Why you've heard of him: Roger Kumble is a screenwriter and director of several major motion pictures. And he uses his insider view of this world to write sharp, insightful satires about the movie industry for the stage, including Pay or Play, which won an LA Weekly Award, and D-Girl, which starred David Schwimmer as a screenwriter pursuing a young female development executive. His new play, Turnaround, which promises more swipes at the notorious industry, opens this month at the Coast Playhouse.
Best known for: Smart, wickedly funny satires like his screen adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which Kumble transformed into the 1999 film Cruel Intentions, starring Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Selma Blair, as well as for loopy, more outrageous comedies like The Sweetest Thing, a female buddy movie that Kumble directed, starring Christina Applegate, Cameron Diaz, Selma Blair, and Parker Posey.
How he found himself doing what he does: "This is the most un-encouraging story," he said, laughing. He first got into screenwriting in college at Northwestern, where, like a lot of undergrads, he had no idea what he wanted to do and was looking for a way to avoid law school. "It was the late '80s, and spec scripts had started to sell. And I wanted to make a lot of money," he said. He headed out to Los Angeles to pursue that dream, and soon found himself struggling and paying his dues in the Hollywood system. Still, he wasn't about to reconsider law school: "I wanted to make money, and I ended up falling in love with writing."
Why he turned to theatre: Like most screenwriters, Kumble soon found that while he could eke out a living writing for movies, it was rare to see anything make it to the screen. So, while he was able to make money, he became frustrated over not seeing his work come to fruition—which is where playwriting came in. "I wrote my first play because I could afford to mount it," he said matter-of-factly. "And that's when I fell in love with playwriting. I could really focus on character and dialogue."
And why he goes back: For Kumble the lure of live theatre will always be strong. "I just love it," he said. "It's my favorite medium to write in. You can do anything. I can write whatever I want. I'm in control of my work. I can be as outrageous and offensive as possible while trying to reveal the truth." And though he certainly doesn't seem to shy from controversy, he is quick to add, "The truth part is important. I'm not just using this medium to exploit or have a potty mouth."
His hero is: You'd think a man who adapted Les Liaisons Dangereuses would have some pretty high-minded heroes. Indeed, Kumble does offer Tchaikovsky—with a laugh and an admonishment "not to print that"—before moving on to Philip Roth ("He's still kicking ass and he's in his 70s) and settling on a fictional character as his true hero: "The character Chazz Palminteri played in Bullets Over Broadway. He is the purest definition of an artist. He was so without pretension."
His best experience: Without hesitation Kumble brings up D-Girl when discussing his best working experience. Specifically he mentions "collaboration with David Schwimmer. If they could only pay me to just do that."
His worst experience: Though he seems poised to make a name for himself as the man who will gleefully expose the hypocrisy and just plain awfulness of Hollywood, Kumble is uncharacteristically mum and diplomatic when asked about his rougher experiences in the industry. He steadfastly refuses to dish. It seems anyone hoping for more dirt will just have to see Turnaround, which the press release is promoting as a play which Kumble "bites the hand that feeds him."
What's in the future: Kumble said he has no set future plans and no idea what project is next for him. But the idea of taking Turnaround on the road seems to appeal to him, and it might be more possible now, Kumble said, noting, "The whole country has become so much more attuned and savvy" about the entertainment industry. Still, Kumble won't give a definite answer about the future of the play, or the future of his work, claiming that right now he's just focusing on the play and its six-week run. "If something comes up," he said, "I would consider it."