“Can You Get to the Truth of Something?” Mike Finkel on True Story
I first met Mike Finkel around two decades ago through a mutual friend. He was planning to write a piece for Sports Illustrated on the log-rolling championship to be held in Wisconsin, and I was going to go with him to take photographs. It was a fun, strange day. It felt surreal, but it was nothing compared to the kind of surreal that Mike’s future held for him. Mike and I kept in touch. He continued his career as a journalist writing for prestigious publications including The New York Times. He was ultimately fired from the Times for compositing three characters into one in a story about chocolate and child slavery on the Ivory Coast. Very close to the day when he was fired he received a call from a newspaper in Oregon asking about Christian Longo. That was the first time he had heard the name. Longo had been arrested for murdering his wife and three small children. He had fled to Mexico and was apprehended there. He had been impersonating Mike Finkel. This bizarre connection resurrected Finkle’s career and forged a peculiar relationship between the two men that endures to this day.
A while after the story broke I was working on a play called Nobody’s Lunch, about epistemology — how we get our information and why we choose to believe it. This was after 9/11, and these questions seemed especially worth asking. I felt that Mike’s story would be a good addition to the play. I asked if I could interview him, and subsequently play the part of him on stage. That was the first time I interviewed Mike.
Years later I was putting together a book about the intersection between art and crime, and again I felt I wanted to include Mike’s story. This time I also wanted to include Christian Longo’s story. I interviewed Mike for the second time. I wrote to Longo, who was (and still is) on death row in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Longo and I began exchanging letters.
Mike wrote his own book about his experience called True Story. The book was turned into a film by Plan B with Jonah Hill playing Finkel and James Franco playing Longo. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, it opened in theaters on Friday. Mike went to see it opening night, and I met with him the next morning for what would be our third interview to date. He was nursing a bit of a hangover, and it had been several years since we had seen each other, but the conversation easily picked up where it had left off.
Filmmaker: When you are writing something, do you think to yourself, could this be made into a movie?
Finkel: It’s funny, I feel like I can tell you how photographers work more than how writers work. In all my assignments, I am always paired with a photographer. I am never paired with a writer. I don’t even like to talk “shop” so I’m always like, “I wonder if this is normal or not?” That preamble said, when I’m writing I think about an audience all the time. I think about people reading. I’ve read in interviews where other writers are like, “I never think about anyone.” I always think about someone reading it. Is this going to be fun to read or not fun to read? I think about the audience. And in writing True Story actually it was really visual. I almost thought of it as a play, because most of it consists of two guys sitting in a jail visiting room having an intense conversation. I know you’ve been into jail visiting rooms and so – it was really visual and interestingly enough, the guy who directed the movie, Rupert Goold, is a playwright. He’s from the theater world. So I was actually glad that the people at Plan B had the same instinct and hired a theater guy. So, long answer short, I thought it was super visual. Sometimes writing is just a bunch of words in my mind. This one actually had moving pictures.
Filmmaker: Are you interested in writing screenplays? Would you have wanted to write that script?
Finkel: No. I’m interested in it, but that’s different than being good at it. Just because you might be able to sling prose well in one format, I don’t know if there is such a thing as: you’re a good writer, so therefore you could write a sonnet or a haiku or a screenplay. Someone will say, “What happens in act two?” and I’m like, “What does that even mean?” I don’t think that way. I write magazine articles, and there are no acts in my mind. I don’t even know what “act two” means. In my mind a good piece of writing is this: you read the first sentence and it kind of makes you want to read the second sentence and so on to the third until you get to the end – then it’s a good piece of writing.
Filmmaker: I think that’s true in screenwriting as well. What about being involved as a consultant? How much were you consulted?
Finkel: I was ancillary to the entire film project. I had a really intense dinner with Jonah Hill, Rupert Goold, and Felicity Jones, who plays my wife Jill. It was one of those long winding New York dinners where you loosen up a little bit and questions were asked that were cool and then afterwards the impression I got from Jonah, a little unstated, but obvious was, “Alright, you’ve given me a lot to chew on, let me go and do my own interpretation of you.” Which is kind of a surreal thing. I was like, “Cool, I totally get it.” So that was it – that was my entire interaction with him. I never saw him on the set. I went to the set only one day, and I watched Franco do his Christian Longo. I think he is a good actor. I think he is a good person. I think he’s interesting. I just like his whole thing.
Filmmaker: Do you feel that he got Christian down?
Finkel: Yeah. I mean, it’s Hollywood, it’s a movie. The thing about Christian Longo, to me, and I know you’ve exchanged letters with him…
Filmmaker: Oh, yes.
Finkel: Right. So, on the surface, he’s like the most normal guy in the world, or he has this surface appeal of banter and, “Yeah, I’ll send you my cookbook…”
Filmmaker: But that’s the thing. You warned me that he was going to try to keep the letter writing going and when he talked about the cookbook – I felt like, that’s actually not normal, because he was saying, “why does everyone want to know about me murdering my family? I’ve written this cookbook!”
Finkel: Right, right, right – “That was just one night, the family thing, come on, why you gotta concentrate on that night?”
Filmmaker: But I know what you mean – he has a certain charm. Ish.
Finkel: I mean, he’s a psychopath who killed his family. That’s all there is to it, but especially in the beginning of my relationship with him when we could have this artificial construct which is: you’re innocent until proven guilty, even though I never believed he was innocent. In a weird way [I was] kind of pretending he was, or at least using the legal definition, I mean, he was legally innocent – he hadn’t been proven guilty. I started to, not quite believe it, but minimize that, and it became unsettlingly not unsettling. So … to your question – Franco in the movie – I felt like he had this surface boy-next-door-ish-ness and also what’s-going-on-behind-the-eyeballs sort of thing that worked for me. I am really uncomfortable when I watch that movie.
Filmmaker: Was last night the first time that you had watched it?
Finkel: No. I’ve seen it three times. Me and Jill got to see it privately a couple of weeks ago in France, that was nice, and then there was a little private screening last week for my close friends, and then I went to the movie theater last night.
Filmmaker: How different was it to watch it with an audience?
Finkel: I liked it. I’m not a shy guy, so afterwards I randomly walked up to people, “Hey, what’d you think about the movie?” They didn’t know who I was. And people were really affected by it, I was happy.
Filmmaker: Did you tell people who you were?
Finkel: I told one person. They were like, “No! Show me your driver’s license.” I showed them my driver’s license. They were like, “This is surreal.”
Filmmaker: Were you like, “You think this is surreal? Did you see that?” No, but seriously – it makes you uncomfortable to see it?
Finkel: Right, well listen – we can’t forget, the story is about three dead children and a dead wife. That’s what it’s about. I mean, you as an artist, for example, sometimes you wade into places that are morally murky, right?
Finkel: You wade into morally murky pools. This is a really morally murky pool. Like, does this guy need any more attention? No, but he took on my name and I’m a journalist. What curious person isn’t going to follow that lead? Just because someone’s really, let’s just use the word evil – you kill your wife and three kids you pretty much qualify for the word evil, even though it’s a banal word – if you’re evil, I think it’s more important to look someone in the eye rather than run away, and see maybe what lessons can be gleaned. But it’s not comfortable or morally clear. I became kind of acquaintances/friends with a psychopathic family murderer. That’s not morally comfortable. And if it is – then you need to worry about me.
Filmmaker: I’m curious, since you are not a film industry insider, what your impression of the process was?
Finkel: I optioned my book in 2005 and it is now 2015. It was a ten-year odyssey. It was fascinating. In my mind I was like, ‘What’re the odds of this becoming a movie?’ I think I read a statistic, but don’t quote me on this, something like 97% of all books that are optioned don’t become movies. So in the beginning I was like, this has got a 3% chance of happening. You know, Plan B bought it and they were very excited and then they were like, “Oh we found a screenwriter, we’re going to fly him out to Bozeman.: I spent a couple of days with the screenwriter, I was like: 7%! 12%! Then he wrote the script, and they were like, “Oh that draft wasn’t very good.” I went, 2%. Then, “Oh my God we have another screenwriter, and now we have a director.” 28%! “Ah, the director took a different project.” 8%. Sometimes it was like 75%!. That was like five years before it actually happened. “Now we have actors!” “Oh, but the director can’t make it.” It was like this stock market chart in my mind!
Filmmaker: Was that a surprise to you? That that’s how it all works, or doesn’t work.
Finkel: Yes. From A to B was the most inefficient route possible. I only have a sample size of one, but seriously, all things aside – Plan B, especially Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, they stuck with it. I mean the easiest thing in ten years would have been to say, “Nah, let’s skip it.” But they never said, “Let’s not do this.” They never quit on it. That’s amazing to me.
Filmmaker: Aside from the ups and downs of getting the film made, were there ever any stumbling blocks with the content of the film for you?
Finkel: No. I mean, I don’t have asthma, I don’t frame my cover stories and put them on my wall, that’s not who I am. There are a couple of things that are a little embarrassing to me but I understand why they are in there.
Filmmaker: What other impressions of the process were you left with?
Finkel: I think the answer is: How do you make a bar popular? There’s some alchemy. Watching the process from not being involved, but from good seats, like I had box seats, it was fascinating; I couldn’t believe the roller coaster nature of it. It wasn’t like a book. A book, all right: one page, five pages, 11 pages – you’re slowly chugging up a hill, but you’re always going in the same direction. A movie – it was nothing like that! “This is going to happen!” “Absolutely not!” “It’s about to start filming!” “It’s never going to go!”
Filmmaker: Changing subjects slightly, I wanted to talk with you again because you and I met before any of this happened. You mentioned theater and your seeing the story as a play in your head, and that was the first interview we did — it was for me to play you on stage. I guess what I am getting at is that I’m interested in stories that are about storytelling, and this is very much a story about storytelling, so the weird thing that we just met as regular friends before any of this happened…
Finkel: It’s very meta.
Filmmaker:… I mean we went to a logrolling contest together! Then we stayed friends and then this thing happened and it became woven not just into your life, but into my life as well. So when the film came out, I kind of felt like we had to talk again because that seemed like the next obvious thing – but like you said, it’s this meta storytelling – a story that turns into a play, a movie, your book, other people’s books. I’m wondering what you think of that blurring between “here’s the life” and “here’s the art”?
Finkel: I don’t even know how to answer that question.
Filmmaker: I don’t even know what that question was.
Finkel: I’ll just wade on in and see what happens. So, this topic, this story – my getting fired by the New York Times and being impersonated by a murderer …it has always struck me as the most bizarrely compelling … like I’m not a religious guy, but it’s like – I almost think it’s divine intervention. I’m a storyteller, and I think human beings from the time we were sitting around a campfire we make connections that may or may not be actual, but they feel real. I freighted this story with the most Shakespearian things: life, death, love, redemption, failure, truth, honesty, lies. Like it’s freighted with these grand themes that if I had made it up – I mean, I hate the cliché “The truth is stranger than fiction.” But it is so much stranger than fiction! It’s so much stranger than fiction that if it were fiction you would just throw the book across the room because it would be too unbelievable. It’s too coincidental and pat and perfect. As a person, I am very fortunate. I’ve known what I wanted to do my entire life. Since I was a little boy, I liked great stories, and great doesn’t necessarily mean happy, or morally clear, or with pat endings tied in a little bow. And this is just the greatest, most unsettling story I’ve ever encountered, and other people feel that too. The fact that I called the book True Story is both literal and super tongue-in-cheek at the same time. The book is about: Can you get to the truth of something? And the answer is no.