Writing About Elaine May: An Interview with Carrie Courogen

 

It’s not every day that someone you know writes a biography about one of your favorite filmmakers, let alone one that receives heaps of praise from The New Yorker and several other prominent places, ultimately emerging as a dream summer read for any obsessive cinephile. But delightfully, that’s just what my good friend Carrie Courogen has done. Her new book, Miss May Does Not Exist—the first full scale biography of the famously elusive and brilliant Elaine May—actually had its origins right here on Bright Wall/Dark Room, when she was working on an essay for our Elaine May issue back in 2019 and realized that she had a whole lot more to say.

Carrie has been contributing to BW/DR ever since, as both an editor and a writer, and we’ve had many, many talks about Elaine May over the years, so it was a true honor and joy—and a real full circle kind of moment—to finally get a chance to “officially” sit down and talk with her just a few days after the book was published. We met for a few hours over Zoom earlier this month to discuss Elaine May, writing a biography about someone who doesn’t give interviews,  the journey and inspirations behind the book, and many other things. But we also made plenty of time to talk about Ishtar, because of course we did, like we always do.

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So I guess I was just wondering, to kind of get into the conversation: in the process of writing this book, what did you learn about Elaine May that you previously had all wrong?

I think the one big thing I was wrong about is that, back in 2019, I very much just thought “She’s a victim of Hollywood misogyny.” Like, cut and dry, end of story. But I realized as I was working on this that it’s never that black and white. She isn’t a victim, or not a perfect victim any way, and I didn’t want to be in this mindset of thinking she was just a victim because that completely robs her of her agency and her actions. Like, yes, she was victimized, but she wasn’t a complete victim. She played a part in her demise, for lack of a better word. She played a part in the reasons why she never directed again. That was the big thing that I was always kind of thinking—in the oft-memed words of Oprah: were you silent or were you silenced? And the truth here is… both.

Yeah, I think I had the same basic views as you before reading this book. It’s a really easy narrative to tell and it does have more than a few kernels of truth to it—and you certainly fill those out into even bigger kernels—but I also wonder why I never really questioned that general narrative myself. I mean, given how she lived her life, of course she wasn’t going to be this passive victim just letting people screw her over.

Right. 

I was also really amazed by how much I didn’t know about her in general, despite being such a huge fan for so many years. It’s incredible how much you were able to find—which I’m sure wasn’t easy, especially during a pandemic?

The truth is that it was a little bit easy at times, sometimes too easy. More because—and I said this to so many friends when I was writing this— I think some of the people around her were trying to starve me out, trying to make it seem like they’re being helpful, when really they were just giving me the same lines they’ve always given, thinking I’m not going to end up with enough to write the book. But they didn’t know that I’m an amateur sleuth with limited self control and the entire internet at my disposal—my brain was poisoned by growing up on the internet, for better or worse. 

And then there were other things, of course, like the archive materials at museums and libraries; it was the winter of 2021 and I remember most things were still closed, but a lot of places would send me scans—which in a way was good, because rather than going there and sitting for hours taking dutiful notes, I just got it all, and got to keep it all. The Academy Museum was like my white whale for a really long time because I knew they had so much—I knew they had the Tootsie script, and a bunch of other scripts, and documents and correspondence. Not, obviously, her file, but people she had worked with, she would show up in their files. So that was a situation where I actually had to fly to L.A.—

Yeah, I remember that!

And I had to sit in the Academy library, and take notes on things. I think they somehow made an exception for me though, or maybe it was an error, because I put in my scan request and an extremely new person was like, Sure thing! and scanned pages of the Tootsie script and I was like, no, I don’t need the script, I need the notes on the side. 

Her actual handwritten notes on the Tootsie script? 

Oh, handwritten edits and notes all over it. I still can’t believe—it’s maybe the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. 

And what was she like as an editor?  

She’s so blunt, and also so incredibly precise. Painstakingly precise. She has this clarity that she sometimes doesn’t have over her own writing. 

I remember on the Tootsie script, there were little things where she would cross out sections of dialogue and write something like, “You can convey all of this with a two minute montage” or—oh my God, when Dustin Hoffman races back home after he misses his date with Teri Garr and tries to rush through changing while she’s waiting outside, being like, cut the crap, I saw that fat woman walk in earlier. And he tells her, That’s just a friend of Jeff’s! Did you really think she was fat? She added that joke, and wrote in the margin something like, “Sydney, there are very few surefire laughs in this world, and this is one of them, consider it.”

And at one point she took this whole scene of dialogue and crossed everything out, except for one single line, and wrote something to the effect of This isn’t true to how people would behave in real life—a full page in the margins, a very long comment about why it doesn’t work and how it should be restructured. And when she’s pointing out why it doesn’t work in reality, I was just like, Oh my God, her mind

Yeah, she seemed to be two or three steps ahead of people almost all the time.  

For sure. 

In good and bad ways.

In good and bad ways, yeah. But I really didn’t know about all the scripts that she had written or fixed—or the scripts she had written that weren’t ever made. I had no idea about a lot of the projects of hers that aren’t commonly known—I knew she worked on Tootsie and Reds and Labyrinth, but not all the various other things she worked on as a script doctor. It was just a lot of digging and a lot of spending time on newspapers.com, finding a mention of something and then following that lead.  

But I was also so lucky, there were people who just found me out of the blue and would email me and say, like, Hey, have you ever heard about this? Do you have this screenplay that she wrote? I worked at Columbia in the 80s. [Elaine] was pretty much on staff at that point, rewriting things—she was a big player then. And I would think, oh my God, you’re just sending me this? 

Okay, so let’s go back to the beginning of your Elaine May journey.  I know some of it just from talking with you over the years, but I’m not sure how she first came onto your radar. Was it the Nichols and May routines you listened to as a teenager or…where did the fascination start?  

I don’t think the fascination started until maybe a decade later. I’d listened to Nichols and May because I was comedy obsessed and became very much like, I have to know everything about the history of comedy right now. And I liked it, I thought it was funny, but there were other, older things—like early SNL—that I really returned to more, mostly because a lot of Nichols and May, at the age of 13, went way over my head.

I was also movie obsessed, so I knew about Mike Nichols and loved his movies, but I never knew that Elaine became a director, or that she’d written so many things. I think for a really long time it was just not that commonly known—this was still before Ishtar was starting to be reclaimed. She was mostly working in theater then, her movies were out of print, and she was just kind of buried in pop culture history. 

And then when she was in The Waverly Gallery, suddenly everybody was talking about Elaine May again, and I was like, oh my God, that’s the person that I thought was so funny and cool when I was a teenager! And she’s had this whole other life! I was writing a lot of articles and profiles of women at the time who I thought had been misremembered by history or not given enough due. So I was kind of kicking myself—this is so my shit, how did I miss this? And that’s when I mainlined all of her movies and quickly thought, oh wow, I’m obsessed.  

And I know what you get like when you’re obsessed—

That’s all I want to do! It’s all I want to talk about. It’s all I want to read about. So yeah, I really went down the rabbit hole.

 

Elaine May directing A New Leaf (1971) | Paramount Pictures/Photofest

Which I think was right around the time when I first met you? I remember reaching out to you after you tweeted something about Ishtar, because we had this Elaine May issue coming out, and I think I actually asked you if you wanted to write about that movie?

I think you asked me and I thought about it and then was like, I don’t know if I can write about this movie, but there’s this other thing that interests me, so I kind of pieced that together and then in my cover letter I said something like, I wrote this instead, I hope you don’t mind.  

Definitely didn’t mind—it became the lead off piece for the issue! It was wonderful. And that was, wow, about five years ago, right around this time of year. 

Crazy!

And when did the book deal happen? Like how long from writing about her for BW/DR to Hey, I’m writing an Elaine May book for St. Martin’s Press?

I got contacted by a couple of literary agents, because I had a stupid ass viral tweet and they’re like, I saw this and then started reading your work, have you ever considered writing a book? I really connected with the woman who is my agent now, and I remember saying I don’t want to be another millennial media girly with an essay collection. Like, I didn’t want to do that. But I did have an idea, something I’d started thinking about while I was working on both the Glamour piece and the Bright Wall piece: why isn’t there a book about Elaine May?

So I decided that I wanted to do it, but didn’t know how to do it. And then in December 2019, I saw Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and was like, oh, she remixed it—and I realized that I had to approach this book in some different kind of way, not in a typical biography way. I was still toying with it, and then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t really figure it out. So when I had that conversation with my agent, I told her there were two books that I wanted to write. One was about Buckingham Nicks and the other one, it seems really crazy and almost impossible and I don’t know if I could do it, but I want to write a biography of Elaine May. I’m 99% sure I won’t have any access to her, but I’ll try my hardest and, you know, who knows?

So as you went about starting to write this, which writers were your biggest influences, your North Stars so to speak?

Well, I feel like I keep saying this, so if he has Google Alerts turned on for himself, I am so sorry because I’m going to say it again: Sam Wasson is just a GOAT. The way each of his books crackles with life and makes you feel like a fly on the wall through all these different specific times and places in Hollywood history—but at the same time are also so deeply researched and informative—is just the greatest magic trick. Improv Nation was by my side for a lot of the writing process, not just as a resource but as inspiration. I read The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood or The Path to Paradise after I had finished my manuscript and the whole time I was just like, “How the fuck could anything I write ever share a shelf with this?”

Lili Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. was also instrumental. It made me feel confident that I could write about someone who is elusive, and Rachel Abramowitz’s Is That A Gun In Your Pocket? was another book by my side, not just as a resource but as a sort of North Star, as was Mark Harris’s work, including, obviously, his Mike Nichols bio. Also Karina Longworth—specifically the YMRT season on Polly Platt—and the documentarian Marina Zenovich, whose early doc Who Is Bernard Tapie? was revelatory. We met when she was directing the tribute doc for Elaine for her honorary Oscar and talked a lot about Elaine and trying to track her down—and I’m so lucky that she became a cheerleader and opened doors for me throughout the process—and the similarities my situation had to her experience making her film. I went home and watched it immediately and was like “Oh, yes, of course.”

And then also, just because music is such an important part of my life—like, film is my one arm, and music is my other—I was constantly finding inspiration in the writing process from music, to the extent that I was continuously adding to a music moodboard that served as both inspiration while writing and then later was like, “Oh, this could be a companion soundtrack for reading.” Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo was absolutely a North Star, in the sense that many of Mann’s songs about frustrations with major record labels and her fuck you rebuttal to their mistreatment, to me, echoed Elaine’s struggles with the studio system. (I snuck a little homage to “Calling It Quits” in the book, that’s how big it was in my mind when writing it.) 

I love it, thank you for all that. But now I do believe it’s time for us to geek out about Ishtar, which I know we both hold near and dear to our hearts. I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked you – do you remember the first time you saw it?

I do! I saved it as the last film of Elaine’s that I watched. I didn’t go in totally blind—I knew the discourse, I knew the legend—so I was a little scared, because by that point I had watched and loved her first three movies in very quick succession, and devoured some of her plays. But Alamo was doing a series about male friendship and so I was like, well, I’m gonna go see it in a theater, might as well. But I was really scared.

You got to actually see it in a theater?!

Yep, I saw it in the theater for my first time, which is honestly the best way. 

Ok, I’m officially jealous—I’ve seen it so many times, but never actually on a big screen.

Oh my God, you gotta. But yeah, I went in thinking, what if I don’t like this and then it clouds my perception of Elaine or makes me love her a little bit less? What if she really did make a misstep and I have to rethink everything about this person who I’m newly in love with?

It’s like not wanting to fully, actually know all details about the person you’re starting to date.  

Yes! But honestly, a few minutes into it I was laughing so hard.

It’s so disarmingly funny right away!

It was a packed theater and everyone was laughing for the entire thing. I rarely laugh out loud so hard that I start crying, like very rarely, but I was laughing like a crazy person and I came out of it and was immediately saying, “Oh my God, I love this movie.” And I think a couple of weeks after that is when Film Forum did their Elaine May retrospective and I dragged Emmy to see Ishtar. And again, we were both just howling the whole time.  

That opening act is basically amazing and perfect comedy.

Flawless!

And I think the genius and goodwill of that, if you’re a normal human without your pitchfork out, easily carries you through the rest of it. But also—I like the Morocco stuff too! I don’t think it’s as amazing as the New York section, but I think it’s definitely very watchable. I mean, the blind camel thing? That is the dumbest joke in the world and then it just keeps going and gets so funny that it’s just like, “Yeah, see, I can do a dumb joke but here’s how I do it. There’s an art to that, too.” So even the camel part, at least to me, is hilarious. 

“Oh God, I got a feeling something went wrong and now I own a blind camel.” And also Warren Beatty being this absolute Himbo! I love it. I think the Morocco stuff is like 90% great. I know a common consensus is that people seem to think it falls apart when they go to Morocco—I’m like, no, it doesn’t. 

It’s a transition, for sure. And it’s also very hard to sustain that level of comedy from the opening for an entire 107 minutes! She did make it harder on herself maybe, setting the bar so high right at the start. But it’s also funny to picture Elaine May preparing to film that actual action movie sequence near the end. It’s just like, nothing in her career has set her up to know how to do this.

I found one picture of her on the set in the desert—fully covered, in like a beekeeper outfit. And oh God, I would do anything to find more.

So, how soon were you all in on Ishtar

Oh right from the opening credits scene, I was in.  

Yeah, I don’t trust anybody that doesn’t laugh during those opening minutes. I just can’t understand watching that opening and being like “I gotta get my pitchfork out, I’m taking this movie down.”

It makes me so mad. Because even if you had heard the stories in the press in 1987, you just watch it and it’s quickly like, Oh, never mind, this is great, I don’t care how this was made, I don’t care how much it costs, you know? And yes, I know that there were some reviews where they were just like, it’s not even smart, it’s dumb. And it’s one of those things where it is smart—but also, it’s not exactly like dumb comedies were out of fashion in the 80s. 

They all still have a fond place in my heart! And I’ve read many of the source materials you drew on for the Ishtar section while I was writing my own piece on it a few years ago, and it’s just so frustrating in a way—I mean I guess it’s an interesting story, but why were people, including the studio, out to bury it? I can’t put together why this particular movie generated so much anger.

I think it’s because it was just such a long, slow drip of bad press. And I think it was really less about [Elaine May] and more about the amount of money that Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman were going to make for it. That was publicized, and it was this era of everyone suddenly starting to pay attention to the Wall Street numbers and—wasn’t it around then that they started putting box office returns in the news, like the top 10 each weekend? So I think it’s really rooted in this idea of—and we do it today, too—when we see a movie that’s got a lot of big, powerful players and it’s costing a lot of money and rumors start to come out that things aren’t going well, that becomes entertainment. When something seems too big to fail, it’s fun for normal people to root for it to fail. And whether or not that’s right,  I think that was the biggest thing.  

That’s interesting. So you’re saying that it wasn’t actually personal, or because Elaine May made it, but rather because it was this big colossal expensive thing that people kept hearing about and so it was fun to hate?

Yeah, it just became a prime example of Hollywood bloat and excess, of people taking risks and making expensive films and not learning their lesson from, like, Heaven’s Gate. And I think in the industry, people were probably also rooting for Elaine to fail—a little bit of “Who does she think she is?” She hadn’t made a movie in 11 years and the movies she’d made up to that point were all much smaller films. So it was almost like, you haven’t paid your dues in a way.

 

On the set of Mikey and Nicky (1976) |  Paramount Pictures/Photofest

And you touch on this in your book too, but this is not what happens to most male directors. Someone like Christopher Nolan, he’s just eccentric or obsessive, you know, or Stanley Kubrick is just a genius and this is his process. And they didn’t use those words for Elaine May, at least not at the time. Though I really liked that your book also looked at the other side of it, because…do you think someone like Elaine May would have stayed in movie jail if it was not in some way something she accepted to a certain extent? Because in some ways it seems like her eventual response was: fine, I’ll just go back to doing the other things I do.

Yeah, that’s another thing where I went into the book thinking that there was this black and white answer. I really thought she’s in director jail and women end up in director jail more often than men and have a much harder time getting out—which is true, but it’s not the whole truth with Elaine. Because again, she played a part in it. She didn’t want to be a hired gun directing somebody else’s script. She didn’t want to compromise. And by the time she could have directed something again, it probably would have been around the time of The Birdcage and by then she was like, well, Mike’s doing this, so this is the perfect world where I can kind of be a co-director in a way.

Well, she hasn’t made another film in 36 years now, but her influence definitely seems to have rippled out across cinema over the years. I’m curious to know which filmmakers working today you feel are somewhat Elaine May adjacent?

I think there are so many who have shades of her influence, or are, whether they’re conscious of it or not, a bit indebted to her work. I mean, obviously, Greta Gerwig has the zeal for continuous exploration and experimentation. I think there’s actually a direct line between Elaine making Ishtar and Greta making Barbie: two female comedic directors known, up until that point, for making mostly smaller-scale, relationship-driven movies embarking on a tentpole blockbuster action comedy. Both, on the surface, made movies that play by the rules of the form and seem almost like typical big budget summer movies, but they put their own totally screwy stamp on them and, if you look close enough, subvert the very tropes they’re imitating—just real “I can’t believe they let her make this” energy. 

Natasha Lyonne’s Russian Doll definitely has reverberations of Elaine—the totally bleak view of the world, the dark humor that makes you squirm a little, the duo who will both help and hurt each other. It checks so many boxes, I could easily see her making something like that. The movies Aubrey Plaza has produced under her company—there’s a streak of totally dark, twisted humor that, as different as they are, runs through Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear and Emily the Criminal. Nicole Holofcener has often cited The Heartbreak Kid as an influence, and I think that’s really easy to see across a lot of her films. We’ve also talked so much, you and I, about Kenny Lonergan and the ways Elaine has influenced him—even though his movies are so different than most of what she made. I could go on and on and on though—these are just top-of-mind references!

Sure, but I can definitely see a connection in everything you’re mentioning, plus her influence seems so enormous once you really start looking at it—I mean she basically helped invent improv comedy before she even got anywhere near movies! Just an absolutely unique, inventive, legendary creative arc and career. Which I guess leads me to my last question for you: How has writing a book about Elaine May, or even just a book in general, changed you?

I think the biggest way it changed me is that I was reminded over and over again that I have a tendency to choose to do the hard thing and then regret that I never opt for the easy choice—but ultimately come out of it like “Well, I survived that! I can do the hard thing!” Writing an intensely researched biography while having a very demanding full-time job? And it’s my first book ever? And about one of the most difficult subjects possible? Why did I do that to myself? 

Writing a book in general also forced me to become a bit more organized, but made me even more neurotic than I was before. The idea of the permanence of a book versus something that lives online or in a magazine sort of upped the ante on my obsessive perfectionism. I fully had to go back into therapy when this was done.

But writing about Elaine undoubtedly made me, dare I say it, smarter and funnier. Being immersed in her world and her words and her thought processes felt like such an education by way of osmosis. The negative flip side is that it absolutely fucked up my brain chemistry, for sure. I think her paranoia and distrust seeped into me a bit while writing the book. And, something I’ve talked about a lot, but it’s just weird to have this entirely one-sided relationship with someone I’ve never met, but feel so close to and know so much about. Shaking her has been really slow-going, like I’m an actor still recalibrating back to normal after a long intense method role.