The whole truth?
In 1982, after a single semester at Northwestern University, Billy Ray left the school’s lauded Medill School of Journalism dejected. “The only C I’ve ever gotten was in a writing course at Medill,” says Ray, who returned to hometown Los Angeles, enrolled at UCLA’s film school and just a few years after graduation was making his living as a screenwriter. Now Ray has returned to the world of print media by writing and directing a movie about a much grander kind of journalistic disgrace.
In “Shattered Glass,” Ray winds back to 1998 and tells the true story of Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old wunderkind associate editor/writer at the New Republic whose own personal profile turned out to be wilder than any of the extravagantly colorful characters who starred in his pieces. After Adam Penenberg, an editor at the Web site Forbes.com, was reprimanded for being scooped by Glass on a story about a teen computer hacker, Penenberg began checking into Glass’ peculiarly unfamiliar-sounding sources.
Not only did Penenberg’s probing reveal that Glass had concocted the quotes, events, companies and locations in his computer hacker piece, but it also triggered an internal investigation by the New Republic. When all was done, a boss’ chastising had led to the revelation that Glass fabricated all or portions of 27 out of the 41 articles he’d written for the New Republic, as well as pieces he’d penned for Rolling Stone, Harper’s and George as well.
Glass’ transgressions upended the media world. But how does one turn a scandal over words into a compelling movie drama? Though “Shattered Glass” is officially based on a 1998 Vanity Fair article written by Buzz Bissinger, Ray wanted to treat the screenplay as an original piece of journalism, conducting extensive interviews with Penenberg; Glass’ former New Republic editor, Charles Lane; Glass’ mentor and predecessor to Lane, Michael Kelly; his New Republic co-worker, Hanna Rosin; as well as a handful of New Republic employees who chose to remain unnamed.
“Basically, I spoke to all the people involved except Stephen Glass,” says Ray, who dedicated “Shattered Glass” to the memory of Kelly, who died last April in a Humvee accident while covering the war in Iraq. Kelly spent untold hours talking to Ray about Glass, but he needed to be cajoled first. “He was haunted by what happened with Glass: Sick that it happened under his watch, sick that he hadn’t been the guy to catch him. All he wanted was to see that this movie never get made. But of higher value for him was to make sure that I told the story right.”
Journalists like Charles Lane, now a Washington Post staff writer on the U.S. Supreme Court beat, were initially suspicious of Ray’s motives too. “I was worried that maybe this film was being made to demonstrate what an intriguing, interesting, debonair guy Stephen Glass really is,” Lane says. Once Lane’s fears were quelled by Ray’s obvious earnestness, he went from fretting about how the stories’ far-reaching issues of morality and journalistic ethics would be presented to a more human-sized matter. “Early on, I was concerned about how I would be portrayed,” says Lane, who was a paid consultant on the movie. “But after a while, I was like, hey, they’re spelling my name right. How bad can it ultimately be? If you’re not actually portrayed as Steve is -- as a dishonest creep -- then, hey, you’re in a movie. It’s your name. How cool is that?”
Casting against type
When “Shattered Glass” opens on Oct. 31, audiences who don’t know Lane’s byline will be introduced to him by way of Peter Sarsgaard, the frat-boy handsome actor best known for his role in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Four-time Emmy winner Hank Azaria is Glass’ staunch protector, editor Kelly. Some of the other “Shattered Glass” casting choices have prompted pre-release sniping. “Only in Hollywood can Jewish nebbishes get played by WASP hotties,” one scribe archly opined. “ ‘Star Wars’ hunk Hayden Christensen has been cast as Glass and dishy Chloe Sevigny as Glass’ New Republic colleague Hanna Rosin.” (In the finished film she plays a composite character based partly on Rosin.)
So far, “Shattered Glass” has gotten its share of free coverage, usually as a side note in articles about Glass who -- whether it’s his intention or not -- can’t seem to stay out of the news. First, Glass received a reported six-figure advance to write a novelized autobiography, “The Fabulist,” then he promoted it by way of a painfully robotic interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” There are also the uncanny parallels between Glass and the New York Times’ bane, Jayson Blair. Recently, Glass’ byline reappeared on a piece concerning Canadian marijuana policy in Rolling Stone, a magazine that defended itself over a $50-million lawsuit involving an article about the DARE anti-drug program that Glass wrote for them in March 1998.
Those headlines aside, it only makes sense that a film concerning the press would be of keen interest to those best positioned to gauge its accuracy. How often did Ray, who co-wrote popcorn fare like “Volcano” and “Hart’s War” but never directed a movie, think about this when he was deciding to make “Shattered Glass” his filmmaking debut?
“I’m very happy to say I never thought that once -- it would have paralyzed me with terror,” says Ray, who shot “Shattered Glass,” a Lions Gate production, for $5.9 million in 28 days in Montreal.. “I was so sure no one would ever know this movie existed. We weren’t a big studio movie. Nobody cared. I mean, we were so far below that radar that I didn’t think that media people would pay attention.”
When Ray first got into show business, he never fantasized about making the leap from writer to top dog. “Directing just didn’t seem like a big deal to me -- and I didn’t think I’d know how,” says Ray, whose literary agent father, Rick Ray, represented such blue-chip screenwriters as Paul Brickman (“Risky Business”), Steve Shagan (“Save the Tiger”) and Peter Bogdanovich (“The Last Picture Show”). The day Ray announced that he was interested in scripts, his dad took him into his office archives and pulled down client Alvin Sargent’s screenplay for “Ordinary People.” “He said, ‘Do this.’ That’s where we set the bar,” Ray says. “As good as it gets.”
For all Ray’s meticulous attempts to re-create reporting in action, the moments that generate the most old-fashioned movie suspense involve how Penenberg (played by a shaggily convincing Steve Zahn) uncovers Glass’ fictions. “What Billy did that was amazing to me was that he got what it’s like to be a journalist,” the real-life Penenberg says of scenes that feature dialogue taken verbatim from transcripts of tape-recorded speakerphone conversations among Lane, Glass, Penenberg and Penenberg’s boss, Kambiz Faroohar. “I can’t tell if I like it because it’s a really good movie, though I think it’s a really good movie. It is impossible for me to be objective, so I won’t even try.”
Though “Shattered Glass” seeks to dramatize Glass’ rise and fall factually, it still includes a few composite characters and fringe personalities created to help move the story forward. One thing that no one in the movie, real or invented, explains, however, is why Glass did what he did. The primary reason for this, Ray says, is because he feels it’s an unsolved mystery. “I don’t think Stephen Glass can answer that question,” Ray says. “I mean, if you ask him, I guarantee he would have some sort of achieved-through-analysis rote reply. But in his heart of hearts, I really don’t think he knows. So how ... could I know why he did it?”
It’s anyone’s guess what it would be like to watch a chillingly authentic reenactment of possibly the worst time in one’s life. When asked via e-mail about his thoughts regarding, the movie, Glass, whose typical response is no response, politely wrote, “I appreciate your getting in touch, but I don’t think I have anything to say about the movie now. Feel free to give me a call as the release gets closer, though.”
“He wants to see the movie,” Ray, 39, said a couple of weeks ago while he sat at a West Hollywood cafe. “I think he’d like to speak about it publicly, I’m assuming. But I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the movie to happen. How can he possibly help us?”
It is here that Ray’s rage toward his subject -- perhaps an understandable byproduct of his immersion into the world of those wronged by Glass -- feels palpable. “If he comes out and says he thinks the movie is terrific, it looks like we were too easy on him. If he slams the movie and says we’re all liars, that hurts us too -- although being called a liar by Stephen Glass is like being called ugly by a frog.”