Even as she was reporting it, Jessica Pressler had the sense that her story about a group of strippers-turned-criminals was the stuff movies are made of. The New York Magazine article had just the kind of juicy plot elements that Hollywood clamors for: Pole dancing! Illegal drugs! Wall Street suits brought down by their own greed!
So the instant her piece was published in December 2015, she sent it to filmmaker Adam McKay. Pressler had interviewed the director while he was making “The Big Short,” a film about how the collapse of the housing bubble led to 2007 financial crisis. Her latest report, about how adult entertainment dancers stayed afloat during that same financial downturn by stealing money from their wealthy male clients, shared similar themes.
Pressler’s instinct was correct: McKay bit, and his company ended up producing STX’s “Hustlers,” a movie based on the writer’s piece “The Hustlers at Scores.” But what she hadn’t counted on was the fact that she herself would be part of the big-screen adaptation.
Sure, she understood the cinematic allure of her two main interview subjects — audacious, designer-clad strippers ultimately played by Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu — but was a magazine writer with a voice recorder really all that exciting?
Apparently, yes. Because not only was Julia Stiles cast to play a version of Pressler in “Hustlers” — which has already grossed in excess of $80 million after three weekends in theaters — but a handful of films at the recent Toronto International Film Festival gave journalists the same treatment.
In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Matthew Rhys stars as an Esquire journalist who is assigned to profile Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks). The movie, which Sony Pictures will open on Nov. 22, is adapted from Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire piece “Can You Say ... Hero?” Though the writer set out to learn about the children’s television personality, he eventually turned self-reflective as a result of Rogers’ inquiries.
There’s also “The Friend,” a dark comedy in which Casey Affleck stars as a Louisiana-based journalist whose wife (Dakota Johnson) is diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. The couple’s mutual best friend (Jason Segel) moves into their home to help care for the family and their two daughters. The story was the subject of a 2015 Esquire essay written by Matthew Teague shortly after his wife succumbed to cancer. (The film, which was seeking distribution in Toronto, does not yet have a release date.)
The Times spoke to the three journalists — Pressler, Junod and Teague — about their big-screen experiences and why ink-stained wretches are in the spotlight right now.
SELLING THE STORY
Pressler: Right when my article came out, I sent it to Adam McKay. I wasn’t thinking of him optioning it, but I thought he would enjoy this story because it was about economics. I did meet with other people about optioning it. I have a memory of an agent saying “Jessica Chastain! Jennifer Lawrence!” All these typical, L.A. things. But Adam wrote back and CCed Jessica Elbaum, who he started [the production company] Gloria Sanchez with. He was like, “This is a crazy story. We should develop this.” And then we met a week or two later, when I happened to be in L.A. interviewing Kerry Washington or something. Jessica was very passionate about it.
I didn’t think I would write the screenplay. My impression was if some amateur journalist tried to write a screenplay, it can hold things up. I said, “If no one wants to write it, I’ll write it.” But you hear horror stories. Nobody wants somebody who has never written a screenplay before being like, “I insist!” I wanted to get it done.
Junod: I wrote the article in 1998, but I only heard from people wanting to option it at the end of 2015. They were working on a version of the script based on another journalist’s book — Tim Madigan’s “I’m Proud of You.” I’m not the only journalist who had a positive experience with Fred [Rogers]. But there was a complication with the estate, and that’s when [Fred’s widow] Joanne Rogers recommended my story. I couldn’t have been more surprised. It seemed safely tucked in the past. So I went to L.A. in December 2015 and spent time with the screenwriters. We talked for two days, pretty much exclusively about my life.
Teague: I heard from people wanting to option the story more or less right away. Whenever you have something that’s decent that gets out, there’s always a little wave of interest from production companies. But it’s hard to tell what’s real. I have had other things that have been optioned, but I haven’t been pleased with the outcome. And this was so intensely personal that I wanted to write it myself.
After about a year of trying that, and realizing I was too close and couldn’t write it in an objective way, I went back to [production company] Scott Free and said, “Are you still interested?” I told them I’d do it, but I wanted to remain part of the film — oversee the script in some capacity and apprentice myself to the screenwriter, because I like screenwriting. And [screenwriter] Brad Ingelsby was compassionate with me. We passed pages back and forth, and I got to write chunks of it.
FILLING IN THE HOLES
Teague: I felt proud of my essay, but it can be tough to build a movie without more. So I fed more of my life into the movie. They’d say, “In the second act, we need some sort of turn,” and I’d say, “well, here’s something else that happened in my marriage.” There wasn’t a day where we sat down and they said, “OK, I need to strip your life of every event and see what’s helpful or not.” The point of the magazine story was an exercise in total honesty, and I knew that to sign up for the movie would have to sort of be the same. But the movie required a different kind of honesty. In the essay, you can dive into every detail of the physical insult of cancer. That would be too powerful with the visual medium. People would leave the theater.
Pressler: Before I even met [writer-director Lorene Scafaria], she had written a version of the script and the studio liked her take. I was like, “Cool, I saw ‘The Meddler,’ it changed how I made egg-in-a-hole. She’s great.” So we met and I gave her my notes and some recordings. She asked what was left on the cutting-room floor that wasn’t in the article. My right mind, obviously, knew it was a movie and Lorene was going to take cinematic license. But as a journalist, you’re used to being in control of the story a little bit. I vomited all this realness on her, and even if she used one thing, I thought it would be kind of fun.
Junod: There’s really not that much about me in the article, other than me saying I had a stuffed toy as a kid named Old Rabbit. So the screenwriters went through the family archive in Latrobe, Penn., and read the emails between Fred and I. We continued some form of correspondence from 1998 until two months before he died [in 2003]. I hadn’t even read those messages [again] until this summer. I could hear Fred’s voice again very, very clearly. The bulk of the messages are from the first year of our friendship, and I think they really helped [the screenwriters].
MEETING THE ACTORS
Junod: I met Matthew Rhys in Pittsburgh last September. I had no idea what to make of our conversations until I saw how he played me. It sort of blew my mind. The way he looked — the way he tilted his head. In Toronto, he told me, “I had to work very hard on your walk.” I didn’t even know he was observing my walk.
Pressler: I didn’t know who was going to play me, but I could tell when they cast Julia Stiles because she started following me on social media. I just knew instantly. I was, like, “Oh, my God! What a good choice.” I loved it, and I texted Lorene telling her Julia was perfect. Then we met. She came all the way to my house in Queens [New York], and we had a play-date. We both have 1-year-olds, and mine slept the whole time. She asked me things like, “Do you take notes or do you record? What kind of questions did you ask in your interviews?” I was telling myself, in advance, “Don’t ask a million questions.” It was very strange. But she’s just a lovely, normal New York person.
Teague: Casey and I did talk, but he did something I appreciate, which is that he didn’t try to imitate my [Southern] accent. I think if he had done that, it would have been distracting. What I really wanted him to do was to focus on the emotional part of the story. He’s not playing Winston Churchill, so learning how to tilt his head like mine is wasted energy, in my mind.
STRAYING FROM THE TRUTH
Junod: I don’t think I ever got angry at Fred for not answering my questions. Matthew’s character gets snippy or frustrated. But one of the things that I share with the character is that we both realized early on that the person that we were interviewing was remarkable and singular. Fred was expert at turning questions around in a way that made you feel that you weren’t simply being put off.
At that time in my life, I was open to Fred. I had switched from GQ to Esquire with a fair amount of fanfare; there was actually fanfare back in those days when writers changed magazines. I had a bunch of magazines that did not succeed. I did a story on Kevin Spacey that was not a success in the worst kind of way. We danced around the matter of his sexuality, and I was at least one-half too clever. It was a total disaster, and the first story I did for Esquire. It shook me up in the way I was conducting myself as a writer. So like the character in the movie, I was very, very open to Fred’s ministry.
Pressler: Michael Lewis [whose books were adapted into the films “Moneyball” and “The Big Short”] told me this kind of amazing thing — “Everybody who gets into this process is terrified because of the power of the medium.” And 100,000 people read a book, but 40 million see a movie. He was like, “Do you want people who don’t have any context for you to think you’re the person in the movie?” That definitely kind of freaked me out.
I don’t really have a ton in common with the character of me in the film, though the inherent truth is there. I never got a call from [my interview subjects] during my baby shower, but there were definitely times they would call and I’d be busy with my own life.
Teague: I don’t swear, but it would have seemed unrealistic if the character was, like, “Oh, gosh!” And Gabriela [Cowperthwaite, the director] and I have a major war on the question of sandals. He wears Tevas, which I contend are different from Chacos, which I wear.
Pressler: Early on, I kept thinking the character would get cut, because my impression was that journalist characters are not sexy. But it kept not going away. There’s no typing, which I think is a very good choice.
Junod: I knew they’d changed details of my life, and I was OK with that, and I thought because of that I’d be able to watch the movie with some distance. But when I watched it by myself, I was just blubbering. It was back to me. I couldn’t avoid that. Fred saw something in me, and decided to take an interest in me. He did that for a lot of people. I’m a stand-in for many people, is how I prefer to look at it. To this day, I can’t account for it. It seems like a stroke of impossible good fortune that it happened to me.
Teague: I was on set throughout the filming. I stayed out of the way, but I did watch it unfold, and it was fascinating. I have lived with this story for so long that I thought I’d be fine, but then it just laid waste to me. People reenacting my life — especially anything with my girls. It really tore me up to the degree where I’d be sobbing and have to leave the set. There’s something so charming and unnerving about child actors. They can turn it on and off like a spigot. They’re in these heavy-duty emotional moments, and then they go get M&Ms at craft services. I’m ready to scoop them up in my arms and console them and they’re, like, “Who is this strange crying man?”
Teague: There’s a phenomenon happening culturally right now that I think was driven by podcasts. For years, we’d go off and do our work and present it on a platter. Increasingly, people want to know what happened in the kitchen, and a lot of that has found expression in podcasts. Now, it’s like, “Here’s the travel. Here’s the newsroom stupidity.”
Junod: Journalists, like a lot of others right now, are being reevaluated by the public in terms of trust.
Pressler: I think there is a larger cultural thing happening, which is weird, because we have a president that does not respect the media. At the same time, it’s like — watching somebody trying to work something out and figuring out the truth is satisfying, because in a way, we’re all doing that. We need to figure out what happened. And journalists are more interesting, because they are imperiled.