At one point, Shawn leaned in close to me and said, "I think if you sort of actually knew the way I thought about the whole thing you might think I was quite disturbed." To which I replied: "Try me!" It turns out that Shawn simply believes, "Certain things are just meant to be in there and I don't think I'm capable of telling you who it is that means them to be there, but I don't feel that I'm just talking about myself." You could say he has an animistic approach to writing: "Certain sentences that you see look like they're alive. To use a gross, unpleasant metaphor, it's like you see a litter of puppies in the corner of a barn, and most of them are dead, but you go to the ones that are alive and crawling and wriggling, and you feed them and bring them into the house. And they grow up and get bigger. In the two things I did before The Designated Mourner -- The Fever and Aunt Dan and Lemon -- I did think about what I was saying, and how the points could be made immediately clear. I didn't want to shape this one that way. This one, like a dream, has a lot of shadows in it, there are things in it I can't explain. I allowed myself to use everything I knew or felt without worrying what someone might say about it somewhere down the line."
That included not worrying about the resemblance between characters and people in Shawn's own life, including his father, William Shawn, who worked at The New Yorker from 1933 and edited it from 1952 to 1987 (five years before his death), years when it published an extraordinary array of thinkers, fiction writers, and critics, including Hannah Arendt, J.D. Salinger, and Pauline Kael. But William Shawn's background differed from Howard and Judy's. Born in Chicago to scantly educated parents, he left college apparently without a degree and started his career as a reporter on the Las Vegas Optic. "It's true," says Shawn, "that my father, like Howard and Judy, both had sympathy for the oppressed, the needy, and loved to read poetry -- and that wasn't true for many people in New York, it wasn't even true for many at The New Yorker. And my father was someone who could read the way Howard reads, as if he opened a book and it said to him, 'Come in, sit down.' But he was quite grown up before he heard a symphony. He felt awfully ignorant around someone like Hannah Arendt -- she could read Greek. And he felt at home in the world of popular music. He loved musicals in their heyday, the later ones he found harder -- he went for Rodgers and Hart, not Rodgers and Hammerstein. He was into the High and the Low."
If anything, Howard and Judy are closer to the pedigree of Wallace Shawn, who did go to Dalton, Putney, Harvard, and Oxford. What permeates this movie is his ongoing odyssey as a paid denizen of popular culture who continues to roam through avant-garde theater and poverty-stricken countries. Critic John Lahr characterizes Shawn's wandering through wrecked or undeveloped nations as "corrective behavior." Shawn told him, "In the face of enormous suffering, humorous detachment is too grotesque even for me." The Designated Mourner intertwines Shawn's fierce self-deprecation and covert idealism. It came out when he talked to me about the character of Judy and the acting of Miranda Richardson: "One can make fun of me and my silly attempts to escape the silly person that one probably would conclude that I am, but in my few moments of traveling to dangerous places I did meet some people who actually did live on the basis of their principles, which I suppose almost inevitably means a risk of death, and I tried to write that and Miranda is one of the few people who could really play it.