For Scott Z. Burns, the best way to tell the story of a compulsive liar was to take some liberties with the truth himself.
“I’ve always been fascinated by lies … we all are,” the cheerfully forthright screenwriter tells me of his attraction to the story behind “The Informant!,” Steven Soderbergh’s playfully comic biopic of corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre, who helped the FBI bust price fixing in America’s agribusiness sector, but wound up in federal prison for his own extreme indiscretions.
“That’s kind of what watching movies is about – we’re delighted to be lied to for two or three hours. So Mark’s story was such obvious movie material.”
We are sitting at a corner table in the bustling bar of London’s Soho Hotel, the afternoon ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the London Film Festival. Following a month of promoting the film in Venice, Toronto and the U.S., Burns is a touch dazed, unaccustomed to this level of individual attention: “The Informant!” represents his first solo feature credit, following producing and co-writing efforts on “An Inconvenient Truth” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” respectively, and a 2006 writing-directing debut with the HBO TV movie “Pu-239.”
It’s been a while coming. Burns first encountered Whitacre’s story shortly after the publication of Kurt Eichenwald’s bestselling account of the events (“The Informant,” sans exclamation mark) was published in 2000.
“I was driving around LA to a lunch appointment, and I was listening to this radio show called “This American Life,” with Ira Glass,” he remembers. “They were talking about this guy Whitacre, and I found the story so amazing, I kept driving around in circles, so I could keep listening. I ended up arriving pretty late for lunch.”
So began a winding road to fruition for the project, as Burns picked up the rights to Eichenwald’s book and pitched it to multiple studios, some of whom felt it would be better suited to televisual treatment. Convinced of the story’s cinematic potential, Burns persisted, until Warner Brothers suggested it as a project for either Steven Soderbergh or the late Sydney Pollack to direct.
“It was a toss-up between them, which was a pretty great choice to have,” Burns says. “But I felt that Steven could do something more unusual with the material, and I really wasn’t interested in doing a straight, linear adaptation. I’ve always found unreliable narrators interesting, and I liked that Whitacre could be both a hero and a bad guy. Steven saw the same thing in it.”
It was in this meeting of minds with Soderbergh in 2002 that the script’s most audacious stroke came to pass: the transformation of Eichenwald’s thriller-style account into a tongue-in-cheek corporate satire. Did this dramatic tonal shift give the relatively green screenwriter any pause? Burns shakes his head emphatically.
“I felt from the beginning that a large part of the comedy comes naturally from the story itself. Even if you imagine telling the story truthfully, say, to a guy in a bar, it’s still farcical. There are factual scenes here that would seem silly in “The Insider,” for example. And I think comedy helps us with the character of Mark: the fact that we’ve laughed with him gives us a responsibility towards him.”
Key to the process was finding Whitacre’s droll inner voice that narrates the film in a delicious stream of consciousness, blithely hopping from one tangential thought to another. “I quickly came to the realization when writing that it’s impossible to tell just one lie. Mark constantly has to buttress one untruth with another, and it’s there that the structure of the story emerged. The voiceover was a way of exposing the inside of his head, as he tries to keep track of what he’s said.”
While Soderbergh’s chief inspirations stemmed from 1960s and 1970s cinema – the director repeatedly cited the work of Richard Lester to lend the film what Burns describes as “more frolic” than most American studio cinema – the writer’s own points of reference also extended to “The Usual Suspects” and “Fight Club,” taking a more fanciful approach to characterization that Soderbergh encouraged.
“Steven specifically didn’t want me to meet Mark,” Burns explains. “For starters, it’s not wise to rely for information on someone who still has a problem with the truth. So when it came to finding his voice, I decided I’d just make it up.”
He laughs, not missing the irony of this bond between writer and subject. “The Informant!” reportedly impressed Whitacre himself, who later said that Burns “nailed” his interior monologues; even more importantly, Burns has proved that in the convention-bound territory of the Hollywood biopic, there is more than one way to tell the truth.