Playwright David Ives picked up an erotic novella written in German just to brush up on the language.
What he got was inspiration.
That novella, “Venus in Furs,” penned in 1870 by Leopold Sacher-Masoch (that’s right — his name is the root for the word masochist) sparked his idea for the comedy “Venus in Fur,” which Arizona Theatre Company opens in previews Saturday.
“The relationship between the characters was so complicated,” Ives says in an interview from his New York City home.
But his first attempt at a script did not inspire his friend and theater director Walter Bobbie.
“I did a straight-ahead adaptation for four actors,” Ives explains. “Bobbie didn’t care for it. He said, ‘I don’t see what it has for today. Literary eroticism on stage is ridiculous.’”
Ives put the script aside.
But he couldn’t forget it.
“The characters wouldn’t let go,” he says.
So he pulled it out of a drawer and started hacking away. Four characters became two, and every line that lacked drama was tossed. The story became an actress who stumbles in late to an audition for a play based on Sacher-Masoch’s novella. The playwright/director is tired and just wants to go home. Besides, she’s a bit crass, seems dim-witted. No way she can play the sophisticated dominatrix he is looking for. But she convinces him to read through the play with her, and the power begins to shift as she transforms into the character.
Bobbie liked it. And directed it.
And it took off.
“Venus in Fur” opened in 2010 off-Broadway. It proved so popular, it moved to a Broadway house in 2011, winning high critical praise and a Tony nomination for Best Play.
But that’s not all.
This season, it is the most-produced play in regional theaters around the country. And it’s been made into a movie.
Roman Polanski and Ives penned the script for the film version of the play, “La Vénus à la fourrure,” directed by Polanski. It found its way into last year’s Cannes International Film Festival, where it grabbed plenty of good reviews and was on many critic’s shortlist to snag the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes film fest last year (it didn’t win). It is due to be released in this country sometime this month.
See what can happen when you want to brush up your German?
Ives isn’t one to repeat himself — he’s written plays and musicals, made films, and even wrote a children’s book.
“‘Niche’ is not my middle name,” he says dryly.
So by the time Polanski called to talk about turning the play into the movie, he had moved on. But this was Roman Polanski. And he invited Ives to his Swiss chalet so they could write the screenplay together. How could he refuse?
“We sat for 10 days together and we began by his reading the play and we cut and rewrote, and it got immensely better,” says Ives.
Not long after that, he went to Polanski’s Paris apartment, where they read the play with the actors. Ives was on the set for the first day of filming, but then he flew home and thought that was that.
“Then he (Polanski) called and said ‘David, we are going to Cannes and the subtitles aren’t very good.”
Ives flew to Paris and watched the movie scene by scene, reworking the subtitles with Polanski.
And he was there for the Cannes screening, walking the red carpet right behind the director.
“As we were leaving the theater and about to walk the carpet, I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘Take a good look, babe. This doesn’t happen everyday.’ ”