True Story Author Michael Finkel on His Relationship With the Murderer Who Inspired the James Franco–Jonah Hill Movie

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In the upcoming film True Story, Jonah Hill stars as real-life journalist Michael Finkel, who was fired from The New York Times Magazine in 2001 for falsifying details in a story about child slavery in Africa. At the same time, a smart, charming Jehovah’s Witness named Christian Longo, played by James Franco, was hiding out in Mexico after murdering his wife and three children in Oregon. To keep his identity a secret, Longo pretended to be Finkel, convincing a number of people that he was actually the journalist. After Longo was caught, the only reporter he would speak to was Finkel, and the two became as close as an inmate and writer can be. After the trial and Longo’s death sentence, Finkel later wrote the book True Story about Longo’s life, his compulsion for lying, and how both of them bent the truth for their needs. We spoke to Finkel about seeing this horrible saga turned into a movie and his continuing correspondence with Longo.

What has it been like seeing this experience turned into a movie?
The story itself is so sort of heart-wrenching and tragic that it always brings up a sort of strange bouquet of emotions. There are three dead children and a murdered wife. It’s hard to be anything other than creeped out about the topic and I have been since the beginning. If I wasn’t thrust into the story, it’s not the type of thing I’m normally interested in. Nonetheless, it’s surreal, to say the least, to watch someone dramatize something that not just happened to you but that you were emotionally, deeply involved in. I thought the final product was fantastically impressive.

Were you in contact with Jonah Hill about how he portrayed you?
We had dinner once in New York City and that was the extent of our relationship. He had some pretty penetrating questions about what it was like to go through certain things. Nobody got rich making this movie. I can tell that he was interested in the project on some pretty deep level, so we had a really long dinner and that was it. He asked a bunch of questions and then I got the sense he wanted to run off and do it his own way. 

James Franco said he didn’t want to meet Longo because he felt he was despicable and didn’t want to give him any validation or more publicity. What do you think about that?
I have no idea how another writer writes or how anyone really prepares for what they do, although I feel like Franco is probably right. The last thing Chris Longo needs is more attention, more validation, and more ego inflation, so it was probably a good idea. Whatever Franco said is hard for me to dispute. “He’s a complicated guy” is about the nicest thing I can say about Longo. On some level, he’s the most frightening person you’ve ever met because he’s not frightening at all when you meet him. This is someone who not only is convicted of murder but freely admits that he’s guilty, so it’s not like there’s any question. And yet, he seems completely normal, despite the fact that you’re talking through bulletproof glass on death row at the Oregon State Penitentiary. [He] has a lively mind and quick wit. The disparity between the crime and the sort of cavalier conversation, the chitchat that this guy is able to do, is always startling and ridiculously creepy.

Seeing it play out on film, did it bring you back to those moments when you first met him and were a little more sympathetic toward him?
Yes. The one day I spent on set was a pretty dramatic courtroom scene and it was so well done to me that it was — I don’t know if there’s a journalistic equivalent of PTSD, but it was traumatic. And yes, watching the movie, again, I wasn’t just a journalist. You know the story. I wasn’t just reporting dispassionately on this. It was as personal as it could get. Watching the movie, I think I sweated through half of it. I thought it was brilliantly done, but of course it was completely unsettling.

How did you feel about the dramatic liberties they took with the plot?
I mean, it’s a movie. Of course there are going to be some dramatic liberties. I was pretty impressed at how true they kept to the heart of the book. The book itself, for obvious reasons, is rigorously nonfiction. If I was 99 percent sure of something, I would cut it because it wasn’t good enough, considering the situation I was in.

It’s sort of funny that you got in trouble for embellishing details and now someone’s doing it about your life.
Yeah, there’s a fun-house-mirror quality or this nautilus spiral to it where you can go around and around, absolutely.

According to the film, you and Chris talk on the first Sunday of every month. Is that still the case?
It was correct. You’re calling me in France now where I’ve taken an extended sabbatical, working on a book, and fortunately [laughs] you cannot call collect overseas from the Oregon State Penitentiary. There’s part of me, as a journalist — I’ve always tried to follow a story to the end and this is one where there may not be [an ending] unless Chris is executed, which is highly unlikely considering the current political climate.

What have your conversations with him about the movie been like?
It’s surrealism cubed. Again, I’m talking to the guy who murdered his wife and his children. I can’t come up with a more despicable crime, frankly. I have three children and a wife. To talk to him about that, I feel like he doesn’t deserve any satisfaction off of that. I was thrust into this story in the most uncomfortable, distressed moment of my life, so it’s sort of the story that saved me on some level. I have this commitment to it that I can’t quite explain or even rationalize. I feel like I must be a masochist. I can’t put the final period on the sentence of this thing. It’s going to keep going until he’s strapped down in the execution chamber.

How do you feel about his death sentence?
It’s sort of complicated, as if nothing else in this story is. I’m always theoretically opposed to capital punishment as a matter of policy, like I don’t believe a state should put its citizens to death. I don’t think it’s a deterrent to murder. But if anyone deserved to be put to death, it’s this guy. There’s part of me that would like to see that happen, frankly. It’s one of those odd situations where I don’t believe we should have the death penalty but if you can put this guy to death, that’s fine.

A lot of people probably feel the same way.
Yeah, this guy deserves it. This guy could have been like any number of not-very-good dads and just left the family. There is no reason for this crime ever to have taken place, and the fury that creates in me, even 14 years later, gives me a migraine. MaryJane has family; it’s not like they would’ve died of starvation here. I know vividly how trusting kids are at that age and how clingy they are to their parents. You could have just gone to Mexico without killing them. That’s unforgivable by any stretch, and there won’t be any part of me that won’t feel that that was an immoral thing to do, putting this guy to death. I don’t even believe in the death penalty, but go ahead and kill him. That’s what I have to say.

Michael Finkel on True Story