INTERVIEW: ‘Changeling’ screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski

Posted by · 12:31 pm · November 25th, 2008

J. Michael Straczynski“In the feature film world, we television writers barely exist,” explains J. Michael Straczynski screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” starring Angelina Jolie.  “So for this to all happen so fast is really a fairy tale year for me. I am elated with how this has all gone down and changed the course of my life.”

Straczynski was making a fine living on the small screen, writing episodes of “Murder She Wrote” and “Jake and the Fatman” before moving on to  Showtime’s series “Jeremiah” and “Babylon 5,” two of his most well-known credits.  He had worked as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and upon discovering the story of Christine Collins, he put it on the back burner for a few years until he found the time to do it right.

He describes his research and fact-finding like “putting a jigsaw puzzle together” for the simple reason that facts and articles had been lost, and they simply did not have the technology then to store everything he required. Taking a year off writing television, he researched the Collins case and put a script together, which his agent sent off to Imagine Entertainment and Ron Howard.  The script was bought as is and Howard wanted to direct the film, but when his schedule became impossible, “Frost/ Nixon” looming on the horizon, he sent the screenplay to Clint Eastwood.  The grizzled vet read the work on a plane back to the States and committed to direct after the first reading.

Yes.  This was a FIRST DRAFT that went before the cameras within a year of being sold, something rather unheard of in Hollywood unless you’re Woody Allen.

“To have Eastwood commit to direct? I mean the man is an icon of American cinema, as you well know”, explains Straczynski by telephone from Los Angeles.  “I was thrilled when he agreed to do the film.  Does it get any better than that? Of course the writers strike prevented me from being on set as often as I would have liked, but any time I was there it was a masters class in filmmaking. Clint was so organized, so generous with his actors, so genuine with everyone around him. The script could not have been in better hands.

Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie on the set of Changeling“He did something quite unique with Miss Jolie,”  he continues, “knowing that the paparazzi would hound the poor girl, he did everything humanly possible to separate the film set from that world. He shielded her, protected her and created an atmosphere where she was free to create and do the sort of work she became famous for doing before all this tabloid nonsense came about. I think she did an incredible job in the part. She reminded us of the fact she was always an actress first.”

The first time Straczynski saw the film was in an editing bay at Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions.  He says it was a very curious thing to see his script come to life, wondering where this line was or why that scene was left out, etc.  But what Eastwood created was “something very special. He, and this whole experience has changed my life in ways I cannot quite comprehend. It goes back to that famous Hollywood dream factory story: you really can come to this town with nothing and reach for the greatest of heights.”

When it was first released, “Changeling” seemed to be Oscar bound, with strong reviews from the major papers and journals, but the film stumbled at the box office and soon, detractors began to surface.  In fact, in some major cities, the film has played out and those Oscar chances have slipped dramatically. That said, Straczynski and Jolie represent the film’s best chances for Oscar nods, and come nomination day, I have every confidence the writer will be nominated for his first Academy Award for creating this American masterpiece.

Asked to consider his thoughts on the awards prospects of “Changeling,” Straczynski pauses for a long while.  It clearly isn’t something on his mind 24/7 like some of us.

“You know I have thought about it,” he says, then, with a laugh, “but I have also seen ‘For Your Consideration’ (Christopher Guest’s 2006 spoof on the awards season).  I am just enjoying this whirlwind for now and if that happens, terrific, but if not, I still have gained so much for the experience.”

→ 25 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Featured · Interviews

25 responses so far

  • 1 11-25-2008 at 12:53 pm

    Diego said...

    Masterpiece! In my opinion is the Best motion picture of the year…

  • 2 11-25-2008 at 12:58 pm

    Liz said...

    Something about him reminds me of James Lipton from the Actors Studio. Maybe it’s the glasses.

    Anyway, good interview. Although I don’t think I’d call it a masterpiece, I did think “Changeling” was good and received some unduly harsh reviews. I think Straczynski will be successful in the future.

  • 3 11-25-2008 at 1:11 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Straczynski’s “World War Z” script is absolute garbage.

  • 4 11-25-2008 at 1:52 pm

    Paulo said...

    Stumbled at the box office? How? the movie was in the top 5 for almost a month. Can sameone explain that to me?

  • 5 11-25-2008 at 2:17 pm

    Diego said...

    Changeling was very very very good for my, also Jolie and the supporting actors…i really don´t underestand the bad reviews…

  • 6 11-25-2008 at 5:53 pm

    Ligaya said...

    This is my favorite review of Ms. Jolie’s performance: James Christopher, Times (UK): I shall eat the next person who tells me that Angelina Jolie cannot act. Starring as Collins, she is the entire, anxious point of Eastwood’s film, and absolutely terrific as a mother who is forcibly reunited with the wrong boy by a Los Angeles Police Department rotten to the core. The anguish of Jolie’s performance is inexplicably real.

    I loved Changeling. I would say Jolie and Eastwood hit homeruns, but not grand slams like A Mighty Heart and Mystic River.

  • 7 11-25-2008 at 5:59 pm

    John Foote said...

    Nor do I understand the weak reviews in some quarters…hopefully the Academy will recognize the film but there’s that “Gran Torino” looming. I agree that it is among the years best films.

  • 8 11-25-2008 at 6:29 pm

    Ligaya said...

    Changeling got near universal raves in Cannes, so I was shocked when some bad reviews came in from the NYFF. Reviews have been mixed since then. Karina Longworth’s and Alison Willmore’s ‘reviews’ were sophomoric. Maybe they’re not familiar with the women’s weepies/melodramas I grew up with. (Clearly, these young women are of a generation, race, class and nationality who have no idea what it’s like to be powerless, intimidated and at the mercy of others – maybe they aren’t mothers either.)

  • 9 11-25-2008 at 8:49 pm

    Chad said...

    If you have to be a mother to like a movie, then it’s not a good movie. Same with any gender, class, race or nationality.

    And “Changeling” stumbled at the box office because it’s final take will be around $40 mil. That’s probably in line with it’s budget but far short of the $90-$100 mil of “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” which are reasonable comparisons.

  • 10 11-25-2008 at 9:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I’m not a mother and I think “Changeling” is fantastic. Wrongfully ravaged in certain circles.

  • 11 11-26-2008 at 3:15 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I saw the film again and I must say how brilliant it is in parts. Only problem is the length in that it can’t maintain the steady pace and losing a bit of logical flow. But aside from that the movie is so well directed. Nothing flashy, nothing gimmicky, just plain, easy, relaxed. The film moves slowly but with great confidence. I loved it all the way through again.

  • 12 11-26-2008 at 5:36 am

    John Foote said...

    Thank you Kris — my sentiments precisely –I loved the film and think it to be among the years very best — one of those greats to be left off the Oscar list I think.

  • 13 11-26-2008 at 5:56 am

    McGuff said...

    The criticism I understand the least about the film is that Jolie is solely one note — that whenever she appears, there is the crying and screaming that we’ve seen from her often through the years. Of course, anyone that has seen it knows that there are plenty of those scenes in ‘Changeling,’ but Jolie has certainly created a larger character than that. The real heart of Jolie’s Christine Collins is based in her femininity, the softness that made her rebellion against the police so unlikely. It’s that softness, that vulnerability that makes her performance really shine in my eyes.

  • 14 11-26-2008 at 6:19 am

    Chris said...

    I finally saw the film on Monday in a press screening over here, and while I think it isn’t as bad as many believe it to be, I don’t see how someone could call it a masterpiece.

    My main problem with it is Jolie’s character and the way she is embedded in the film. I simply think that there’s a mismatch between the intended perception of her bringing down the LAPD and her actual acts on screen. She seems more like a tool to Malkovich and Pierson’s characters.

    Furthermore, as a European, I oppose the death penalty and this film, in my opinion, was glorifying it to a degree that made me feel uncomfortable. Of course I can understand people’s wish for vengeance in circumstances like these – they’re absolutely legitimate – but I thought Eastwood’s depiction of it was just terrible. I was surprised by this, especially due to the liberal ideas expressed in the (to my mind, still inferior) M$B.

    Anyway, that’s just my opinion: a film that’s certainly beautiful to watch but with obvious flaws in the way the story is told.

  • 15 11-26-2008 at 6:36 am

    Liz said...

    McGuff, I completely agree. I get especially annoyed when someone says that Jolie screamed throughout the entire film. She raised her voice for a total of, what, maybe ninety seconds? As far as the crying goes, there was little weeping or wailing. She misted up several times, yes, but since the character is facing the probability that her son met an extremely brutal end, I think a few tears are justified.

    I don’t like to make this kind of judgment, but to me, these criticisms reek of someone having already made up their mind before they saw the film and seeing what they wanted to see.

  • 16 11-26-2008 at 6:38 am

    Ligaya said...

    Actually, I think the effect was supposed to be anti-death penalty. I read an account where Northcutt took 10 MINUTES to die – cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

  • 17 11-26-2008 at 6:57 am

    Chris said...

    Well, Ligaya, that may very well be, but then I don’t think Eastwood achieved the effect he aimed for. Collins’ encounter with Northcutt, followed immediately by his hanging – no sign of repentance, etc. – was a clear sign to me. It was unnecessary to include the scene in the first place, since it doesn’t add anything valuable to the film.

  • 18 11-26-2008 at 7:20 am

    McGuff said...

    I don’t think that’s an unfair assumption, Liz. I think a lot of people made up their mind when they saw the preview — “I want MY SON back!” — and assumed this was the same Jolie performance from “Girl Interrupted,” which was certainly more showy than her work here.

  • 19 11-26-2008 at 7:56 am

    Ligaya said...

    What Liz and McGuff said.

    Chad & Kristopher, I didn’t make myself clear. My comment wasn’t meant to apply to everyone who liked/didn’t like Changeling as if it was some kind of litmus test. It was meant to apply just to Karina & Alison, and just in this particular instance. It was born out of my frustration with and need to understand how two otherwise intelligent women whom I respected could stoop to a juvenile drinking game as ‘review.’ I wouldn’t have been so offended and disappointed in them had they done a serious review and savaged the acting and directing. But to mock and ridicule the film because they couldn’t imagine a woman like Christine Collins just shows their limited P.O.V. and experience.

    All I’m saying is if Karina & Alison were older, or women of color, or part of the working poor, or from/lived in a country other than the U.S./Japan/EU, they might have had a clue about the dynamics of power and what any person, man or woman, can be reduced to when confronted by Absolute Authority.

  • 20 11-26-2008 at 11:46 am

    Diego said...

    ” brilliant”
    “among the years very best ”
    “i loved”

    So, Oscar chances? Why not?
    8.1 IMDB……..

  • 21 11-26-2008 at 11:53 am

    Chris said...

    Well, you know Diego, let’s put it this way:

    The costumes in The Edge of Love were “brilliant”, and its lead actresses simply “beautiful”. “I loved” the cinematography, which to me, was “among the years very best” and especially the scene of the shooting was “fantastic”.

    So, Oscar chances? Hell, no.

    I’m happy you liked the film, but you might just be a wee bit obsessed with it, don’t you thin?

  • 22 11-26-2008 at 11:54 am

    Chris said...


  • 23 11-26-2008 at 12:18 pm

    Diego said...

    Well, chris, we said that, you like it or not…

    And, yes, i´m obsessed, the film was great and i hope the Academy recognition…

  • 24 9-12-2009 at 2:30 pm

    Danielle Druff said...

    I had heard very little about this film, and have seen very little of Angelina Jolie — believe it or not! McGuff, I’m interested in your view that Angelina Jolie “created a larger character” — apart from the occasional histrionic outburst, I see virtually no acting from her in this film. The camera lingers on her face, and it is so blank and unmoving that we can read whatever emotion we want onto an empty canvas. If you watch the film again, take note of the number of times the other actors are seeking a response from her and nothing actually happens. Sometimes she turns away, sometimes she looks up, sometimes she looks down — maybe this is brilliant acting, but to me it is very mannequin-like, and made a mismatch between the crowds who were whipped up by her fight, and her total inertia. The story is a great one, but Jolie seemed so disinterested and uninvolved in the events that I felt pretty much the same way.
    I have seen reviews that note Jolie’s resemblance to silent screen starlets, and Eastwood’s masterful deconstruction of the role of women in Hollywood — but I think the reviewers were thinking too hard. I’m not saying Jolie can’t act, but on the basis of the evidence presented in this film, no jury would find her guilty of acting.