'All The Money in the World' Writer Reveals Patty Jenkins Helped Secret Recasting

David Scarpa recounts how the film hit a crisis before re-emerging with an acclaimed performance from Christopher Plummer.
Courtesy of Giles Keyte
Christopher Plummer in 'All the Money in the World' (inset: screenwriter David Scarpa)

The most buzzed-about casting of the year got a little top-secret help from Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

When director Ridley Scott decided to erase disgraced actor Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World, one question on producers' minds was how to keep the casting process secret. They needed to find a new J. Paul Getty, the mogul whose grandson Paul Getty III was kidnapped in 1973, and they needed to do it without anyone knowing.

"'If it gets out, and we don't cast this and we can't make it happen, the movie is dead," screenwriter David Scarpa recalls producers saying when they unveiled their recasting plan to him in early November. Scarpa admits that he was doubtful the production could secretly find a new Getty, re-shoot scenes with the new actor and still make the film's quickly approaching December release date.

"When a call goes out to the casting agencies, 'Ridley Scott is looking for an actor to play a 90-year-old guy,' pretty much everybody knows what movie that is," said Scarpa.

The team found a solution with help from Jenkins, who sent out the call under the guise of the role being for her TNT limited drama series One Day She’ll Darken, which she is working on with her husband, writer Sam Sheridan.

"Ridley's casting agents basically asked if they could send the call out for the part under their production's name," says Scarpa. "So basically it was, 'Patty Jenkins is looking for a 90-year-old guy.' That was basically how they were able to do it. There was a lot of this sort of … crafty maneuvers in order to make this thing come off."

The recasting and reshoots paid off, with critics giving praise to the film. Plummer has earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work, with his director Scott and co-star Michelle Williams also earning nominations. Below, Scarpa digs in to what made Getty tick, also offering a tease of his ambitious Cleopatra movie, set to be directed by Denis Villeneuve.

One of the things that's amazing about this story is that Getty refused to pay the ransom, despite being the richest person in history at that time. At one point he says something like, "Well, if I pay this ransom my other grandkids may become targets." What do you make of that?

That's a very rational answer, but by virtue of the fact that it's very rational, it's also said that he is not responding to it emotionally, which is "I want my kid back." He is taking it as a cost-benefit equation, which is "If I pay for this one, I put the others at risk." It's a very mercenary way of looking at your kids. If you look at his actions later on, he finally does pay the ransom only when he can deduct it on his income taxes. So it's not so much a matter of his other kids, it's also a matter of his belief that he can't afford it or his inability to part with the money on any other terms.

Getty's grandson Paul had a tragic life after his kidnapping, suffering from addiction and needing care after liver failure and a stroke. We get just a hint of this future the film. How much did you decide to show?

It's about where you choose to put your end point. The time it felt to put the end point was immediately after the kidnapping. It's actually opening another can of worms to get into what happens years later. You should get the sense that he's been damaged. We wrestled a little bit with whether we wanted to incorporate that information into the end cards, because what's also key is he's basically cared for by his mother for the rest of his life, for years. 

What did you learn about his mother Gail, played by Michelle Williams, as you got into writing this?

The book we were working from [John Pearson's 1995 work Painfully Rich], she actually collaborated with the author. She gave him a lot of interviews, etc. and also she had done other interviews for other books. There were a number of first-person interviews we had for that, so that was a good place to get a lot of it. Michelle managed to find footage of her speaking. I'd never seen this footage. She managed to track down footage to get the way she spoke, her movements. It took a bit of research to get there.

Did you write anything new for Christopher Plummer after he came aboard?

We talked about that possibility. ... It turned out Plummer liked the script, so we were in good shape there and everybody else wanted to come back, so it wasn't necessary and we also were precluded from doing too much because we actually had to fit all the scenes exactly into this box they were already in for the movie, because we had music cues and things like that. So we were not at liberty to go off and just sort of shoot all kinds of new crazy stuff and make whatever we wanted, because our editor, Claire Simpson, told us if we do that, we would not be able to make our release date. 

What is your reaction to Plummer's Globes nomination and the film's acclaim?

Part of it is a testament to Ridley having very much a filmmaker's mentality. He's not thought of a guerilla, independent filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination, but he's got a guerilla, independent filmmaker's mentality, which is, "if something happens, I'm just going to make use of it." 

The ear scene is something audiences will be waiting for with some trepidation. How much of it did you decide to show?

There were questions of how we wanted to handle that. I think I had initially written it as it did not play out 100 percent onscreen. Meaning, we were in the room, but we didn’t' necessarily see it. Ridley said one day, "I went off and I thought about it and we're going to do it!" He could have gone either way.

It did serve to make me more mad at Getty for not paying the ransom. Ridley really knew how to play it.

It's very intense. This is the guy who had the chestburster [in Scott's Alien]. He's not a guy who pulls away from that stuff (laughs).

Getty is a complicated character, and early in the film we get scenes with Paul as a boy, with his family moving to Italy to reunite with Getty. It really shows how much Getty loved his grandson, as well as Gail wanting a better life for her family. How'd you decide to incorporate that?

It was a decision to do that to bring us into this world. Before we showed that other stuff, to get us into Getty's world. And sort of be seduced into that world. You've got to want to be a part of this family. You've got to want to be in it, so you'll go on the ride when things go bad. There's kind of a Faustian bargain that Gail makes. We're going to go from this very ordinary life to what she thinks is going to be an extraordinary life. She's not really so much into money per se, as just she wants an extraordinary life and this is a way to have it. Most of us might make that choice too. We're kind of seducing the audience to that too. We are being whisked away into this fantasy life.

You have an ambitious project, Cleopatra, in the works, with Denis Villeneuve attached to direct. What was the process to getting that script right? 

It's similar [to All the Money in the World] in that there's a lot of research involved and there's a question with all that of how do you want to do it and how do you make something new out of it? With Getty, part of the idea was to take two genres we felt we knew, which was the kidnapping genre and what we'll call the "great man" genre — the Citizen Kane genre — and smash them together and make something new out of them. With Cleopatra ... instead of doing the movie as the prestige picture — the three-hour, lots of pageantry, people with fans and English accents and all that stuff — [we] really treat it as a political thriller. Dirty, bloody, lots of people swearing and having sex and all of that other stuff and just treat it as a two-hour, lean, mean political thriller, full of assassinations, etc.  Just going the opposite direction from the way we think that movie is going to go. 

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All the Money in the World opens Dec. 25