They were ‘electric, eccentric and polar opposites’ in 1980s New York: two of the century’s greatest artists who came together to stage an imaginary conversation in the hit play Young Vic Cooperationwritten by four-time Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten.
Now the drama about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat is set to move to Broadway and has been made into a major feature film which begins filming next month.
Award-winning actors Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope have received rave reviews for their portrayals of Young Vic artists. They will reprise these roles in upcoming productions for stage and screen, each directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, who is making his film debut.
He told the Observer that too many other screen adaptations of plays have abandoned the original cast, but he’s thrilled to be working with the same actors again: “I’m going into my first feature film knowing that my two leads have locked characters – although the storyline is slightly different – is a great comfort to me.
The piece imagines the conversations and conflicts of Warhol, who rose to prominence with his depictions of movie stars, soup cans and Brillo pad cans, and Basquiat, a rising star in the graffiti scene, then that they were collaborating on an exhibition.
Neither could have imagined the prices their works would one day fetch. In 2017, an untitled depiction of a Basquiat skull sold for $110.5 million, breaking the $105 million record for an American artist at auction set by Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) in 2013.
Cooperation was a critical and box office success. The Observer wrote, “Plays about artists are often soft on talent and poor at reproducing the work. Not in the vibrant production of Kwame Kwei-Armah.
Another reviewer wrote: “Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope are simply made for each other.”
For the original staging, the Young Vic liaised with the artists’ estates. Such was the concern that the artworks created for the play would emerge on the open market and be taken for real examples that they had to destroy them every night – recreate them again the next time.
Kwei-Armah said: “We broke them… Every night we had to destroy everything that was painted. An outside artist came during rehearsals to talk about recreating the art. Jeremy [Pope] is a really competent performer and so he would do it live every night on stage.
The director added: “Even when we recreated some of the Warhols for the play, they had to be a percentage smaller and look different from the original… There are definitely rules we have to follow once we got permission.”
Strict procedures will be followed for artwork used in the film, and the script has been shown to estates. “Permissions work this way,” Kwei-Armah said. “We have to speak to both the Warhol and Basquiat realms with every piece we think we’ll capture.” He expressed his gratitude to McCarten and producer Eleanor Lloyd for bringing him the original piece. He immediately saw the potential.
McCarten, a writer and producer whose acclaimed biopics include those of Stephen Hawking in The theory of everything and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsodyis reworking Cooperation for the big screen in preparation for a shoot that begins in about three weeks, mostly on New York’s Lower East Side, where the artists used to hang out. It has a budget of approximately $20 million.
Kwei-Armah said the film differs from the play, which was driven primarily by dialogue: “The play had two stars, Basquiat and Warhol. In the film, there are three stars, Basquiat, Warhol and New York in the 1980s… The film goes into more detail about their lives.
Under his direction since 2018, the Young Vic has staged many award-winning hits. His production of Arthur Miller Death of a seller will open on Broadway in September, followed by Cooperation in November, when The best of enemiesJames Graham’s new play about the bitter political rivalry between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, will move to the West End in November.
Kwei-Armah added that other Young Vic productions are also heading to the West End. “It’s a very exciting time,” he said.