Mark Borkowski is the star and writer of The Perfect Witness (starring Wes Bentley: The Last Word, P2, Dolan's Cadillac, American Beauty) and writer of numerous plays: Box of Nails, Within the Skins of Saints, The Kids are Awake, etc. Prior to this interview, I had no idea this very established playwright I was recommeded to interview was the same guy who gave me nightmares when I watched him in his believable perfomance. The Perfect Witness is a movie you can never forget. Maybe because he was so charming and calm I didn't put two and two together....
When did you begin writing?
I began writing as a child when I was 11 or 12 years old. I wrote a lot of short stories…usually horror…as a kid, I identified with monsters. Especially the more sympathetic ones. I was a weird, lonely kid who felt like an outcast so they really helped me, I don’t know …I worked out a lot of stuff.
Your first play was produced when you were quite young.
Yeah, when I was about 18 years old I took a nervous breakdown… it was a manifestation of drug addiction and trauma I went through as a child. I was hearing voices and a doctor told me to write the voices down as part of my therapy. They came out in the form of dialogue—as voices would-- and after a while I realized I had a play. I had already been involved in theatre as an actor so I was more than familiar with the form. I called the play Saturday Mourn. I showed it to a friend of mine shortly after that and he gave it to the late great Albert Benzwie (artistic director of the legendary Theatre Center Philadelphia back in the 80s). The play went on to win his one-act play festival.
That’s an amazing story.
And when I went to see it something opened inside me and I realized I could help others. From there, I continued to write play after play because I realized I could work out my demons and give them a platform to maybe help others.
What was the response?
After that play people came up to me and said they were not only touched by it but felt comforted because they too felt so alone and really related to my characters. At a young age I realized I could be of service through my work by expelling and sharing my demons.
How long did it take after that to write your next play?
Oh I immediately went into my next play. I was driving a cab when I wrote, Suicide, Inc. It was a full length play, produced at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.
How were the reviews?
The Philadelphia Daily News called it “a multi level masterpiece”.
Did you get paid well for your initial plays?
No, you’re lucky if you break even. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve done more than break even. People, especially in New York, know who I am.
What is your genre? Has it stayed the same or changed throughout the years?
Psychological drama seasoned with black comedy. My stuff can be pretty brutal. I push the envelope in order to get my point across. I tried to conform to the mainstream, writing “commercial” type stuff but I usually end up losing interest and shelving it. I have to really feel a direct, even soulful connection to my characters in order to live with them and tell their story. In reference to form, I started out writing realistic plays, then I took the reality into the absurd. I like to place characters in hardcore reality and then challenge them with ultimately absurd circumstances which shake and transform their reality or reality as we know it. Then I found myself slipping into hyper-realism. And now, while always keeping my work rooted in reality (so people can identify), I incorporate mystical, even spiritual layers. Metaphors and symbols. Shakespeare wrote on different levels; he had witches, dreams, ghosts… He had all kinds of stuff…you know? My writing has become much more of an exploration of not just reality but dreams, mysticism and spirituality…
Can you explain hyper realism, I’m not familiar.
It’s hysterical realism… much like what we find in dreams or in madhouses. Or, less dramatically, the average hysteria we might experience when we’re being tormented in, say, the throes of addiction or the loss of a lover… For a while there I loved writing about hysteria, you know?
Give me an example.
Well in one of my plays, Within the Skins of Saints, a girl is getting ready to jump off a subway platform and a guy enters and has until the subway comes to stop her. By the end, she almost succeeds in convincing him to jump with her. She shares her dreams of saintly mutilation and the hysteria that caused her to be institutionalized and medicated. She decided to stop taking the meds and escaped the madhouse and is now ready to die and be with her lover, God (a notion that many female Saints also shared at martyrdom). I know it sounds like a dark journey but there is a tinge of hope the end. A branch for the audience to grab onto. I feel it’s kinda my responsibility, after having taken an audience into a dark tunnel, to give them a tinge of light at the end. Or at least furnish road signs so they can get themselves out.
Wow, tell me about another play of this type.
Another dark play I recently wrote is called Painting Corpses. It’s about a painter who’s bottoming out on drugs and alcohol. He gets a call from an aristocrat who asks him to paint a picture of his dead wife. The money is too good to be true (100 grand) and he accepts the commission. The aristocrat delivers the body to the artist’s loft. When the artist begins to paint her…as the days pass…he starts to fall in love with her…
…and one night he’s very drunk and he’s imagining her lips saying beautiful things to him, her eyes looking at him, her ears listening… he imagines her the woman of his dreams.
And…eventually…he makes love to her… Oh My God!
…the next morning he wakes up and he comes to…he’s very hung over and… she’s sitting there. She’s alive! He thinks. He doesn’t know if she’s a supernatural phenomena or a psychotic delusion. One thing leads to another, and she tells him that she doesn’t want to be painted. She didn’t want it in life and she certainly doesn’t want it in death! BUT she’ll make a deal with him… He needs five primary colors to paint her… she says she will grant him the five colors if he does five favors for her. He finds himself bargaining with the dead. These five favors take him on a journey that ends up changing his life forever.
Wow! What happens in the end?
People have to see it to find out. We workshopped it at the Actor’s Studio and right now we’re trying to find finance for the production. The play is like a Charles Bukowski meets Sleeping Beauty… it’s actually a very beautiful play. One of the biggest qualms people, and some producers, have with this is the necrophilia. They don’t think he should molest the corpse. That the audience won’t forgive him. I think its bullshit. I mean, look at mythology—especially the Egyptians. Isis and Osiris. I mean, necrophilia takes on a whole different meaning when you look at it through those fucking glasses! So, okay, now I’m modifying, maybe… with extreme reluctance.
Any big actors in it?
Yeah… Elias Koteus played the lead and it was directed by Richard Masur.
How many of your plays have been on stage?
One acts, short plays, they’ve been done all over the world…too many to count. I also write screenplays.
I wrote a film called The Perfect Witness.
I remember that movie, oh my god…that was you!?
With Wes Bentley (Ghost Rider, American Beauty). It was originally called “The Ungodly”. It’s still called that everywhere else except America. It’s being distributed in England this September.
That movie was so scary!
Oh you’re a chicken shit.
Tell them what it’s about.
It’s about a down and out film maker, he’s a newly recovered drug addict…he lives with his mom and he’s obsessed with a serial killer. Through months of research, he figures out where the killer might strike and, low and behold, he tracks him down.
You played the killer. You were great!
…. So he catches me murdering—or rather, he catches the killer murdering someone and videotapes it. He then blackmails him into being his documentary subject.
And he agrees to it.
… and as he gets to know the killer, the killer gets to know him and… well, again, I would rather our readers rent it. You can get it at Blockbuster or Netflix. It’s also on Showtime and The Movie Channel. It’s a film about addiction (to drugs or murder) and ambition. Also, personal accountability. Ultimately, it’s about a person taking responsibly for their part in something. His ambiton leads him to look the other way and allow haenous crimes to occur, similar to Nazi Germany. People do it all the time and it’s fucked.
That movie was intense. I can’t believe that was you and that you wrote it. Was that your first movie?
First major feature length movie...I’ve had a lot of short films produced. I’ve sold screenplays but they haven’t been made yet.
How long did that take to write?
About a year and a half and it took twenty four (or so) days to shoot. Editing took a while.
What? It only took twenty four days to shoot it? That’s so fast!
Yeah, well that’s independent filmmaking. It comes down to making it as quickly as possible because everyday costs thousands of dollars…. The editing took several months though.
What inspired you to write The Perfect Witness?
It started out as a play. I had a few scenes but it didn’t go anywhere. Wasn’t working. Tom Dunn, the director, and I had been wanting to write something together but we couldn’t figure out what. One day I told him about this play I couldn’t finish. He was amazed by the story and told me I couldn’t finish it as a play because the damn thing is a film! We locked ourselves up and wrote the screenplay. Within a year or two he made it into a film and cast me as the killer.
Bet it got all sorts of awards!
Yeah, I got best actor at the Portugal Film festival… We got into the Austin Film Festival. Brussels, Amsterdam, Sitges (Spain, it’s right on the coast), and a few others. Then First Look Studios swept it up, changed its name from The Ungodly to The Perfect Witness and… distributed it.
Do you consider that your biggest accomplishment so far?
Yeah, it’s one of them….it even got picked up by Showtime and—oh, I think I said that already.
Wow! If you could do something else? I mean, if you weren’t an actor or writer?
Oh I’m a carpenter. That’s sorta my survival job. I was very poor as a young man…
I get commissions to write screenplays…for example these Russians came to me with a short story called The Animals, and I adapted it into a screenplay. After I’m done, they translate it back and shoot it as a Russian language film. The money is okay. I also get royalties for my plays… right now three of my plays are being done…
What’s that about?
Watch them all and find out.
Ok, I will and I'm going to tell my sisters I met that scary guy in A Perfect Witness, I can't believe it, that's one of my favorite movies!