'True Story' Director: How to Get James Franco and Jonah Hill to Stay Serious On Set (Q&A)

Jonah Hill, James Franco in 'True Story'
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Though Jonah Hill has already gone serious in Moneyball, and James Franco has previously played a straight face in everything from The Hours to Palo Alto, Rupert Goold's True Story puts the two goofballs of This Is the End (and also Knocked Up) in an intense prison interrogation room as a fallen journalist and an alleged murderer.

Rupert Goold tells THR of making his feature debut, commissioning haunting drawings of murder and staging a "two-handed play" between the oft-comedians.

"Sometimes the truth isn't believable, but that doesn't mean that it's not true," says James Franco as he portrays murderer Christian Longo in True Story, released this weekend via Fox Searchlight. Opposite him in Rupert Goold's feature film debut is Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel, the disgraced New York Times journalist who is impersonated by Longo, and then involved in his pre-trial antics — including the seemingly innocent task of teaching Longo how to write, so that Finkel can interview him for a book to revive his career.

The following is THR's edited Q&A with Goold about keeping the two oft-comedians serious, delivering a verdict outside the courtroom in a crime drama and examining shame in men onscreen.

What spurred this adaptation?

Whenever I used to get in a cab during pre-production, I'd tell the story to whichever driver — anyone, whatever their background, would say, 'That’s insane!' The story is itself incredible, almost so improbable that it’s hard to make real.

But it isn't just about a prisoner and a journalist.

I’m interested in the idea of shame, and what that does to men. Both these men felt very strong shame, bonded over that experience, and corrupted each other with it. And also, nemesis — again, I think this is quite male, but define themselves in opposition to a rival in their life. It can be personal, but it’s often professional, that their career seems to be shaped by that other guy who got my job, or they’re central to doing what I do. So here are these two men that have pretty extraordinary life stories on their own — the FBI's top ten most wanted killer and a superstar New York Times journalist — and yet they’re defined by each other.

I think what both men crave in reality and onscreen, is attention. They want an audience or readers, and he got them and Longo got them. I mean, look where we are — we made the film!

How did you frame them to be so similar and yet each other’s nemesis?

Joe and James bring the DNA. [The characters] are both super smart, they both think they’re super smart and they think they’re smarter than the other. So how they play each other that way, there were linguistic structures in that.

There are scenes between the two of them that we shot for a week in the interrogation room. That felt very familiar to me, like theater. Sometimes I let them goof around — I’d hear them on the monitor, laughing about something, like Seth Rogen or something. They were in that little glass box, and I’d listen to them talking about their friends and films. I’d think, I’ll go in now and I’ll give these notes, and they’d turn over and be fresh and I get what I needed. I'd let them goof around a bit, and then go again. But they stayed focused because they were competitive as well. Jonah likes to keep running and get prompts in reel. With James, he likes to process the thought with more time.

Felicity Jones, as Finkel's wife, had intense interrogation-scene moments with Franco too.

This is a thriller, a courtroom drama, true crime. But I was constantly trying to come off the conventional ways of it happening, so I thought, we're going to have a verdict here, with her. When I got the script initially, she was just a girlfriend. She became the one to see evil for what it is and deliver the verdict.

That was an intense scene to film — quite draining. James hadn’t had any screen time with Felicity and it was kind of a mystery as well. They’re both super attractive people and of course it’s totally hypothetical in a way because it’s like, is this really going to happen? It’s more like a psychological space than a natural space. But it was quite sexy, which is the theme, which is weird.

Do you think you’re supposed to leave us sympathizing with Longo or Finkel?

You can’t possibly sympathize with Longo! I think some people come into our lives and cause great trauma and distress, and we are changed by that suffering. It’s like an affair, with someone coming in and damaging something, and yet you’re kind of brutalized by the experience, but you come to an understanding about yourself through it.

I think with Finkel, he thought he learned about himself when he was fired, but he really learned about himself through Longo. I think that that’s genuine, so I feel for the real Mike. He did something stupid and wrong that should be judged as a journalist. It wasn’t insane, he didn’t kill anyone, but it was the wrong thing. He suffered, he was punished, and then he got hit again. Of course, I’m compassionate to that, but he still wrote the book. I feel a lot for him — and Jonah’s really good at that, I feel for him at the end.

I think the real Longo is a psychopath. James, I find, as Longo, I would never want to meet him, but I have had experiences in my life meeting people like that who are weird, difficult, strange people who you feel like wrong when you spend time with them. And at the end of it, you go ... but I’ve learned about life.

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