True Story is a film based on a true story about stories that aren’t entirely true. Namely, the one told by disgraced journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) — fired by the New York Times after making a composite out of multiple abused Africans — and the one told by Christian Longo (James Franco) — tracked down and arrested for the murder of his wife and children. Longo was using Finkel’s name when he was caught, and the writer’s bruised vanity guarantees his fascination with Longo’s seeming interest.
As it happens, Longo has a story to tell — his own unhappy history — and he wants Finkel to help him tell it. Franco has a field day as a guy who enjoys obscuring the truth about himself; his face, frequently shown in close-up, is forever hinting at unspeakably intimate and devastating revelations. But director Rupert Goold, aiming for an old-school psychological thriller, proves too subtle for his own good. We should suffer along with the unsteady Finkel as he gets drawn into Longo’s world, but too often, his anxieties remain exclusively his own.
Matthew Lickona: The story is sort of an inverse In Cold Blood. There, the journalist manipulated the accused. Did you have other films in mind when you were making this?
Rupert Goold: I’ve always been very interested in film noir, and in some ways, this is basically a femme fatale love story. It just happens that James Franco is playing the femme fatale. The showdown scene with Felicity Jones [who plays Finkel’s wife] is almost like the wife confronting the lover.
ML: Tell me more about that scene, where she confronts Longo with the story about the classical composer who murdered his wife and child. What were you going for there?
RG: I suppose that on an obvious level, there’s a sort of parallel: however beautiful someone’s music, judge them by their actions as well as their song. But on a wider level...I’m not churchgoing in any way, but there is a sort of religious sensibility in the film. I see it as a parable, rather than a true crime social documentary. It’s interested in the almost medieval ideas of goodness and evil, as counterpointed by, say, more journalistic ideas of goodness and evil. Using that slightly gothic reference to the composer is maybe a self-conscious attempt to say, “Look, the film is trying to address these ideas in a more mythic way.”
ML: Is that why we have the scenes of her examining the illustrations in the illuminated manuscript juxtaposed with Longo’s illustrations in the margins of his letter to Finkel?
RG: Yes. I’m glad you noticed that. The studio kept trying to get me to cut it. The idea is that a if you spend a lot of her time around Dante and medieval manuscripts and liturgy and music — particularly high Catholic stuff — you’ll probably start to see the world with a certain sensibility. And who’s to say that’s not more insightful than a journalist going around and saying, “It’s all about psychology and background and sociology”? I was interested in that.
True Story official trailer
ML: You spend a lot of time in close-up on James Franco, registering tiny changes in expression. Could you talk about how you went about directing that?
RG: James’s face is like a book; it’s endlessly legible. But I think the way he works as an actor is to locate the character in a sort of temperature way. He gets his blood level at the character’s, and then he would take anything I threw at him — often, it was sort of abstract: “It’s too red, can you give me some more blue?” He has experience as a director, and he knows that the process of acting for film is really offering up a palette of the director and the editor to shape. I’m not saying we construct the performance, but we knew what we were looking for, and he was great about locating where the psychology was. We’d take 14 really quick takes of certain beats, and he gave such a rich body of material. It’s the kind of film, I hope, where a little half-smile as opposed to a smirk as opposed to a full grin makes all the difference in terms of how you read him.