The Making of 'J. Edgar'
Six hours a day of makeup. A $35 million budget. A movie star who took one-tenth of his Usual fee. director Clint Eastwood takes THR inside the complicated production about the polarizing, possibly cross-dressing FBI founder.
Dustin Lance Black was eager for the job. It was the fall of 2008 and he saw Hoover's tale as a thematic parallel to Milk, his yet unreleased biopic on slain gay activist Harvey Milk (for which he'd soon win an original screenplay Oscar). After a few meetings with Grazer and Imagine executive Erica Huggins, the trio agreed on Black's approach: Not to indict Hoover, but still to present him warts and all.
Now Black immersed himself in research, reading dozens of books and meeting with as many men as possible who knew Hoover personally. (All the FBI agents dating back to Hoover's era were men; the women who were closest to him -- his mother, Annie, and his secretary, Helen Gandy -- died in 1938 and 1988, respectively.) He was surprised at how polarized the accounts he found were.
"A lot was written when it was just hip to vilify J. Edgar," Black says. "And the books contradicted each other so often. Some would come out and tell you he wore dresses to parties; others would say that's impossible and he was so dedicated to his work he was married to the FBI."
Still, Black was convinced the FBI chief was gay: "Reading his mother's journal entries made it quite clear you were not allowed to be a gay kid in that household."
The movie comes close to making this clear when Tolson aggressively kisses Hoover on the mouth at the end of their fistfight, and Hoover at one point is seen wearing his mother's dress.
Despite this, the FBI was helpful, putting its official historian, John Fox, on the case. "Clearly some people there are very protective of his image and don't even want to consider he was gay or did anything wrong," says Eastwood's producing partner, Robert Lorenz. "Then there is a whole other group of typically younger people who accept everything you've heard."
Black says some of the notes the FBI provided were "fantastic. I took at least half of them and incorporated them in the script -- like the fact that their first lab was actually in the smoking lounge, which I found really funny."
Most useful, Black says, were the numerous in-person interviews he conducted, including several with former FBI agents he found had retired to Simi Valley, Calif. Still, for an entire year he struggled to find his way into the story and didn't write a single word until a breakthrough in October 2009.
"I was thinking about all the things Hoover said about himself," Black explains. "There were so many lies and distortions -- and I realized, this has to be told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator." Hoover himself had to tell the story.
In a frenzy of activity, Black wrote his entire script by that December, working 16-hour days, linking key events such as the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Kennedy assassination as Hoover dictates his memoirs. Then he presented his finished work to Imagine, which in turn took it to Universal.
Through most of the past year, Universal had embraced the project; after all, Black was an Oscar winner and Grazer its most prestigious in-house producer. But something had changed. The studio was reeling from a string of flops with Bruno, Public Enemies and Land of the Lost and had already gone through major personnel shifts, with co-chairmen David Linde and Marc Shmuger departing, and Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley taking their place. It didn't need more drama in the form of J. Edgar Hoover. And so the studio passed.