For all of Hollywood's commitment to social causes, there are few suggestions that stop an entertainment-industry conversation in its tracks faster than "Let's finance a movie about immigrants and a distant conflict."
Yet when “The Good Lie” — a story about the Lost Boys, the thousands of South Sudanese who survived war and famine to come to the U.S. — is released by Warner Bros. on more than 400 screens next week, it will show those conversations aren't always nonstarters. It can just take years of pluck, luck and some unexpected turns involving an adoptee of a Fed Ex mogul to get somewhere.
The backstory to "The Good Lie" demonstrates the axiom that just getting a movie made in Hollywood is its own triumph. That the film is a moving and well-told tale of resilient young men that many American filmgoers know little about is just a nice bonus.
About a decade ago, Margaret Nagle was an aspiring writer with a modest resume. She was transitioning from a humble career in acting, a realm in which "My So-Called Life" completists might remember her as the enthusiastic-but-ignored biology teacher Mrs. Chavatal. Nagle had one writing credit with any kind of development traction — a movie about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt titled “Warm Springs” that HBO would go on to produce and air in 2005. But when Nagle read in the trades that the producer Robert Newmyer had set up a story of the Lost Boys at Paramount, she pushed for a meeting with him hoping to land the gig.
It was personal for her. Several years before, Nagle had been selling handbags out of her car as a way to supplement her income. Her suppliers were Senegalese, and they fueled her interest in Africa and African issues. She also grew up with a brother who was hurt in a crippling accident. She told Newmyer she wanted to make a movie that centered not just on Africa but on siblings — after all, the Lost Boys created ad hoc families in their journey across the rugged South Sudan landscape — a film that, as she described it, "explored the idea of the brothers you're born with and the brothers you meet on the way."
Newmyer was convinced. Nagle landed the job and wrote multiple drafts. But after several regime changes at Paramount she was removed from the project in favor of more established writers.
For many newbie scribes that would be the end of the story--they would take the credit and use it as leverage to get other gigs. But it was just the beginning for Nagle.
In 2005, the writer received a call that Newmyer had died suddenly while on a set in Toronto. She had been close with the producer, who had taken her on despite little feature-film experience, and found herself newly motivated. "I thought, 'we have to do this now,'" she said.
There was only one problem — she didn’t own the script. Paramount still had "Good Lie" in development. It wasn't doing much with it, but it was in no hurry to put it in turnaround either. If Nagle wanted to retake possession of the rights she could, but would need to wait five years for a Writers Guild rule that allows scribes to reclaim scripts that had fallen down development rabbit holes. (And even if she'd get it back, it would be for only 18 months. More on that in a moment.)
So in 2010, with the script dormant at Paramount, Nagle won the rights back, and eventually had it accepted to a writers lab that Hollywood superproducers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard had set up in association with their company Imagine Entertainment. Grazer and Howard, along with top lieutenant Karen Sherwood, couldn't get a difficult drama like that made at their home studio Universal either. But they helped Nagle develop it.
She worked away at the story, about several South Sudanese boys and girls who had improbably survived all the hazards of their home country, ended up in a refugee camp for years, and then, thanks to a faith-based charity, immigrated to the U.S. shortly before 9/11. (The Lost Boys program was essentially stopped after that.) There would be sacrifices and hardship and even pragmatic fibs along the way -- the good lie of the title -- but also, she hoped, redemption. "I wanted to tell a story about what it means to make a mistake," said Nagle, an enthusiastic woman with Buddy Holly glasses.
She also needed more than just a good idea. Though technically a fictional tale, her script was inspired by all that the Lost Boys went through, and she wouldn't make the film without their blessing. This set off a series of trips to the communities where they lived — in Kansas City, Atlanta, Phoenix and San Diego, among others. At one such meeting where many of the tribal leaders were convened (a meeting, incidentally, attended by both a top Amnesty International official and Dave Eggers, at the time writing his Africa-set novel "What Is the What?") she won their approval.
Progress continued at the Imagine lab, but so did the months. Nagle and her Imagine supporters were facing a ticking clock -- if after a year-and-a-half she couldn't find a buyer, the script would revert to Paramount.
In the meantime, Nagle tried to land other jobs. Knowing that the prospects of anyone making a movie about young African men walking 1,000 miles across a desert wasn't exactly screaming Tom Cruise action vehicle, she sent it as a writing sample to a new company called Black Label, run by the producer Molly Smith, hoping to get on one of the company's movies.
And that's when things got a bit spooky or fortuitous, or any of the things that get a movie made in modern Hollywood when it seems like there's no earthly reasons that they should. Smith is the daughter of Fred Smith, the chief of Fed Ex and the backer of the Warner Bros.-based Alcon Entertainment. And it turned out that Molly Smith had an unlikely connection to the material--her family in Memphis had taken in a Lost Boy in 2001 when he appeared at the family's church. He had become part of the family and gained a higher education degree with their support.
"I couldn't believe it when I read it," Smith recalled in an interview last week. "I called my mother right away and said 'this is Joseph's story,'" referring to her adopted brother.
Smith said she would finance the film — the final budget was a bit less than $15 million — and use Alcon, the autonomous production company that has coveted distribution slots with the Warner Bros., as a distribution platform. (It didn't hurt that Alcon was coming off the mega-success of "The Blind Side," also a film with faith-based themes about an underprivileged man overcoming obstacles, though it's worth noting that this story focuses a lot less on a white woman's role in facilitating that overcoming.) The check was delivered to Paramount (the studio had to be repaid for past development) just days before it would have reclaimed the script.
With the project in motion, the momentum increased. Reese Witherspoon came aboard as the tough-talking woman who helped the immigrants get settled in Kansas City. Director Philippe Falardeau, who had grappled with Africa-related immigrant issues in his Oscar-nominated foreign film "Monsieur Lazhar," also signed on.
Casting began around the world, and several non-actors who were Lost Boys themselves were cast in lead parts. Supporting roles went to children of Lost Boys, placed in the movie out of casting calls in churches around the country. The film was shot in South Africa and Atlanta last year, with many Lost Boys on the set talking about their experiences.