One on one with Angus MacLachlan

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem’s ‘screenwriter-in-residence’ Angus MacLachlan has leased the same downtown apartment for more than 25 years. It currently serves as his office where he composes his plays, scripts and humorous essays. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Angus MacLachlan is not your typical man about town.

MacLachlan, the Winston-Salem playwright and screenwriter who penned the 2005 independent film Junebug, can regularly be seen walking from his historic West End home to his downtown office or taking a yoga class at the YWCA, enjoys the relative anonymity of living in his hometown.

MacLachlan said his decision to stay close to home and build a life for himself and his family was a sacrifice worth making.

“Economically, I can have a nice life here,” he said. “I have come and gone to New York and LA. In New York, unless you have lots of money, I think it would be really miserable to live there, and LA I don’t really care for.”

MacLachlan acknowledges that he misses out on networking and being a part of the community of like-minded individuals but his writing is not the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, so why not do what you love in the place you love the most?

“I tend to write not about spies or aliens generally,” MacLachlan said.

“I try to tend to write about regular, normal people, so the people I see that I know or observe or amongst tend to be those type of people, not showbiz people.”

Junebug resonated with audiences and critics alike. Amy Adams’s memorable performance as Ashley garnered her a special jury prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival as well as an Oscar nomination. MacLachlan was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his screenplay. Working with Junebug director Phil Morrison, a lifelong friend, represented a peak experience in MacLachlan’s career due to the true collaboration of all the artists involved in the project.

“I really, really felt that Phil Morrison understood the center of the piece and was able to deliver that or realize that,” he said.

MacLachlan said his experience on the 2010 film Stone was much more typical for a screenwriter.

“My intention with Stone is that it was these four characters who were all imprisoned in some way or another,” he said. “Their unconscious or soul or highest wisdom is struggling to try to get released. That kernel isn’t completely realized in the film. I think the film has good qualities but I think that thing in the center is not quite there.”

As he sunk into an antique club chair in his office apartment, MacLachlan shared his thoughts on his creative process.

“It’s important to me to have a comfortable place to live so I have enough time and space — inner space — to do the work that I need to do,” he said.

He identified two distinct types of inspiration — thoughts and ideas that could potentially become the beginnings of a play versus the inspiration that keeps him pursuing his passion.

“I’m always trying to find some kind of emotional substance because I feel like a lot of what we see or is produced doesn’t have that,” he said. “It’s so easy to lose hope. It’s so easy to think that what one does is not of value or won’t be produced or certainly you probably won’t make any money from it and who really cares and the odds are so against you that I’m continually trying to find inspiration for things that are meaningful for me.

“I hope that something I would do would have great meaning for other people,” he added.

Recently, MacLachlan has been trying his hand at humorous essays. His essay on bulky item pick-up in Winston-Salem was published last year in New York Times Magazine. Next month, MacLachlan will have an essay published in Smithsonian Magazine.

“It’s about going out to eat and observing other people and what their relationships are — trying to figure out what their story is,” he said.

In the meantime, he labors each day to create and sell his stories in the rapidly changing world of entertainment.

“Everything is in flux, and perhaps one of the positive things is that [Hollywood] hierarchy — you’ve got to have an agent and your agent has to pass it to this person and you’ve got to wait — might be broken,” he said.

MacLachlan often speaks to groups of aspiring screenwriters and he enjoys sharing his wisdom on finding your own unique voice.

“What I generally say is you’re going to be told to try to write like other people like other genres or other films whatever is successful, but chances are whatever you do as a screenwriter, it’s not going to be made anyway, so why not spend your life writing the stuff that is most meaningful for you and the thing that you have that is of the highest value is your specific soul and thoughts and feelings and experience?” he said. “That’s what you should say is your strength whether or not it fits into the whatever is the going fashion.”