The view from Hollywood

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In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm writes of her excitement at the admittedly tricky prospect of interviewing a fellow tribesman: “[Joe] McGinniss and I would be less like experimenter and subject than like two experimenters strolling home from the lab together after a day’s work, companionably thrashing out the problems of the profession. The tape recorder would preserve the trenchant things we would say….It did not work out that way.”

That passage echoed in my head as I tried to engage Mark Boal, a longtime magazine reporter and screenwriter best known for The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, in a conversation about his work. I’d long admired Boal’s ability to make mass audiences pay attention to complicated subjects like war at a time when too few people read serious journalism about them. I was also impressed by his ability to turn journalism into a paying job. For reporters beset by layoffs and other dark prospects, Boal carries a torch, lighting the way to the kind of financial freedom that makes ambitious journalism possible.

Boal didn’t want to meet with me. He didn’t want to talk on the phone. He proposed doing the interview over email, then asked me to text him. Our conversation was conducted via instant messages during two transcontinental flights Boal made between his base in LA and Raleigh, NC, on his way to Fort Bragg to see “a man in from Iraq.” I used iChat, while he texted on his phone with the help of airplane WiFi. “Maybe being at 10k feet will give me an advantage,” he joked.

Boal began his career as a reporter for the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and other magazines. He made his first foray into movies when a Playboy story he wrote about a brutally murdered Iraq war veteran became the basis of the 2007 film In the Valley of Elah. He went on to write the script of The Hurt Locker, also based on his reporting from Iraq. The film won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. In 2014, Boal launched Page 1, a development and production company that turns “reported actual events” acquired from reporters, magazines, and book publishers into movies and TV shows.

This is a particularly apt moment to probe the overlap between journalism and entertainment. In the age of Homeland and Sully, as we recover from a presidential election that often resembled reality TV, it is clearer than ever that what most people call “the media” includes straight news, straight-up theater, and everything in between. As a journalist and screenwriter, Boal seems ideally placed to tell us what journalism can learn from Hollywood, and vice versa. But he doesn’t want that job.

As it turned out, Malcolm’s difficulty with McGinniss—his stubborn determination to play the role of subject rather than co-experimenter—was the opposite of mine with Boal, who told me point blank that he wasn’t “terribly enthusiastic about dissecting my own work. I prefer to leave that to others.” Far from savoring a trenchant exchange between comrades, I spent the first half of the interview trying every way I knew to coax him toward a modicum of self-revelation. On the return flight he seemed to relax, speaking at length about the best uses of journalism and film, what it feels like for a subject of journalism to see his life fictionalized on the big screen, and the dearth of journalistic innovation (with the possible exception of podcasts like Serial, to which he contributed the taped interviews with kidnapped soldier Bowe Bergdahl that underpinned its most recent season). The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR Can you tell me what drew you to the Bergdahl story?

Mark Boal I thought he would offer a unique lens on the taliban since he’s the only American to have been in such close proximity to them for so many years
Plus I was intrigued and annoyed by the politicization of a POW
It also – from afar – seemed like an incredible story of betrayal and survival
the behind the scenes efforts to get him out – all the Washington stuff nobody talks about – was also pretty good
And there was a father-son arc that was off the charts .
So lots of reasons I guess

CJR I ask because it’s not a simple story. Bergdahl isn’t a straight hero or villain. And while that complexity is very real, it’s not what we often see on the big screen.
I’m not saying we never see it, but it’s one of the things that can complicate a journalistic narrative to the point of making it very gray.

MB I like gray –

CJR yes all good journalists do.

MB But for stories
As it developed I got into the moral conundrum he poses –
In military terms leaving your post is a massively dishonorable thing to do – and yet if you don’t believe the war is Just or Right, what could be more important than that? Then perhaps you have a duty to walk away? So U have a clash of somewhat incommensurate principals.
Nice terrain to explore
And also by my view a question with resonance for the rest of us sitting at home as the war on terror drags on and on. Asking questions about Bowe’s culpability and responsibility can lead you to asking questions about your own responsibility.
Anyway, aiming high 😉

CJR i have lots of little questions about that story, to which I’ll return, but: complexity pushes against narrative clarity and big sweeping action. I guess my bigger question in all this is, how do you go about making a complicated, real story, in which some details are working against each other and some “facts” contradict each other, play well as a gripping, sweeping narrative, which usually requires downplaying those contradictions?
when we talk about what journalism can learn from Hollywood, answering that question seems crucial.

MB I mean I love contradictions i don’t try to downplay them. That would be a very dumb strategy
Also I don’t think of journalism (whatever that means) as the same activity as being a dramatist. They are different kinds of writing and thinking and so forth.
It’s a little like that old line about dancing about architecture

CJR Remind me.

MB Writing about music is like dancing about architecture –
Responding to the difficulty of using one artistic vocabulary to portray another
Another way to put it is, you could read every book about Richard Serra and know every biographical or factual tidbit about his work without ever actually experiencing the work itself
I mean it’s all fine and good and God bless criticism and all that, but at a certain point it’s like, why are we doing this again?

CJR You said:
I don’t think of journalism (whatever that means) as the same activity as being a dramatist . They are different kinds of writing and thinking and so forth.
Doubtless true but let’s maybe get some definitions down.
In your view, what makes “journalism (whatever that means)” and what’s involved in dramatic writing? How are they different? And how, if at all, are they similar?

MB So in a broad sense journalism is supposed to be nonfiction and drama is fiction. But spend a little time in either mode and you realize the distinctions aren’t so crisp
If u define fiction as creating a world and selecting what goes in it, excluding some details, etc, then the practice of journalism has some of those qualities. Very rarely do you see journalism which is a literal moment by moment transcription of reality (a terrible word, btw). You pick a quote, u put it in a scene, that’s a creative act involving a cerebral cortex. You might be trying for fairness but to argue that there’s no invention involved is kind of silly.
Lawrence Weschler used to teach a great class on this up at Columbia
How you feel about it all depends largely on how wedded you are to a correspondence theory of truth. Frankly that stuff is pretty out of date but most journalists and filmmakers still cling to the good stuff – old platonic distinctions. I suppose they offer a certain level of comfort. But they also blur a lot of what makes life ineffable and worth living. I mean kill an afternoon watching CNN and Fox and it’s pretty easy to see that donning the occupational mantle of ‘journalist’ doesn’t ensure that much truth, or Truth, is being produced. I can give you a long recitation of facts that are strictly speaking truthful while still being wildly misleading or inauthentic. Happens every day in journalism. Then every once in awhile you get an article by a Walt Bogdanich and you go, okay, there’s hope
The most accurate statement you can make is dramas are what u see in movie theaters and on broadway. Move much farther than that and you’re on shaky epistemological ground. How do you compare, say, the Truth value of Hamilton with the Truth value of an article in Time magazine? And even if you could, what would be the point of the exercise? The better question in my mind is – hey, is this stuff any good? And how do we make a culture produce more good stuff and less crap?
But yeah I know the rules and regulations. I know what fact checking is and so forth and I’ve done it at a pretty high level. I love reporting, I really do. Accuracy is super interesting and important to a particular kind of government-society operation. And look, it’s fun to be dead on and know you are right and there’s no debating your scoop. But it sure as hell isn’t the end of the road as far as Truth.
I could go on and on. Spent too much of my twenties reading Rorty and Kuhn and critical theory

CJR so in the end, given what you’ve done and seen — both making journalism at a high level and making film — do you put yourself in one camp or the other? I was just re-listening to the first episode of Serial and noticed that they ID you as a filmmaker not a journalist. I get the feeling the word “journalist” isn’t one you love. am I right?

boal3.jpg

On The Set Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow during production of Zero Dark Thirty. (Jonathan Olley, Zero Dark Thirty, LLC)

MB The Times editorial page called me a journalist the other day. I take it as a compliment
I’m also a filmmaker, that’s true, too. I do different things. I write in different genres. I’m also a decent dog trainer and handyman. One day I hope to get into water colors

CJR some people I know (people who report and write) find “journalist” a little pompous. like it’s making something bigger out of what’s essentially a craft.

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MB I agree with that
I prefer reporter to journalist
For the same reason I prefer doctor to physician

CJR do you really think that what you do is to report? rather than to make all those choices you talked about? pretty complicated ones

MB I’m just saying I love a good reporter.
Give me a solid investigative reporter to hang out with and a bottle of good whiskey and I’m good to go.

CJR so if you were talking to a bunch of reporters, and bringing what you’ve learned from filmmaking to them, what would you say about storytelling or “truth” that we need to hear?

MB I would refer them to Weschler. He’s the guru on this subject
I mean or look up the New Journalists
All this stuff was litigated in the 60s

CJR so do you not feel that you have something of your own to add there
from now?

MB Not sure what u mean
Most people I know still in print are fighting to keep their jobs
They don’t have the luxury to sit around thinking about the temporal and socially conditioned nature of truth
They’re just trying to get a few more inches not devoted to celebrity nonsense

CJR i will explain
so we are doing this issue at CJR about innovation
and one of the things we thought about as an organizing principle is that, since much of innovation in journalism is coming from industries outside journalism — places like tech (Facebook) and finance (computer-generated stories) — we would try to put together a group of dispatches from these other worlds. And one of them was Hollywood.
It’s interesting to see how much popular culture/entertainment is tied to or ripped from the headlines

MB What you’re talking about is all the old categories are falling apart
It’s called post modernism

CJR investigative reporting could be an element of films too — probably is
but I honestly don’t know because I’ve never made one.
I’ve always been a reporter and writer.
so I’m really interested in a) what tools from journalism are being used in hollywood and b) what movies can tell us about how to do better journalism
also I’m interested in the collapsing boundary between journalism and entertainment, which I think is very evident in this election we’re having

MB There is no such boundary
That went out the window when news divisions got moved around the balance sheet

CJR yes I agree. but that’s a relatively recent thing.

MB So they say. I’m not so sure

CJR what do you think?

MB don’t know enough about history of the industry
But my overall impression is that on, say, a 75 year curve, the trend has been to more accuracy

CJR It seems so obvious what some of the things are that we can learn from movies. we talk in writing about scenes or cinematic moments. those are just some very obvious places where we borrow from film.

MB Oh yeah I see what u mean
Sure.
For that matter the invention of the camera changed imagistic writing forever

CJR making a story feel cinematic is all about the choices you were talking about earlier. What to play up, what to play down. who to show first, who next. how to open, how to close.

MB Movies are the dominant mode of artistic expression right now —
So yeah, they sort of infect everything
Until video games take over

CJR did you consciously think about that when you were reporting and writing, before you ever made a film?

MB About what?

CJR about what you were taking from movies, or how they were infecting your work
to use your word

MB Yes
I mean, I also re-read all of Bellow and a few others a hundred times.
Why?
I wanted to be able to do what they did but in a different format, basically following the opening created by New Journalism – using techniques I guess of other art forms

CJR what movies most influenced you as a reporter?

MB None that I can think of. What influenced me as a reporter was stuff like a Barrett column drawing blood at city hall, and at the same time, stuff like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song.
That kicked my ass
Goldstein’s early rock criticism
Wolfe
Ephron
The White Album
Joan
D
The usual suspects
Orwell
Huxley
Wallace
And pretty much everyone who ever wrote for Rolling Stone, New York magazine, the New Yorker, and Esquire from 1960-2001
Lol
Too much to list
I even plowed thru McPhee at one point.
I feel like I’m failing you

CJR no I got a call
I’ll be right back
so you read a lot. did you also watch a lot of movies?

MB Not in those days

CJR when did you start watching movies?
seriously

MB I mean I watched them like everyone
About ten or fifteen years ago
Had drinks the other night with Harmony Korine. Lovely guy by the way. He’s dropping references to Cannes films from the 80s. That’s wasn’t me. In the 80s I was watching Chuck Norris flicks

CJR can you name any other movies (or even genres of movies) that you were watching at any point along the way, and then what you were watching when you really dug in 10-15 years ago?

MB I mean there are hundreds!

CJR well name some. you just named about 100 writers.

MB Battle of Algiers was big for me

CJR why?

MB Elephant
All the neo realists
Bicycle thief
Why? From Algiers I learned there was a certain way to do things

CJR explain

MB Explain what? Not to be defensive but you want me to explain the process of a learning an art form?
I mean I just lived that shit till it was coming out of my pores

CJR yes. explain what you mean that there was a certain way to do things
what was that way?
what did you learn?
we won’t all have the same takeaways from battle of algiers

MB There’s a certain specificity to Algiers that I admire which, coupled with the realism of the subject matter, I found revelatory.
I didn’t know you could tell a story like that until I saw somebody else do it
There’s also a deep honesty to it that I liked
I’m not into adornment and
Pretty
It’s like the first time you drink 100 proof, you go oh so that’s what the pure stuff tastes like
In another way Dr Strangelove
Because there you have a fictional satire that is so completely effective
It probably tells you more about the mindset of mutually assured destruction than you’d ever need to know
And to get back to your earlier question, arguably more Truth about say, the intersection of militarism and masculinity, than a stack of articles on the subject, even though it doesn’t contain a single accurate fact.
Plus, putting aside the moral and social dimensions, pound for pound the aesthetics are pretty damn rad

CJR can you be more specific about the “specificity” you’re talking about with Algiers? or the “deep honesty”? can you tell me about a scene that conveys those things for you?
and when you say “I didn’t know you could tell a story like that until I saw somebody else do it”
like what?

MB Children shoot soldiers
Women plant bombs
Etc
I didn’t know u could do that in movies

CJR do what? tell the truth?

MB Oh man. Lets just say, touch the world

CJR meaning touch the audience? tell a true story that connects viscerally with people who didn’t live it?
one question I have is, were these (Battle of algiers, dr. strangelove) meaningful for you because they were movies or bc they were great works of art?
how much of it had to do with what could be done in film that couldn’t be done, say, in writing, and how much was just like, this is a great piece of music, a great painting, a great film?

MB It’s all of it
You can’t have the burger without the bun
I do think an interesting question is what kinds of experiences are better suited to a given medium?
What’s prose good for? What do the dramatic arts give you that prose can’t?
What’s a movie good for?
That is something I think about all the time
At the risk of committing a social science these forms, these ways of expressing ourselves… we r talking about are (maybe merely) different technologies to communicate. Each has their pros and cons, their uses and their abuses
That’s way more interesting to me than playing the category game like a librarian and figuring out which work goes on which shelf .

 

Was I confident? No. I was broke and sick of magazines and had nothing to lose. You hit your thirties and you go, fuck it. It’s now or never.”

 

CJR so what is prose good for? and what is a movie good for?

MB Ok but are we getting close to enuf for what u need? If u don’t get some work done on this flight I’ll be in trouble tomorrow

CJR in trouble with who?
we are getting somewhere but not close

MB With myself.

CJR I think if we did this like we are, a bit every day, for a week, we’d have something

MB Really? I feel like I’ve talked a lot !!

CJR you are pretty guarded
there are some good exchanges here but we haven’t gotten deeply enough into anything

MB Vanessa I’ve never talked about this stuff with a reporter before. I’m being as candid with you as I possibly can be

CJR I’m sure you are
I don’t blame you
but it’s a process

MB Is there some question you are dying to ask or something?

CJR plenty

MB so ask them

CJR the question above would help: what is prose good for? what is a movie good for?

MB I can try to answer that but be forewarned I’m not terribly enthusiastic about dissecting my own work. I prefer to leave that to others. You make it, you defend it for awhile so the kids don’t get beat up on the way to school, and then you let it go and it doesn’t belong to you anymore. The work has to speak for itself or I’m just a salesman for myself.

CJR ok but the whole point of this interview is to talk to you about what you do.

MB That’s what we’ve been doing!

CJR yes.
but we haven’t gotten far enough with it yet.
are you terribly fed up?
you have to sit under the light a little. I don’t know how we get away from that.

MB No. i just wonder if sometimes my attempts at precision are being misread as being evasive .

CJR that is possible.
it’s easy to misread these messages.

MB I take all this shit extremely seriously and I promise you I have thought a lot about it and I’m giving you the straight dope on it
You asked me about truth and I gave you a lot on that question

CJR yes you did, that’s one of the best parts so far

MB I don’t know what else to do

CJR you’re doing great. I think we just need to spend a bit more time.

MB It has to do with me being true to what I believe and not merely feeding into assumptions implicit in questions if I disagree with them

CJR that’s fine. all I ask is that when you don’t agree with a premise or need to clarify that you are very specific about what you’re doing and why.
the more specific you can be the better
on all of it
details
like with Battle of Algiers — those details really helped. But I’m thinking about the film and what struck me about it — that it’s a devastating commentary on what colonial powers think about rebellions, and how little they understand them
and I want to see what you saw and what you’re talking about
I want to be able to show readers that
so in this scene, where X plants a bomb, I learned this. And I used it when I made this other film or wrote this story.

MB Honestly I haven’t seen it in years
And I would never be that reductive, the process isn’t that simple even if I watched it last night
I don’t cut and paste scenes or ideas from other movies

CJR just because you’re specific doesn’t mean you’re reductive

MB U are missing the point entirely

CJR ok so explain to me.

MB U want me to talk about literary techniques? Or filmmaking techniques?
I’m talking about what influenced me as a writer and an artist and a reporter

CJR yes but isn’t some of that technical?

MB If u want a class in technique u got the wrong guy

CJR listen, I’m a reporter. the people who read CJR are mostly reporters. they’re into how good work gets made. i don’t think there’s anything false or wrong about that.

MB One time I asked Michael Mann how he knew to cast Jamie Foxx in Collateral. He said ‘it’s called directing.’ It took me about four years to understand what he meant.

CJR what did he mean?

MB He meant that the process of casting is at the heart of directing

CJR ok, good point.
so what is the parallel point from where you are?

MB You are asking me how to be reporter and a filmmaker. On a certain level it’s like…
It’s called being a reporter and a filmmaker

CJR well I guess if you see it that way then it does seem like a waste of time to talk about it

MB Lol
Killed my own story

CJR not even close
do you want to kill it?

MB Just print this transcript and you’re done !
It’s gold
(End scene)

II

MB hello

CJR Hi

MB Nobel Dylan!

CJR I know!!!
So cool

MB so they give him a prize for invention. like he’s a literary Edison.
not sure if poetry has a function, but if it did… it would be, partly, to invent new metaphors and forms of expression…ie. expand the language…just like engineers expand the physical universe. that’s what puts it at the top of the literary pile. somewhere after that you get novels –
plays – the dramatic arts

CJR And to open imaginative possibilities through, among other things, sound.

MB yeah. absolutely. i’m just talking about writing here. language.
songwriting vs novel writing vs movie writing vs nonfiction writing
at the end of the day movies, for me, allowed me to go places journalism didn’t. i went to Iraq during one of the bloodier periods of the war, got a scoop, wrote an article. i was happy with the piece but felt like it left out so much. i tried to put all the rest in what became The hurt locker screenplay.
after that reporters would ask me what i felt about the war – what was i trying to say, etc with the flick – and i always answered, look, my argument about the war is the motion picture. that’s it. it’s a giant 2-hour argument told in millions of feet of film. if i could have done it in an article, or said it in a pull quote, i would have. if i could have done it in a poem, say, that would have been way faster! but i don’t have those chops.
now i think, enough with the wars. i’ve had it. i only got into writing about the military because of 9/11. being a New Yorker, losing so much that day, and wanting to take part in what was obviously the story of my generation. but now i know way too much about killing people, and i know way too many professional killers, and i’m ready to move on. write about different things. i had a bunch of beats before 9/11. there’s tons of topics to explore and i wanna write a romance which nobody will go see.
you caught me at an odd time. I spent the last three days in Ft. Bragg with SF guys. it’s like the Mafia. You can’t leave the story.
but doing different things now. movie coming out next year which takes place in Detroit in 1967.

CJR Did you feel confident enough as a filmmaker/screenwriter to do that with the Hurt Locker? I mean it was a great movie but only your second one.

MB do what?

CJR I guess convey all that you left out of the piece about the bigger picture of the war, what you *felt* about it?

MB was I confident? no. I was broke and sick of magazines and had nothing to lose. you hit your thirties and you go, fuck it. it’s now or never.

CJR how much of that had to do with its being fiction, and giving more license to the imagination, and how much with the technical differences between film and writing?
and in general, how much do the technical differences — the fact that you can powerfully show something in a film in a way that’s arguably tougher in writing (though it can be done) — matter for you?
it’s no accident bob dylan didn’t write poems like keats did, on a page
he sang them
the music is an important component of how they work

MB i’m sure you’re asking a good question – but how the hell should i know the answer? what writer truly knows the source of their inspiration? the last thing a writer knows is why she or he does what she does. let alone, like, how the thing actually gets off the ground and flies. what i do, i immerse myself and obsess and ruin my health and then somehow the work comes out. i have no idea how. i’m still trying to figure that out.

CJR fair enough, but not every writer feels that way. I mean, yeah, in a large sense there are things we don’t know
why we’re drawn to something, a story, a moment, an image
doesn’t really matter
the draw is what matters
but in terms of the feeling it gives you to make a film rather than to make a piece of reporting, it seems there might be something there that’s indicative.
or like you think of something — like your Detroit project — and you decide, that’s something I want to write about, or that’s something I want to make a movie about — why do you choose one medium over the other?
unless maybe you do both

MB oh i see.
as far as feelings go one of the worst parts of journalism is the sneaking suspicion that your work has no impact.
i’d see people reading the Voice on the subway and wait for them to turn the page to my piece and when they flipped past to read a classified ad about a discount on kitchen cabinets, i’d die a little inside. fuck that.
you go to a movie. everyone sits in reverential silence. they pay their 15 bucks or whatever it is and they wait until you’re done. maybe they munch on popcorn.
i’m sort of kidding.
but it is great to be in the back of a theater the first time your movie plays for an audience and watch the emotions bouncing around the room.

boal2.jpg

(Bryce Duffy)

CJR A lot of journalists feel their work isn’t getting traction now — especially in the election — maybe because people’s attention spans are shorter and some would say because people are too used to entertainment.

MB i don’t know.
i violently disagree with your premise that there’s all sorts of innovation going on in journalism. i don’t see it. i wish i did
i see technical innovations , sure. but the craft. man, it’s so static.
i was talking to my friend about it the other night and we decided there was more experimentation in the 60s because the industry felt more confident.
people were still reading back then. if you wanted to understand Vietnam you picked up Esquire
now everyone is just trying to keep the lights on during the existential hurricane and there’s no room for deep thoughts about form and structure and craft.
at least that’s my two cents .
Serial was super amazing because here
you had a group of folks who were innovating, via podcast, and i thought, holy shit. I want in on that!

CJR so it’s not true that no innovation is happening
podcasts are a big one

MB yeah, the return of the spoken word.

CJR Serial is kind of filmic, in the way the best long form writing is filmic

MB the one useful contribution of the hipster
the jeans are pretty good, too.

CJR the archness of Mr. Boal.

MB I’m very hung over, that’s all. sorry.
airplane coffee not helping the cause.

CJR anyway, want to talk about detroit?

MB sure

CJR what’s it all about?

MB a departure in that it’s historical subject matter, not contemporary. but continuity in that Bigelow is directing my stuff again.
fascinating city
and such a criminal situation up there right now.
the way it happened –
me and hugo were talking about race in America, the legacy shit, and somehow he said ‘you ever been to Detroit?’ and that’s how it started. i hadn’t.
there’s topics i’m interested in – race, sexuality, law, etc – and we sit around talking and looking at different stories to use as sort of paths into the subject
that’s one of the great advantages of my lucky ass life right now is having the luxury to sit around and really consider what I wanna do. there’s no deadline, no need to feed the beast. i can spend a year exploring something and then abandon it. i mean, i hate when that happens, but it happens.
on Detroit, i quickly realized i needed to bone up on the city i knew little about – and find out how this particular story actually worked. the fastest way to do that? we put together a team of ace reporters. pulitzer guys and so forth. they hammered out the story in a couple of months. dazzling work. hopefully we can put it to some journalistic use one day –
then, yeah, i take that research and put it in the toaster oven, and wait for a screenplay to pop out.

CJR so essentially you hired a bunch of reporters to report on Detroit — on the riots and that era, or on what’s going on now, or both?

MB yup. that era.
i mean, i told them what i was looking for.
like an editor would, almost

they dug up the skeletons. they found a bunch of folks still alive with the memories. and then i went around after they’d done the hard work, and did my own interviews and got the lay of the land firsthand.

CJR is it important for you to actually do reporting yourself to write a screenplay? in the same way that it’d be impossible to write a story without having done the reporting yourself?

MB i wouldn’t call it reporting per se because that gets certain people antsy. i call it homework. but yeah, i gotta do it on some level. simply because i prefer whenever possible not to make shit up.
some writers can just close their eyes and go.
i can’t .
i need to look out the window
plus, why wouldn’t you?
the world is so ridiculously interesting.

CJR so you have this real story, and real accounts from people who were there. but you also are making a movie, and it’s a fiction. what drives the changes you make?

MB the art form drives the changes
you are writing scenes.
time is compressed.
biggest thing:
you are writing lines for an actor to utter.
the whole thing top to bottom is a magic trick.
those aren’t real people on screen! that’s not even a person at all! it’s a fucking light wave or whatever.
so that’s where the poetry comes in.
and you try to create certain effects and be true to yourself and make something that lasts and that you can not be embarrassed by

CJR and yet, because of what you said earlier — the impact of film over journalism
this may be all people see about the detroit riots that’s deep and historical
The detroit riots are this hugely important historical event
that still resonates now
obviously in detroit, but arguably a lot of other places too
in this season of police shootings and the alt right
To go back to what you were talking about before:
Do you think a film about something like the detroit riots can do something that journalism about race and policing can’t, or make people pay attention in a way they wouldn’t to plain old reporting?
are people going to sit down and read a long piece about the detroit riots?

MB write one and find out. possibly

CJR is anyone going to read Common Ground to understand why Philando Castile got shot?

MB at the important levels, people still read.
those books are hugely important. i just finished Ghettoside.
incredible piece of work.

CJR sorry, but you are not a normal person.

MB i’m def not normal.
i mean i bet if you ask the author if it was worth it if she changed the minds of, say, a thousand people, she would say absolutely
i bet in her mind, nobody was gonna ever read her book.
she said as much at a PEN awards ceremony i attended the other night.
so let’s stop complaining about lack of influence and just do better work.

CJR how should we do better work?

MB look, i learned my stock of mental imagery of Vietnam which i didn’t live through, that comes from motion pictures. i learned from Platoon, from Deer hunter, all of them.
how much was true or false? i have no idea .
i mean, now i know. because i’ve spent years in that world.
but then i didn’t .
still, it was better than nothing.
it was world’s better than nothing.

CJR Deer hunter amazing movie —
Dispatches another good example. who cares if it’s true?

MB i learned about war’s dirty little secrets. i learned so much from those movies it’s scary.
i care if it’s true.
i definitely care.

CJR I think that book is a great example of something that conveys what war feels like

MB Bright Shining Lie – i mean, what the fuck, how did he do that?

CJR and as someone who cares a lot about facts — I don’t need everything to be totally fact checkable in there
bc it’s so impressionistic
bright shining lie is another matter
tone is totally different
how did he do that — if you can answer that, maybe you’ll win the nobel

MB yeah, sure. they’re all on the same shelf in my house if you know what i mean
so anyway to answer your question
movies can be part of the historical record. there’s a place for them. just like there’s a place for journalism (which is concerned with facts) and history (which is concerned with what happened) and art (which is concerned with Truth).
we need it all.
and we need more of all of it, or at least, i do.

CJR Bob Dylan said somewhere: I write the songs I want to hear

MB his speech about songwriting, that’s pretty much all u need in terms of a lesson on how to go about doing art.
i mean, if you only took one lesson. study that speech.

CJR I have a question about Death and Dishonor and the Valley of Elah, more of just a help me understand kind of question…
not so elevated
more technical

MB ok
my memory is worse than Reagan’s but i’ll try

CJR so I don’t think a movie based on a true story has to be a documentary
but while I think all magazine writers want to see their stories made into movies, I think nearly all of them are also worried about losing control of the narrative in the process.
Did you feel the story was being taken away from you with the movie, or did you feel always that this was a totally different format and that the story should look different on film from the way it did in print?

MB the story was being taken away from me. it wasn’t a feeling. that’s a true statement. and yet, it also wasn’t. Paul was extremely generous with me. He gave me a Story By credit. i sat, literally at his side, in his office, for months, and we worked on the outline together. He taught me how to put together a motion picture.
actually, i thought he taught me that.
but he didn’t
he just taught me how to tell that particular story.
when i set out to do another story, i realized i was starting from scratch again. you start at the bottom every time.

CJR when you saw the structural changes in the film, were you like damn — I should have written it that way, I should have led with the dad…

MB no.

CJR or was it like, oh never mind, that’s the movie

MB i never thought that.

CJR so it’s not exactly transferrable from one genre to another

MB the biggest thing in that as i recall was not so much the motion picture as the real life people involved.
i was very close to the kid’s dad.
Lanny Davis, he passed away. But he was alive through the making of the film and it was very difficult for him to see parts of his life portrayed and fictionalized.
it’s a completely bizarre thing to do to another human being. to write about them as a reporter, that’s bad enough.
but then to fictionalize them.
it can be very tough on the subject and i disagreed with some of the choices that were made.
but at the same time, if i step back, the film is powerful.
they were the right choices for the picture.
just not for the person who inspired it.

CJR that’s part of why you pay people when you make a movie about them, or based on them, right?

MB there’s your Janet Malcolm
i don’t pay people
I’ve never paid anyone to talk to me in my life.
except a shrink or two.

CJR am I wrong? if you make a movie based on someone’s life of story, don’t you have to pay them for the rights?
i mean it’s fiction, not journalism
if you make a documentary, you don’t

MB “have to” is an overstatement. the answer depends on how aggressive you want to be with intellectual property law and First Amendment law.
you don’t have to
i don’t need your permission to make a film about you.
or write a novel about you.
hell no.
people pay as a business practice because they don’t wanna deal with the legal side of not paying.
i spent about 2 million bucks of an insurance company’s money defending in Federal Court the right of writers not to pay.
most folks don’t wanna deal with the hassle.

CJR with Hurt Locker?

MB personally i don’t mind litigating if i believe in it.
yeah Sarver v Hurt Locker
currently i’m suing the US government, the Army and the President.
my lawyers say i’m a good client.
the Sarver case was a big deal in those First Amendment circles.
we won big.

CJR but the thing about the Bergdahl material is…was it done with a journalistic or big screen ambition in mind?
up til now it’s only been used for journalism
Serial
but when you were doing the interviews, were you thinking, I’m going to do journalism about this or I’m going to make a movie based on this?
does it matter?
maybe you would argue it doesn’t?
that reporter-source communications should be protected no matter the end product

MB like i said, do it all.
know your lane. and just do it all.

CJR that’s somewhat innovative (speaking of innovation)

MB if you want to look at it as a business, and i do, there are nonfiction products and there are fictional products.
it’s sometimes a pain in the ass to keep them kosher, but it’s not rocket science.
i’m pretty up to speed on the relevant case law. i read the opinions and so forth and so i try to know where the lines are w/r/t the First Amendment. i think you have to be these days.
even back at the Voice, i was always pushing the boundaries.
they had a great attorney there. she was super kind to me.
she gave me the case law. she said if you’re going to keep doing this, you better read it.
the Food Lion case, all that

CJR yes, I think you’ve made excellent use of legal maneuvers that are often used by journalists — anti-SLAPP, shield law in Bergdahl — to safeguard your work
I mean how much of the legal strategy is you, and how much is it your lawyers?

MB it’s not simply about safeguarding my work.
my work is fine.
it’s about giving back a little bit to the community when i can.

CJR by helping to change the laws?
or showing examples of what works?

MB the laws kinda suck
but sometimes if you put the right legal team together and throw them a bunch of money, you can stand up against the crushing tide and try to make a little more room for people to work. it’s hard enough as it is being a reporter in this country. trust me, it’s hard being a screenwriter and trying to do worthwhile shit. the odds are not in your favor. so if an Army prosecutor comes after me, hey, i can handle that. i have friends who couldn’t. a friend called me the other day and said if an Army prosecutor subpoenaed me i either turn over the material or mortgage my house to stop it. look at Risen. when a prince like Risen can be fucked with, we are all in deep trouble. Risen should be untouchable. and yet they made him miserable for years and years. i suppose he knew the risks and it’s a compliment to have the state try and crush you. but it’s 2016. haven’t we outgrown the need to control information?
it’s like they wanna punish Risen and in the same breath they go beg Silicon Valley for technology to fight.
you can’t have it both ways.

CJR oh we will never outgrow that. or the government never will.

MB i don’t know .
let’s see what happens.
Facebook and those guys are ripping up norms so fast it’s hard to tell what’s going on

CJR not in our favor unforch

MB i’m an optimist.

CJR yes I can see that
I was too before I covered a war and covered the media

MB you have to be. it’s the only rational answer. of course the wars suck, all of them do. too bad for anyone who believes otherwise. but overall, they were a lot less bloody than WWII.

CJR optimism is *the only rational answer*?

MB yup

CJR I think it’s the only livable answer.

MB if you don’t think things are getting better hop in your time machine circa whatever and go to a dentist.
when he packs your mouth full of mud and rips out your tooth with pliers… i mean, progress isn’t the same thing as utopia. but we muddle through. and things improve. they really do. that’s not being naive. that’s just the facts.
i gotta run.
last question!

CJR ok last question:
we sort of talked about this before but not specifically
I know you lived through some serious controversy around the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, and I gather it wasn’t a good time.
I read a piece that Steve Coll wrote about it that made the case that because you started the movie with actual 911 calls from 9/11 victims and included lots of accurate depictions of real events–like the Marriott bombing in Islamabad–and also because you called it “reported,” the torture scenes and their relevance to bin Laden’s capture could, and perhaps had to be, read as journalistic and “real,” even though the movie was a fiction. That’s especially true given that the CIA and other records of what happened are classified, so no actual journalistic story can be told about it yet with a high degree of dependability–so the film fills a big gap.
kind of like what I was saying about detroit
From the distance of several years on, do you feel that any of the points made by those who suggested you overplayed the role of torture are valid? Or did they just misunderstand the movie and/or what you were trying to do?

MB couldn’t resist, huh? Coll’s a good reporter. i don’t agree with him on every point and there was stuff in the film i imagined a guy like him would have liked more than he did …but that’s the fun of sticking your neck out and taking your shot. he’s a smart guy and i’ve read all his work. but takes his shots. i take mine. i’m not going litigate this stuff again though. maybe in like 20 years when some more of it becomes public.
i gotta stand up for a second. brb

CJR sure

MB ok
we good?

CJR yeah. this was fun. thanks for playing.

MB can you do me a favor?

CJR shoot

MB i want to add a line somewhere about the editors that helped me over the years. those folks gave me more than i’ll ever be able to repay. Bob Love, at Rolling Stone and then at Playboy, i owe him a Porsche for what he showed me. He knows it. He’s been kind enough not to hold me to it. Richard Goldstein at the Voice put me through
a program of his own devising that beat any graduate school i could get into.
Will Dana at Rolling Stone, that dude used to hand stuff back with oceans of red ink.
David Kuhn
another teacher.
i was so lucky.
that’s all i wanted to add that in. i think about those folks all the time and how much they gave me.

CJR {oscar acceptance speech}

MB no i’m serious.
it would be meaningful to me.

CJR k
anything more on innovation? except you don’t think it’s happening?
just in case…

MB all i know is the feature well keeps shrinking and there’s less and less i want to read.
but i’ll probably be reading the Times until the day i die, even if they’re beaming it into my eyeballs.

CJR isn’t what you do in movies a kind of innovation?
or what david Simon does on TV?

MB there’s a long and very proud tradition of realism in motion pictures. it didn’t start with Simon. he carries the torch now – along with a lot of other people. Spielberg, Howard, et al… doing it beautifully for years. i follow their footsteps but perhaps fractionally different impression left on the ground. that’s the hope at any rate.
if they kick me out of film making at least i’ll make a tell all book out of it.

CJR :)
(end scene)
did I do that right?

MB

 

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CJR we’re asking everyone in the issue to write up a small (100-150 word) piece on an innovation that helps you with your work

MB so what’s yours?

CJR I’m not doing one
but you are, we hope

MB lol

CJR any ideas?

MB call my agent

CJR is your agent your innovation?

MB my innovation would be those little espresso makers with the aluminum capsule pods. life changing!

CJR do that!
that’s good

MB but unfortunately i can’t help you with your 150 words.
not my thing i’m afraid.

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Vanessa M. Gezari is the managing editor of CJR and author of The Tender Soldier, which came out in paperback in August 2014.