Judging Jewell: The True Story Behind Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill's Olympic Drama

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP; AP Photo/Greg Gibson
Jonah Hill (left), and Richard Jewell

Before "The Wolf of Wall Street" stars team up again for the biopic of Richard Jewell, THR spoke with the filmmaker behind the "30 for 30 Short" about the security guard who went from a national hero to terror suspect.

After earning Oscar nominations for their roles in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill announced this week that their next big-screen collaboration will be The Ballad of Richard Jewell.

The Fox adaptation of the Vanity Fair article tells the story of a security guard at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, who in an attempt to save the crowds from a bomb attack got branded a terrorist and was made public enemy number one.

The tragic tale captivated the nation 17 years ago, and the announcement of the hottest duo in Hollywood's feature came just one week after the award-winning filmmaker Adam Hootnick's film Judging Jewell was released online for ESPN's 30 for 30 Shorts series.

"I was extremely surprised when I heard about the film but have said for some time that there should be a feature and that Jonah Hill was the right person to play Richard Jewell," Hootnick tells The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive interview.

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"It is a total coincidence, but he is who I envisioned, so I think it is a great call. I hope this is great promotion for my film. The response has been incredible so far. I am very happy with everything that has happened."

He's worked with ESPN before, on a short titled The Outstanding Mind-Bending Basketball Synergy Machine. "We were talking about what to do next and Olympics ideas. And as I learned more about Richard Jewell's story, I thought that its every filmmaker's dream to make a difference and impact history somehow. And here is a guy who history got wrong," the filmmaker tells THR.

Hootnick goes on to share his insight into the story of Jewell, who was initially arrested in connection with the bomb blast that killed Alice Hawthorne and injured hundreds of others. He was later cleared of all charges but not before being raked over the coals by the media, being vilified by the public and made the punch line of late-night talk shows. The man who was dubbed an overweight failed cop and a momma's boy died of natural causes in 2007 at 44 after suffering from heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.

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"I think [CNN producer] Henry Schuster, who is in my film, said it best: 'Here is a guy who would have been a hero and invited to the White House shaking President Clinton's hand.' He should have had any law enforcement job he wanted," says Hootnick. "Instead he was working an $8-an-hour gig in small town outside Atlanta after suffering for years because the only thing that stuck was he was somehow connected to the bombing, when instead he was a hero.

"There was no evidence whatsoever that he was connected -- but you can't blame only media -- the hysteria was understandable for sure, but the fact that you feel hysterical was not justification for acting hysterical. A guy's life got ruined."

When it comes to Richard's premature death, his family still believes his national condemnation was to blame. "I don't know medically the whole story, but certainly his wife and his mother think it contributed to it. For one, he did not want any publicity about him having this weakness while he was having an ongoing confrontation with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; he didn't want them to have anything they could blackmail him with. Two, just the stress took its toll on him," he explains.

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"You have to understand that this is a guy who all he ever wanted was to be a cop, to play by the rules -- and he did exactly that in the most perfect way possible. There was no guy that you would have wanted more in his role at that moment more than Jewell, because not every security guard would have recognized that bag [containing the bomb] because he was so fastidious and good at his job. Everything he had been doing his whole life should have made him a superstar. Instead it was the exact opposite."

When asked why he was made the scapegoat for the attack that ultimately Eric Rudolph was convicted for Hootnick continues: "We needed an answer -- the Olympics were a pretty big deal. The Tuesday that the headline broke that Richard was a suspect was the same day that Centennial Park opened again for the first time. By the time crowds were coming back in, they knew that the FBI had someone in their sights. It was a very useful story for the FBI, the Olympics organizers and the media, particularly the Atlanta news who had a need to show the world they were top notch.

"A lot of agendas led to one guy getting crushed. It was a perfect storm, but it's something that we should expect. It is very much a function of human nature because we look for stories that line up to our expectations. This wasn't an isolated moment; it could happen again, and it has happened again."

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Hootnick worked closely with Richard's widow, Dana, and Judging Jewell is the first project that she has thought is the right tribute to him. "We want as many people as possible to know who he was," he says.

When it comes to the DiCaprio-Hill big-budget project, he thinks the "casting choice is inspired. It is exactly who I had envisioned for the story.

"I really hope whoever is doing this film is in same way that Martin Scorsese worked with these two guys to bring attention to an institution that has decayed. This is a story of a guy being crushed between two major institutions -- the government and the media -- that destroyed a man's life. I think it's exciting that these two guys are coming back together again to show us something insightful about what happened in America."

Judging Jewell is streaming online on ESPN's website and will air on Feb. 24 at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Meanwhile, The Ballad of Richard Jewell is in development, and the goal is for Hill to play Jewell and DiCaprio to play Jewell's attorney. DiCaprio will produce the adaptation with his partner Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Hill and Kevin Misher, who initially optioned the material.