Tuesday, June 4, 2024

From Page to Screen: Launching ‘Oppenheimer”

Lucky me! Just a few months after Oppenheimer picked up seven Oscars—including Best Picture—at the Academy Awards ceremony, I heard Kai Bird explain in depth how it all came to be. Bird, who donned a tux to attend the flashy ceremony at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, is the co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This massive 2005 biography of the theoretical physicist who during World Wart II led the Manhattan Project, resulting in the world’s first atomic weapons, became the source material for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film. (The research leading to the completed book was begun by Bird’s friend and co-author Martin J. Sherwin, an historian who passed away in 2021.)

 Though Bird and Sherwin won the Pulitzer Prize and other major honors for their 721-page opus, the motion picture industry didn’t immediately get on board.  Like most Hollywood stories, this one took its time in moving from page to screen. That was one big takeaway from this year’s 14th annual Biographers International Organization, a New York gathering of old pros and biography newbies all of whom love the idea of accurately and compellingly putting a life into words. The session at which Bird appeared was titled “From Book to Film: Selling Options, Scripting, Producing.” The speakers, in addition to Bird, were biographers A’lelia Bundles and Jack El-Hai, both of whom had their own Hollywood stories to tell.

 Needless to say, cynicism abounded at this gathering. Someone called up an old Hemingway story about how, when you sell your work to Hollywood, you stand at the California state line and toss in a bag containing your magnum opus. In exchange, the Hollywood moguls toss back to you a sack full of money. Today the writer/producer dynamic is much more complicated, though, and the money is generally less. Happily, sometimes things work out.

 Longtime journalist Jack El-Hai has had two biographical works optioned by Hollywood. The Lobotomist, his in-depth story of the doctor who invented the questionable procedure, has never quite made it to the screen. But The Nazi and the Psychiatrist –after several false starts—was recently filmed in Europe with a cast headed by Russell Crowe and Rami Malek. Having watched the filming in progress, Jack is thrilled that the project, now titled Nuremberg, will be out by the end of this year. Meanwhile, A’Lelia Bundles’ award-winning work on the life of her own great-great-grandmother, Black cosmetics and hair care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, was transformed into Self-Made, a Netflix miniseries starring Octavia Spencer. Bundles has high praise for Spencer, but not for the execs who garbled the true story of her ancestor, adding cat fights and other material she deemed offensive but was powerless to reject. (Her contract gave her script review, not script approval, a very big difference.)

 As for Oppenheimer, the material was originally optioned by Sam Mendes. He was coming off his Oscar wins for American Beauty, but couldn’t land the financing he needed. Several additional options followed: one produced a script filled with 108 different historical inaccuracies, like Oppy maliciously poisoning rival physicist Edward Teller at a cocktail party, leading to a dramatic (but wholly bogus) death scene. At long last, a billionaire with a physics background came aboard, then approached Nolan, who cranked out a brilliant 200 -page script retaining virtually all the complexity of Bird’s and Sherwin’s scholarly study. When Bird pointed out a few small issues involving historical accuracy, his words were respected and corrections made. That’s why Bird calls himself today “the luckiest biographer in the history of the planet.”  


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