Into the Woods: Pulitzer Prize-Winner James Lapine on Vajayjays
For the record, the title for this interview was James Lapine’s idea. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who wrote the theatrical production Into the Woods – with a little help from Stephen Sondheim, naturally – isn’t so much an interview as a conversationalist. Sitting down at the Walt Disney studio with plenty of time on our hands, we got into a rhythm and just started chatting, occasionally circling back around to the hit movie musical Into the Woods, how James Lapine adapted the musical into a movie, and his history of working with Stephen Sondheim.
But yes, the word “vajayjay” was also discussed, and I swear, I didn’t even bring it up. It was all James Lapine’s doing, I assure you. We also talk about shirtless hunks, Disney Prince pubic hair, and what got cut from the movie version of Into the Woods.
Oh yeah, he also told me to put “schmuck” in the title. I brought that word up, and James Lapine wanted me to throw it in there, but it was running a little long. Google searches cut off titles after a certain number of characters, and vajayjays took up all the space. Sorry about that, Mr. Lapine. I’ll get you next time.
Into the Woods is now playing in theaters nationwide.
James Lapine: Are you from L.A.?
CraveOnline: Pasadena originally. I went to UCLA and stuck around because this is where the industry is.
And what do you write for?
I write for a website called CraveOnline. I’m the head film critic and the editor of their film-related content. I host a podcast, I host some web series, stuff like that. It’s very busy.
So do you get to go to an office?
I do most of it from home. We have an office but it’s usually not necessary for me to be there.
Yeah, it seems like most people nowadays don’t even bother.
So I imagine you do all your work from home, right?
You know I have an office just to get out of the house.
Somewhere you can focus?
Somewhere. It’s so nice. It’s just a little apartment actually. I had an office for like ten years in a theater company, and it was really not conducive. I like being alone.
“I’m very bad about these things. I just like to chat.”
What sort of environment do you set out for yourself? Do you have your Pulitzer hanging over laptop?
[Laughs.] Have you seen a Pulitzer?
I have never actually seen a Pulitzer.
It looks like you went to Columbia. It’s like a diploma. It’s the most unassuming thing.
They don’t even engrave something for you?
No, it just says Columbia University.
Well, I don’t even want one anymore.
Well there you are! Who the hell needs that, right? Yeah, my office is very zen. I’m sort of of the minimalist school. I have light. To me it’s all about the light.
Yeah. It’s a sunny office, and quiet. You know, it’s New York.
Do you have a nice view?
You know, it’s… it’s a view, which is good.
It’s not a brick wall out there…
Oh no. I lived for ten years in a loft where I didn’t know what was going on outside. I’d literally have to stick my head out the window and look up, it was just… So yeah, now that I can afford to have light it’s a great luxury.
We need to get on topic because I don’t know if anyone cares about this…
Oh yeah. I’m very bad about these things. I just like to chat.
And they’re always going, “Wait! It’s over.” I say, “Wait a minute, we’re just chatting.”
“I’ve ended up working with Disney a lot, which is kind of peculiar.”
Whenever I try to do interview I prefer to get people on my podcast.
Because ten minutes is fine, but if you sit people down for an hour, you get comfortable. I find by the time most ten minute interviews are over, that’s about the time you started getting comfortable with the person and having a real conversation.
Well yeah. I know. I agree.
I don’t even write down notes or questions.
I don’t do this. This is really unusual for me. I don’t do movie junket-y things, because I don’t really do movies that much.
What about when you were doing Life with Mikey? Did you do a lot of junkets?
That was a long time ago. They did do a junket on that, and that was my one and only other junket experience.
Because the other little things I’ve done just have not had big press things. And in the theater we don’t do this either.
Is Disney treating you well at this junket? Is this strange?
Oh, of course they treat you well! Yeah.
Is it like Saving Mr. Banks and you walk into a hotel room and there’s a giant Mickey Mouse doll for you?
No, sadly not. Yeah, no. I’d be happy with just some popcorn when I walk in. No, they’re very nice. I’ve ended up working with Disney a lot, which is kind of peculiar. In theater I’ve done a couple of projects with them and written a couple movies and whatnot. Do you find one studio different from another in terms of these things?
It depends on what sort of relationship you have with the people in the publicity departments, etc. If you know someone, and they know you do good work, you might have easier access to the top talent.
Like if I wanted James Lapine, I can get James Lapine.
Hey, I’m easy. I’m cheap.
Oh, are you really? Oh my… I’m trying to think of a clever segue, but you wrote an adaptation of Into the Woods.
This is correct. We’re good. You’re in the right place. [Laughs.]
So far so good. I’m nailing it!
This is not The Theory of Everything. This is Into the Woods.
“People like to say they forget people are singing, which I think is a huge compliment.”
I’m glad it’s not The Theory of Everything. I like your movie better. But it strikes as… I mean there’s dialogue, but this might as well be an opera for how much of Into the Woods is sung. Does that make sense?
It strikes me that it must be hard to rewrite this material to suit the screen.
It’s funny you say that because it’s a very heavily plotted movie. Which, some things in operettas have very simple plots, which is why they lend themselves to music. So in a way, this is a very plotted piece and a lot of the musical elements have a lot of plot in them, which is interesting. You know, the way I work with my collaborators is we’re sort of seamless. We don’t really… I don’t know if you know a lot about musical theater…
I was Rapunzel’s Prince in high school.
Well, there you are. But a lot of it, a lot of the action stops for the song and then picks up again. The way we work is more in tandem with each other. People like to say they forget people are singing, which I think is a huge compliment.
I guess my point is, because the plot and the music is so directly linked, you can’t just cut out a line or add a scene. You don’t have as much freedom. Is that how it was?
Yeah. Well, yeah, that was the challenge of it because it’s really tightly plotted and once you start fiddling with the plot it starts to unravel a little bit. But it was long on stage, as you know, having been a Prince.
I was in the junior version though, so it doesn’t count.
Oh, yeah. It counts! Don’t diminish yourself, William.
I just mean we didn’t really get to the meat of the story in high school.
Well, that’s true.
And you cut out my reprise in the second half of the movie!
I know. isn’t that crazy? Well, the second half is just structured… it’s a movie. It’s just structured differently.
It’s interesting that the two-act structure, in a theatrical production, equates in this motion picture to: there’s two acts, and then the entire second act of the original production feels like a third act.
Yeah. It’s kind of like that. In fact it could easily have been a three-act on stage. It was long. When we did it originally it was really long. You could have had the first act be over, say, after the “Second Midnight,” and then you do the denouement as the second act, and then you play out the rest of the third act.
I’m never so into the three-act movie thing. I know that’s the form that people talk about, but it seems to me in the movie you just have to keep charging forward. You couldn’t start over again like you do after an intermission. You just had to keep the plot moving forward.
“I’m never so into the three-act movie thing. I know that’s the form that people talk about, but it seems to me in the movie you just have to keep charging forward.”
Why can’t we just have an intermission again?
We’d sell more concessions. Isn’t that a good thing?
I don’t know. I don’t think I’d want an intermission, to tell you the truth. I just want to get things over with.
I’m not sure that’s what the movie wants from you.
“Into the Woods: It Just Gets Things Over With!”
Well, you know, it’s a movie. It shouldn’t be like the stage show. It should have its own language and experience. And people will hopefully keep experiencing the stage show, so… I didn’t have any problem. Blah-blah-blah. I really didn’t. Maybe “No More,” the song “No More” which I love so much, was hard to get out of the movie, you know, to cut. But I remember Cameron Mackintosh, the great English producer saying, “You’ve got to cut ‘No More’ [from] the play. It just stops everything dead. You don’t need it.”
I think you need it, don’t you?
Well, emotionally I think you do.
It’s her last moment.
Well now we don’t really have much of the father so it wouldn’t have made a lot of sense. That was one of the things that got cut.
That’s a fair point. It seems like most of the stuff that got cut was in the second act.
We cut Cinderella’s father, we cut the Baker’s father, we cut the end of Act One, the whole finale of Act One…
Most of the last stuff with the Princes and the Princesses, except for Cinderella obviously…
Yeah. I realize certain things I didn’t realize until I saw the movie. It got thinned out a little bit, shall we say. It was always the Baker’s and the Baker’s Wife’s story, but it’s even more focused now, I think.
So there was more in the script that was filmed and didn’t make it onto the screen?
Uh… no, not a lot. One of the things that happened was the budget got cut down, which meant a lot of the things we had written had to be cut out for money reasons. I really wanted to go to the giant’s kingdom. I thought that would have been so cool.
“I really wanted to go to the giant’s kingdom. I thought that would have been so cool.”
Right? That would have been cool.
I wanted to see Cinderella’s ball. I really wanted to the ball scenes, and they got cut out. So you know, it’s funny, you elaborate on things and then they had to go.
So much of the play has to take place off stage just for the scale of it, and then you do a movie, and you go “Oh cool!” But then they’re still singing about a lot of stuff that happens off stage.
Yeah, well, I haven’t heard anybody say they missed it though.
I think it plays because the music allows for it. Everything is explained in such a way. And it’s also… it takes place in “the woods,” so when you take it out of the woods you’re really betraying your own material.
Well, what I would have done is, those images weren’t separate scenes. They were really part of the song recollections of the moments. So it would have felt like you were… yeah. Not quite the same.
Did it ever occur to you that “Agony” could be on this badass waterfall?
Never. That was really bizarre. It wasn’t even in the screenplay. I’ll have to ask Rob [Marshall] where he got that. I’m sure they just went location hunting and saw it and just went, “Oh, let’s do ‘Agony’ here.”
Well, it worked out well. There was something very studly about it.
You would have been good, I can see that.
Oh, thank you.
When you rip open your shirt.
Right? But I’m very burly. I’m don’t know if everyone would have appreciated it.
I know. Those guys were so kind of WASP-y, hairless guys.
“Vajayjay is passé. It makes me old. It’s because I’m old.”
I can’t think of a hairy Disney Prince.
Well, Beast I suppose. But that doesn’t count.
They never have hair on their… There’s no hair these days!
They create an unrealistic standard of masculinity.
It’s the Brazilian version. Everyone was waxed from head to toe in everything. There’s no pubic hair either, actually.
I was unaware of that.
Actually, I don’t think they have genitalia.
Jessica Rabbit did once.
They had that controversy where you could freeze-frame it, and you could see her…
Her vajine. “Vajine” sounds classier than “vajayjay.”
Vajayjay is passé. It makes me old. It’s because I’m old.
This is all on the record, you realize that?
Be my guest. I have nothing to hide. You can do the unexpurgated interview. I’m sure everyone will be very interested.
It’ll be very strange. “Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author James Lapine on Vajayjays.” What’s your favorite vajayjay?
What else? What do you really want to know?
I think the most interesting change, and I think it’s mostly due to casting, is… by de-aging Little Red Riding Hood, I still think there’s a sexual undercurrent to lyrics and the way it’s portrayed, and by Disneyfying it I think you made it a little creepier.
I agree. Why do you think it’s Disneyfied?
It’s younger and younger…
She’s the right age. She’s supposed to be fourteen. It’s a story about, speaking of vajayjays, it’s a story about a girl coming into womanhood. The red cape is a metaphor for her menstruation.
“Speaking of vajayjays, it’s a story about a girl coming into womanhood. The red cape is a metaphor for her menstruation.”
I guess she’s a young-looking fourteen.
Maybe you don’t know what fourteen looks like.
That’s entirely possible.
Maybe fourteen in Pasadena and L.A. they look like hookers, probably. Well, my daughter looked like a hooker at fourteen. They kind of dress up.
I’m trying to remember who played Little Red Riding Hood in my high school…
She’s probably standing on Sunset Blvd. right now.
Just don’t say anything mean about the witch. That was my sister.
It was?! Was she good?
She was actually really good!
She ended up going to theater school in Seattle and now she’s got two bands up there. She’s doing very well.
Find out what she thinks of Meryl Streep.
She’s looking forward to it.
Do you think the movie’s going to do well?
I think it is. There’s a lot of Christmas release but a lot of them are very… I mean, this is serious but there aren’t a lot of films to take the family to, and I think this is going to appeal in that regard.
What about Annie? Have you seen Annie?
I have not seen Annie yet.
You weren’t in Annie, I guess.
No, I was not.
You weren’t a Warbucks.
I was in Dreamgirls…
I was practically the only white kid in my school, but I was one of only a few guys who could sing. So they put me in Dreamgirls and I played C.C. White.
Oh, I love that.
It was fun.
We were just like, “We’re just going to let it go.”
[Laughs.] I love it. I love that they did it, Dreamgirls.
“They never call it ‘Gilbert’s Mikado.’ It’s always ‘Gilbert and Sullivan.’ They call it ‘Sondheim’s Into the Woods.'”
Oh my God it was so fucking complicated. It was the most complicated production I’ve ever been in. There’s like a hundred scene changes in that god damned thing, and it’s a high school. I don’t even know why we bothered. I mean, it was cool, but crazy.
We also did How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and I was J.B. Biggley.
This was in Pasadena?
This was in Pasadena.
And you were the only white kid in your school?
Eh, there were like ten.
I always think of Pasadena as being so lily white.
Well, here’s the thing. The white community, a lot of those people send their kids off to private school.
Oh, I see.
My parents worked for the public school system and it would have been really hypocritical.
Did you get a good education?
I did get a good education. I was valedictorian.
And you stayed in L.A.?
I did stay in L.A.?
What did you major in at UCLA?
Ah… Was Terry Schwartz still there? Did you know Terry Schwartz?
I don’t think so.
We had Richard Walter, and Dee Caruso was there. I don’t know if you know these people…
Are you still writing?
Not so much creative, the writing. I have a lot of outlines but I haven’t finished anything in a while, just because I write… it’s down a bit over the last few months, but over the last four years I’ve averaged about a hundred articles a month.
Oh my God…
So I don’t have a lot of time to write screenplays.
Well, also who wants to, in your spare time, sit at a computer?
“I didn’t start doing the theater until I was 30, so I didn’t know. I’d only seen one Sondheim show my whole life.”
I’ve always been a better co-writer than I am a writer. If I’m bouncing ideas off of myself I’ll nitpick them to death.
And then I never get anything done. But if I’m working with someone…
Oh, I get that. It’s like when you write a musical, you’re collaborating with somebody. Yeah.
Is Sondheim available?
You want me to get him for you?
Are you kidding me?
Yes, I’m kidding you.
You’re a schmuck but I love it.
[Laughs.] Okay, you put that in there. “James Lapine: Schmuck.” Vajajay and Schmuck.
That’s an eye-catching title. “Vajayjay and Schmuck.” That’s the name of your next play: “Vajayjay and Schmuck.” They’re best friends.
I’ll give you a…
You’ll give me a shout out?
Sondheim is in London right now. He doesn’t have to do this.
Oh, isn’t he special?
Yes! [Laughs.] In a word.
But aren’t you? You’re part of it. You can’t have Gilbert without Sullivan.
Well, that’s very sweet. But they never call it “Gilbert’s Mikado.” It’s always “Gilbert and Sullivan.” They call it “Sondheim’s Into the Woods.”
Is that just a bad contract that you wrote?
No, it’s just… He’s 20 years older and a giant. Of course he’ll be the one it’s associated with.
Was he a giant when you started working with him?
Was that daunting? Were you like this kid coming in…
Not at all, because I was not interested in the theater. So I didn’t start doing the theater until I was 30, so I didn’t know. I’d only seen one Sondheim show my whole life.
What did you see?
Sweeney Todd, which I thought was so amazing.
Oh, that’s a good one.
So in a way it was kind of really good that I was not a big fan.
Did you tell him? “I’m not a big fan of yours?”
No, I think he was shocked that I didn’t know his work. I think that’s why he liked me, because I didn’t come in all fawning and intimidated. It was just… He had seen a few plays I’d done. I’d mostly been doing more avant-garde-y kind of things, and more fringy things. Yeah, we hit it off immediately. He’s a great guy.
“I think that’s why [Sondheim] liked me, because I didn’t come in all fawning and intimidated.”
What are you working on right now, in the theater?
Oh, in the theater? I’m writing something, going to do some encores. I’m going to do a revival of Falsettos. But I’m trying to get a movie up. I wrote a movie that we’re going to shoot this Spring.
Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah, it’s called Custody. It’s a script I wrote about family court in New York. It’s kind of out of the realm of things I usually do, but it just happened. A friend, who is a judge, I just went down there and hung out, and I just thought it was amazing. So I wrote a screenplay. Viola Davis is going to be in it.
Well, damn. Nicely done.
I know. Yeah! Evan Rachel Wood and Catalina Moreno, do you know her?
Yes! She’s fantastic.
Maria Full of Grace. She’s amazing.
Yeah. If you know anyone who would like to put money up for this movie… [Laughs.] We have everything but the money. Please, in your very important podcast, websites, whatever.
I’ll see what I got here… [Hands over a dollar.]
Hey, only $299 million to go, you know?
$299 million? What kind of custody battle is this?!
Have you thought about Kickstarter? You have a name, you could probably do rather well with that.
You know, I just don’t know. It’s so ironic, it’s probably going to cost three, three-and-a-half million. And you know, you can’t do a musical or a show on Broadway for less than that. But it’s a different kind of funding I guess, so I’m not sure. I leave that to the producer, to figure out how to put that together. It seems rather wacky though. And yet, you pick up the paper on the weekends and there’s so many being made. So somehow hopefully it will be one of them.
I think you’ll probably be okay.
Well, you wrote Into the Woods. It made a shit ton of money.
Well, didn’t it? It’s had some revivals.
Oh, you mean the stage show…
You guarantee the stage show is a success, and I think the film will do rather well.
Yeah, and it’ll help the stage again.
I’m very happy. You mean I have to use my own money, is what you’re saying.
Well… you have it. You’ve got that sweet Into the Woods money…
[Laughs.] No… Not enough to make a movie, sadly. I don’t want to make it that bad! Remortgage on my house that I’ve actually paid off.
Never put your own money in the movie. Well, that’s my time.
William, you’re very fun.