Who he is: A unique talent who is difficult to pigeonhole, Bill Condon's most notable credit at one time was for directing the horror sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh. That all changed in 1998, when he won raves for writing and directing Gods and Monsters, the sensitive and fascinating biopic of horror director James Whale. The film brought a career renaissance to Ian McKellen and won Condon an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently earning kudos for doing what was once thought impossible—adapting the script for the hit musical Chicago into a feature film starring Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
His first big break: Condon moved from New York to Los Angeles two decades ago with the intention of establishing residency so he could attend UCLA Film School. During this time his work as a film journalist caught the eye of producer Michael Laughlin. "I wrote a long think piece about summer movies, and Michael called me up," said Condon. "It was the great lucky break of my life." Condon wrote two films for Laughlin: the cult favorite Strange Behavior (1981) and its unofficial sequel, Strange Invaders (1983). He's been working steadily ever since and never did get around to enrolling at UCLA.
The next big break: Winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gods and Monsters, an experience Condon describes as "pretty amazing—and weird." Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line had been heavily favored to win that year, and Condon claims to have been genuinely stunned when his name was called. "Our focus had always been on Ian getting the most attention, and at that point neither he nor Lynn [Redgrave] had won, and I thought there was no chance the script would. As Ian keeps reminding me, it was the consolation prize," Condon said with a laugh. Though he is a gregarious and charming interview, Condon described himself as "painfully shy" and said he made it through his speech only because of the support of his cast. In one of the more memorable moments of the night, McKellen, Redgrave, and co-star Brendan Fraser held each other tightly while Condon spoke.
Opening doors: Condon is confident he got the meeting on Chicago because of his Oscar win, even though Gods and Monsters is a far cry from a big-budget musical. "It gets you the meeting, but then you still have to say the right things and have the right approach to make them interested in you." The idea of a film version of Bob Fosse's hit musical had been kicking around for years, with cast members at one time or another rumored to be everyone from Madonna to Goldie Hawn. Condon must have said the right things, because after meeting with Miramax and director Rob Marshall he was selected for the daunting task. "I've been obsessed with musicals and how to adapt them to movies for years."
Adapting to change: Condon and Marshall finally figured out how to tell the story of cellmates Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, a pair of wannabe stars who would literally kill to be infamous: The musical numbers take place inside Roxie's head. "As opposed to a realistic musical where people break out into song in the middle of a scene, these numbers all happen on a stage," explained Condon. "The problem is the people singing these numbers are a lawyer, a prison matron, a reporter, and a car mechanic. They're not performers, so how do you get them on a stage? You needed some other device, and that turned out to be Roxie's imagination."
Up next: Condon will next direct the film Kinsey, from his own screenplay, starring Liam Neeson as famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Condon has long been fascinated by Kinsey's life, and he spent three years trying to get the movie made. "To watch somebody have this incredibly strict Methodist background and not have sex until his late 20s and to think that 15 years later he's revolutionizing the way people think and talk about it, it's revolutionary."
Parting advice: "I can say one thing but I think it might sound obnoxious," said Condon, laughing. "It's a piece of advice I would find annoying to read because I have so much trouble with it. But it does feel like the people who do make it are the ones who never stop writing. They finish a script and they're starting another, and six or seven or eight later, they hit and it just goes like wildfire. I can't do that. I've got no discipline. I have trouble getting down to it. and I would have been discouraged by reading that. But it's true." BSW