The weird, fascinating cat-and-mouse between disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) begins immediately during their first encounter in “True Story.” Director Rupert Goold (“The Hollow Crown” mini-series) and editor Chris Tellefsen (“Moneyball”) discuss the first scene in which Finkel meets Longo in the Oregon county jail.
“I suppose there’s an element of a Rorschach test where you see your own face and there’s a self-conscious attempt in the film to dial back on Longo’s context such as it was because I think it remains mysterious even to this day,” Goold explained. “In some ways, the space between them is a psychological space rather than a real space. It’s an encounter with the self and, without casting dispersion, it is true of some journalism and other writing and filmmaking as well — however much one draws out of the subject, it’s ultimately an encounter with the self.”
Goold said there’s definitely something in the zeitgeist about the slipperiness of self-presentation and its relationship to true crime. “On the one hand, our film is a traditional psychological thriller, but, on the other, it resists being a traditional procedural drama.”
From the outset, Longo reveals his hatred of being ordinary and immediately seduces Finkel, who also craves attention and approval. “And also there’s a complicity between both men about making the ordinary and the Quixotian heroic. The version of Longo that Finkel worked up in his book is a form of Steinbeck: the idea that there’s a rugged, flawed simplicity to these nomadic mid-western families fleeing poverty and Longo went along with that,” said Goold. “Sitting across from one another in the cell they were straight-jacketed to a certain extent. They were physically static scenes, so we worked out a [visual] grammar. We changed the bulb function in the light, the tonal color in Longo’s orange jumpsuit, and we were very rigid with the tight close-ups and holding them in the frame. The arrival is constructed deliberately with awkwardness.”
“We were trying to reduce the beginning to really feel the parallel of these two lives and how they converge and that there was a certain element of mystery without it being confusing or misleading,” Tellefsen said. “But to get you to lean forward and feel this connection and wonder what it might become. The biggest challenge of this movie was the balance between these two guys and calibrating how they play off one another. And the smallest looks and gestures become large because of the intimacy of it, which is almost all in big close-ups.
“You really had to feel that frisson between them in their first encounter. And there’s a moment when the guard calls that you feel a real break of intimacy. There’s a look on Michael’s face when he’s seriously interrupted after the momentum has really been building: getting his story exclusively but not realizing that Christian’s totally playing him. But there’s this strong give and take that rolls into other aspects.”
The hardest part for Tellefsen was shaping an arc after the encounters appeared to meld together. In other words, it had to be more of an emotional roller coaster but with both characters realizing that they are addicted to one another. In fact, their meeting was the best thing that ever happened to them.