NEW YORK - In 2007, John Logan was in London working on the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd’’ when he stumbled into the Tate Modern and had a heart-stopping encounter with a roomful of luminous, haunting murals by Mark Rothko. The images left him breathless, deepened his appreciation for abstract art, and inspired him creatively.
A playwright and screenwriter, Logan became obsessed with the red, maroon, and black paintings that Rothko had been commissioned in 1958 to create for the Four Seasons restaurant at the landmark Seagram Building in New York.
“They were just overpowering. In a word, it was the seriousness of them that grabbed me,’’ Logan said during a recent interview at a restaurant near his loft in SoHo. “They’re inescapably tragic in some way. You cannot look at those murals and think they are frivolous or that they were created by an artist who didn’t feel pain and anguish deeply.’’
The Seagram murals became the basis for Logan’s play “Red,’’ a fictional, two-character drama about the famed abstract expressionist and his imagined assistant, Ken. Set in Rothko’s cavernous studio on the Bowery in the late 1950s, the play receives its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company, where it runs through Feb. 4. Thomas Derrah stars as Rothko, opposite Karl Baker Olson as Ken.
“Red,’’ which premiered to rave reviews in London in 2009, stormed onto Broadway in 2010, starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. It captured a wheelbarrow full of prizes, including the Tony Award for best play. This season, it clocks in with “God of Carnage’’ as the most produced new play at American regional theaters, according to Theatre Communications Group.
While Logan was captivated by the Rothko murals at the Tate, it wasn’t until he walked across the room and read the wall text that the idea for a drama started to percolate in his mind. The description noted that Rothko, after several years toiling on the murals, chose to reject the prestigious and hefty commission and return the money.
“He spent two years doing 30 or 40 of these things. But at the end, he decided to keep them. So I thought, wow, there’s a titanic struggle,’’ said Logan, who is 50. “I knew very little about Rothko or abstract expressionism or even art. So I started by just learning more about him. And within two weeks of dipping my toe in like an amateur, I knew it was a play.’’
Logan was speaking on the morning after the star-studded premiere of the new Martin Scorsese fantasy film, “Hugo,’’ for which he penned the screenplay. Over the past 15 years, the playwright has become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand scriptwriters, earning Oscar nominations for Scorsese’s “The Aviator’’ and Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.’’
Going all the way back to his first play, “Never the Sinner,’’ about the notorious child murderers Leopold and Loeb, which he wrote as a student at Northwestern University, Logan says he has always been drawn to dark, enigmatic figures whose motivations, impulses, and ideas prove elusive.
“I always seek out those characters who simultaneously confuse me and vex me and challenge me and annoy me and inspire me,’’ said Logan. “Rothko was one of those guys who fascinated me deeply. Like Howard Hughes [in ‘The Aviator’]. Or Sweeney Todd. Or Leopold and Loeb. Or Coriolanus, for that matter.’’
Logan inked the screenplay for Ralph Fiennes’s film version of that Shakespeare play, which opens here Jan. 20. He has also teamed up with Darren Aronofsky to translate the biblical story of Noah to the big screen, and is collaborating with rocker Patti Smith on a film adaptation of her memoir “Just Kids.’’
A heady stew of art, culture, and philosophy, “Red’’ is something of a pas de deux between the bombastic, uncompromising Rothko and Ken, a budding artist. They debate the nature and function of art, an encroaching commercial culture, and the rise of a new generation of artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The play is also dazzlingly theatrical, as viewers watch the two men at work in the studio - mixing paint, stretching and priming canvas.
“What’s brilliant about the script is that it talks so much about what’s interesting about art and abstraction and the ways in which artists convey their ideas and their experience,’’ said David R. Gammons, the director of “Red’’ at SpeakEasy. “But it does so not in a pedantic, scholarly way, but really embedded deeply in the relationship between Rothko and his young assistant.’’
The play grapples with such potent themes as the uneasy dance between art and commerce, the relationship between the artist and his creations, the nature of creativity, and the dynamics of the mentor-protégé relationship. While Logan is reluctant to pinpoint his central preoccupation, for him the play is about fathers and sons.
“I always resisted the idea of writing a family play. But I think for all American playwrights, from our great master Eugene O’Neill to now, it just happens. If you take yourself seriously as a playwright, sooner or later you’re going to address your family in some way. So to me, it was mostly a play about my father,’’ Logan said. “That’s what was most compelling to me: What does a mentor give to a protégé, how does a father teach a son, and how do those power relationships shift?’’
In person, Logan proved to be a warm, affable, and animated presence. Wearing a snug gray blazer on his lean frame, he spoke with a speedy precision. He’s an avid desert hiker, traveling every year to Death Valley by himself at the height of the summer, he said, “to scorch everything away. It cleanses the palate of my imagination. Writing is a hard job and it takes a lot out of you, so you need to take the time to replenish it.’’
Growing up in New Jersey, the son of Irish immigrant parents, Logan toiled in the Chicago theater scene for years after graduating from Northwestern. He eventually made his Hollywood breakthrough with the 1999 television drama “RKO 281’’ (about the making of “Citizen Kane’’) and the Oliver Stone-directed “Any Given Sunday,’’ which he had pitched to studios as “King Lear in the NFL.’’ Before long, he was a hot property.
At the moment, Logan appears to be in the midst of another career watershed. With press for “Hugo’’ wrapping up, he was flying back to the London set of the new James Bond film “Skyfall’’ (directed by Sam Mendes), for which he co-wrote the screenplay. All of this activity is a far cry from his days as a struggling playwright in the ’80s through early ’90s, when he paid the bills by shelving books at the Northwestern law library.
“Years go by where you just sit and write a play and look out the window,’’ he said, with a smile. “And now it’s like, I literally woke up this morning and thought, ‘All right, what am I talking about today? The French orphan [‘Hugo’], or the Roman general [‘Coriolanus’], or the American painter, or the British spy?’ ’’
“You could never plan any of this,’’ he added. “It’s just the kismet of the dice.’’
Despite being an unabashed theater geek (“I’m the most stage-struck person I know’’), Logan said he finds the same creative fulfillment writing film scripts as he does writing plays.
“I’m a dramatist, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else. So whether I’m doing that for two actors in a tiny rehearsal room for ‘Red’ or on a large scale with Marty Scorsese in ‘Hugo,’ it’s the same. Yes, they’re different in terms of scope, personal vision, and control. But in a way, those are superficial to me,’’ he said. “I was lucky and tenacious enough to find the thing I was born to do. And everything I could have imagined in my life is fulfilled in that one job description: dramatist.’’