The Write Stuff
Articles Make It to the Big Screen
Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon
Al Pacino is standing knee-deep in an angry Caribbean sea. Slate gray clouds have risen up behind him, their silhouettes outlined by the deflected light of the setting sun. They have blown into blustery knots, harbingers of the great battle that lies ahead for television producer Lowell Bergman, the character Pacino is playing in this pivotal scene from director Michael Mann’s film, The Insider.
This scene comes just as Bergman/Pacino has watched an altered version of a segment that he produced for 60 Minutes about tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), an ex-employee of the industry giant Brown & Williamson. Wigand put his life and career on the line when he participated in an on-air interview with Mike Wallace in which he exposed B&W’s lies regarding the addictive nature and harmful effects of smoking. Worried about a possible lawsuit, 60 Minutes decided not to air the piece in its original form, opting instead to place Wigand’s identity in shadow, making him an anonymous source. Bergman was devastated. He had promised Wigand that everyone would know the hero behind the information.
The camera has moved in close now and it is all left profile for Al. Pacino has portrayed Bergman as a passionate, talented journalist with unshakable ethical beliefs. Angry and worried about his source, Jeffrey Wigand, Bergman/Pacino speaks into a cell phone at his right ear. "I’m running out of heroes. Guys like you are in short supply," he says to Wigand/Crowe. "Yeah, guys like you too," Crowe responds. It is the moment of truth for both men. Each has had his reputation tarnished — Wigand by the tobacco company for which he used to work, and Bergman by CBS, which compromised the integrity of his word as a journalist.
"I realized that this was not just the story of Jeffrey Wigand, but it was the story of two people coming together," said Marie Brenner, author of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the Vanity Fair article on which the film, "The Insider," is based. The 17,000-word article, which took several months to write, was a behind-the-scenes look at the first time 60 Minutes pulled a segment that was slated to air, because of corporate pressures.
Of the many journalists who dream that their articles will be optioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars and made into Academy Award-winning films starring Julia Roberts or Tom Hanks, only a handful will ever have that wish granted. Stories that translate well to film usually follow a loosely-based formula calling for sequential structure and strong, interesting, well-defined characters. Examples in addition to Brenner’s are Almost Famous, based on the true-life experiences of its director, Cameron Crowe, when he was a music journalist for Rolling Stone in the mid ‘70s; Dog Day Afternoon, taken from a spread in the now-defunct Life magazine called The Boys in the Bank; Perfect and Urban Cowboy, which were based on articles by Aaron Latham — all are successful adaptations. Some journalists adapt their own work for the screen. Breaking news, articles with heaps of statistical information, even stories that win awards or have strong narrative themes often don’t make good films, because they lack the necessary framework. Some, such as Vanity Fair writer Brenner, find breaking the story the biggest thrill.
After delivering her article to Wayne Lawson, Vanity Fair’s executive literary editor, Brenner hired former attorney and libel expert Robert Sack, now a federal judge, to help protect both her and the magazine from being sued. Vanity Fair took a great risk in publishing Brenner’s article, as tobacco companies were still very powerful at that time. "You know the tobacco politics changed by the spring of ‘96. But there was this window. We were closing this [article] by the very end of the arctic chill before tobacco politics shifted, and it was frightening," Brenner said.
Aside from raising the possibility of a lawsuit, The Man Who Knew Too Much happened to be a well-structured article with interesting and well-defined characters that caught the eye of director Michael Mann. Mann subsequently hired screenwriter Eric Roth to flesh out the story and write the script. "At first, I didn’t find the story interesting," said Roth, best known for his screenplays, such as the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump and The Horse Whisperer.
"Many articles get optioned by films. There is a certain kind of article that has a real narrative flow to it and those are the ones that stand a much better chance," said Vanity Fair editor Lawson.
"I think this story at its foundation had such dramatic elements. It took on such a hyper-reality where you could be faithful to the emotions of the story even if you had questions about specific facts and chronologies," added Brenner.
Screenwriter and journalist Aaron Latham agrees with Brenner and Lawson about what kind of journalism lends itself to motion picture treatment.
"Journalism and the movies are very similar," said Latham. "Journalism is about what you can see and hear and that’s what movies are. [They’re] generally not about what somebody thinks or feels."
Latham is known for his articles about the Los Angeles health club scene, which ran in Rolling Stone in the late ‘70s. He discovered that story while meeting with indicted businessman John DeLorian’s public relations executive at a health club in West Los Angeles. They met in a workout center, where Latham took one look around and began to realize he might have a story. The establishment had become a place for lonely singles who were tired of the bar scene.
The result of that experience became his Rolling Stone series and, eventually, the film Perfect, which stars John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. It is not only a story about people striving for physical perfection, but also about people hoping to fill their lives with friends, love and honor. Travolta plays a pressured journalist whose refusal to reveal an anonymous source in the DeLorian trial sends him to jail for contempt of court, where he stays until the source decides to come forth of his own volition.
Perfect was a new journalism experiment for Latham. He was interested in adding the unusual element of a love story to his journalistic effort. "The main thing that makes fiction run, that is never used by non-fiction writers is the love story. [New journalists] use the techniques but not the subjects of fiction. I thought that if there was a way to tell a non-fiction love story it would have a special power," Latham said.
Latham applied the same techniques to his next screenplay, Urban Cowboy, which was based on articles he had written. Urban Cowboy also starred Travolta, along with newcomer Debra Winger. It was about people whose lives revolved around the country music bars and culture in Texas.
"I think the techniques of journalism and screenwriting are very, very similar. You have to be a good observer, you have to get the dialogue," Latham said. "The spirit of the two are very, very different. Journalism is basically about bad people and what bad people do to the world. The movies are basically about good people that you can root for, that have faults but are not utter, outright, hopeless villains."
P.F. Kluge was a Los Angeles-based journalist when Life magazine sent him to New York City to cover a sad and strange bank robbery that had taken place on Avenue P in Brooklyn at the end of August in 1972. The Boys in the Bank told the story of how two Vietnam veterans tried (and failed) to rob a bank so that one of them could pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. Working on this story with writer Tom Moore, Kluge interviewed former hostages, police officers and FBI men as well as some of the hundred or more bystanders who watched the entire event unfold. The story was optioned and became Dog Day Afternoon, starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet. (In his article, Luge describes one of the men as "a dark, thin fellow with the broken-faced good looks of an Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman.")
"I think they stayed with the surface of a lively journalistic story," said Kluge. "You have a strong, fast-paced story with lots of pungent characters, but you don’t have reflection. You don’t have a contemplative view of life. You don’t have landscapes and moods and sense of time particularly that novels often do have." He added, "I think that this story had a structure. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end — a sort of three-act structure…it was more than a treatment and less than a screenplay and just about the right size."
So there it is. And if Aaron Latham falls in love with Marie Brenner or better yet, P.F. Kluge, and The New York Review of Magazines is sued by big tobacco for mentioning Jeffrey Wigand, perhaps Sidney Lumet will be on the phone with an option offer big enough to pay for my publisher’s sex-change operation.