‘True Story:’ British Filmmaker Tells American Serial-Killer Tale
NEW YORK—Renowned British theater director Rupert Goold recently directed his first film, a mild mystery-thriller/courtroom drama based on a true story, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill.
We met in Soho’s funky-posh Crosby Street Hotel to discuss the film, aptly named “True Story.”
Goold and I immediately discovered we’d both seen the Arthur Miller play “A View from the Bridge,” in 1986, starring British stage giant Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in “Harry Potter”) at London’s National Theatre. It inspired me to become an actor.
Goold’s got movie-star looks, but he went on to become an award-winning London stage director, working with the likes of Gambon himself and Patrick Stewart. He’s won British theater’s top prize, the vaunted Olivier Award, and is an associate director at London’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Of his choice to become a director he explained: “I’ve always had too much of the third eye.”
Goold’s discovered that while he actually feels more suited to movie directing than stage, his biggest challenge was attempting to tell an American story, with an American cast and crew, right out of the starting gate.
After reviewing the film and interviewing the director, my impression is that he’s currently a thinking man’s director, in the metamorphic process of becoming a powerful, visceral one. Now that he’s taken the plunge into the maelstrom of Hollywood moviemaking, Goold’s bigger challenge will be to more successfully convey his passion, ignoring head and harking more to heart and gut. In short, to learn to trust the passionate Catholic art that inspires him most.
“I don’t believe in evil in a Catholic sense, yet the film is constructed with an almost religious mindset,” Goold said. “It’s about good and bad, the devil, how the devil comes in, and how—through the devil—you learn things about yourself. Based on “Paradise Lost.”
Introducing the Devil
In “True Story,” Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, a celebrated New York Times investigative reporter who was fired after getting caught tinkering with the truth to juice up an article; he’d combined a multicharacter situation into a singular character.
After heading home to Bozeman, Montana, Finkel could no longer find work due to this journalistic stain on his record.
One day, he hears about one Christian Longo (James Franco). Longo serial-killed his own family and is hiding out in Mexico, calling himself Michael Finkel and claiming he writes for The New York Times.
So Finkel, smelling an exposé career-comeback possibility, goes to meet Longo at a prison in Oregon.
Longo, a dangerous, first-class con artist in the tradition of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (the horrific, cannibalist antagonist in “The Silence of the Lambs”), as well as many of America’s storied serial killers, promises exclusive story rights to Finkel in exchange (like Lecter’s quid pro quo) for writing lessons from him.
The two men were thrown together by chance. Neither will be known for their not-inconsiderable achievements in their fields, for better or for worse, says Goold: “New York Times superstar versus FBI’s Top-10 Most Wanted. What they share is, they’ll be most well-known for their relationship.”
But they share more than that: Longo tells Finkel one version of his sordid story (which Finkel sends to his agent), whereupon in a court hearing Longo tells another version of murdering his entire family.
Finkel, ironically, feels incensed by Longo’s betrayal of the truth. How are they alike, and will Finkel see his reflection?
Cerebral vs. Visceral
That Goold operates largely from a self-admitted cerebral approach is borne out by film critic Jordan Hoffman’s review of “True Story” for The Guardian (as seen on the premier movie-review website “Rotten Tomatoes”):
“If this all sounds like red meat for philosophers and ethicists at the movies, it certainly is. It doesn’t, unfortunately, make for crackling cinema. British theater director Rupert Goold, making his film debut, has a cold touch. No one in the film is particularly likeable, and while the global implications about epistemology are interesting, the specifics of this particular case, at least rendered here, are quite dull.”
Agreed. Hence my take that Goold would be better served by bringing his visceral self to his work. Hearing the unmistakable passion with which he expresses his attraction to such an approach indicates the true north of his artistic discernment.
Then again, what is film critique if not highly subjective? Edward Douglas of Comingsoon.net wrote of the film: “It’s such a strong piece that I would not even be remotely surprised if this is being talked about at year’s end, come awards time.”
Sources of Inspiration
Goold is not a churchgoer (though the rest of his family is) but says he is drawn to Catholic art, and the idea that through suffering comes understanding. He cites self-conscious Catholic writer Graham Greene and the Catholic filmmaker Lars von Trier.
“Trier’s always got these virgin characters that are put through unbelievable distress and find great redemption,” he said. “I find sensuality in the visceral emotionality of Catholic art, as opposed to my own more cerebral, political standpoint.”
He’s also interested in authenticity and what it means to be authentic, saying, “I don’t mean this in a Marxist way, but it used to be that if you were a farmer, you were a farmer.”
Which is why he relates to Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who famously decided to take up shoemaking as a sideline.
“Now, we have all these identities, especially in the arts; you’re a magpie, a voyeur, and you’re stealing stories and building from the bric-a-brac of other films and plays—which is exciting and stimulating! But of course there’s always that nagging feeling that you’re not the carpenter, that it lacks that … menschy-ness.”
Goold therefore also relates to what he perceives as Finkel’s self-same anxiety in this regard, “It’s why he goes to hard places in the world and tries to validate himself.”
“One always wants to say, ‘my next project will be a rom-com,’ but there’s a certain repetitive story that I keep coming back to, about … overreachers, I suppose. I’ve visited that a lot in drama.”
It may be that Goold, like the characters he feels compelled to visit, may himself tend to overreach by thinking too much.
On this, his first foray into high-profile film directing, Goold’s already racked up nine healthy tomatoes and three rotten tomatoes; not in the same league as an Olivier Award, but not bad at all.
That being said, it should also be noted that film critics are a rather cerebral tribe themselves, which may be why the majority find this film appealing. This film critic, as mentioned, has an acting background, therefore appreciating the visceral and applauding Goold’s deeper motivations.
Once Mr. Goold simplifies, and swings the sail to catch the winds of his Catholic art-inspired passions, he’ll likely be headed into some very visceral, authentic, mensch-y territory, perhaps inspiring his audiences to discover their own authenticity and passion.