Playwright Hits the ‘Heights’ When Hollywood Calls

By Nate Bloom

Published June 17, 2005, issue of June 17, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Stories of promising writers plucked from obscurity by big-time producers may be the stuff Hollywood fantasy is made of, but — for the fortunate few — life sometimes imitates art.

Five years ago, Amy Fox was a 24-year-old playwright with a one-act play being performed off-Broadway. As luck would have it, a favorable New York Times review caught the eye of legendary producer Ismail Merchant (who, with partner James Ivory, was behind such modern classics as “A Room With a View” and “The Remains of the Day”). And the rest, as they say, is history.

“Heights,” a star-studded feature film based on Fox’s one act (and adapted for the screen by the playwright herself), was an audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it is set for theatrical release this week in New York and Los Angeles.

In the years since it was just a one-act play, “Heights” has grown exponentially. Originally written for three actors chatting on a Manhattan rooftop, the film now has some 20 characters in about 30 settings. But despite the expansion of her original piece, Fox doesn’t feel that the play was tampered with unduly.

“Of course there are always changes as filming progresses,” Fox told the Forward from her home in Brooklyn. “But I am happy with it.” The experience, she said, “was nothing like the horror stories I’ve heard from other playwrights who’ve had plays turned into films.”

Set in the chic residences and assorted watering holes of Manhattan’s yuppie sophisticates and their elders, “Heights” focuses on Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), a beautiful young photographer, with the other characters essentially revolving around her. These include her mother (Glenn Close), a famous actress/director/drama teacher, and Isabel’s Jewish lawyer fiancé, Jonathan (James Marsden).

But capsule descriptions do little to illustrate the film’s characters. With one notable exception, all change considerably as time wears on. As the film unfolds, nearly all are revealed as carriers of secrets. The exception is Rabbi Mendel (George Segal), to whom non-Jewish Isabel and her fiancé go for premarital counseling. Mendel remains the same throughout — a mensch and wise counselor armed with a dry wit.

Fox, a native of Boulder, Colo., handles the film’s religious plotlines with a breezy effortlessness. In one scene, Rabbi Mendel has Isabel and Jonathan draw from a deck of cards he has devised for interfaith role-playing exercises. “How would you feel if you came home to Christmas lights?” asks a card that Jonathan draws. (In a nice twist, Banks, the actress playing Isabel, herself recently converted to Judaism.)

In explaining how she has come to approach religious questions, Fox pointed to details from her own biography.

“I’m Jewish,” she said, “and my mother is a national board member of Hadassah. But growing up in a mostly non-Jewish town like Boulder probably made me more aware of being Jewish than if I had grown up in New York. Boulder, by the way, is about three times as Jewish today as it was when I was young.”

Even so, in the Fox home at least, New York was in the air. Fox’s mother and father are both New York natives.

“Everybody told me my father sounded like Woody Allen when I was growing up,” she said. “That was the only other New York accent they were familiar with.”

Fox ultimately found her way east, first to Amherst College, where she studied English and playwriting, and then to New York. “I wanted to come to New York so badly that I would have done anything to get here,” she recently told the New York Times. “I knew two people when I moved here. But you just dive in, because you’re that passionate.”

Fox found a day job in publishing and wrote non-stop. To date, she has had five full-length plays produced.

When Merchant (who passed away last month) approached her, the playwright never had written a screenplay, but with the producer’s guidance she was able to open up the play. Neither Jonathan’s Jewishness nor the rabbi character were part of the original script. Fox added those elements, she said, “to clue the audience into the fact that the couple had differences” — the full extent of which only becomes clear in the film’s final third.

Fox seemed especially pleased that Merchant-Ivory Productions put out her film. “This is only the second nonhistorical movie that they have done,” she said.

But like all prolific writers, Fox is focused on the future. She’s now working on a period piece set in Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan apartment project built after World War II for returning veterans. (Her mother grew up there.) The play concerns the efforts of some left-leaning tenants, mostly Jewish, to end the policy (then common in New York public housing) of excluding blacks.

The script already has attracted the attention of Academy Award-nominated director Joan Stein.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.