two of them are also UT alums: Kelly Williams, BS ’99, and Jonathan Duffy, BS ’00, Life Member. We’ve worked on some other projects and will continue to work together. We just get along really well. They’re good filmmakers. They have a long history with Austin. They’re very, sort of, art-driven, rather than market-driven. And then, like all good Austinites, they’re good at just hanging out and being decent people.

It was early in the pandemic, and they had this sense that, in Covid times, if you could find a compact script that had a very small cast list and very few location requirements, that you might be able to make a film. And, you know, film isn’t really my world. But my buddy, Steven Dietz—who was a senior playwright here for so long and really taught me so much about writing, personally—has a lot of plays where there are two characters in one setting. I asked Steven’s permission to share a few of his scripts.

Everybody really loved the script [for Shooting Star, the original title of Dietz’s play]. It has two characters trapped in an airport, struggling with both their past and their present, and it’s sexy and cute and fun. All the producers really loved it. And then, I didn’t want all my friends to be having fun without me! I was like, Hey, can I join the party?

What was your writing process for a feature, as opposed to adapting your novel for a short film?

I’ve written other feature scripts before, but this will be the first one that I get to go the theatre and see. So much of my life has been collaborating. I’m in a theatre company that’s a collective called Rude Mechs, which has five artistic directors but 28 company members, and all we do is work together and argue. On our best days, it makes the work easy because we’re not lonely. When you’re doubting, somebody can give you confidence, and when you are overconfident, someone can bring you down a peg. It’s a nice balance.

Dietz and I taught well together, almost in an impish way. Frequently we had passionate advice that might go in different directions. We would accidentally tell students … one of us would say, “You need to cut that play down to 60 taut minutes,” and then the other would be like, “It needs to be eight hours long!” So, we didn’t know how we’d work together. We knew we liked each other. We were really good at spending time together, drinking beer together, laughing, telling jokes. But this was the first time we worked together … and it was effortless.

It’s his script, so he did the first pass and then sent it to me, and we would send it back and forth. Every couple of days, we would have a new draft of the script. The work was super light. I mean, it was already a really well-made play that’s been tested and rehearsed and workshopped and produced across the United States. I would guess we finished it in two weeks, sending it between us four or five times. We were just having fun with it and trying to impress each other. And at that point, we knew it was for these four producers, but we didn’t know anything else.

What changes were you making to the stage play to get it to the screen?

The screen is efficient at certain things. You know, on stage, it’s mostly actor-driven and character-driven. If you have a great idea for a one-line scene that happens in a bathroom or in a bar—on stage, even if you just shift lights to imply a quick scene change, it’s still sort of ugly to do. Whereas in film, there’s a lot of elegance. You can shift from place to place; you can show people in two separate places. You can do things with distance and scale on screen that are just a little harder to do within theatrical conventions. So, in some ways you can become more agile in film.

We were also thinking about how we could be helpful to the director and the actors by setting up a great image, so there was this new visual challenge: What are the different shots we can get with what’s available in an airport? What are the obligatory airport scenes—how many of those are we going to go for, and how many do we avoid? The airport itself also has a kind of personality, which was one of the ways we played with how to keep two people in this pressure cooker. In the theatre, you know, the stage itself and maybe even the audience add pressure to the idea that these people can’t leave. We thought, what if the airport was encouraging them in a sort of supernatural way to be close to each other, through where it puts their gates and who gets delayed at what time.

And then we wanted to turn up the volume a little bit. Both of us started rewatching rom coms and thinking about how you make a great romantic comedy. Well, you’ve got to have a good kiss in there somewhere, so we were figuring out how to do that. You want it to feel inevitable but also come as late in the script as possible. We had a lot of fun with that.

When did Meg Ryan come in as a co-writer?

My memory is that we were in a Zoom meeting, and Kelly and Jonathan were letting us know that they had had this amazing director come onto the project. But the call sort of glitched out when they said the name, so I didn’t know who they were about! Slowly, through context clues, I realized, Holy cow, they’re talking about Meg Ryan. This is amazing.

And then there started to be more Zoom meetings where Meg had read the script and had ideas. I think of her as an apprentice to Nora Ephron. Meg understands romantic comedies in a way that I am a student of, too. I want to know half of what she knows. And as our director and lead actress, it was natural to make her suggested edits. It’s such a treasure to work with her. And then, even when you watch the trailer, her chemistry with Duchovny is so wonderful. They’re so playful and fun.

We were all able to stay in conversation, but at a certain point, they started filming. The script was Meg’s, and the producers were just making the best movie they could. And then Dietz and I were like anybody else seeing on the internet that they were filming in the middle of the night in an airport, and tourists spotted them, like, “Oh my god, that’s Meg Ryan.” And we’re thinking, That’s our movie!

How are you balancing your career and teaching?

That’s a great question. I mean, while I’m head of playwriting, KJ Sanchez really runs the [playwriting and directing] program. I wake up at five so that I have some writing time every day before the onslaught. I mean, most of the time I think I live a life of balance. I want to be a good dad, husband, teacher, and writer. But so much of it, like with a good film or play, is about good collaboration. KJ is a great leader. I work with people who make things easy, like Dietz. My wife [Carrie Fountain, MFA ’04] is also a writer, so if she’s working hard on a book, I can turn up my dad volume a little bit, and vice versa.

Honestly, it relieves a lot of pressure when you are not the main character in your life. It starts to happen when you get married. And you think, She’s astonishing. She might be a better writer than I am. One way I can be useful in this world is to support her. And then our kids … what if they’re the main characters in my life? My daughter’s learning some math right now—functions with absolute values—and it’s breaking her heart. And you realize that this is so much more important than whether my scene is boring, or even whether Steven Dietz and Meg Ryan are happy. I can set those anxieties down and help my son sleep through the night. It takes some of the pressure off in a nice way.

I don’t know if I would have ever believed that, but then especially once I had kids … it’s just gorgeous. There’s somebody who needs me. This is something Dietz said when he was a teacher here: The world doesn’t really need another play. There are plenty of plays; there are plenty of books. And there are people who have probably found my books and my plays useful to them in a way, but my family needs me specifically.

What’s next for you?

Kelly and Jonathan and I have some other projects cooking. The plan is still to make a feature out of Rules for Werewolves, but we’re navigating the writers’ and actors’ strikes. I think I will always write plays. I love writing novels; my second novel is out for submission now. My wife’s a poet, so I don’t ever need to write a poem. She’s got that covered.

Now, getting to write movies … there’s a real joy to thinking visually. It’s a different kind of collaboration. In the playwriting world, you’re in charge of everything. In the screenwriting world, you have a different responsibility, to be helpful and useful. I like collaborating, and I don’t think I’m a particularly precious writer, so the idea that people will get the scene and have ideas and manipulate it—that seems fine by me. There are probably a few lines where you’re thinking, Please say that the way I wrote it. This is so pretty. But I think if you’re right, and you’re persuasive, then the director and the actor recognize that it’s a really beautiful line, and they’ll make sure to land it. I think a premise of theatre is that collaboration is essential, and it’s just as true in film.

And then I really just can’t wait to go sit in the theater and see it happen. I love Meg Ryan. I love David Duchovny. I love Steven Dietz’s work, so I get to see his play turned into this great thing—and I assume more people will then be driven back to the play, and it’ll get produced around. It’s pretty stunning.

This movie represents a real success for the Austin filmmaking scene. What more do you think is to come here?

Austin’s always been a hotbed. I went to undergrad and grad here, in the days of Dazed and Confused and Slacker. The richness and vibrancy of the scene has been around forever, and it comes and goes. I mean, right now, the real estate market is a little rough on artists. But we’re just pumping out intellectuals and readers and writers. And I think it’s a really rich scene right now.

I think I’d mainly want to give people encouragement so that they can have the endurance to stick around until their work gets recognized or until they find their path. I mean, I met Kelly and Jonathan because another friend of mine is also a filmmaker, PJ Raval, and I asked him to give me a list of the Austin producers that I would enjoy hanging out with. He gave me a list, and I started calling them up and just having lunch.

I think a feature of my life—because of equal parts luck and fate—is that I only make work with people I love. That’s the real secret ingredient. If you love people, you can spend enough time and energy to make something good.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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