Arlington Hts. writer segues from small plays to big TV shows
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Sitting alone in the basement of his home, a space he calls "The Bunker," Keith Huff writes some of his most successful stories.
It's where the Arlington Heights native wrote his latest play, "Big Lake Big City," directed by "Friends" star David Schwimmer and now in its world premiere at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. And it's where he's worked on Hollywood scripts for "Mad Men" (which earned him a Writers Guild Award), "House of Cards," and projects for Steven Spielberg, Jason Lee and Brad Pitt.
"Big Lake Big City"
Plot: A detective with a jerky boss, a knucklehead partner and a cheating wife has to chase down a perp with a screwdriver in his head. An eclectic set of shady characters — crooked coroners, a TV-personality doctor, a femme fatale and one extraordinarily valuable sculpture — run roughshod through a maze of double-crosses and double-identities.
Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, in Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Chicago, (312) 337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; 3 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and select Thursdays; additional 7:30 p.m. shows July 2, 16 and 30. Runs through Aug. 11.
That's not to mention his still-untitled Starz show, as well as pilots for HBO, ABC and AMC.
It took 25 years for his career to reach this point, but Huff, who now lives in Chicago, humbly attributes his midlife success to luck, and to his agent, Glencoe native Barry Kotler.
Below is an edited version of a recent interview with Huff, where he talks about why he loves Chicago characters, how he transitioned from writing for the stage to hit TV shows, and why it's impossible to make a living as a playwright.
Q. You're from a police family. Who in your family are police officers?
A. I married into a police family. My father-in-law was Harold Hieber, who rose through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department to become commander of what was then called Area 5. My wife and I lived with the in-laws for a few years. Harold and I became very good friends and he told me many, many stories of his adventures in the CPD — stories that obviously made a tremendous impression on me. My brother-in-law was also a Chicago cop — a patrolman and then detective before retiring a few years ago.
Q. What is the best thing, and worst thing, about having David Schwimmer direct your new play, "Big Lake Big City"?
A. I've always been a huge fan of Lookingglass' work. So it's a thrill to be working with this amazing company. "Big Lake Big City" is a fairly big play (10 actors playing 20 roles in 38 scenes), which is quite a departure from the previous work I've done in Chicago, such as "A Steady Rain" (two actors) and "The Detective's Wife" (one actress).
David Schwimmer is a fantastic director, a gifted actor, and an outstanding comedian. Since "Big Lake Big City" is a comedy, having him at the helm is a match made in heaven. No downside that I can see. This is a new play and David is an insightful and extremely generous collaborator.
Q. What is it about the people of this city that makes them such good stage characters?
A. Some Chicagoans have a unique and playful way of expressing themselves that I call "dumb but not." I don't mean to offend anyone in saying that. What I mean is, the way Chicagoans express themselves can often sound less than savvy at first listen, but if you give it some thought, it's quite astute.
Q. What's one thing most people don't realize about a playwright's job?
A. That it's near impossible to make a living doing it. Tony Kushner, arguably one of America's most successful playwrights, recently wrote an article for The New York Times explaining, even with all his success, it is impossible for him to make a living as a playwright. He wasn't complaining, just being honest.
Q. How did you go from writing plays in Chicago to writing for "Mad Men," Brad Pitt's and Jason Lee's companies, and other A-list Hollywood gigs?
A. Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman on Broadway in (Huff's play) "A Steady Rain" (now being staged in theaters around the world), both Daniel and Hugh were extraordinarily generous to take a chance on a new play by an unknown playwright. I was extremely fortunate that they took that chance. That production opened up so many new opportunities, including "Mad Men," "House of Cards," writing "Oasis" for Jason Lee, developing "Jimmy Pariah" for (Brad Pitt's production company) Plan B Entertainment, writing "Why We Fight" for Steven Spielberg, and working on (the Syfy series) "Helix" now. That, and having the best agent in the world, Barry Kotler at CAA (Creative Artists Agency). When the doors open, it was always Barry who ushered me through and turned opportunities into paying work.
Q. How is it different writing for the Chicago stage, versus writing for Hollywood? Does film give you more leeway as a writer?
A. Writing for television and writing plays are entirely different. In Hollywood, writers work in teams and they are constantly barraged with creative notes from studios, networks, showrunners, co-workers. Playwriting is more solitary.
Q. Do you think you'll always incorporate Chicago characters? Is it an ever-ripe fruit?
A. Yes, probably. I was born here, I still live here, it's what I know.
Q. What projects are on the horizon for you?
A. I just sold a new television project to Starz. Although untitled right now, it's about gangster capitalists committing transnational crimes on a global level. After I finish working on "Helix," I'll be focusing on the Starz project. "A Steady Rain" is supposed to be done in London this fall, so I'd like to take my family over there for that. I also completed a pilot based on my play "The Detective's Wife" for di Bonaventure Pictures/ABC, so I'll be trying to get that going later this year as well.
Q. Any advice to aspiring playwrights?
A. Never give up. I wrote plays for more than 25 years before "A Steady Rain" took off. Success came late for me, and then only because I was either too smart or too stupid to ever give up.
— Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone, send an email to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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