Creative Friction: Reporter Jonah Hill collides with accused killer James Franco in Rupert Goold’s ‘True Story’

Behind every great man, they say, is a great woman doing the shoving, and in the specific case of British stage director Rupert Goold, it literally was his Lady Macbeth who helped him dive feet-first into film.
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Behind every great man, they say, is a great woman doing the shoving, and in the specific case of British stage director Rupert Goold, it literally was his Lady Macbeth who helped him dive feet-first into film. He had cast his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in that insanely ambitious part—opposite Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth—and the two of them did such a bang-up job on the English stage and, a year later, a Tony-nominated one on Broadway that he was forced to film the bloody thing for posterity. This led to another filmed Shakespeare, Richard II, produced by Sam Mendes for the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” series, and these gave him the courage to go after films full-force.

So, while Mrs. Gould tended the tots (Raphael, 9, and Constance, 4) by day and Tracy-Lorded over a stage-musical version of High Society by night at The Old Vic, the 43-year-old director made his move on the new medium. For his maiden voyage into movies, he picked (or was picked by) a true story actually called True Story, in limited release Fox Searchlight starting April 17th.

It was first a memoir by Michael Finkel that reported his cat-and-mouse interplay with an accused killer who’d fled to Mexico and assumed a false identity (Finkel’s).

At the time, Finkel was sorely in need of a job—and redemption—having just been canned by The New York Times for telling something considerably less than the truth. The man on the run, Christian Longo, had appropriated Finkel’s name and occupation. The scribe took this coincidence as a red arrow from God to capitalize on the situation, so he trekked to the Oregon prison where Longo was stashed awaiting his trial and asked for an exclusive—plus book rights.

A deal was struck: Longo would tell him the whole truth in exchange for writing lessons and the promise that this truth wouldn’t be published till after the trial—an arrangement similar to what Perry Smith had with Truman Capote for In Cold Blood.

Goold got this shot because the Powers-That-Be at Regency Enterprises had seen his Macbeth film. So, too, did James Franco, who wound up starring as Longo. “James had been interested in the project before my involvement when he was working for Plan B, doing Eat Pray Love with producer Dede Gardner,” the director notes. “She said, ‘We’re developing a script,’ and he thought it was a fascinating character.

“So I knew that he was aware of the material. I don’t think he’d ever seen a script or anything. Initially, I didn’t know his work particularly well, and I wasn’t sure he was a slam-dunk for the role. His background hadn’t indicated that he had that kind of range, but there was something in him that I thought was really interesting and charismatic. He had a kind of natural remoteness that I thought was exactly right. So he came onboard—pretty quickly, actually—after we got the script to him.”

The role of the investigative reporter fell to Jonah Hill, who, playing against type, usually convinces in the flawed-but-earnest department. This unexpected casting also seems Plan B-generated: specifically from Hill’s Oscar-nominated Moneyball co-star, Plan B partner Brad Pitt, who knew first-hand that Hill could deliver the dramatic goods.

Of course, the box-office coupling of Franco and Hill would seem to promise a comedy, given their previous outing together in This Is the End and their casting in other Seth Rogen-penned romps like Pineapple Express and Superbad.

Mercifully, this was news to Goold. “I didn’t know their comic work particularly—it’s not well-known in England,” he confesses (unapologetically). “But if you were to see the rushes of those long scenes between the both of them, you’d see they’re goofing about all the time, trying to make each other laugh. I know what it’s like to have a rehearsal room and allow that, so I would cut anything that was contrary to the mood we were creating. They would listen and ask questions and, basically, were much more accommodating than a lot of English stage actors are sometimes.

“Also, the material is pretty dark. I remember once working with a famous actress in Bristol, and we got to talking about The Social Network. I said, ‘God, wasn’t that an amazing film? What a brilliant film. [David] Fincher is a genius.’ And she said, ‘Do you know what the best thing about that film is? Nobody smiled through the entire movie.’ That stayed with me. A smile onscreen is an incredible release. It can be magnificent, but you do it in a taut drama at your peril. It’s amazing how the energy just leaps out. So I was pretty brutal in keeping the scenes between them somber.”

Just before filming began in upstate New York, Goold was named artistic director of London’s prestigious Almeida Theatre. “The two jobs didn’t really overlap,” he says. “I just said to the board, ‘I’ve got this movie I’ve got to finish. It’s my commitment.’”

Following the leads of Danny Boyle, Stephen Daldry, Roger Michell and Sam Mendes, he’s the latest director to make the leap from the British stage to the American screen. “I remember there was a year where there were four British stage directors who had moved to film. It was the year of Revolutionary Road and The Reader and Slumdog.”

The switch in mediums didn’t trouble him as much as the massive shift in location. “To be honest, what I think was much more intimidating was working in America rather than the art form. The art form I had had a bit of experience with, but turning up in New York, knowing nobody on set—that was quite intimidating in a way.”

Anyone who recalls the jolt that ended the first act of his Macbeth knows that Goold is not deficient in visualizing drama. “My taste on stage as a director is actually much more flamboyant than it is onscreen,” he admits. “I was self-conscious about the potential staginess of the material—a two-hander of guys in rooms—and I thought, ‘Great. I can bring all my theatre experience on, directing these actors in these scenes, but I’m going to really get across how visually we’re going to tell this story.”

His director of photography, Masanobu Takayanagi, who shot Warrior and Silver Linings Playbook, was his chief creative ally in this. “He did a great job. It was a really good collaboration in the development of the film. I think it’s his best work.

“One of the things I’ve learned in doing theatre is: When you start off with a designer, you say, ‘I want two gold staircases and a fountain.’ Then, after a few years, you realize that their imagination is what you’ve hired, so you say, ‘I think this play is about jealousy or whatever,’ and they give you something you would never have thought of necessarily. Sometimes with your key creatives…I see this a lot in directors on stage but also onscreen, who say, ‘Of course, I know about lenses.’ But what I like saying to DPs is ‘Look, here’s the story. This is the psychology of the scenes. This is the narrative movement. Here’s sort of what I think physically [about] where we should have the camera, but you tell me something.’”

Goold shares screenplay credit with David Kajganich, but the two never actually worked together on it. He just inherited the first draft of a script that Kajganich had done for another director a year or two before Goold entered the picture.

“Initially, I wasn’t even necessarily committed to writing it. I just did a pass—a restructure—but I really, really enjoyed it. I said, ‘Look, there’s a great story here, and there’s already some great work done here, but here’s how I want to tweak it.’

“The issue had always been: ‘Whose story is it? Is it Longo’s story? Is it Finkel’s story? Is it both men?’ The draft had been very Longo’s, as the book is. There wasn’t much need for the journalist. I thought Finkel had become passive, so I tried to approach it through Finkel’s POV and then, as I was doing that, the two-trains thing became more dominant so I thought, ‘Let’s follow both men and make it about both men.’”

Although the film is basically a cerebral back-and-forth between Longo and Finkel, Goold did manage to triangulate the plot in such a way that Finkel’s girlfriend also falls under Longo’s seductive spell. Felicity Jones, a recent Oscar contender for The Theory of Everything, plays this part so urgently and impeccably that she justifies the character’s whole presence in the film in a strongly acted showdown with Longo.

Of course, that scene has no real-life parallel, “but,” qualifies Goold, “the scene where Longo calls up and becomes oddly sort of seductive with Jill is in the book and in real life. There was no point in having this character here unless we can give her a very clear moral standpoint. Although ostensibly it’s a courtroom real-life drama, it’s a little bit off that. That manifests itself in a lot of different ways, but the verdict is given by Felicity’s character, not by the jury, and that appealed to me.”

On the one hand, it surprises him that he would make his feature-film debut with an American property (“I always thought it would be a European film”), but, on the other, “There’s always been a streak of practical American voyeurism in my work.”

Enron, Lucy Prebble’s Lear-like rendition of the Houston oil scandal, is Exhibit A. It was a huge success in England and won him several awards, including the Olivier, but its Broadway transplant withered and died after 16 performances in 2010.

Exhibit B is Goold’s 2013 Almeida hit, which he plans to transfer to Broadway in the spring of 2016: American Psycho, the musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel about a young investment banker’s murderous rampage in Manhattan.

In putting together True Story, Goold had some dealings with Finkel. “It felt like Enron in a way,” he relays. “When you do these works about real people, you have to invest in your imagination of them as much as the truth. The Finkel of my film isn’t the real Mike Finkel. However, he’s very close to him. Mike Finkel is like a lot of us. He is basically a good guy trying to do good things in the world and get on, but [he’s] ambitious and bent the rules in a pretty destructive way. But we’ve all made mistakes and then got totally lost trying to get out of the hole. Right now, he is working on a book about a hermit that hasn’t spoken to him in 30 years.”

Goold’s first big brush with feature filmmaking has opened the door for more of the same, Almeida permitting. “I’ve got a couple of things in development, but movies take a big part of your life,” he says. He is currently working on the screenplay for his next directing project. “It‘s a sports movie, although it’s not about sports at all. Structurally, it’s King Lear with three little girl athletes.” It, too, is a true story.