We Talked About Narcissim, Art, and 'True Story' with Director Rupert Goold

"I know what it's like to put a show on and be disappointed with everybody's responses, because you want them to see it the way that you see it."

by Sam Fragoso
20 April 2015, 9:00pm

Jonah Hill, Rupert Goold, and James Franco on set. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Since 1997, Rupert Goold has been attempting to redefine theater in Europe. From Shakespearean classics to a musical rendition of American Psycho, the British-born stage director has a penchant for taking celebrated texts and reconfiguring them for modern times. With nearly 20 years of experience in theater, Goold has just made his first foray into feature film with True Story.

Adapted from the memoir of former New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, the film charts the degeneration of two men with a unique history. The first is Finkel, played by Jonah Hill, whose reputation as a noble journalist was sullied after evidence revealed he produced fictitious reports on the African slave trade (i.e. he was like Johann Hari or Jayson Blair before they came along). The second character is Christian Longo, played by James Franco, who was a fugitive on the run using the alias "Mike Finkel" before being captured and convicted for the murder of his wife and two children.

Now unexpectedly entangled in a story that could salvage his career, Finkel begins interviewing Longo over a series of months. On the outset it would appear that these two have little in common. But Goold attempts to excavate the truth, presenting us with the bond these two similarly flawed and insecure men forge. Suddenly, the movie becomes a duplicitous game of cat-and-mouse, where you're uncertain of who is playing who.

In conversation, Goold discussed his move into cinema, his appreciation for the enigma that is James Franco, and why it requires unfettered narcissism to be an artist.

VICE: With such an esteemed career in theater, what was your reason for turning to film?
Rupert Goold: Other than the natural fantasy of being a film director? At some point I wanted to be an actor, but as I was getting into drama, I just felt sort of uncertain about learning this new whole world and kind of drifted into stage. And then the thing that I always set out to do got further and further away, and I just got to a point when a friend of mine sent me a book called, My First Movie which is an anthology of lots of different movie directors writing essays about their first movie. And he had underlined this essay Ang Lee had written where Lee says, "You know, I have friends from film school in their 40s who still think they're gonna make their first movie." I was in my late 30s and thought, "If I don't give this a go right now, then it's never going to happen."

What was it about this particular story that compelled you to get involved?
In retrospect, I think I am really interested in the idea of shame, particularly shame in men and how that affects masculine identity, so I found that interesting. I was very interested about what happened to men when they lose everything near the apex of their career or life point. If [Michael] Finkel (Jonah Hill) had lost his job in his early twenties, it would have been a Rite of Passage, and we all kind of know what that's like. If you lose your way in your forties or fifties, it's a mid-life crisis, but then you find something else to do. But, if you lose everything around the age of 30, as both these men did, that's a very shocking and particular kind of trauma.

The other thing that I kind of like is this idea of a nemesis, which is in some of my other stage work, especially the Shakespeare films that I worked on. And again, I think it's quite a male thing—men, particularly youngish men, are often defined by a very, very intense rivalry or competitive bond. Often, it's with somebody who may be a colleague or a friend, but they never quite escape the attraction of that moment. You obviously see it in sports, you think of Federer–Nadal, Frazier and Ali. But equally in politics you get it, but they are sort of locked together in a perpetual conflict, and that element of the two men, I think, drew me.

I mean, those are only some of the things. I suppose I liked the idea that being generically a true crime thriller on some level, and there's not really jeopardy through extraneous serial killers, and guns and knives and stuff. It's unease generated through moral and psychological positions, rather than from sensationalism.

Still from 'True Story'

And what drew you to the character of Michael Finkel?
He's the man who is compassionate, who has a political agenda, and who, actually, other than his big mistake, could be a really scrupulous journalist. He committed his professional life to extreme hazard in Haiti, Gaza, and Africa, and then lost everything. His sort of response was to try and find and look at extreme poverty in his own country that he hadn't looked at before. I think part of him looked at Longo and said, "He's like the Haitian boat people I've stayed with." He wanted to magnify and make Steinbeck-like something that wasn't really there or he was projecting into.

I really recognize that need to authenticate yourself through profound suffering or bearing witness to people who live very, very complicated and difficult lives. I think that speaks to a really Western anxiety about how we all go to shopping malls and have nice boats and drive cars, and it was a kind of emblem of that for me.

Have you found value?
I am not Marxist politically, but I'm Marxist in terms of what he says about if you make a chair and you see the chair in front of you, you know you've made it. It is a very, very satisfying thing. And I think if you put all the work into making a movie or a play or a book, that has incredible validation and a kind of richness. Making this film has been backbreaking and far more complicated and complex than I expected it to be. But I feel huge pride in the fact that we did it.

Still from 'True Story'

Were James Franco and Jonah Hill attached to the project from the beginning?
Neither of them. James knew about it. He had seen a couple of my shows I'd done on stage, I think. He is a really, really great actor. I didn't quite appreciate getting to work with him. But what I also really like is that he has such a remote mystery as a persona. I mean nobody really knows what he does, where he lives, his sexuality, everything. He's like an enigma wrapped in a mystery as a riddle. And people want to mock that at times, and find it suspicious. They go, "Oh that's pretentious!" "What does he stand for?"

In a weird way, that was very useful for this role because that remoteness and that strange integrity mixed with irony, it's pure Longo. I find that really fascinating. The other part was much harder to cast because, I say this with all respect to your profession, people sort of want to read journalists as craven and manipulative, and Finkel—although I like Jonah Hill—has a genuine political agenda in many ways. He is a very flawed or potentially even narcissistic seeming character. I felt the film needed somebody who was going to be really soulfully and empathetic and Jonah felt like a real person.

Related: VICE meets the man behind 'The Interview'

I think narcissism runs through both characters.
Oh my god, yeah. It's the big theme of it. They both crave readers. They are very hungry for the perfect reader and they find it in each other. Longo's spent his life revering Finkel as a writer, and Finkel finds Longo incredibly fascinating. If he is an artist, I really recognize something like that. Especially because I know what it's like to put a show on and be disappointed with everybody's responses, because you want them to see it the way that you see it. So if you did find someone who perceived your work the way you see it, there's a kind of terrible narcissism and vanity in that you kind of, you can fall in love with them in a way, and then go, "Wow! Yes, you're like me!" Which is I think what happened with these two.

Isn't it a prerequisite as a filmmaker, or any artist vying for people's attention, to be narcissistic?
Absolutely. I always really wrestled with this idea, "Is it art?" Being a director, am I an artist or a craftsman? I always wanted to have that analytical, "Yeah I'll learn my trade, I'll learn about lenses, I'll learn about staging, I'll learn about directing actors." I hit 30 and realized it doesn't actually matter if you know all the technique in the world if you don't have something to say, and to think you have to stare at yourself and go, "I'm important, I'm fascinating!" And of course that is incredibly narcissistic. All artists are total narcissists.

I'm going to read a quote of yours, which I'm sure you love. "I came home today to an empty house after the Olivier Awards, carrying my trophy for Best Director, and I realized that I have peaked. It's now going to be downhill on the way." So, how are you feeling these days?
I think that's about closure. If you work in dramatic fiction, the mark of a storyteller is whether you can begin and end it properly. And I thought, "Oh, that's a great closure point! Great! I could be hit by a bus now and feel like, 'Good closure!'" I feel ridiculous because I am such a novice in this form now, but I also think that you've got to keep pushing yourself into new areas.

I remember being terrified on the first day of shooting. In New York with a New York crew, nobody knew who I was. I didn't know a single actor on set. No designer, nobody that I'd ever worked with before. I'd just turned 40 and I went, "Why am I doing this?" I'm away from my family for eight months and you do it to kind of push yourself—to not get complacent, to stay alive.

Follow Sam Fragoso on Twitter.

Jonah Hill
james franco
new york times
Vice Blog
true story
Rupert Goold