Starring Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Donovan, Jason Butler Harner, Michael Kelly, Geoff Pierson, Colm Feore, and Denis O’Hare and directed by Clint Eastwood, Changeling is a true story written by J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5). Having worked as a journalist for many years, Straczynski first became interested in Christine Collins, a single mom in the 1920s who was wrongfully incarcerated in a mental institution by the LAPD. However, after a year of research, the story took on something so much bigger – abduction, serial killings, police corruption and sexism. Changeling is destined to win awards. Beautifully told on screen, Eastwood proves once again that he is an artistic genius and writer J. Michael Straczynski boldly tells Christine’s story, which proves to the world that anything is possible, including standing up against the system and winning.
Writer J. Michael Straczynski Discovers Christine
I’m so glad you liked it.
I loved it! How did you write something so moving, so powerful?
Honestly, I feel that the main character, Christine Collins, did all the heavy lifting. She did all the fighting. I just wrote it all down. And as far as tracking down the story, that was probably the hardest part because prior to this time, there were no books written on this subject. It was a case largely forgotten and once I had the whole thing…
See, I first got wind of the story because I heard about this woman who was wrongfully incarcerated. I wasn’t even aware of the chicken murders…and as I started digging in, I thought, ‘Wait, what’s this about a man named Gordon Northcott?’
I ran down that trail for a while. And the story was getting deeper and deeper until there was a pyramid in front of me. It eventually came down to day after day, hour after hour, sitting in a dark musky room, going through pieces of paper, looking for references to this story and after a year of exploring city hall, the archives office, the county courthouse, etc… this story got stitched together.
Amazing! You know, writing this story after digging up all the details by yourself is something that no one’s really ever done before. Screenwriters usually don’t do the primary research. Usually, they are hired to adapt a book.
True! It’s something I’m very happy about.
As you should be! You mentioned that what intrigued you to the story, initially, was the incarceration?
Yes, I first came across the city council welfare committee hearing in the case of Christine Collins, which only dealt with that aspect of it. And my thought was, ‘This is the story of a woman who was wrongfully incarcerated.’ And for reasons unknown, that’s how the story got bigger and bigger and at one point I thought, ‘The story can’t possibly get any worse.’ And it did.
The Motives Behind Writing Changeling
I was emotional about the women forced into some mental institution, especially back then. The doctor in the film (played by Denis O’Hare), for example, was horrible to Christine. No matter what she said, she was seen as insane by him and the staff. Do you know if anything ever happened to him in the end? Because, it was hard to watch that after the verbal and physical torture he put her and the others through, once he realized he may have been wrong, the doctor just smirked.
He was called to testify at the hearing and as far as I know, he was never disciplined. He basically said the police brought her there, he’s not responsible for any wrongdoing and that was that. So, yeah, nothing was done to him. And after the Christine Collin’s case, he fell off the records.
This movie is art at its finest because it basically reveals corruption in the hospitals, the LAPD…I don’t know…if I wrote a movie that exposed truth on so many levels, I would feel really proud.
I’m definitely most proud of it. It’s the high point of my career. And what I wanted to do with this film if anything else was to honor what she [Christine Collins] did. See, the story and this particular time – everyone around her had an agenda. The police had an agenda, they were all working for their own purposes…the only really clean, clear voice in the entire thing was her [Christine] saying, “Where’s my son?” And to ask one clean question in the midst of that corruption threw the whole thing apart, which was an astonishing thing to do.
To find a story long lost…and also to learn that there is a time and a place when defiance is appropriate. As a culture, especially in the last few years…politically, we are taught that we should go along with it all…get along and we shouldn’t be protesting things…and not question authority. But there are times when you must question authority.
It’s not only your right, but your responsibility. And stand up for what you believe in is correct. I think it [Changeling] also highlights the problem with people being held without warrants, which we are seeing today, as well.
A lot of themes, which is sad to say, are with us as much today as they were in the movie. It’s hard not to say, ‘This has always been with us.’ And we need the voice of conscience to combat the darker angels of our nature.
Well, I wish that today, we had the kind of energy and passion that Christine had! I wish we felt more like we have the power to fight for what’s wrong. It’s very difficult for people to do that. We feel helpless, especially now with our economy in the toilet and it feels like everything is going down the tubes. I think this movie is inspiring!
Yeah, and she was incredible! Can you tell us more about literally writing this character [Christine]. At first, she was so timid. She had such a ‘go-with-the-flow’ mentality. She was very polite. And then all these things happen to her and she became strong…Not as polite…I don’t know. She changed.
How did you envision her that way?
That came from the testimony and articles and correspondence at that time. She was just someone who, in 1928, was a single mother who endured the stigma attached to that. She also was a supervisor at a phone company, usually run by men. She was someone who really was professional, sharp and a modern woman at a time when women were told to stay home, raise their kids and shut up. She had trained herself to act in that professional fashion.
When all this happened, she thought if she stood up and told the truth it would make a difference. And it didn’t, so she had to say the truth louder and adapt to the pressure coming down on her. So, she really did grow during the course of this thing and should get credit for doing that.
Everything you see on the screen…that was her. I was just trying to find ways to illustrate what she did.
Yes, speaking of which, the film begins with the caption that says, ‘A true story.’ That’s because the story was very factual, right?
Oh, it’s one-hundred percent factual. In order to get that card up there…a true story…I had to go through and show what every single scene was based on. I had documents that I gave Universal. For example, Scene 14 was based on page 19 of the testimony before the city council, which I provided. Scene 21 was based on the criminal trial attached, etc…
I thought it was very important going into this to stay as absolutely close to the truth as possible because when you begin to fictionalize it, you find things that didn’t actually happen and it puts the whole integrity of the story into question. This story is so bizarre and hard to believe, you’ve got to not stray from the truth and stay with it.
A Screenwriter’s Dream – Clint Eastwood
So, tell me, did you get to work alongside Clint Eastwood?
A little bit, yeah. The cool thing is when they shot the first draft, there weren’t changes made to the script. From the time leading up to the production of the film, he [Eastwood] was very welcoming. He brought me into production meetings and design meetings and allowed me to be a part of everything! Like I said, Clint was very, very welcoming.
Did you get to watch them [Eastwood, the actors, production crew…] make it?
Unfortunately, the WGA strike hit and you can’t be on set. So, I got to see two weeks of shooting, and that was the extent of it.
Oh, no!!! That sucks!
Yeah, that was my thought about it.
Have you ever met Eastwood before?
No, not before this. No.
Was it amazing??
It’s totally amazing. But you kind of forget who he is because he doesn’t make it a point of being a ‘BIG’ kind of a guy. He’s very quiet but he’ll come up to you and raise his eyebrows and you’ll think, ‘Shit, this is Clint Eastwood.’
He [Clint] made a point to create an atmosphere very far away from paparazzi and the press to give Angelina [Jolie] the ability to do a good acting job without being a “celebrity.” He created a space for her to bring her A-game to the film.
Were you happy with Eastwood’s casting choices?
Oh, yeah, everyone did a great job. Angelina did a great job. John [Malkovich] did a great job. Michael Kelly did a fantastic job…the ranch when he brings the kid up there…great performance.
Scenes Left on the Editing Room Floor
I have a few questions that I’m curious about…the little boy who was “claiming” to be Walter, Christine’s son, he mentioned he always wanted to go to Los Angeles. But, how did such a “screw-up” happen? Were the LAPD in on it?
The scene was trimmed a little bit. He [boy claiming to be Walter] had been picked up as a runaway from his mom and grandmother in Illinois. See, he had hooked up with a drifter for a while for some food and money. When he was picked up by the police and they were going through missing children’s files with him in the next room to see who this kid might be-(because he wouldn’t tell them his name), and he heard them off in the room saying, ‘Walter Collins, Los Angeles, California.’ He knew LA was the place where they made movies. Being a movie fan he said, ‘Yes, I’m Walter Collins.’
Oh, OK!!! That’s really good to know because I was wondering, ‘Did the police just find this random kid and tell him to pretend to be someone or what? I mean, I didn’t think so… but…I wasn’t sure.
That was the one scene that I wished they put back in there. But they said, ‘No one’s gonna ask the question.’
Well, somebody did.
Before Act One
Were you always able to write screenplays this well?
I’ve been writing since I was 17-years-old. Articles, stories, and stuff…I write ten hours every day except on my birthday and Christmas day. So, if you do something long enough and acquire enough tools in your toolbox to do a lot of different things… and just put in the years and the time to learn your craft…well, it’s kind of like this: If someone starts off making a leg for a stool, at first it’s going to look pretty ugly. However, by the time you make 10,000 of them, you pretty much know what you are doing.
So, early on, did you practice writing script after script?
No. I started off doing articles, short stories, and plays. And then I got into journalism and did that for a long time. One day, I decided I had enough of journalism and then I did television. That is when I started writing screenplays for the first time…working animation and live action television. And I wrote my first TV scripts, which now, I want to burn them…and the negatives. Over time, thank God, they got better.
You are self-taught then?
Basically, yeah. Writing is like digging an oil well. And the first time you dig for oil, you have to pump out water and mud and eventually, you get to the oil – you get to the writing process. You start doing it and you keep doing it for long periods of time and eventually you become good at it.
In the very beginning of Changeling, did Christine Collins really have plans to take her son to the movies?
Everything in the movie really happened. She left him alone for a couple hours and that’s all it took.
Thank you so much, J. Michael Straczynski!
Changeling hits theatres nationwide on October 31st!
Dear Writers, From J. Michael
I want to say one more thing to all the writers out there. The lesson to walk away from is this: When I wrote this script…and all the meetings that happened afterwards, no one knew if I was a young guy, old guy, middle aged guy…if I’d written zero scripts, a hundred scripts…they didn’t care. All they saw were the words on the page.
I could have been a brand new fresh writer right out of the gates and had that same reaction. I want writers to know that it does come down to the story you tell and the words on the page. It doesn’t matter if you went to the best schools, or who you know in the industry. It comes down to the quality of your storytelling. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.