Dancing with Hollywood

A new rash of award-winning films owe credit to the journalists who unearthed the original plots

An unlikely pair A photo in the Guardian of Martin Sixsmith and Philomena Lee on a park bench inspired Steve Coogan to adapt their story into a film. (Graham Turner / Guardian News & Media Ltd.)

Martin Sixsmith spent four years helping an Irishwoman track down the son she had been forced to give up for adoption, turning the story of her quest into a book: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Sixsmith, a former BBC reporter, largely kept himself out of the narrative, but understood that he had “quite a grabby story.”

Then actor Steve Coogan read a companion article in the Guardian. He bought the rights to the book—sight unseen—and quickly went into production, making Sixsmith into a leading character, played by Coogan himself.

“I think all authors are delighted that somebody is interested enough in their work to want to make it into a film,” Sixsmith says. Being a character was a nice bonus.

Sixsmith is probably the only journalist to see himself played on the big screen this year, but he is not alone among reporters striking Hollywood gold lately. This year, films based on journalistic works are laced through the industry’s awards season: Coogan’s film, Philomena; Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on a Washington Post story about the butler who served eight presidents, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, about an aids-medication smuggling ring reported on by the Dallas Morning News.

More are on the way. Vanity Fair’s 1997 article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” about the security guard who foiled an Olympic bomb plot, will soon become a movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. Robert Redford is also set to star in a film based on “The Old Man and the Gun,” a 2003 New Yorker piece about an elderly bank robber. And a film is being developed based on a 2012 Wired piece on John McAfee, the software entrepreneur who fled Belize in 2012 during a murder investigation.

The process by which journalism is being converted into Hollywood screenplays is being refined with each passing movie. At least two new outfits have gone into the business of mining magazine journalism material for silver screen treatment. Condé Nast founded Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE) three years ago to convert the wealth of magazine articles at its disposal into films and television shows. Half a dozen employees sift through back issues in search of articles and package them for the entertainment market. And last year, two Wired writers, Joshua Davis and Joshuah Bearman, founded Epic, an online magazine initially conceived as another Byliner or Atavist, that diversified into the articles-to-movies business. It commissions what its website calls “extraordinary true stories”—narratives that lend themselves to television and film—and then tries to sell the rights, using all revenue to help fund future reporting.

“We now have 12 stories signed or so,” Bearman says. “These are stories we want to make into great nonfiction, and then make into something else.”

While the prominence and pace of the current cadre of reportorial adaptations is unusual, journalism has long provided grist for the Hollywood mill. On the Waterfront (1954), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) all started out as articles in the New York Sun, Life and New York Magazine respectively, while Golden Age screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote The Front Page) were once reporters for Chicago Daily News. The journalism/Hollywood axis crystallized two decades ago when Vanity Fair threw its first Oscar Party (1994) and launched its now fabled Hollywood Issue (1995). “The same elements that make a magazine article great—access, narrative thrust, and disclosure—are the same ingredients for a certain type of movie,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter says.

It was Bearman who played a big role in starting the current boomlet. His 2007 Wired article about a daring CIA mission to rescue six American diplomats caught up in the Iran Hostage Crisis became Ben Affleck’s Argo and went on to win last year’s Oscar for Best Picture. It’s success cleared the way for a host of films based on articles.

One of those was an article by Wil Haygood. A reporter for The Washington Post, Haygood was outside an Obama rally in North Carolina in 2008 when he spotted three young women crying. “These three ladies were white,” he recalls. “They were young college students, and they had completely been disowned by their fathers because they supported this African-American candidate. I just thought that was so powerful, that they were standing up to their mythical Southern fathers, and that they were not going to retreat. They convinced me that Obama could win.” Haygood knew the election of the nation’s first African-American president would have special meaning to those who had lived through segregation. He wanted to write a story about the men and women who had worked at the White House, yet had been barred from trying on clothes at stores nearby, because of the color of their skin. Finding them was the trouble.

Haygood rang everyone he could think of for information, with no luck. Then, a woman called out of the blue, and told him she remembered meeting someone at a party: Eugene Allen, a butler who had served three presidents and had worked at the White House before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Haygood guessed Allen lived somewhere in the D.C. Metropolitan area and began rummaging through the phonebook. On the 57th call, the exhausted journalist finally struck gold. “Yes, I am the Eugene Allen who worked at the White House,” said the man on the other end of the line. “But I did not work for three presidents, I worked for eight, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.” Allen invited Haygood to his home and took him downstairs to the basement to show off his collection of historical memorabilia. “It was like being dropped into a room at the Smithsonian museum. This was history as seen through the eyes of one man, one black man.”

Haygood’s article, “A Butler Well Served by this Election,” ran on the front page of the Post three days after Obama was elected. He had fielded more than a dozen offers from film studios by the end of the day. Haygood eventually sold the rights to producer Laura Ziskin because she assured him that the film would not only cover the experiences of African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, but it would do so from their point of view—a perspective Haygood felt was too often lacking in other civil rights movies.

Ziskin enlisted screenwriter Danny Strong to adapt Allen’s life into a screenplay. Strong was fresh from adapting books by journalists into the critically acclaimed HBO films Recount and Game Change, but he struggled with Allen’s story. “I thought it was a very beautiful story and that it could make a great movie and I had no idea how to do it,” he says. Strong convinced Ziskin to allow him to change the protagonist’s name to Cecil Gaines and to tell a fictional story. The film would remain inspired by Allen but with changes that better suited the screen. Strong interviewed 25 people—ranging from White House staff to civil rights campaigners—and incorporated much of what he learned into his screenplay. Haygood is thrilled with the finished product because it remains true to the spirit of Allen’s story. “I think they did a beautiful job in that regard. Mr. Allen’s son has said time and time again that he loves the movie, and that it has captured the essence of his mother and father’s life,” he says.

Not every journalism-to-silver-screen story has a Hollywood ending for the reporter. Bill Minutaglio wrote “Buying Time” two decades ago while reporting for the Dallas Morning News. But it was only last year, when he happened on a trailer at the local cinema, that he discovered his story had made it to the big screen as Dallas Buyers Club.

Minutaglio was working at the Morning News’ Sunday magazine in the early ’90s when he read in the Village Voice about “buyer’s clubs”: groups that smuggled medication for patients dying of aids. “There was one in Dallas that had a reputation for being particularly rambunctious and for going to any means to bring in things,” he says. But telling its story required a national context; the Dallas Morning News was strictly focused on Dallas. “I began suggesting to the editor that we at least broaden it out and look at the buyer’s club movement and the quest for some folks that were desperately ill to stay alive by any means necessary,” he says. His editor agreed and Minutaglio went off in search of Woodruff. The buyer’s club was technically underground and Woodruff was wary of reporters, but he eventually warmed to Minutaglio. “I suspected that he was going to be like a piker, outlaw kind of guy,” Minutaglio says. Instead, Woodruff looked like an “accountant”: “He was an almost elfin man, mercurial, darting, quick, and he had a smile and twinkle in his eye.”

Minutaglio remembers speaking with a screenwriter on the phone about Woodruff. But he assumed the project had fizzled out, like Paramount Pictures’ plans to film City on Fire, his 2003 book about the worst industrial disaster in American history, the Texas City fire. Still, Minutaglio isn’t bitter about being left out of the production. The most important thing to him is that Dallas Buyers Club accurately reflects Woodruff’s spirit (even if star Matthew McConaughey doesn’t look much like the man). “Ron symbolized two things to me: personal courage and this sense that you have to control your own destiny. People should not tell you how to live. The government should not tell you how to live, especially if you are dying,” he says. “If anything out there draws attention to aids and the fact that we need to do more as journalists, public officials, and doctors, then that’s a really important thing to me.”

Minutaglio’s story isn’t uncommon. Conrad Rippy, a partner at Levine, Plotkin & Menin LLP, knows reporters are often at a disadvantage when negotiating movie deals. “If it’s a major newspaper, and they were on staff, it is almost a hundred percent certain that the newspaper is the owner of the rights for that piece,” he says. Freelancers working for smaller newspapers or magazines might be luckier, and often have an agreement where the publication only gets to participate in a small way. But magazines are more reluctant than ever to relinquish article rights. “These days Wired [or other publishers] would say, Give me a break, of course we want to participate in other exploitations of this property that you are writing for us.”

Nancy Jo Sales, who has written for Vanity Fair for more than a decade and has had several articles optioned for film, including one that became last year’s The Bling Ring, says magazine companies are demanding more involvement in movie deals these days, usually to the detriment of reporters’ interests. “They now want to be involved in the whole process. And who can really blame them? I don’t blame them. Of course writers don’t love it, because then we get much less money and have less control,” she says.

Other publishers must have watched the launch of Condé Nast Entertainment and are following the publisher’s more aggressive lead. While negotiating her contract with an online publication recently, Sales noticed the company was asking her to waive all of her rights to future exploitations of her article. “I just said, ‘No, no, I’m not going to do that,’ ” she says. Fortunately, they were willing to negotiate. “That’s the other thing that I guess writers and journalists need to know, is that you usually can negotiate these things.”

Luckily for Sixsmith, the process of bringing Philomena to the big screen was relatively smooth—the only major surprise was becoming a lead character in the film. He certainly wasn’t one in the book; his appearances can be counted on one hand. But Coogan and his co-screenwriter, Jeff Pope, insisted on it and involved him in the writing process, discussing how their version deviated from the book and showing him successive drafts of the script. “One or two things could have come as a surprise if I hadn’t been [involved],” Sixsmith says. His character Martin, for instance, is a rather unpleasant man when audiences first meet him. “He’s portrayed as a . . . sort of snobbish, self-regarding, sort of middle-class poltroon at the beginning,” Sixsmith says, good-humoredly. “I’m glad they told me that they were going to do that rather than just springing it on me at the last minute.” Sixsmith says he was comfortable with the slightly negative characterization because it served the film’s narrative arc, playing well against Philomena’s cheeriness, and Martin redeems himself by the end. Despite the changes, the filmmakers were committed to putting Martin and Philomena’s story onscreen as authentically as possible. “I do think there was a moral imperative there. I think that you have a responsibility, if you’re going to tell someone’s story, to remain as faithful as you can to the spirit of what happened,” Pope says. “It’s not about whitewashing, it’s about being true.”

How long the current wave of articles-cum-movies will last is about as easy to predict as which films will become blockbusters. But Sixsmith, who has already sold the rights to another story, is enjoying life among the rarified ranks of journalists who see these as the glory days.

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Andrew Bell and Edirin Oputu
Bell is a former director of advertising for CJR; Oputu is a CJR assistant editor.