This week, while watching Mark Zuckerberg answer congressional questions about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I noticed that most of the tweets about it on my timeline referenced The Social Network in some way. Even though Zuckerberg and Facebook are in the news on a near-daily basis and this scandal has raised all sorts of important questions about the abnegation of moral responsibility by the people who control the way we communicate, the go-to reference point was still a two-hour movie about Facebook released back in 2010. The Social Network’s stickiness is a testament to what the right kind of cinematic depiction can do: It can take a subject we think we know all too well and redefine it permanently.
That’s a power that the juicy new project Gawker v. Thiel surely hopes to tap into. Written by John Gary and set to be directed by Modern Family’s Jason Winer, the film may head into production as soon as this fall, and like The Social Network, it explores a recent, high-profile collision of technology, wealth, and devious agendas. Vulture has read a late-2017 draft of Gary’s script, and here’s what we’ve learned about Gawker v. Thiel.
What’s the plot?
In 2012, the muckraking website Gawker posted excerpts of a sex tape where Hulk Hogan fooled around with his best friend’s wife. It was an unusual but not unprecedented post, as far as Gawker articles go: The site, founded by Nick Denton, often trained its eye on the famous, wealthy, and self-important in society, then sought to puncture those people’s carefully crafted public images by any means available. This salacious post, though, would be the site’s eventual undoing.
Hogan sued Gawker and was awarded such a vast sum by the jury — $115 million in compensatory damages, plus $25 million in punitive damages — that Gawker had to file for bankruptcy, and the site was eventually shut down. It’s around then that an even crazier story emerged from the shadows: Hogan’s lawsuit had been secretly financed by eccentric tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a longtime Gawker foe who sought to bring the company down for its occasional reports on his sexuality and business dealings. Thiel pumped $10 million of his own money into Hogan’s crusade, successfully muzzling a media outlet that challenged him. Whether or not you liked Gawker, that outcome still had chilling implications about the future of media and the futility of going up against a member of the one percent.
Gary’s Gawker v. Thiel tracks that sprawling story from its inception, starting with a chance 1999 meeting between Thiel and eventual Gawker CEO Nick Denton, in which each man articulates diametrically opposed ideas on how the internet should work: Thiel thinks it ought to be secure, private, and encrypted, while Denton argues that information wants to be free. From there, Gary flashes forward eight years to depict Hogan as he walks unknowingly into a taped sexual encounter, then zips ahead once more to land on Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio as he tries to drum up page views at the company’s Nolita office. For anyone who followed the Hogan lawsuit in the press, these separate strands will soon intertwine in familiar ways — the Gawker crew spends much of their screen time speculating about who could be guiding Hogan’s vendetta, though it’s a question answered by the movie’s title. Still, Gary fills out the script with sometimes surprising color.
How does the film depict Gawker?
Gary talked to many of the key figures from Gawker when writing this project, and it’s clear he became enamored with them: Most of the action follows the editors as they volley rapid-fire ideas in offices, bars, and late-night visits to each others’ homes, and they’re a blast to spend time with. The key to Gary’s take on this material is the similar way that he describes two Gawker editors: Gary writes that Ashley Feinberg is “almost innocently wry, with a flat affect in her voice that masks a deep sincerity,” while Emma Carmichael is introduced as “witheringly dry with every word, deeply sardonic, but [with] an undercurrent of compassion.” There’s a tender underbelly to these tough-talking writers and their website, and it’s what the film is most intrigued by.
Gawker v. Thiel is packed with characters, but if there’s a central figure, it’s A.J. Daulerio, depicted here as a charismatic wreck who can’t seem to curb his killer instinct for news, even when those impulses lead him and his company into trouble. Daulerio may make morally questionable decisions, but like a Larry Flynt for the internet age, he’s a persuasive defender of the company’s right to do so. Gary’s script is sympathetic to Daulerio and essentially adopts his point of view: Though Gawker could be obnoxious at times, it stood up to the rich and powerful in a way that few media outlets dared to, and that alone made it necessary.
If you’re unfamiliar with Gawker, this project won’t tell you much about what else the site was known for, including its TV recaps, personal essays, and snarky aggregations. (The writer Caity Weaver, who was one of Gawker’s most consistently brilliant comic voices, is reduced to one line: “I could do some dumb stunt again,” she offers in a pitch meeting.) Aside from the post about Hogan’s sex tape, the only other Gawker article that receives much screen time in this story is Jordan Sargent’s widely criticized 2015 post outing a married Condé Nast CFO, an inflection point that had many in the media ready to say “Good riddance” when Hogan torpedoed Gawker months later. Gary’s script goes into further detail on that article: Sargent and the other editors rushed it to press mainly because Denton was throwing a big party that night, and they hoped to supply a juicy conversation starter. Instead, the ashen-faced editors spend the soiree checking the blowback on Twitter, and when Denton eventually deletes the article, several of them quit.
Will the film make Peter Thiel mad?
Despite being a titular character, Thiel isn’t in Gawker v. Thiel all that much, and if you expect to see the film tackle his life in the way that Denton’s website used to, you’ll be disappointed. There are no Fire Island parties or blood transfusions from the young and willing, though we do get a brief glimpse of Thiel’s ongoing quest to build an island free from governmental oversight. Instead, aside from two early scenes that place Thiel in the company of other characters, he disappears from the action until the end, when the Gawker editors finally connect all the dots and then watch Thiel’s speech supporting Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. I’m not sure whether Gary simply wanted to foreground other characters or avoid litigation from the man who brought down the film’s subject, but at least he gives Thiel a flattering character description, describing him as “a friendly, handsome, round-faced guy in need of a hair cut.”
Those character introductions are among the script’s most amusing attributes, doubly delicious because most of the people being described are the Gawker writers who spent their time at work describing others. Denton is introduced as “33, British, with a roman nose and a hairline running away from it,” while Daulerio is “38, lanky, [with] piercing blue eyes, ratty hair, and a beard he doesn’t take care of.” Defying one common screenplay trend, Gary spends much more time scrutinizing the physical appearance of the male characters instead of the story’s female figures: Editor John Cook is described as having “thinning hair” and wearing “Dad-rock J Crew corduroys,” Tom Scocca is “what happens when an LL Bean model majors in biological anthropology at Harvard but wastes it by going into journalism,” and Tommy Craggs has “a soft exterior … a cutting brain,” and an office hoverboard that Gary was clearly thrilled to include.
How is it?
Though you can’t help but draw comparisons between Gawker v. Thiel and The Social Network, as I read Gary’s script, I also kept thinking about Steven Spielberg’s The Post. There’s an early scene in that movie where Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee meets with his publisher Kay Graham, who implores Bradlee to lighten the style section’s coverage of President Nixon’s daughter and her White House wedding. Bradlee refuses: Though the wedding could be the perfect occasion for the Post to go frothy, he felt the paper’s duty was to cover it just as seriously and as skeptically as they would any other political subject. Journalism, in his eyes, was required to needle those in power, and to keep needling.
Gawker v. Thiel often feels like a feature-length version of that argument, though at least in this draft, it’s a discussion where all the characters are on the same side. Underneath all their bluster, Daulerio, Denton, and the other Gawker editors believe they have a duty and a right to publish what they do, no matter how trivial or questionable the subject may seem. Their fight is ultimately an existential one, since Thiel is an offscreen presence and the editors spend nearly every moment with each other in agreement. Even the actual courtroom case takes up only a few pages in the late going, and most of is watched from afar or relayed in passing.
Still, Gary tells it all with verve, hopscotching through time and introducing pivotal characters well into the movie: Sam Biddle and Owen Thomas, whose coverage of Thiel on Gawker’s tech vertical Valleywag would earn the billionaire’s ire, don’t show up until the last 20 pages, though at least Thomas gets the movie’s defining monologue about rich, lawless tech moguls. “They will put the full force of their money and power and money to use making sure that you are never able to disagree with them again,” says Thomas, “because you will be dead, drowned in lawsuits and summons and depositions and briefs and paper and emails and texts and tweets, only able to pay your cellphone bill through crowdfunding.”
The film isn’t shy about drawing a line from Thiel’s crusade against Gawker to Trump’s current vendetta against the “fake news” that accurately reports on his administration. (In the script, after the verdict against Gawker is handed down, one dumbfounded employee blurts, “Donald Trump is going to win the election.”) Then again, it’s a line that Thiel would happily draw himself, and perhaps it’s a necessary one to keep drawing when one-percenters like Thiel, Zuckerberg, and the president have so much power over the way the rest of us live our lives. As Denton says near the end in Gawker v. Thiel, recalling The Social Network’s most famous aphorism: “I can’t win this fight. I’m a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire.”