Mandy Sears Credit: isa giallorenzo

John Logan made his bones in Chicago during the mid-1980s, with two plays about sensational real-life crimes—a Leopold-and-Loeb drama, Never the Sinner, and Hauptmann, which looks at the case against convicted Lindbergh baby-napper Bruno Hauptmann. A decade later Logan was in Hollywood, beginning a career that would have him writing movies like Any Given Sunday and The Aviator for directors like Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese.

But two years ago Logan returned to the stage with Red, a two-character play based on a real-life aesthetic crime that didn’t quite come off. In 1959, iconoclastic abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko was offered a then-astonishing $35,000 to paint murals for the showplace restaurant that was to go inside Manhattan’s new Seagram building. He grabbed the money and got to work. Then his sense of integrity caught up with him. Rothko returned his commission, giving the nine canvases he’d created to the Tate Modern in London. Red imagines the artist as he paints the Seagram murals and trains a young apprentice. Robert Falls’s Goodman Theatre production begins previews September 17.

You dedicated Red to Stephen Sondheim, “for reminding me.” What did Sondheim remind you of? He reminded me how much I love writing plays. Sondheim’s the quintessential man of the theater, and he just believes in it so deeply and he’d seen some of my work and kept prodding in his own way.

Had you thought you’d never write another play? No, no, not at all. I’d been doing screenplays for a while, and that’s a very fulfilling job and fulfilling life. But I’ve always just loved the theater more than anything in the world, and so I knew I’d come back to it in various forms and various ways, and it just happened to be Red.

What made you think, This is my next play? I knew immediately it was a play and not a screenplay or a teleplay or an opera or a libretto for a musical. As soon as I started learning a little bit about Mark Rothko and the creation of the Seagram murals, I very quickly imagined it as a two-hander, as a work of theater.

But why Rothko? I never had any great passion for Rothko. It happened because I was in London working [as writer and producer] on Sweeney Todd. We filmed in London, so I was there for months on end and I’d walk a lot and one day I happened to go to the Tate Modern. And I walked into the room where the Seagram murals were. And it was an overpowering experience. The paintings were just breathtaking. Powerful. I’d seen Rothkos before but I’d seen them the way most people see them: there’s a Rothko here and across the wall there’s a Jasper Johns and over there is a Roy Lichtenstein. But you walk into that room and you’re surrounded with all those brooding murals.

I knew very little about Rothko, but on the wall of the gallery there was a little description saying he’d taken the commission to paint the paintings for the Seagram building and then took them back. And I thought, Well, that’s amazing. So I started doing a little preliminary research, and within a couple weeks it occurred to me this was a two-hander play. To me, it always had to be two actors, to reflect the color-field painting—the light and the dark, the red and the black. It just seemed a binary story. Young and old. Teacher, student. Father, son.

In the play, there’s a lot of talk about the tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in art—restraint vs. ecstasy. It seems to me that much of your work has been about that tension. Maximus in Gladiator. Nathan Algren, the Tom Cruise character in The Last Samurai. Tremendous discipline and tremendous passion. Hmm.

Is that something that’s occurred to you? No, not consciously. I’m drawn to the big, dramatic characters. I don’t do the little sitting-around-the-kitchen-table stories. Certainly there’s something about the grandiosity of Rothko and the scope of his ambition that match the characters that I’m drawn to.

Those characters are also reaching back toward something that’s lost. Well, I don’t know. I turn 50 this year, so maybe—[laughs]. Believe me, nothing was conscious. I’m never conscious when I write. I just let the characters—I do the research, I do the outline, and I just let them go. I never think about themes or trying to communicate anything. I just try to tell the story in a dramatic, entertaining, provocative way.

What did you think of Rothko’s famous brooding? You don’t seem to be the brooding type. I think his brooding is magnificent. I think it’s luxuriously troubled in a way that makes him a great character. And the more complex a character is, the more interesting to explore for a dramatist.

Tell me a little about the apprentice, Ken. When I was Ken’s age I was doing the equivalent of what Ken is doing. I was working at the Northwestern library, doing non-Equity theater all the time. And it was so thrilling. When people say, How do you get to be a successful screenwriter and playwright? I’m like, You spend ten years starving and eating tuna fish and learning how to be a playwright. That’s how you do it. That’s how I did it.

So Ken for me is me sort of touching into who I was then, when it was all thrilling and exciting and you’re hubristic and you’re ambitious and you’re overeager and you’re too smart and you’re not smart enough all at the same time and you have big bruising elbows and you’re just trying to figure out where you belong in an artistic continuum. That was my approach to Ken. Just trying to remember what it was like for me. Ken is in no way autobiographical, but I certainly put myself in that mindset when I was thinking how he would respond to Rothko.

And of course I gave Ken all the trump cards. In the fourth scene of the play, when he really stands up and crests the wave like an animal, I gave him every argument I possibly could to demolish Rothko, and I think he does it successfully.

Yeah, you can see Rothko reeling even in the text. It’s like a fight movie. I hope so. It’s a two-character play. If it’s not like you’re watching a fight, you’re in trouble.