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