‘True Story’ direc­tor Goold on the fic­tional na­ture of truth

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY ERIC ALTHOFF

Truth may be stranger than fic­tion, but when a film goes by the ti­tle of “True Story,” it im­me­di­ately raises the ques­tion: How much of what is on-screen is real? The film, based on the book by Michael Finkel, tells the story of Mr. Finkel’s pri­son con­ver­sa­tions with Chris­tian Longo, an Ore­gon fam­ily man ac­cused of mur­der­ing his wife and chil­dren.

“This was ma­te­rial that I felt spoke to me,” direc­tor Ru­pert Goold told The Wash­ing­ton Times, “and I think it was a script they knew they had a story but couldn’t quite fig­ure out how to un­lock and felt I was the per­son to do that.”

Mr. Finkel, por­trayed in the film by Jonah Hill, had sev­eral sit-down con­ver­sa­tions with the mer­cu­rial Longo, played by James Franco. It is the repar­tee be­tween the two men, and the odd sym­bio­sis that de­vel­ops be­tween them, that forms the core of the piece.

“On the sur­face it feels like a true crime thriller, and in many ways it is,” Mr. Goold said of his film, which opens in the Dis­trict on Fri­day. “But I hope it [has] some­thing else to do with friend­ship and good and evil, and to some ex­tent the me­dia” and how ex­po­sure both tan­ta­lizes and cor­rupts, he said.

De­spite the fact that his two leads are pri­mar­ily known for off-the-wall come­dies like “This Is the End” — in which both men played them­selves, lam­poon­ing their own per­sonas — Mr. Goold knew that the two Os­car-nom­i­nated stars were right for his movie.

“James has a sort of mys­tery about his public per­sona,” Mr. Goold said of Mr. Franco. “He’s con­stantly perplexing peo­ple. He’s also in­cred­i­bly charis­matic … he has a real al­most James Dean-y qual­ity. He has a dis­tance that you feel could cover some­thing far away, which might be a buried truth,” much like his char­ac­ter, Longo, the fa­ther with in­cred­i­bly dark se­crets.

While Mr. Finkel did in fact visit the set, Mr. Goold said that the real re­porter and his on-screen dop­pel­ganger were not one and the same.

“The Mike Finkel of the film has many, many similarities and goes on the same jour­ney as the Mike Finkel in real life,” Mr. Goold said of the “True Story” au­thor, “but I think they’re not the same char­ac­ter at all, re­ally.”

While the film does in fact take some lib­er­ties with its sub­ject mat­ter, Mr. Goold main­tains it re­mains faith­ful to the spirit of the book and, more im­por­tantly, its sub­jects’ du­el­ing with one an­other.

“For me the film is like a para­ble,” Mr. Goold said. “It’s like a very strange, slightly creepy story about good and evil in mod­ern so­ci­ety rather than like a so­cial doc­u­ment of real peo­ple. Yes, it’s im­por­tant to honor the truth of what hap­pened, but it’s not like we’re do­ing a film about some­thing that is very much in the public domain. It was still very much un­known a story.”

Mr. Finkel, a for­mer writer for The New York Times, would drive from his na­tive Mon­tana to Ore­gon to meet with Longo. Mr. Goold and his team re­traced the same thou­sand-mile jour­ney to get a feel for the story’s back­ground. (In the film, New York state stands in for Mon­tana and Ore­gon — helped by some clever CGI.)

“In many ways Mon­tana of the film is like a psy­cho­log­i­cal place as well as a real place,” Mr. Goold said. “It’s a place of ban­ish­ment.”

In Longo, Mr. Finkel saw his re­demp­tion, a way to atone not only for Longo’s sins but also his own.

“I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in shame, I sup­pose,” Mr. Goold said, “how [peo­ple] re­act to shame and degra­da­tion or hu­mil­i­a­tion.”

With the pro­lif­er­a­tion of so­cial me­dia, Mr. Goold ex­plained that, to a cer­tain ex­tent, ev­ery­one now has a public pro­file, even crim­i­nals on the or­der of Longo.

“So if you are a real crim­i­nal, then you’re prob­a­bly al­ready aware of your pre­sen­ta­tion,” he said. “So I think that is timely.

“Be­cause we have this amaz­ing thing now where peo­ple say ‘have you heard the story about … ?’ and you Google it [on your phone] and sud­denly it’s there for you. We didn’t used to have that be­fore.”

And he be­lieves the re­al­ity of “True Story” is part of its draw to con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences, many of whom have been lured away from the mul­ti­plexes by what Mr. Goold de­scribed as “the fan­tas­tic ex­cesses of TV.” Ac­cord­ingly, he said, film­mak­ers must now “of­fer au­then­tic­ity as kind of a pre­mium.”

“Maybe what’s rich about some­thing be­ing a true story is that maybe the piece is not only a drama … there’s a whole other hin­ter­land to ex­plore,” Mr. Goold said.

Iron­i­cally, one of the main el­e­ments of “True Story” is how the main char­ac­ters lie for their own ad­van­tage.

“I think we all know how to lie,” Mr. Goold said. “You’re al­ways aware of the thing you could do that would de­stroy your job or your rep­u­ta­tion — like the er­ror or the will­ful fab­ri­ca­tion or what­ever it might be, whether you’re a doc­tor or a cop or an ac­coun­tant or a jour­nal­ist. It’s al­most like the tree of knowl­edge: the thing you know that could de­stroy your­self.

“In some ways what I came away with is how dif­fi­cult it is to tell the truth,” he said. “Ev­ery­one says they don’t lie, but to be true to your­self, and to be true to your mo­tives and why that you’re do­ing things … re­quires a real hon­esty and a kind of rigor. That’s the thing that I sup­pose I take from the film as the film­maker: Rather than the ease of [ly­ing], it’s more the dif­fi­culty of the truth.”

Direc­tor Ru­pert Goold (cen­ter) seen with Jonah Hill (left) and James Franco on the set of “True Story.”

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