photo by Phil Bray
After its professional New York premiere, it took almost 17 years for Neal Bell
’s stage play Thérèse Raquin
to make it to the big screen in the form of the recently-released In Secret
, directed by Charlie Stratton and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac. But for Bell, the result was worth the wait.
“It’s exciting and strange,” says Bell, a professor of theater studies at Duke University. “I hadn’t seen the movie until it opened, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really surprised and delighted to see that it came out so well.” The film came about after Stratton directed Bell’s play for a Los Angeles production. Stratton was impressed enough with the material that he set about bringing it to the screen.
“He spent the next 15 or so years trying to put it together and then losing his actors or his funding,” Bell says. “There were all kinds of different people attached. Glenn Close was interested at one point; I think Gerard Butler was interested. And then, about two summers ago, he called me to say he’d gotten the funding, and the actors had come together at the same moment!” Bell has nothing but praise for Stratton, whom he calls “an incredibly honorable and decent guy, along with very, very talented.”
Bell’s play, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel
, has an odd history of its own. He originally wrote it as the libretto for a proposed musical called The Wild Party
by Michael John LaChiusa. “He wrote what I thought was an incredibly beautiful score, but decided he wasn’t satisfied with his work,” Bell says. “I had this orphaned libretto, and a young guy at NYU asked me if he could direct it as a senior distinction play, so I turned it back into a straight play. It got picked up by regional theaters and went on from there.”
Bell credits the play’s long run and eventual film adaptation to Zola’s original story. “It had an influence on film noir,” he says of Zola’s novel. “The Postman Always Rings Twice
is almost a literal adaptation of it. It fascinated me because of how it tells the tale of what happens after the lovers commit murder and get away with it.”
Though his involvement in the production of In Secret
was limited, Bell has an extensive background writing for television, including a stint under fellow Duke professor Michael Malone at daytime soap One Life to Live
. Bell currently teaches a course on TV writing at Duke, where his students watch the one-season classic My So-Called Life
and then plot out episodes for the second season that never was.
“I feel like we’re in the middle of a second golden age of television,” Bell says, “and that the long-form writing being done for it is as good as any playwriting that’s being done in New York right now.”
He’s remaining true to his theater roots, most recently with an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday at Little Green Pig
. Still, he admits that the film of In Secret
has given him some new credibility with certain people, thanks to Harry Potter
co-star Tom Felton’s presence. “If I’m talking to a younger person,” he says, “that’s generally what I lead with.”