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A few years ago, J. Michael Straczynski, a one-time journalist who had become an established writer on television shows like “Babylon 5,” got a call from an old source at Los Angeles City Hall. They were burning old records, the man said, and there was something he should see before it got tossed into the incinerator.
Straczynski rushed downtown, where he was handed a transcript of a City Council welfare hearing in the long-forgotten case of Christine Collins, a single mother whose 9-year-old son Walter went missing in 1928.
“I was astonished to see what had happened, what this woman had endured,” he says.
After five months of waiting, Collins was notified by the Los Angeles Police Department that they had located Walter in Illinois. But when she met the child, she declared that he was not her son, but somehow the authorities persuaded her to take him home. When she demanded the police resume the search for her son, she was locked away in the mental ward of Los Angeles County Hospital.
After his Showtime series “Jeremiah” was canceled in 2004, Straczynski plunged into research on Collins and the parallel case of Gordon Northcott, an eccentric mechanic accused of killing as many as 20 children, one of which may have been Walter, in what became known as the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. A year later, he emerged with 6,000 pages of documents.
“Once I had the structure cracked in my head, the draft itself took about 11 days,” the screenwriter says.
From there, things moved fast. Straczynski sent the script off to his agent, CAA’s Martin Spencer, who immediately put it on the market. It was snapped up by Imagine Films for Ron Howard to direct in June 2006. “It set a land speed record,” Straczynski says.
But, just as quickly, “Changeling” screeched to a halt when Howard decided to make “Frost/Nixon” his next project. Howard and his Imagine partner, Brian Grazer, began looking for another director.
“Ron Howard and I both called Clint (Eastwood) together and pitched him the movie,” Grazer recalls. “He said, ‘Let me see it.’ ”
It was February 2007, and Eastwood was on his way to the Berlin Film Festival. So Imagine sent the script to him, and he read it on the plane back.
One of the first things that struck Eastwood was the script’s unusual layout. Straczynski feared that people might find the true story’s wild twists and turns too outlandish to be true, so he interspersed the script with photocopies of court transcripts, press clippings and other documents that mirrored the unfolding drama. (Straczynski says the only significant dramatic inventions are the scenes depicting Collins’ time in the asylum, of which little is known.)
“As you opened it up, he had the articles out in the papers at the time with the dialogue … which corresponded with the dialogue in the script,” Eastwood says.
Eastwood was even more taken with Straczynski’s decision to focus on Collins, rather than Northcott’s gruesome crimes, and make it not “a Freddy Krueger kind of story, (but) a real woman’s film with a real, forceful dilemma where she brought down the whole police force and the political system of L.A.”
When Eastwood committed, he learned that several top actresses had expressed interest in the role of Christine Collins, including Reese Witherspoon, Hilary Swank and Angelina Jolie.
“The minute Clint said he was interested, I immediately called Angelina and she said, ‘That does it. I’m in,’ ” Grazer says.
From there, Eastwood’s team at Warner Bros.-based Malpaso Prods., led by producer Rob Lorenz, quickly put together a budget and a schedule, approved by Universal in March 2007.
At first, there was concern about Straczynski’s script. At about 150 pages, it was 30 pages too long by Hollywood standards. Straczynski broached the subject in a meeting with Eastwood.
“We sat down and talked about the background of the film and how I got the information,” Straczynski recalls. “Finally, I asked if there was anything he wanted changed. And he looked me right in the eye, and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, my God, this is Clint Eastwood.’ And he said, ‘Look. I’ve had a lot of calls about this script. People love it. My job is not to screw it up. We’re going to shoot it as it is.'”
With the script locked, Eastwood moved rapidly through preproduction. The biggest challenge was re-creating Los Angeles of the 1920s. Most of the places where the real events occurred had either been blighted or replaced by more modern structures, so production designer James Murakami and his team spread out over Southern California in search of workable locales.
In San Dimas, 35 miles east of L.A., they located a block of historic homes to portray Collins’ neighborhood. For Collins’ reunion with her “son,” they found a train station in San Bernardino. Downtown L.A. was portrayed by New York Street and Tenement Street on the Universal Studios backlot, while the Northcott farm in Riverside County (which still exists, chicken coops eerily intact) was re-created in Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. Los Angeles City Hall and San Quentin played themselves.
For the exterior of Northcott’s mother’s apartment, shot on Tenement Street, “they put up a green screen and later they CG’d Vancouver in the background, with a car coming up the hill,” Murakami says. “I was amazed.”
On the other side of the camera, the actors were feeling a different type of wonderment.
“When I showed up on the set at the train station in San Bernardino, the first day in full makeup and wardrobe, it was the first time I met Clint, the crew and Angelina,” says Jeffrey Donovan, who plays J.J. Jones, the LAPD captain who has Collins committed. “Clint said, ‘OK, go ahead.’ That meant ‘action.’ When you see me onscreen opening the door and saying, ‘Ms. Collins, I’d like to introduce you to the chief of police,’ that’s the first take, the first moment I had been on set.”
Donovan says Eastwood never commented on his decision to play Jones with a slight Irish brogue. In fact, he rarely gave any direction other than “go ahead.” And that was fine with Donovan.
“Actors are insecure and they want praise, but he’s not there to praise you or make you feel better,” Donovan says. “All he’s there to do is tell the story, and he hired actors to tell their story.”
Eastwood was able to get the story down on film quickly, wrapping production on Dec. 14, 2007, two days shy of the full 45-day schedule with budget to spare.
For Straczynski, the Christine Collins story continues beyond the film. He’s working on a book about her and the Wineville murders, which he expects to complete in February.
“There was so much I had to leave out,” he says. “It’s a chance for me tell the full story.”
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