They were “electric, eccentric, polar opposites” in 1980s New York: two of the greatest artists of the century who were brought together to stage an imaginary conversation in the smash hit Young Vic play The Collaboration, written by four-time Oscar nominee Anthony McCarten.
Now the drama about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat is about to transfer to Broadway and has been adapted for a major feature film that begins shooting next month.
Award-winning actors Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope received rave reviews for their portrayals of the artists at the Young Vic. They will reprise those roles in forthcoming productions for both stage and screen, each directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, who is making his feature film debut.
He told the Observer that too many other screen adaptations of plays have abandoned the original cast, but he is excited about working again with the same actors: “Going into my first feature knowing that my two leads have got the characters locked down – albeit the script is slightly different – is a great comfort to me.”
The play imagines the conversations and conflicts of Warhol, who found fame with his depictions of movie stars, soup cans and Brillo pad boxes, and Basquiat, a rising star from the graffiti scene, as they collaborated on an exhibition.
Neither could have imagined the prices that their works would one day fetch. In 2017 Basquiat’s untitled depiction of a skull sold for $110.5m, beating the $105m record for an American artist at auction set by Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) in 2013.
The Collaboration was a critical and a box-office success. The Observer wrote: “Plays about artists are often soft on talent and poor at reproducing the work. Not in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s vibrant production.”
Another critic 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 about artwork created for the play emerging on the open market and being mistaken for genuine examples that they had to destroy them every night – recreating them again the next time.
Kwei-Armah said: “We broke them up… Every night we had to destroy anything that was painted. We had an outside artist come in during rehearsals to talk about recreating the art. Jeremy [Pope] is a really proficient artist 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 certainly regulations that we have to follow once we’ve been given permission.”
Strict procedures will be followed for artwork used in the film, and the screenplay has been shown to the estates. “Permissions work in that way,” Kwei-Armah said. “We have to speak to both the Warhol and Basquiat estates with each and every piece that we think we’re going to capture.” He spoke of his gratitude to McCarten and producer Eleanor Lloyd for bringing the original play to him. He immediately saw the potential.
McCarten, a writer and producer whose acclaimed biographical films include those of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, is now reworking The Collaboration for the big screen in preparation for a shoot that begins in about three weeks’ time, mainly in the Lower East Side of New York, where the artists used to hang out. It has a budget of about $20m.
Kwei-Armah said that the film differs from the play, which was led primarily by dialogue: “The play had two stars, Basquiat and Warhol. In the movie, there are three stars, Basquiat, Warhol and New York City of the 1980s… The film goes into more detail about their lives.”
Under his leadership since 2018, the Young Vic has staged numerous award-winning hits. Its production of Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman will open on Broadway in September, followed by The Collaboration in November, while Best of Enemies, James Graham’s new play about the bitter political rivalry between William F Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal, will transfer to the West End in November.
Kwei-Armah added that other Young Vic productions are also heading for the West End. “It’s a very exciting time,” he said.