'Dogfight' creators explain how they gave it life

This undated theater image released by The Hartman Group shows, from left, Justin Paul, Peter Duchan and Benj Pasek, creators of the stage musical "Dogfight," in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group, Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK (AP) — Before they made the stage musical "Dogfight," the team of twenty-somethings behind it were closer to making something more like entertainment dog poo.

It started when Justin Paul and Benj Pasek moved to New York five years ago to jump-start their careers as a powerhouse musical-theater songwriting team. They first had to face some facts.

One, writing a musical is hard. And two, they were broke.

So they decided to set the bar a little lower at first — "We were like, 'Let's write a TV movie.' That's going to sell and we're going to make $7 million," recalls Pasek.

They agreed to write a rip-off of "High School Musical" with the most unoriginal, awful plot ever. It was going to be about a high school band in Scottsdale, Ariz., that gets famous and then has to deal with the fallout.

"It was like 'Dreamgirls,' but with white, privileged high-school students," Paul says with a shudder. "You know how they have terrible pop songs? We were like, 'We're going to write our own terrible pop songs.'"

Pasek and Paul, both 27-year-olds who had met at the University of Michigan, certainly knew how to write tunes — their coming-of-age song cycle, "Edges," helped them become the youngest winners of the prestigious Jonathan Larson Grant. What they needed was a screenwriter.

Paul knew one, a guy named Peter Duchan. They had gone to elementary, middle and high school together in Westport, Conn. Paul remembered that Duchan had gone to Northwestern University to study screenwriting.

"Should we have him do it?" Paul asked Pasek.

"I was, like, 'Yeah,'" said Pasek, a suburban Philadelphia native.

They tracked down Duchan, who agreed to help.

"Really easy interview process," he says, laughing.


Now that the team was set, they got down to work. Duchan kept interrupting the plan with more ambitious projects: What about doing a Turgenev play set somewhere cool? Why not write a real stage show?

Then one day in January 2008, he showed up with a DVD of "Dogfight," a little-seen 1991 indie film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor set in 1963. Pasek and Paul were intrigued just by reading the description on the back of the DVD.

"We took it home, watched it and were really moved by it. And we were like, 'We'll do this instead.' So unfortunately, that teen movie is no more," says Pasek.

"Dogfight" tells the story of a group of Marines on the eve of being deployed to Vietnam who dream up a nasty contest: Each man contributes $50 to a pot, and whoever brings the ugliest date that night to a bar wins the prize. But the contest sparks an unexpected love affair between one hot-tempered Marine and a sweet, daffy girl.

"I watched the movie hoping that it would be right for a musical. It happened very quickly. The minute I started watching it, I could see how we could do it," says Duchan, 29. "It made a lot of sense to me onstage. The characters were so compelling — the female lead is so warm and the male lead is so lost. It just felt really right immediately."

Paul and Pasek agreed. They're actually happy that the film was so obscure. "The fact that it was a movie that wasn't well known and wasn't necessarily beloved was actually really appealing to us because what we were turned on by was the story and not necessarily the fact that it was a movie," Pasek says.


Writing the musical took time and lots of bandwidth. The three shared material over email, Google Docs and Dropbox. They got the rights to the story themselves from screenwriter Bob Comfort, who has since died, and Warner Bros. for a lot less than they expected.

"The amount of money that this cost us because it was not 'Pretty Woman: The Musical' was so low that it was amazing that we were able to get it," says Paul. For Duchan, getting those rights was important: "It's a nice sense of security. It's our project. We're not going to get fired from 'Dogfight.'"

To write, they crammed into Duchan's small office — he's a personal assistant to actor, director and producer Bob Balaban — or gathered around Paul's piano in his apartment or retreated to Connecticut to work. They found time to talk with Lili Taylor over breakfast about her experience co-starring in the movie.

Other projects cropped up — Duchan co-wrote the screenplay for "Breaking Upwards," released by IFC Films in 2010, while Paul and Pasek wrote songs for "A Christmas Story, The Musical!" and "James and the Giant Peach."

But they were dogged about "Dogfight" and the signs were positive. An early production received the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. The well-respected Second Stage Theatre company in New York agreed to give it a world premiere.

Other positives: Joe Mantello, a multiple Tony-winning actor and director who helmed "Wicked," agreed to direct. And Christopher Gattelli, who just won a Tony for choreographing "Newsies," also jumped aboard.

"Having these people who've had lots of success already in the field in the room makes me feel, 'Whew. OK, we're in good hands,'" says Pasek. "Having them have the experience to calm our nerves when we're second-guessing ourselves is really good."

There is one lingering sadness about the project, though: The proposed TV movie about singing white teens in Arizona they dreamed up that had to be abandoned.

"The world never got to know the kids of Scottsdale," says Paul, and all three crack up.


Warner Bros. is a unit of Time Warner Inc.


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