PJ Vogt, co-host of the popular Gimlet Media podcast Reply All, went on vacation; when he got back, he had a movie deal. The January 19 program, “Man of the People,” had been optioned by Annapurna Pictures, with Richard Linklater directing and Robert Downey, Jr. as producer and star.
“It’s absolutely surreal,” Vogt said.
“Man of the People” profiled John Brinkley, the radio pioneer and medical salesman whose self-proclaimed miracle cures ranged from impotence to infertility. Vogt said he stumbled on the story after visiting his cousins in Texas.
“They were saying I should move there because they were a bunch of radio stations hidden in ranches,” he said. “For a while, we thought it was going to be a story about border blasters.”
Instead he found the strange tale of Brinkley, one that also encompasses a state governor’s race, the national popularization of country music, and the rise of the American Medical Association.
It’s also the story that fascinated documentarian Penny Lane, whose live-action/animated “Nuts!” premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and went on to a limited theatrical release. She began working on her documentary after reading Pope Brock’s 2009 biography “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.”
Although Lane appeared on the podcast (as did Brock), her documentary has not been optioned for the Annapurna feature. However, Lane points out that in the time between her film’s premiere and the Reply All podcast almost exactly one year later, the century-old story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley continued to evolve.
“There’s something about this story that speaks to our current moment in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated when I started the film,” she said. “I could have said that the archetype of John Brinkley is very much with us today, but I definitely would not have thought that the current fucking president of the United States would bear such strong resemblance to this character.”
What seemed like a cautionary fable of an unchecked media star holding disproportionate sway over the national consciousness became all too real. After election night, Lane penned an editorial for Filmmaker Magazine called “Notes on Truth (Or, Documentary in the Post-Truth Era).”
“It was a lot funnier of a movie, I thought, in the beginning,” she said. “Now, it’s just really upsetting.”
Because the Reply All staff had the added perspective of the presidential campaign, their approach to the Brinkley story addressed the parallels more directly.
“We started working on it in earnest last year,” Vogt said. “As the Trump stuff started happening, I thought, ‘Oh, there are echoes in these two stories, and there are questions that I have about what’s going on in our media and what was happening in the 1930s media.’ This story feels like a way to wonder about those questions.”
After recording much of the episode in the latter months of 2016, Reply All timed the episode for release on the eve of January’s inauguration. Even listening to the episode a month later, it’s clear that Vogt and company set up Brinkley’s story as a historical Rorschach test for our current climate.
“We’d done other builds of it where we had people talking about Trump, and it felt silly,” Vogt said. “It felt like the more we let the listener decide, the better. It’s something that we actually struggled with the most. As a listener, we were hoping that you wouldn’t feel hit over the head by it.”
It’s unknown whether Linklater’s film would focus on the Trump allusions, but there’s many directions it could take; Brinkley’s story spans generations and countries. Both Lane’s and Vogt’s projects utilized a vast network of information, and Lane even annotated her research in true fact-check fashion, categorizing the relative truth level behind each of her included sources. (It’s all gathered here, but you should probably watch the film first before you click.)
In researching their story, Vogt and his team cast a wide net beyond on-mic interviews. “The way we do this stuff is that we read as widely as possible,” he said. “There’s a cycle where, after every few years, people get excited about [Brinkley] and then put him back down. There’s a lot that’s out there. At the point where he was broadcasting, he recorded his shows because he was smuggling it over the border illegally. He left a lot of himself. So there was a lot of archival and source material to get to, which was incredibly useful as a radio story.”
Reply All launched in November 2014, and has produced more than 80 episodes, but Vogt said this was the first serious offer of a feature adaptation. CAA represents all of the deal’s stakeholders: Gimlet Media, Linklater, and Downey. Reply All’s Vogt, Chris Giliberti, and Tim Howard will serve as producers. This is the third high-profile adaptation for Gimlet, the three-year-old podcast network, following TV deals for “Start Up” (an ABC pilot starring Zack Braff) and “Homecoming,” with “Mr. Robot” showrunner Sam Esmail at the head.
Lane said she was unaware of the deal until the public announcement was made.
“All these people were emailing today to congratulate me on my big Hollywood remake deal, which is hilarious because I don’t have a Hollywood remake deal,” she said. “But you can look at this news that there’s a movie being made that’s inspired by a podcast that was inspired by my movie, which was inspired by a book, which was inspired by God knows what. Again, it goes to show that the Brinkley story is fucking amazing. There’s really no shortage of ways you can think about making that story amazing. I have no doubt that Robert Downey, Jr. wouldn’t be a fantastic Brinkley.”
Lane recently released “Just Add Water” through Great Big Story and CNN Films, which covers the same themes of what’s accepted as truth and the secret lives behind public sensations, this time through the lens of the mid-century fad for brine shrimp (aka Sea-Monkeys).
Though this new Brinkley project will draw from Reply All, Lane said it doesn’t mean that something similar couldn’t happen for “Nuts!”
“My sales agent is fielding offers and has been for a while,” she said. “The fictionalization rights to my film are still available. All these people are writing to me and asking me, ‘Aren’t you mad?’ Of course not. We all stand on the shoulders of people who came before us. Inspiration comes from all different directions.”
Regardless of who ends up tackling this, Vogt recognizes the overarching challenge.
“The hard thing for anybody who’s tried to talk about Brinkley is that you’re telling the story of a liar,” he said. “You can’t totally get around that. There are facts about his life where you have to take the information he gives you. To me, Brinkley feels like we’re a disease that we’re very vulnerable to and that we haven’t figured out how to beat.”