Journalists Behind 'Hustlers,' 'Richard Jewell' React to Their Onscreen Story Adaptations

Richard Jewell_Brenner_Inset - Publicity - H 2019
Claire Folger/Warner Bros.; Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage

Four reporters whose stories take center stage in films such as 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' and 'The Big Short' weigh in on how their stories (and sometimes themselves) came to life on the big screen.

Moviegoers are suckers for true stories, and screenwriters are often on the hunt for juicy, ripped-from-the-headlines tales to tell on film. While it's common for books to be adapted for the screen, this season sees four films based on magazine articles vying for a best adapted screenplay nomination.

In Sony's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, an Esquire writer who receives an unlikely assignment: a profile of Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), the beloved host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But as he interacts with Rogers, Lloyd reexamines the anger he holds toward his estranged father — and works through the childhood trauma that he has carried into adulthood. Screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster turned to Tom Junod's 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers, "Can You Say … Hero?" thanks to the suggestion of Rogers' widow, Joanne.

"It just came out of nowhere for me," Junod says of first hearing from Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster in 2014 — 16 years after his article was published. "If you read the story, there's nothing in there about my dad." It was in Junod's conversations with the screenwriting duo that he shared his own experience with his father, which was fictionalized for the film. "My dad was a complicated person, and our [relationship] was complicated in its own way," he says, "but it was not marked by anger the way it is in the film." Yet, having a fictional Lloyd be a stand-in for Junod still made the journalist a little nervous. "I went to the set several times and saw Matthew working," he says. "It wasn't until I saw the movie that I realized he was essentially playing a version of me. One of the fundamental things about being a journalist is thinking, 'Well, if I nail the person, they might not like the portrayal, but they have to admit that I got them right.' And Matthew got me."

When Jessica Pressler's "The Hustlers at Scores" — the bombastic account of former strippers who scammed Wall Street's elite after the 2008 recession, which inspired STX's Hustlers — was published in New York in December 2015, she sent a link to Adam McKay, whom she had just interviewed for a story about The Big Short. "I just thought he'd enjoy it," Pressler says, "and as it happened [McKay and Will Ferrell] had just launched Gloria Sanchez."

A subsidiary of the pair's Gary Sanchez Productions and founded by Jessica Elbaum, the company was on the hunt for female-centered projects. Once writer-director Lorene Scafaria was attached, she and Pressler talked over the phone to discuss the characters, themes and details about the financial crisis. "It was fascinating to see it go through different iterations," Pressler says. "There are pieces of dialogue in there that are things that I wrote, or characters said in the piece, transposed onto other people. It's not not true, and I imagine it's how my sources feel when they read my work. Sometimes months will go by in a single paragraph. It happens the same way onscreen, and it's a little discombobulating."

As for seeing herself in the film — in the form of Julia Stiles' reporter, with whom Constance Wu's Destiny shares her story — Pressler sounded as nervous as Junod. "I was totally freaked out when I heard that there was a journalist character," she admits, noting her relief that the role was cut down in the script's final draft. But the spirit of journalism, she says, was very true in the film, particularly the tension in Stiles and Wu's scenes. "You are in somebody's life and talking to them about something really sensitive, and it can be complicated and uncomfortable."

The complexities — and potentially chaotic — aspects of reporting are the subject of Warner Bros.' Richard Jewell. Centered on the titular character, a security guard wrongfully fingered as a suspect in the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta, the film depicts the madness following the deadly event when Jewell became the subject of a media frenzy with a scrum of reporters camped outside the apartment he shared with his mother, Bobi. Marie Brenner, who wrote the Vanity Fair article "American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell" on which Clint Eastwood's film is based, was immediately drawn to the story. "It was clear from the beginning this was a strange, chaotic, catastrophic event — a confluence of tough circumstances," Brenner says. "I was determined to go down to Atlanta, and Graydon Carter called me and said, 'This has your name on it.' "

Brenner's article was published months after Jewell was officially cleared in the investigation, but the experience always stuck with her. "Having spent all that time with Richard, Watson [Bryant, Jewell's attorney] and Bobi in Atlanta — you couldn't go down there, watching the press gang up on Richard, and not have it change you," she says. "It seeped into me in a profound way and changed in many ways how I reported stories in the future." Having stayed in touch with the Jewells and Bryant over the years, Brenner considered it a passion project — and in 2014, after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, urged her agent to send the article to Jonah Hill, who was soon attached to play Jewell, with his co-star Leonardo DiCaprio considered for Bryant. (The roles eventually went to Paul Walter Hauser and Sam Rockwell, respectively, but Hill and DiCaprio are credited as producers.)

There is no Marie Brenner character in Richard Jewell, and there isn't a Nathaniel Rich in Focus Features' Dark Waters, either. Based on the journalist's 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," the film follows attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) as he uncovers a lengthy history of pollution linked to a number of illnesses and deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and eventually wins a $671 million settlement from DuPont on behalf of the plaintiffs. "The story is that [these chemicals can be found] in the bloodstream of every one of us and found in every single living organism on the planet — and that it has been covered up for all this time," Rich says. "It's taken this one person, a throwback figure who you think Jimmy Stewart might have played. I guess we have our Jimmy Stewart in Mark Ruffalo." But Rich doesn't think of Bilott as the typical protagonist of an eco-legal thriller. "He's not an Erin Brockovich-style character," he says. "He's really reserved, withdrawn to a fault at times. Getting him to talk about the personal toll the case took on him was difficult."

Pairing such a cautious character with director Todd Haynes, known for his stylistic approach to emotive melodrama, worked in the story's favor. "When I found out Todd Haynes was going to direct it, I was overwhelmed with excitement," Rich says. "The emotion is all there, but it's suppressed. Ruffalo never has one of those Oscar-type speeches. He never breaks from Rob Bilott. But when he is forced to be vulnerable, I think that's where the greater drama lies."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.