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A writer's id
'Quills' scribe channels sadistic Sade
(CNN) -- When Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush utters perverted, passionate lines in "Quills," audiences see him embodying with zany relish the Marquis de Sade.
The French author's controversial works and sexual deviancies landed him behind bars for nearly 30 years, and gave the world a new term to describe inflicting pain and suffering on others: sadism.
But Doug Wright, who penned the "Quills" screenplay from his own award-winning stage play, saw something more in Rush's performance as the Marquis, who died in 1814.
"I teased Geoffrey. I told him he had become my id," says Wright, a New York resident who will turn 38 on December 20. "Every antisocial thought I ever had, he was gleefully acting out on screen."
Wright's antisocial thoughts, and Sade's, are creating a critical stir with "Quills," which also stars Michael Caine, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix. The National Board of Review handed the film this year's best picture honor.
Meantime, "Quills" is just starting to reach audiences across the country. It expands to 50 more theaters this weekend.
"This is my first movie, so it's pretty overwhelming to see all those characters that were living in my own fevered little brain suddenly 30 feet tall," Wright says in a telephone interview earlier this week.
Prose 'floored me'
Wright got an undergraduate degree from Yale and earned a master's degree in playwriting from New York University. His plays "Watbanaland" and "Buzzsaw Berkley," among others, were showcased in the New York theater scene before the idea for "Quills" came along.
Wright began investigating Sade in Christmas 1993, when a friend gave him a biography of the author. Wright was interested enough to turn to some of Sade's fiction, such perverse works as "Justine," "Juliette" and "The 120 Days of Sodom."
What Wright saw made him rethink Sade, and himself.
"I flatter myself a terribly liberal New York playwright, but his prose floored me because it was so extreme," says Wright. "I found myself asking, 'Wow, does this have any value? Does this merit a place on bookshelves?' And I thought, if he could unnerve me so completely, then maybe he'd be a worthwhile subject for drama. Maybe he'd be the kind of figure about whom I could write a parable about free speech that made liberals and conservatives equally nervous."
Wright soon began work on the stage version of "Quills," partly in response to congressional hearings on funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, at the time under fire for some controversial exhibits it had underwritten. The play premiered at the New York Theater Workshop in 1995, winning an Obie for best play. The next year, Fox Searchlight had optioned rights to it.
The studio didn't brush Wright aside. Instead, it hired director Philip Kaufman, who helmed "The Right Stuff" (1983) and "Henry & June" (1990), among other titles. He worked closely with Wright to turn the play into a two-hour, R-rated affair. "We had to streamline the play's ideology and make sure that any ideas we wanted to impart to the audience really had to happen through the fabric of the story," Wright says.
A moral obligation
The result is a compellingly dark, comic, tragic tale set near the end of Sade's life, post-French Revolution, at an early 19th-century asylum in Charenton, France. Kaufman and Wright have created an alternate world that reflects Sade's probings into the dark nature of the human animal.
It was not always a comfortable project, says Wright.
"There were times when I would finish writing a sequence and I would see the face of my very well-mannered, deeply Presbyterian mother staring back at me from my imagination, looking at me with her lips pursed like, 'Douglas, what do you think you're doing?'" laughs Wright. "But if you're tackling a figure like Sade, you have a moral obligation to be true to his spirit."
Sade's spirit is alive and well in "Quills." He lives in an asylum "cell," a two-room apartment with hundreds of books, elaborate quills, plenty of writing paper, a desk and a bed. Castles have been less well appointed.
When Sade offers a guest a drink and says, "Bottoms up," it's a clever double-entendre, a sexual reference and a cue to the audience that the Marquis' world is one where up is down, down is up.
Sade's time at the asylum is highlighted by Winslet's Madeleine, a comely, curious laundress. When she isn't batting eyelashes at the asylum's repressed abbe, played by Phoenix, she smuggles Sade's scandalous writings to a publisher, who presents them to an astonished, and titillated, French public.
Ultimately, the stories fall into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte (Ron Cook), who orders a doctor (Caine) to investigate. Though the sneering doctor's torturous treatments -- they include a dunking machine and the removal of Sade's writing equipment -- are purportedly to "heal" Sade, they don't have the desired result. Robbed of his writing tools, the Marquis refuses to be silenced, and uses his blood for ink to avoid censorship.
Adultery, necrophilia, rape -- startlingly, mixed with comedy -- ensue, building to a climax as unsettling as Sade's own musings.
'Great millennial figure'
While "Quills" doesn't pretend to be a wholly accurate biography of Sade, Wright thinks the author's life is worth a look nearly 200 years after it ended.
"I think he's a great millennial figure because he represents one of the darkest extremes of Western culture," says Wright. "I think he wrote in uncharted waters. His writing is pitch black, and I don't think any writer before or since had touched bottom in the human psyche. I think Sade goes there and goes there relentlessly."
Wright, meantime, will head to new horizons with his work. He's planning to direct a collection of one-act plays in New York next fall, and he's working on a legal-comedy screenplay for Warner Bros.
But he says his experience with Sade & Co. will be hard to top.
"I should just announce my retirement," he says. "It's not going to get better. It's just not."
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