When it comes to forgiving writers who present their work under false pretenses, journalists are tough crowds.
Years ago an AJC editor came strolling through the ward of Features writers, relaying a publicist’s offer to interview sportswriter/author Mitch Albom, author of the beloved “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
He’d gotten into an unfortunate jam after a bit of time-machine journalism where he filed a column on deadline about a basketball game before it happened. Busted after people he reported were there didn’t actually show up, he apologized and everyone moved on. Except for our fellow scribes when offered a chance to interview him about one of his books. We literally heard growls at the mention of his name.
So it’s significant to note that it was while watching “The Words,” a smart, sophisticated film starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana and due for a Friday release, we were able for the first time to understand – if not forgive – writers who let the pressure to succeed steer them toward regrettable professional decisions.
“I don’t really see a villain in the film,” said Brian Klugman, who with Lee Sternthal wrote and directed the movie, also starring Olivia Wilde, Jeremy Irons, Ben Barnes, and Dennis Quaid.
“We just wrote a story we felt others could relate to,” Sternthal said.
Cooper stars as Rory, a struggling writer who drifts into a dull job as a publishing house assistant after his work gets rejected time and again. His loving and encouraging wife Dora, played by Saldana, buys an ancient satchel for her husband during a trip to Paris. Inside, what’s this? A typewritten manuscript so gripping that Rory can’t put it down. And when he is finished … he picks it back up. You can see where this is going.
“We didn’t set out to make an intricate narrative,” Sternthal said. “We started out to tell a story.”
What he and Klugman created is a sort of Russian nesting doll of a film, with one narrative tucked within another, within another. He and Sternthal started discussing the concept years ago, yet given the depressingly steady drip of reports of writerly malpractice the topic feels fresh.
“It seems perpetually timely,” Klugman said. We interviewed him and Sternthal together by phone around the time CNN host and Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria returned from a suspension over a plagiarism incident, and New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer resigned after admitting making up quotes in a book.
“It’s surprising but not surprising,” Sternthal said.
“I’ve never written in that kind of pressure-filled environment,” Klugman added. “I empathize with that changing the game.”