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“I’m Writing This Because I Want To See This Movie”: Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes on Writing Challengers

Challengers (©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection)

On the surface, Challengers is about a single tennis match between former friends turned rivals Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). But as it flashes back and forth in time to show how their relationships with tennis champion turned coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) led them to this competition, it becomes much more than a typical sports drama. Challengers intelligently and entertainingly deals with issues of communication, aging, and how the pursuit of excellence can saddle one with both limitations and opportunities for transcendence. It also does all that while providing the thrills of watching “some good fucking tennis,” to quote Zendaya’s character.

Challengers shares this multifaceted quality with its screenwriter, Justin Kuritzkes. He has worked successfully in across theater (The Sensuality Party), literature (Famous People), and even music (the album Songs About My Wife). Challengers is his first produced script, but he has already reunited with its director Luca Guadagnino on his upcoming film Queer and is going to write City on Fire, which will star Austin Butler.  

I spoke with Kuritzkes over Zoom about his interest in prodigies, working with Guadagnino, and what it’s like to see your work on the big screen with an audience for the first time. Challengers is currently in wide release, courtesy of Amazon MGM Studios.

Filmmaker: How did you first come up with the idea for Challengers, and what made you want to pursue it?

Kuritzkes: The first kernel of the idea really came from watching this match at the US Open in 2018 between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. I had not previously been a massive tennis fan, but I just happened to turn on the US Open. During the match, there was this really controversial call where Serena Williams received a penalty for receiving coaching from the sidelines. And she got really upset and said, “I didn’t do that. I would never do that.” Immediately this struck me as a really cinematic moment. You’re alone on your side of the court.

There’s one person in the stadium who cares as much about what happens to you in this match as you do, but you can’t speak to them. So, what if you really needed to have a conversation about something that went beyond tennis? What if something really deep and personal was going on and you needed to hash it out right then, and it involved the person on the other side of the net. How would you have that conversation without breaking the rules? How could you communicate the tension of that situation using the tools that are specific to film? That was really the start of it.

Filmmaker: Your main characters are tennis prodigies, and your debut novel, Famous People, is about a pop star who’s been famous since he was 12. Do you feel that you’re drawn to telling stories about prodigies and if yes, what is it about them which interests you?

Kuritzkes: Oh, that’s a great question. I think what’s interesting about prodigies is that they, in some sense, don’t have the same kind of youth that the rest of us have. You’re living your life in public earlier than you can process what that’s going to mean for you. And you’re living your life towards a goal, and you’ve committed to a goal before you’re even capable of knowing whether that’s a goal you want to pursue. I think that’s a really sort of interesting place to meet a person. That’s to some extent been true for all of [the three characters in Challengers] —nthey all were child soldiers, in a way, for tennis. And they’re all haunted by that in their own ways. I think they’re linked forever in that way.

Filmmaker: How extensively did you outline before writing the first draft, and how long did it take you to complete it?

Kuritzkes: I didn’t outline a ton, but I thought about the movie a lot for a long time. I would take little notes in scattered places for a long time — a couple of years, I was doing other stuff. I was finishing one novel and starting to write another book. It’s not like I was just sort of sitting, thinking about this movie, but I was thinking about it a lot over that time. And then finally, when I sat down to write it in 2021, it came out relatively quickly. I wrote it in like two or three months.

Filmmaker: Do you feel like that long period of thinking about it made it go faster in terms of writing that draft?

Kuritzkes: Probably. I think it made it so that there was a lot that was ready at hand because I had already done the research about it, not even really knowing I was doing the research. I read Andre Agassi’s book Open because I just became a tennis fan. I wanted to read it just for pleasure, not even thinking about this movie. But as I was reading it, because I was so invested, I was highlighting the whole thing and taking notes in it. Then of course I ended up going back to that stuff and realizing that there were things I could use from it. That played itself out in dozens of things that I read. Probably one of the most meaningful things I read in that process was John McPhee’s Levels of the Game. The way that book, [which covers a 1968 US Open match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner], is structured is that you’re dropped into the match and then you learn how each of these guys got there. It’s a real story about these two guys and their lives and how they came from opposite sides of America, but I was sort of internalizing all of that without even realizing that I was internalizing it. So that was all right there when I started to write.

Filmmaker: A key structural element of Challengers is its nonlinear storytelling. At what point in your process did you decide that would be the case, and how did you keep track of your timelines when you were writing? 

Kuritzkes: The impulse to write the movie came from when I was watching all this tennis, and I started thinking, well, what would make tennis even better? The question of what would make tennis even better was that I wanted to know exactly what was at stake at each moment in the match. So that sort of naturally maps onto a structure where you’re dropped into the match and then the past is filled in over the course of the thing.

In terms of knowing exactly where I was going to go, I didn’t know that when I started, but I did have a pretty firm idea that the timeline of the movie would cover the lifespan of an athletic career. When you think about an athletic career, it’s like a little version of life that begins when you’re of age and they can start making money off of you and ends when you’re useless, when you’re in your 30s. So I knew that the movie was going to ping back and forth within that little container.

Filmmaker: Once that first draft was done, what was your process for developing it until you were ready to send it out into the world?

Kuritzkes: When I first felt like I was ready to share it, I did a little reading of it with my friends, who are mostly other writers. I had them over to my apartment, and we read the script. That’s really, really useful. I like to do that whenever I can, and then I sent it to my agent and my manager at the time. They sent it out to producers. I ended up working with Amy Pascal and Rachel O’Connor. From there, that’s when we started really putting the movie together with collaborators.

Filmmaker: In terms of those collaborators, a key one is this film’s director, Luca Guadagnino. At what point did he board the film and what was it like collaborating with him?

Kuritzkes: It was incredible collaborating with him. Luca came on board right around the same time that Zendaya came on board. We had a conversation on the phone right after he had read the script, and he really responded to it. I was really excited by the conversation because it was clear that he could sort of see a way into it creatively, that he could see himself and his vision, his version of cinema in it. We sort of learned really early on that we spoke the same language when it came to that. We were excited by a lot of the same things in cinema, and, because of that, there was this deep trust pretty immediately. I went to go hang out with him, sort of where we could feel each other out and see if this was going to work. At the end of that week, we were pretty much off to the races.

Filmmaker: So many of my favorite sequences in Challengers contain little to no dialogue. At what point in your process did you decide that would be the case and why?

Kuritzkes: The initial impulse for writing the movie was this thing that was completely silent. This thing of people needing to have a conversation without being able to use their words. So I always was interested with this movie in communicating through action. People speaking to each other through movement and gestures and glances and looks. A lot of that is in the script just so that the reader can feel like they’re watching the movie. A lot of that by necessity needed to be in the script so that the vision of the movie could be communicated to somebody who’s reading it.

But then of course that gets so deeply enriched and amplified and taken to this whole other level when you have people like Luca and these actors and our DP, Sayombhu [Mukdeeprom, Guadagnino’s frequent collaborator]. There are just so many things that are communicated with the camera that you couldn’t possibly write in a script.

Filmmaker: Were you on set for Challengers and, if yes, what was that experience like?

Kuritzkes: I was on set and in pre-production the entire shoot, which was a real privilege and an honor. It says a lot about the kind of collaborator Luca is, and the kind of collaborators the actors and my producers are, that they really all insisted that I’d be there the whole time and that if anything needed to be reworked that it was going to be through me doing it. Which is not at all an expectation you can have as a writer, especially a first-time writer. I had never really been on a film set for any extended period of time. Truly the most amazing thing about working with somebody like him, who’s at the top of his game, is that every head of department, every camera operator, everybody is the best. It felt to me, honestly, like being in a film school that you couldn’t possibly pay for if you tried.

Filmmaker: What was your day-to-day role on set?

Kuritzkes: It depended on the scene. There was some stuff where something wasn’t working, and we needed a slight adjustment. Or sometimes we realized that we were going to lose the light and the scene was too long, that kind of stuff would happen. A lot of times, honestly, it was just watching the work and Luca turning to me and asking what I thought. Or having a note and giving it.

Filmmaker: To go back a little, in terms of getting notes, your wife, Celine Song [writer and director of Past Lives], is also a writer. Do you give each other notes on your work? And if yes, what was her most valuable insight into Challengers?

Kuritzkes: We, of course, give each other notes, and we’re usually the first people to read each other’s things, and we’re usually our harshest critics. I don’t remember a specific note that she had for Challengers, but being around Celine would inevitably make anyone a better writer.

Filmmaker: Challengers is an original script, but your next film, Queer, is an adaptation of William S. Burroughs novel of the same name. What was the experience of adapting a book into a film like? 

Kuritzkes: Really different from the experience of writing original scripts. That project sort of came about because Luca gave me this book and said, “I’ve been wanting to make this movie for a long time, and would you read this and tell me if you want to do it?” I was incredibly touched and honored by that, especially because it’s a sort of legendary book by a legendary author. So, there was a lot of responsibility there to honor that work and to give Luca a script so that he could go make this movie he’d wanted to make forever. So, a lot of that process was really just figuring out how to create a bridge between what I knew William S. Burroughs was after in his book and what I had come to learn through working with Luca, what Luca was after in his cinema. In a way that made the process of writing it and collaborating more seamless than with Challengers, because Challengers was a script I wrote on spec, not knowing who was going to do it with me. Queer I was really writing it for Luca, and I was writing it with the knowledge of the way Luca makes movies. So, I would catch myself in the middle of writing a scene and go, Luca’s not going to do it this way. This has got to change. Then I would try to think, what would make Luca really excited? So that was a really fun, really different way of working for me.

Filmmaker: Were you on set in a way similar to Challengers with that one?

Kuritzkes: I had meant to be, then the writers strike happened. I was there for rehearsals and some of pre-production. Then we got to our second day of shooting and the writers strike got announced. So, I got on a plane and went home and couldn’t be involved in the process of making that movie until the strike was over and I was watching edits of it.

Filmmaker: Challengers is your first script to be produced. Where did you see it on the big screen for the first time and what did it feel like to watch it?

Kuritzkes: The first time I saw it on the big screen was in London recently. I had seen it in screening rooms before then and with small audiences, but the first time I really saw it with an audience was in London, and that was kind of terrifying. For parts of it, it was a bit of an out of body experience, but what’s weird about watching a movie that you’ve been so intimately involved with for so long is that nothing about the movie surprises you. You’re watching it and seeing the process of making it. You’re seeing that day on set, but then you are surrounded by other people who are experiencing it for the first time. In a way that experience rubs off on you and you can sort of see the thing through their eyes and see it fresh. So, it feels alive again all of a sudden.

Filmmaker: Do you think tennis will still have the hold on you that it did when you were writing Challengers?

Kuritzkes: I don’t watch it quite as obsessively as I did when I was really in the thick of writing the movie, but I still keep up with it and watch all the big tournaments. In a way the movie has given me this gift of a thing that I hope to be a fan of forever.

Filmmaker: What would you say is your favorite piece of writing advice to give to people, screenwriters, playwrights, whoever?

Kuritzkes: I think whatever you learn about yourself in all of these different mediums carries over. Your voice or the kind of characters that excite you or the way that a story operates or unfolds is something that you can carry from medium to medium. The thing that I found useful when writing my first script was always sort of going back to the initial impulse, which was that I’m writing this because I want to see this movie. My job is to make sure I’m seeing the movie on the page. I’m making it feel like when you read this script, you’ve seen the movie, because that’s the only way anybody’s going to want to make the movie with you is if they feel like they’ve seen it. The script isn’t supposed to explain to you what the movie is going to be like. The script is supposed to be the movie. You’re supposed to see the movie when you read it. If you can see the movie, there’s a good chance that other people might see it too. And even if they don’t, who cares because you wrote this because you wanted to see this movie. So, you got what you needed out of it.

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