How 'Changeling' Changed J. Michael Straczynski's Career
Changeling is about ordinary people living through extraordinary events. A child is kidnapped, and the grief felt by his mother is palpable in Angelina Jolie's performance as Christine Collins. And just when she thinks the nightmare is over upon news of her son's rescue, she's left even more fragile when the son she brings home is not hers. The story is about her fight to bring the truth out, even when the local authorities try to cover-up an even deeper crime with accusations of her insanity.
Written by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski , the film is based on a real-life incident that is infamous in California in the late 1920s called the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders which involved the kidnapping and murder of children. Collins' story is one of many that weave itself through those events – events that had been forgotten for over eighty years.
"I'd stumbled upon it a long time ago via a source in [Los Angeles] City Hall from my journalism days," Straczynski explained to Newsarama. According to his source, officials were planning on burning numerous older documents including a transcript of a welfare hearing of the mother, Christine Collins. Fascinated by the story, Straczynski spent a year researching Collins' case and accumulated over 6,000 pages of research before he began writing the script.
"That's one of the things that was unusual about this script… usually when a writer is brought on to tell a true story, it's based on a book or other major document. Here, there was nothing," said Straczynski. "I had to go back and sift through thousands of pages of material to end up with about two thousand relevant pages of testimony, court documents, correspondence and the like."
Although Straczynski's recent resume was full of television shows, films, and comic books, back in his earlier years he had a brief career as a journalist an investigative reporter Although he moved on to becoming a fiction writer in 1983, those skills were still put to use in his various television shows, movies and books. And those skills came to good use in doing the research for Changeling.
"As noted, I spent a lot of time having to track down the story in the most obscure corners of City Hall, the Hall of Records/Archives for LA County, the County Courthouse, the LA Times morgue, and so on," said J. Michael. "The only way I was able to dig up all that information, and knew how to do it, was because I'd spent so much time as a reporter that I had the skill set to know where to go and what to ask for. You also learn the patience necessary as a reporter to sift through endless documents looking for even a single sentence that's relevant to your inquiry."
But he's not complaining. Straczynski found this story and developed based on his own intense personal interest. "Just the sheer, raw, naked courage she showed in refusing to back down to the authorities. I felt that her efforts needed to be honored, not forgotten," said the California-based writer.
When it actually came time to write the script, Straczynski did it in surprisingly fast time – twelve days. "[It was] pretty intense," related the writer. "I don't start writing a script until I can see it all in my head, then it's a matter of getting it down in white heat. Here, after trying so many ways to write it in years past, when I didn't have all the necessary information, to finally have that and suddenly realize how the story should properly be told, just galvanized me."
That "white heat" and intense creation process is one that was mirrored in production, with director Clint Eastwood filming the movie in just under one month. In an effort to better evoke the truth to the story being told in the script, Straczynski included actual newspaper clippings chronicling the events of the story. "Because the story is so bizarre, so surreal, it was important from time to time to remind the reader that this actually happened," he said. "So I pulled out the clips and bits of testimony that seemed most crucial and most unbelievable and inserted them into those parts of the script where they'd be most useful. Turns out this was crucial to selling the script, since nobody had ever heard of this story before."
Although infamous at the time, the story of Changeling and the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders was forgotten by the public at large and some critics have even questioned the veracity of the events. Straczynski took intensive measures to stay to the truth for this story, attributing 95 percent of the content coming directly from historical record found in his research. Furthermore, Straczynski went through the entire script with the studio's legal department providing attribution for every scene.
With a title like "Changeling" coming from European folklore though, you might think it's fictional or more supernatural… but you'd be wrong. "A changeling is one child substituted for another. I couldn't find anything more apt," he explained. "We had to kind of fight that supernatural element in the publicity, and I offered to try and find another title, but Clint liked it, and it stayed."
Would you argue with Clint Eastwood? Eastwood liked the title and the story so much that he shot the movie from the first draft Straczynski penned – you know, the one written in twelve days.
The potential for success seen in the script was well-known in film circles when it was shopped around, immediately picked up by Ron Howard who wanted to produce and direct it. After contractual obligations to direct other films prevented him from starting the picture immediately, Howard and his Imagine partner Brian Grazer began looking for others. Although several directors were in the running to helm the project, Clint Eastwood jumped to the front of the line after reading the script and identifying with it. Eastwood had done several films in the era of the Great Depression which he in fact grew up in, which was what initially attracted him to it.
And as it turns out, it was a perfect match.
"The script is written very straightforwardly, drawing heavily on actual documented testimony, so that 95% of what you see was what the people said in court or in articles at the time," said Straczynski. "So it requires somebody who is equally straightforward and strong, and that made Clint a perfect match. I was very excited about Clint and the whole package...with him directing, Ron Howard/Brian Grazer producing, Angelina and John Malkovich starring...what more can you ask for?"
Straczynski's research did much to accurately set the story for the look and tone of the 1920s time period, but the writer couldn't go without giving kudos to the film crew. "When the script went into prep, the art department did an amazing job of going out and getting the most accurate reference material around so that the film looks and feels authentic to the period. They even discovered that the ranch where the murders took place is still intact."
From inspiration to creation and through production, the film has been a life-changing experience for the writer. In June, Daily Variety named him one of the "Top Ten Screenwriters To Watch" and has become an in-demand movie screenwriter in the past two years. Based on this movie's script, Straczynski has racked up several high-profile assignments including Ninja Assassin for the Wachowski Brothers and Joel Silver, Lensman for Ron Howard, They Marched Into Sunlight for Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass, World War Z for Bat Pitt in additional to several spec and unannounced projects.
But he owes it all to Changeling.
"The script changed my life and career in profound ways from the minute it was purchased. It took me from being a TeeVee guy to suddenly an A-list feature writer practically overnight," Straczynski remarked. "Suddenly I was working with all this show business royalty, not just on this but on other projects. It's still pretty hard to believe some days."Changeling opens in theaters October 31st. Related:J. Michael Straczynski On DC's Archie Heroes Revival