Digging for the Truth

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

When Erin Brockovich entered his life, Harold Bollema was going through stressful times. He had been forced to leave his 80-acre dairy farm in Hinkley, a rural hamlet near the California desert community of Barstow, where Pacific Gas & Electric Co. operates a pumping station for natural gas that runs along a pipeline from the Texas Panhandle to the San Francisco Bay Area.

He was living in a small apartment with his wife, Jackie, and their kids, waiting to find another plot of land on which to start a new dairy, when Brockovich showed up at the door in the early 1990s with her boss, a curmudgeonly attorney named Ed Masry.

They were there to talk about contamination of the ground water in Hinkley caused by PG&E.;

Bollema's dairy sat across the street from the facility, where for years PG&E; collected chromium-tainted water used as an anti-corrosive in the pumping plant's cooling towers. The water would be dumped on the desert floor in unlined ponds and leach into the town's water table. The townsfolk drank the water, inhaled its vapors when taking hot showers and watched their children run through the chromium-laced sprinkler water on hot summer days.

Bollema thought something was odd when two pregnant women living nearby suddenly suffered miscarriages.

"If it was a fluke, I don't know," the dairyman recalled, "but the doctor said, 'Maybe you should test the water.' It seemed like everything just mushroomed out. PG&E; kicked me off the dairy and took the lease over. It takes about a year for my business to be relocated. I had to sell my cows and move to another place. I was living in a little apartment when [Brockovich and Masry] just came driving up and said, 'We are looking for you.'

"I was out of business six months because of what PG&E; did to us," he added. "They bought the dairy and took the lease out from under me and told me I only had so much time to get off the property."

Today, Bollema operates a new dairy in Ontario, but he says he wouldn't wish those earlier times on anyone.

"It wasn't fun," he said. "You are just starting a new family and find that water might be the worst thing you drink in your whole life. You know what I'm saying?" Looking back, he added: "If it wasn't for Ed, I think we would have all been screwed over."

It was Brockovich who, while working as a file clerk in Masry's law office, stumbled upon Hinkley and its toxic water. By 1992, she was meeting with residents and, eventually, brought in Masry to talk to small groups of residents and then address a town meeting. Through it all, Brockovich was the key liaison between the townsfolk and the lawyers.

In 1993, a lawsuit on behalf of 650 plaintiffs was filed against PG&E; charging that the chromium pollution was responsible for a host of ailments, from various types of cancer to severe digestive disorders. Three years later, after arbitrators awarded $130.5 million in the first 39 cases, PG&E; decided to settle for a whopping $333 million.

The utility had argued that in any population of 650, you were going to find these kinds of problems. Still, PG&E; felt that settling the case would resolve what might be a protracted and costly legal battle.

It is this case--Anderson vs. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., No. BCV00300--that forms the backdrop for the new Universal Pictures-Columbia Pictures film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts in the title role and Albert Finney as Masry.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Susannah Grant, the film tells the behind-the-scenes story of how the real-life Brockovich, a twice-divorced mother of three, used her driving sense of justice, her innate smarts and some saucy sex appeal to take on a $21-billion corporation--and win. Produced by Jersey Films, the movie is scheduled to be released nationwide Friday.

Her name is now trumpeted in TV commercials and emblazoned on billboards across America: ERIN BROCKOVICH. But behind the Hollywood hype is a compelling real-life legal drama involving one of the world's largest utilities.

"It was a lot of long hours, a lot of work and a lot of reading," Brockovich said of the investigation she began nearly a decade ago. "But it was the best education I ever had." The real story, she said, was "what happened to these people and this case."

The film, she noted, is "very accurate from the standpoint of how I got to know Ed, how I started working on Hinkley and how I got into the water board." But, she noted, it is "surreal" to watch Roberts portray her on the big screen.

The film comes amid a firestorm of controversy over the creative license Hollywood takes when depicting actual events. A flurry of finger-pointing, for example, engulfed such recent films "The Hurricane," "The Insider" and "Boys Don't Cry" as well as the 1998 legal drama "A Civil Action."

To be sure, Hollywood history is replete with examples of filmmakers taking liberties with history, whether it's a drama like "Mississippi Burning," which took heat for focusing on the efforts of two white FBI agents over the mostly black-led civil rights movement, or a string of bio-pics like "Frances," "The Jolson Story," "The George Raft Story" and "Perils of Pauline."

But the intensity of the debate seems to be increasing. In recent weeks, for instance, Universal had to defend the accuracy of "The Hurricane," which was based on the 20-year struggle by imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter to prove his innocence in a sensational murder case. Families of the murder victims and others involved in the case charged that the filmmakers distorted real events. Some believe the raging debate harmed the movie's Oscar chances, since its only Academy Award nomination went to Denzel Washington for his portrayal of Carter.

Similarly, the Walt Disney Co. came under fire for the accuracy of "A Civil Action," starring John Travolta. The film was based on Jonathan Harr's best-selling book about a courtroom battle waged by eight Boston-area families against two corporations they held responsible for their children's deaths. Their suit alleged the companies--Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace & Co.--had polluted the ground water in East Woburn, Mass., where eight children had died of leukemia. As a response, W.R. Grace sponsored a Web site warning moviegoers: "By the time a story leaves Hollywood, it may be a long way from the reality that inspired it."

Could "Erin Brockovich" be the exception?

While PG&E; has yet to view the film, the utility seems to be adopting a less hostile view than one might have predicted. A PG&E; spokesman said recently "our attitude from the start has been that [the movie] is a dramatization."

"It is an entertainment vehicle," spokesman Greg Pruett added. "We probably have taken a little different approach than other companies" in how PG&E; reacts.

When told of the comments, Soderbergh said he believes the utility is taking the right approach.

"If they are smart, they will lay low," the director said. "You do not want to engage in a debate about the subject of this movie. I tried to be evenhanded about how this whole issue was handled. I could afford to be. The facts were the facts. I didn't need to make it worse than it was. They did what they did."

The movie itself had a curious genesis.

Carla Santos Shamberg, one of the film's two executive producers, was visiting her chiropractor, Pamela DuMond, one day when DuMond mentioned that she had another patient, named Erin Brockovich, whose story might make a good movie. Since she hadn't been a filmmaker long enough to become jaded, Shamberg invited Brockovich over to the house to listen to her story.

"She shows up at the door and she's a babe," Shamberg recalled. "She's wearing black spiked heels, a black leather miniskirt and black leather vest and has this big blond hair. She's like 5 feet 11 in high heels. I said, 'What is this?' but I found that [she] is really smart. She's not a bimbo. She sat down in my den for two or three hours and tells me this story. A third of the time she breaks into tears because she couldn't spend a lot of time with her children [during the case] and the plaintiffs' stories were heartbreaking."

Everything about Brockovich's story smacked of being a great movie, the producer said.

"The sympathetic plaintiffs; a heroine who was down and out but who had a body like one of those girls in those video games that all the boys play, you know, those vixens. Plus, she has a sidekick, kind of an older guy, maternal, curmudgeonly, and she came along and jump-started his life."

But the filmmaker also leveled with Brockovich about what could happen if she eventually agreed to sign over the rights to her story to Hollywood.

"I said, 'Look, this can be a brutal experience for you,' " Shamberg said. " 'Once I have the rights, I own you. If I want, I can dress you in a tutu and dangle you from the Chrysler Building!' " But, she added, Jersey Films has a lot of integrity when it comes to making movies.

"Erin said, 'I want the story told,' " Shamberg recalled. "Erin has no ego. She has faults, she's not perfect, but she is always about the case."

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It so happened that screenwriter Grant, who co-wrote Drew Barrymore's Cinderella tale "Ever After" and wrote Sandra Bullock's upcoming film "28 Days," showed up at Jersey's offices one day looking for a new writing project.

"I'm in a mood to write a story about a kick-ass broad," she told Jersey's production executives, who mentioned they had a legal story they wanted to develop.

After meeting Brockovich over lunch, Grant set to work. From the beginning, she and the producers were in agreement that the film should not be a courtroom drama.

"What I love about Erin is she loves defying people's expectations of her," Grant said. "She says, 'People look at me and think I'm dumb and it gets them every time. As long as they think I'm dumb, I've got the advantage.' "

To ensure the script's accuracy, Grant said she spent weeks poring over the trial transcripts and water board records and reading notes that Brockovich had made during the investigation. Grant even spent a day roaming around Hinkley and recalled the shock of seeing the clear line of demarcation around the pumping station between living and dead trees.

"What I really liked about the movie was that they didn't pull any punches with PG&E;," said Masry, a 67-year-old grandfather, now in his 40th year of practicing law. "They said it the way it is."

From the outset, Shamberg pictured Roberts in the lead role, but her husband, Michael Shamberg, who along with Danny DeVito and Stacey Sher is partnered in Jersey Films, said that was a longshot.

The project already had been turned down by three big-name directors when someone at the ICM talent agency--Carla Shamberg still doesn't know who--slipped the script to Roberts' agent. Jersey was overwhelmed when the agent called to say Roberts was interested in playing the lead.

Enter Soderbergh.

Carla Shamberg said Soderbergh was approached because Jersey already had a relationship with him on its critically acclaimed film "Out of Sight," and because he was known as a good director with women.

"I knew he would treat this character with a lot of respect and not make her silly," Shamberg said. "He did it with Jennifer Lopez [in "Out of Sight"] and Andie MacDowell" in "sex, lies, & videotape." She also noted that Roberts, as with any big star, had a major say in choosing the director.

Soderbergh said that what appealed most to him about "Erin Brockovich" was working with Roberts on a film that would clearly expand her horizons as an actress, and also developing Brockovich's character.

"It's rare to find human-sized heroes," Soderbergh said, "and I was just captivated by her and her relationship with Ed and the fact that it was a story about people who made certain sacrifices and stood on certain principles without being a screed."

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After Soderbergh came on board, a meeting was held months before principal photography began in mid-1999 to go over the third draft of Grant's script. Attending that meeting were Masry, Brockovich, Soderbergh, Carla Shamberg, Grant, Jersey co-Chairman Sher and an attorney for Universal.

At the meeting, Soderbergh went through the script line by line with Masry and Brockovich, asking, "Did this happen? If not, what did happen?"

"I just thought the facts, in and of themselves, were compelling and didn't really need to be over-dramatized," Soderbergh said. "I was just going on my gut. This is a true story that happened not long ago in California. I felt I needed to be prepared for when people said, 'Did that happen? Were you aware of that?' "

Perhaps the biggest change in the script to come out of that meeting, Shamberg recalled, was the decision to place even more emphasis on the role Masry played. For example, the filmmakers initially had Brockovich gathering the signatures of Hinkley residents to join in the lawsuit, but that was changed to show Masry's actual involvement.

"They wanted to make a realistic, true story and I believed it," Masry said of Jersey Films. "I said to myself, 'If they want to do a true movie, it can only help. It can't hurt.' "

Still, the studios knew they were treading on dangerous ground. So, in Grant's screenplay, which received uncredited touches by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, real-life Hinkley residents became composites. One of those is Donna Jensen, played by Marg Helgenberger, the first resident Brockovich approaches in the movie. The two principal big-city lawyers who joined Masry in fighting PG&E; were condensed, for dramatic purposes, into one man, portrayed by actor Peter Coyote.

Soderbergh added some intriguing factual touches: A judge in Barstow who delivered a key ruling in the case, for instance, is played by the actual judge, and the real Brockovich appears as a waitress. Masry also can be seen sitting in a booth behind her.

Some scenes were altered slightly for dramatic effect, such as one in which a PG&E; attorney is afraid to drink a glass of water after Masry and Brockovich inform her that it came from wells in Hinkley.

"That actually happened at a trial," Michael Shamberg explained, "which is even a better story, but we didn't show any trial stuff."

In the film, Roberts' character is injured in a traffic accident and hires Masry to represent her. In real life, it was Masry's partner, Jimmy Vititoe, who handled the case and who offered Brockovich a job at the law firm.

The film also depicts a mysterious older man who follows Brockovich around and finally breaks his silence while they're seated at a bar. She thinks he wants to pick her up, but he actually wants to tell her that he had worked at the pumping station and had been ordered to destroy documents.

In real life, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys, there were two "Deep Throats," a man and a woman. The man was actually the bartender, not a patron. They were allegedly told to go to the "Boneyard," where all the facility's historical records were kept, and take everything to the dump. They used five pickup trucks over several nights between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. so no one would see them, attorneys said.

"Those were all the records over how much chromium was put in the system between 1952 and 1986," said Walter J. Lack, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys.

Brockovich said she was sitting in a bar on Highway 58 when an older man she had met before approached her and, just like in the movie, she thought he wanted to pick her up. Instead, he told her of the "Boneyard."

In the film, Roberts darts out of the bar to phone Masry with the exciting news.

"That's exactly like I did," Brockovich recalled. "I bolted out of there. I told him I was going to the restroom because I didn't want him to leave and I immediately ran and called Ed."

In the film, Finney tells Roberts that the case has grown too big for his small law firm to handle, so he seeks out the help of bigger law firms. In real life, those law firms were Girardi and Keese in downtown Los Angeles and Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Century City. Together, the firms poured $12 million of their own cash into waging the legal fight against PG&E.;

The real lawsuit nearly sank Masry financially.

"My law firm had literally run out of money," Masry recalled. "I had 30 to 60 days of operating capital left when Lack and Girardi stepped into the fight. If they hadn't stepped in, we would have been defeated."

Thomas V. Girardi and Lack recently attended an advance screening of "Erin Brockovich" and said they found it remarkably accurate.

"The single most memorable effect the movie had on me," Lack said, "was how it captured Ed Masry's great generosity and kindness and the agony he went through before finally making a commitment [to the case]. In terms of costs, it was a drain on him. He's an older man, not in good health. He really put his whole life into this case. He mortgaged his home, didn't take other cases. . . . By the time he came to me, he was out of money."

Brockovich today admits she was angered when Lack and Girardi initially entered the case because she had been working hard to uncover things and here were these two big law firms suddenly coming on board to help direct the case.

"I wasn't sensing it from the legal and financial standpoint, just from the emotional impact," she recalled. "I was uncovering the deceit."

Lack and Girardi said they loved Coyote's portrayal and were even amused that the character's arrogance somewhat resembled Lack's. "Yep, that's me," Lack said with a laugh.

As for Brockovich, Girardi still marvels at the way she was able to bond with the people of Hinkley.

"The truth of the matter is, she single-handedly was the liaison between that town [and the lawyers]," he said. "We did send other employees out [to Hinkley] for one reason or another and they were never as warmly treated as Erin, but they were always welcomed."

How did the real Brockovich compare to Roberts' portrayal?

"She was exactly like Julia in the movie," Girardi said. "She would come back with those quick retorts" like the scene in which Finney says some of the women in the office aren't comfortable with the way Roberts' character dresses.

"Is that so?" Roberts replies. "Well, it just so happens I think I look nice and as long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like. If that's all right with you."

Masry said he thinks the filmmakers have accurately captured the relationship between Brockovich and himself.

"Erin and I had our arguments," he said. "We had our bad times and we had our good times. When I first heard that Julia was going to play Erin, I thought, 'What a horrible mistake.' The only movies I had seen Julia in, she was kind of like a vestal virgin. You know, 'Runaway Bride' and 'Notting Hill.' I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the film. She did a wonderful job."

And, how does Roberts' sexy attire in the film compare to that worn by the real-life Erin?

"If anything," Masry said, "Julia wore longer skirts."

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Epilogue: Litigation against PG&E; continues. Lack said that on Nov. 27, trial is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of 1,600 plaintiffs arising out of the same sort of allegations in Hinkley, only this time involving PG&E; pumping stations in Topock, a remote site on the Arizona state line, and Kettleman City in Kings County, as well as some former Hinkley residents who came forward later.

"Kettleman is almost a repeat of Hinkley," Masry said. "The thing that is staggering about Kettleman is that they knew in 1967 they were using chromium, and clear into the 1980s they didn't stop using it." PG&E; declined comment on the pending litigation.

Girardi said all three law firms are busy pursuing various other toxic cases and that Brockovich, now director of research at Masry's Westlake Village law firm, recently went to Hawaii on a case.

Masry described Brockovich today as "the Perry Mason of toxic investigators" and noted that the two of them have crisscrossed the country probing water pollution cases.

Brockovich is now remarried. Her three children--17, 15 and 9--are much older than depicted in the film. "Elizabeth was my baby in diapers when this started," she recalled.

Carla Shamberg said a woman who worked as a crew member on the film happened to be discussing it with her mother, who mentioned that the crew member's father had always thought he was poisoned by the water in his town. Now, Brockovich is on that case, too.

But notoriety comes with a price for the now 39-year-old Brockovich. Shamberg said that Brockovich went into a drugstore recently and the pharmacist became flustered when she flashed on Brockovich's name.

"She gave Erin a painkiller and Erin later started getting sleepy and realized, 'Oh, my God, I got the wrong prescription!' " *

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