When Michael Mitnick’s first New York play, The Sex Lives of Our Parents, premiered at Second Stage Theatre in 2011, it won critical praise but little financial reward, fulfilling the playwright Robert Anderson’s adage that you can make a killing on Broadway, though not a living. So the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident—whose thick-framed glasses and serious gaze evoke an aged Max Fischer—decided to adapt another of his plays into a movie script his agent could send out as a sample. The Current War follows Thomas Edison’s unsavory battle against fellow inventor George Westinghouse to light up America, culminating in the former’s secret involvement in the invention of the electric chair.
To Mitnick’s surprise, The Weinstein Company bought the screenplay in 2011 (Ben Stiller is a potential director), and they also gave him another project: the long-awaited adaptation of Lois Lowry’s classic novel The Giver for the silver screen. A dystopian staple of public school English classes, the book tells the story of 12-year-old Jonas, who escapes an eerie, totalitarian world for the freedom of the unknown. Its feature film version stars Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Alexander Skarsgård and Katie Holmes, along with newcomers Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush and singer Taylor Swift.
Though it opens August 15, Mitnick still seems bewildered by his recent career turn. “I went to drama school to write musicals and I thought, you know, ‘Maybe I’ll pick up some odd jobs like my teachers have, like John Guare who did the adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation,” he recalls. Instead, he found himself in a Los Angeles studio hearing Streep recite dialogue he wrote and staying up late accompanying Bridges (who plays guitar) on the piano. “I couldn’t believe I was playing music with The Dude,” he says.
But it appears the playwright’s Hollywood adventures are only just beginning. He is currently adapting Oliver Jeffers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy for Universal Pictures, and filming for The Current War is tentatively slated to begin this fall. Don’t think this means Mitnick is giving up the New York stage. Fly by Night, an Off Broadway musical he co-wrote, opens June 10 at Playwright Horizons, and he’s also writing the libretto for the Broadway musical Animal House.
Playwriting will always be his passion, though Mitnick says he feels lucky to also write for film. It’s freed him to think a little bigger. “If I wrote an elephant into a play, it would be something that looks like an elephant or is representative of an elephant,” he explains. “But there’s something rather remarkable to being—hopefully—on set when they actually have a live elephant.”