J. Michael Straczynski is several decades into a lucrative writing career in which he’s managed to work on pop culture mainstays like “Murder, She Wrote” and “He-Man,” lend his talents to a revitalizing run of The Amazing Spider-Man comics and create the sci-fi series “Babylon 5,” scripting close to 100 episodes over the show’s five seasons. Somehow, at this moment in his writing career, he’s managed to become even more successful.
With the release of Changeling, Straczynski’s first feature screenwriting credit and the latest directorial effort for Clint Eastwood, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich, Straczynski has turned into a wanted man in Hollywood. His list of upcoming collaborators reads like the guest list at a Steven Spielberg dinner party: Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Paul Greengrass, Tom Cruise, the Wachowski brothers. In between working on numerous scripts for these (now-fellow) A-listers, Straczynski took a break to speak with MM about his transformation into an in-demand Hollywood scribe and the challenges of trying to make the truly unbelievable real-life story of Christine Collins and her lost son seem believable.
Andrew Gnerre (MM): When I heard about the story I assumed that it was a well-known case to many, but that is clearly not true. How did you come across the material?
J. Michael Straczynski (JMS): I’d been a journalist for a number of years and at one point after leaving that to go into television, a source mentioned this case to me. After I got the initial hint about the story, I had to wait a number of years until I could really follow up on it.
After leaving “Jeremiah” for Showtime, I went off on my own and dedicated a full year to doing research and, you’re right, there are no books on the subject at all. I mean, there’s not much in the contemporary record at all. Usually the screenwriter who takes on the task of telling a true story, they have a book to work from. Here, I was literally down in the stacks and in the archive offices of city hall, county courthouse, criminal court house, the morgue, just going through thousands and thousands of pages of material. After I was done I had about 6,000 pages of documentation.
MM: When you say you dedicated an entire year to the script at that point, did you have any backing?
JMS: Oh, there was no backing at all. I always tend to go where my interests are going and to follow my interests and passions. I found out what this case was about. I thought that whether it’s a book or a screenplay or whatever, somehow this story must be told. So when I finished [the research] I let it sit for a bit and finally the story cracked as a screenplay. That’s how I wrote it and it ended up being sold almost immediately.
MM: How quickly was it sold?
JMS: Massively fast. I got it to my agent, he went over to [producer] Jim Whitaker and he handed it over to Ron [Howard] and they made an offer; it couldn’t have been more than three weeks, four weeks. It went almost immediately into production, which was even more bizarre.
MM: How many screenplays had you actually written before then?
JMS: Depends on what you mean by that question. I had worked in television for 20 years and during that period of time I made it a point to avoid the movie industry. I had been given the opportunity to write for them and I never did it just because film was always a crapshoot. You could spend years in development hell and never see anything ever get made, while with television it gets made; if you order 20 episodes you shoot 20 episodes and I liked that aspect of it.
I had written screenplays for myself and, this may sound weird, but I write just for myself, so I had about a dozen screenplays that I had written that no one will ever see that I just wrote to amuse myself. So I knew the form and when I finished up the screenplay, which was the first one I really had taken out, this was the result. It’s kind of remarkable to have your first screenplay get this kind of result.
MM: You said you were avoiding the movie industry on purpose and now looking at the projects you have coming up, they’re all movies. How has the switch been for you?
JMS: It’s been quite dramatic and one of the things that has made that process work is that after Clint and Ron and those guys did the laying-on of hands, I went from TV guy to A-list writer guy and it lets you hopscotch or leapfrog over the development process. And you’re working with filmmakers who get films made, as opposed to developing executives. So everything I’m working on, I’m working with filmmakers. Whether it’s Tom Hanks’ company and Paul Greengrass or Wolfgang Petersen or all these other guys who will actually get the movies made. I’m working with really creative guys and it is a much more Technicolor world than I am used to—literally and figuratively. I mean being at Cannes for Changeling… I’m a street kid from New Jersey. I grew up without connections to the industry, no family or friends in the industry.
MM: You grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, correct?
JMS: Well, I grew up all over. I was born in Paterson. I was a street kid in Newark fighting in the streets and when I said I wanted to be a writer everyone laughed. Guys like me who grew up middle class, blue-collar families didn’t become writers, you know? And for that person to suddenly be in a 20-car caravan with Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich (laughs), going through the streets of the south of France with French police before and after because of the paparazzi, you think, ‘This can’t be real.’ It’s been the most surreal time of my life and the really good part for me is the chance to work on really good stories with really good filmmakers.
MM: Some pretty good advice for moviemakers: Work with Clint Eastwood.
JMS: Even more to the point, suddenly, everyone wanted to meet me. When I went to these meetings, what I discovered was that nobody knew who I was and that’s salutary, that’s good for the following reasons: They didn’t care if I was 20 years old or 80 years old; they didn’t care if I had sold a million scripts or no scripts and this was my first screenplay; it was my first script. All they knew was the words on the page. Which for the up-and-coming writers says it doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to the best schools, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t have friends or family in the industry. What matters is the quality of your storytelling. If it’s there on the page they will get the recognition; it may take some time but it will get there and I find that vastly encouraging for new writers.
MM: You’ve done so much science fiction writing, I was wondering if you brought any of that mentality into Changeling? It’s a true story, but it’s an outrageous, surreal true story.
JMS: I relied much more upon my journalistic background than my science fiction background for this. Because the story is so bizarre, it really had to be spot on and as accurate as humanly possible because if we started fictionalizing it at all then that would call the entire thing into question. Which is why, after Cannes, when we lost the Palme d’Or by two votes because they couldn’t believe that it actually happened…
MM: Is that true?
JMS: Yeah, yeah. I went through the script at Universal’s request to put the “True Story” on there. I had to annotate every single scene, where it came from; 95 percent of what’s in the movie was taken verbatim from testimony, articles of the time, transcripts and correspondence. It really had to be rigorously factual.
MM: That’s something. This many years after the fact, this woman’s story still isn’t believed.
JMS: Yeah, still fighting for credibility.
MM: The movie seemed a throwback to classic cinema. What sort of movies were you looking at while you wrote the movie?
JMS: None. I think that’s a trap. I think what dangers a lot of writers have today is that they regurgitate what they grew up watching. “This scene is a testimony to this movie.” In general, I don’t like that; I don’t approve of it and in the case of this film, all the scenes were taken from what was actually done. So there were no influences; my influences were the transcripts.
Which is why when I sold the script, because the story is so bizarre, I literally included clippings and pages of testimony in the script; put it in those points where they think, “This couldn’t have happened.” Then they turn the page and sure enough, there’s confirmation of what happened.
Could I have invented more to make it cinematic in the traditional way? Sure. But I thought, ‘Let’s try something a little bit different and basically write an article for cinema,’ which is what this is. It’s less a movie in the traditional sense as it is an article for the movies.
MM: Looking ahead, what movies are you working on now?
JMS: I just finished the last pass on They Marched Into Sunlight for director Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks’ company [Playtone], which is also based on a true story and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated historical novel by David Maraniss. I also finished up Proving Ground for United Artists, possibly for Tom Cruise; we don’t know for sure yet. I did a rewrite of The Grays for Wolfgang Petersen. Just finishing up Lensman, an adaptation of a series of novels for Ron Howard, to whom I also sold another spec script also based on a historical case, called The Flickering Light.
MM: Pretty busy.
JMS: Yeah. (laughs) It’s pretty crazy right now.