Journalist as the Bad Guy; First-Time Director Billy Ray Talks About “Shattered Glass”
by Liza Bear
Once flaunting itself as the in-flight magazine of Air Force One, the New Republic, founded in 1914, is now more apt to be termed ideologically eclectic, right-wing social democrat, or weirdly neo-con, rather than politically influential (depending on who’s talking). But whatever their place on the political spectrum, there’s no disagreement at all by commentators on what to call con man Stephen Glass — a fraud. The 24-year-old former staffer of TNR, who was also in charge of the fact-checking department, fooled his editors by substantially fabricating events, sources and quotes in 27 of 41 stories he wrote for the magazine.
The unraveling of his modus operandi by Adam Penenberg at the now-defunct Forbes Digital Tool and by his own TNR editor Charles Lane (now at The Washington Post), who had to deal with the consequences, is the subject of Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” (in theaters now from Lions Gate). Starring Hank Azaria, Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chloe Sevigny, this real life expose plays as a taut, finely-acted thriller about a timely subject.
indieWIRE interviewed writer-director Billy Ray at the Bryant Square Hotel while the film was being screened downstairs for fact-checkers of Time and People magazines. When, during the Q&A afterwards, he asked the audience whether they had come across fabricators in the course of their duties, over a dozen people raised their hands.
indieWIRE: So what got you into this project?
Billy Ray: Buzz Bissinger wrote an article for Vanity Fair about Stephen Glass. HBO optioned that piece, then hired me to adapt it as a TV movie. There was an administration change at HBO, and by the time I handed in the script, the new administration didn’t want to make the old administration’s development, so it sat for two years. Thanks largely to the influence of Cruise/Wagner Productions, who got it out of HBO, we were able to set it up as a feature. And then I asked Lions Gate, who was making the movie, if they would entertain the idea of my directing it.
iW: And you plucked up your courage — for your first outing as a director.
Ray: Yeah. My first grown-up job. I dropped 14 pounds while I was making this movie. I never felt like I was on top of it for a second.
iW: Wait a moment. You live in LA, right?
Ray: Yes. Right off the Sunset Strip.
iW: What did you do, call your friends?
Ray: I cold-called a bunch of directors who I’d never met, and I said, “Can I take you out for a drink or a cup of coffee or lunch, and ask you a couple of questions?” And they all said yes.
iW: Which directors?
Ray: Brian Helgeland. Ed Solomon who’d just directed for the first time, a movie called “Levity,” and David Goyer who’d just directed for the first time a movie called “Zig Zag.”
iW: And what did you ask them?
Ray: Where are the land mines? What do I need to know? They all had very smart things to say. Then I hired a crew that would educate me without punishing me. And I just made the decision I was never going to pretend to know more than I did.
iW: Very wise.
Ray: So the crew rallied around me.
iW: I noticed Mandy Walker of Shirley Barrett’s “Love Serenade” was your DP.
Ray: She flew herself out from Sydney and won the job. I met with 12 DPs, liked them all but just loved her. Our personalities clicked beautifully…She knew more than I did but she didn’t have 70 movies under her belt. Plus, Mandy had never made an American movie before; she was as hungry as I was.
iW: So…what was going on in the media at the time?
Ray: [The Glass scandal] happened in 1998. I wrote the script in 99, when we were just post-Monica, pre-9/11. So the world could still believe that a story like that was worth talking about.
iW: You’ve had 10 years as a successful screenwriter?
Ray: Off and on, 14. Since 1988. Hot cold, hot cold. It’s a very mercurial business.
iW: Have you always worked on scripts you wanted to do?
Ray: Yes. One time I had been in a very bad cold streak and I took a job because I needed a job.
iW: So what drew you to this particular subject matter, then?
Ray: Everything. I loved that it was a cautionary tale. The legacy of Woodward and Bernstein, which to me has always been so exalted, look at how corrupt it has become. The hero of a movie about journalism used to be the journalist. The guy who was going to dig deep and get the story, the Veronica Guerin. Now you tell a story about a journalist and he’s the bad guy.
iW: What interested you about Stephen Glass’ character, dramatically?
Ray: The relentlessness of it was really fascinating. That he could be caught so redhanded and still refuse to confess. That he would admit to just enough to buy himself a teeny bit of credibility, but then make a bigger lie, to compound the first lie. And then get caught at that and make a third lie to compound the first two…I understand this guy. I know that need to be recognized, to be patted on the head and told how smart you are.
iW: How close to the Buzz Bissinger piece did you stick?
Ray: The Bissinger piece was a great jumping-off point. Then I had to meet all these people and take my own notes, check my own sources, and learn different renditions of what took place. However, Buzz’s article gave me a fantastic line of dialogue on which to hook the entire character, which is “Are you mad at me?” You can build an entire character around that notion, and we did. You can read it as deeply manipulative or deeply insecure or both.
iW: How did Tom Cruise get involved in this enterprise? Does he have a special interest in media?
Ray: Certainly. He has very strong feelings about journalists who don’t get their facts straight. Without Cruise/Wagner we couldn’t have gotten this movie made, couldn’t have gotten it out of HBO, couldn’t have gotten it cast.
iW: Did you know Tom Cruise before?
Ray: No, but I’d written for the company before and that’s why I was able to enlist their help…a very smart producer named Lawrence Bender gave me a great piece of advice, which was use your casting sessions as practice directing sessions. And I was learning how to direct actors by casting.
iW: Did you shoot video of them?
Ray: We always shoot video, but this was to work on a performance, to try to alter performances in that room.
iW: Did you feel you might become like Stephen Glass, overworked, overloaded, and your performance suffer as a result?
Ray: No, no, no. I’m too ambitious for that to take place. But I was worried about getting some fluke illness that would really have hampered us. One night I had food poisoning. And the set shut down for three hours…Look, I spent that entire shoot in fear. Of the weather. Of illness. Of my own inabilities. Of my own inexperience. I was in fear that there would be an actors’ revolt.
iW: But the performances seemed very relaxed. And nuanced.
Ray: I think the script felt true to the actors. I had enormously talented actors to start with. They knew I was going to get out of their way. But also I [didn’t] ask them to do anything big or theatrical. In most cases I [whispered] in their ear, don’t be afraid to do less. And that relaxed them a little bit as well.
iW: But a lot of very careful minutiae.
Ray: Yeah. The detail is everything.
iW: In the early days The New Republic was kind of left wing politically, and it published incredible writers like Virginia Woolf and [a well-known pacifist, the philosopher] Bertrand Russell.
Ray: Well, clearly there was a shift in the ’70s and ’80s. And that shift became pronounced with the hiring of Andrew Sullivan, the editor who preceded Michael Kelly, and the ownership of Marty Peretz. There was a certain amount of tumult during his tenure. Then Michael Kelly came in, and Kelly believed that it was the job of that magazine to save liberalism from Clinton-ism. But he was not a liberal himself. And he used that magazine as a forum from which to tee off on Al Gore and Bill Clinton, which got him into trouble with Marty Peretz, who is a very good friend of Al Gore.
iW: I see.
Ray: Then Lane came in, and Lane’s politics are not quite as pronounced.
iW: So the examination of journalism that goes on in your movie…what does that point to?
Ray: To the cult of personality that exists in the magazine and the newspaper world, where you have stars [who] may not be asked to live up to everyone else’s standards. And how dangerous that is. If Chuck Lane had shown up with the kinds of articles that Stephen Glass was writing, people would have smoked him out instantly. And yet they didn’t smoke out Stephen Glass.
iW: Do you think there’s a broader crisis of integrity?
Ray: Sure. There’s a vested financial interest for a magazine to create stars. It’s good for The New Republic to have their writers hit on by Rolling Stone and George and Harpers. It raises the profile of the magazine and sells more copies. If the fastest ticket to stardom is to cook pieces, you have a recipe for an integrity breakdown. People at the magazine did not look the other way, knowing Stephen Glass was cooking pieces; clearly that’s not true. I’m not in a position to judge the entire print medium. But I believe that what happened at The New Republic could happen at any publication — print, television or radio. It all had to do with the dynamics of the people involved. It’s my hope that people who work at magazines who see this movie will say, we have to pay closer attention. We have to be more vigilant, particularly, if there’s a star in our midst…
iW: What are you working on right now?
Ray: One is another piece for Mr. Cruise, which I’m hoping he’ll star in, and I’m developing that with Paula Wagner, his producer, and another is a script for Rob Reiner as a director, which I hope will be his next film.
iW: So would you direct Tom Cruise?
Ray: No. I don’t think I’m ready. I’ve learned a lot, but not enough to take that on.