Steven Spielberg's long road to ''Munich.'' Writer Tony Kushner and other insiders discuss the Olympic challenge of making the hot-button thriller
Credit: Munich: Karen Ballard

”Nothing ever happens in my plays,” says Tony Kushner. ”People sit around and talk.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is doing just that, sipping chocolate-caramel tea and trying to offer some reasonable explanation as to why, nearly two years ago, he begged off rewriting a screenplay for the most powerful director in Hollywood.

Steven Spielberg was looking for someone to polish up an adaptation of Vengeance, George Jonas’ book about Israel’s secret operations to assassinate the masterminds of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Spielberg’s producing partner, Kathleen Kennedy (E.T., Jurassic Park), suggested Kushner, who in addition to the Pulitzer had won two Tonys, in 1993 and 1994, for Angels in America, the sprawling Broadway epic tackling Reagan-era politics and the AIDS epidemic. (A 2003 HBO adaptation of Angels racked up 11 Emmys.)

”I thought that he would really appreciate the complexity of the politics involved in telling this story,” says Kennedy, but ”he was unavailable.” Well, that, and Kushner, who had never written a screenplay before, let alone a thriller, was nervous about taking the gig.

”People are chasing other people down the street, blowing people up in beds, scaling fences, and all these butch things that I’d never written about,” Kushner says sitting in his high-rise Manhattan apartment. ”I never killed anybody in a play before — I mean, there’s one character in one play who is maybe dead and isn’t necessarily dead. Other than that, I had never written ‘So-and-so shoots someone.”’

Still, Spielberg prevailed upon Kushner to look over an earlier draft by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump) and try writing a few scenes. The director loved the new pages and Kushner gave in. Within five weeks he had taken his first pass at Munich, Steven Spielberg’s next Big Important Movie — and possibly a polarizing one as well.

Munich (due in theaters Dec. 23) graphically revisits events that escalated the Middle East crisis. It explores the definition and rationalization of terrorism at a time when the word hangs shadowlike over the entire world. Perhaps most controversially, it is a story about Jews hunting Palestinians directed by a Jew.

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  • 164 minutes