Killers of the Flower Moon author David Grann on when Hollywood calls
Plus: Crucial reads on the Israel-Hamas war, some stellar investigative journalism, and a touching portrait of one trans student's struggles with her sorority and the surrounding community.
“You really have to be really careful with taking liberties”: the responsibility of adapting historic journalism
Killers of the Flower Moon, director Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of New Yorker journalist David Grann’s bestseller of the same name, hits theaters this Friday, October 20th. The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and centers on a series of murders in the Osage Nation in Oklahoma a century ago. Critics have been giving it ecstatic reviews.
Grann gives it a thumbs-up, too. “I thought it was extraordinarily powerful and really does an effective job of shining a light on this part of history,” he says, “which is what I care so much about.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is the fifth — and by far the biggest — movie based on Grann’s nonfiction work. And more adaptations are on the way: The White Darkness is being developed into a limited series for Apple TV+. Scorsese and DiCaprio have also optioned his most recent title, The Wager.
I wanted to talk to Grann about what it was like to have your words turned into motion pictures. He recently spoke to me on the phone from Boston, where he was working on a project, the details of which he politely declined to divulge. —Mark Yarm
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
How involved were you in the making of the film adaptation of Flowers of the Killer Moon?
My interest really is in writing books or writing stories for the New Yorker, spending time in archives, or interviewing people. And that’s the craft that I’m consumed with. So when a project gets adapted, like Killers of the Flower Moon, I'm always there when they need me. Especially on something like Killers of the Flower Moon, which is such a serious story about such a monstrous crime and racial injustice, I’m there as a resource. So I’ll get a lot of calls from the production team, or maybe from an actor, looking for material, looking for testimony and photographs, asking me questions about the person they’re going to play.
I don’t make movies, and I wouldn’t have any clue as to how to make a movie. And I would certainly never even suggest to arguably the greatest living director, Martin Scorsese, “I really don’t think you should do this tracking shot.”
What's your best Scorsese story?
You know, my interactions with him were limited. I spoke to him on the phone when he optioned the book, and then I saw him on the set. The thing that always struck me about him was his energy and his just unbelievable curiosity. I hope as someone who aspires to art — I think he may be 80 — [that when I’m his age] I still have that kind of sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, [I’m] still trying to illuminate.
With the other four movies based on your books or articles, how did the experiences differ from Killers of the Flower Moon?
Adaptations can — we all know this — can go horribly wrong. But I feel pretty darn lucky that people including James Gray and Ed Zwick and David Lowery [have adapted my work]. The biggest difference is just the scale and level of the production with Killers of the Flower Moon.
I thought David Lowery did something wonderful [with 2018’s The Old Man & the Gun]. For me, it’s always important with adaptations that one is transparent. I can’t remember exactly what the text says at the beginning of the film. Something like “This story, like most, is half true or almost true.” And I think in the space of that film, that is fine.
But with something like Killers of the Flower Moon, you really have to be careful with taking liberties. You can't be making up different murders or changing who the murderers were. The material doesn't grant you — nor should it grant you — that kind of liberty.
My hope is that I don't ever let it into the process, because they really are different mediums. And I think if you try to reverse engineer it, that also will never happen.
Does the potential for something to be turned into a film or TV series influence the stories you choose to pursue?
It certainly hasn’t. You know, I’ve been doing this for so long now. And for decades and decades, nothing of my material was ever made. And I never really thought about it. And with Killers of the Flower Moon, I don't even know if anyone would read the book, to be honest with you. Because I didn’t know if with that kind of history, people really would be open to reading about in a broad sense. I remember my wife taking me aside — I’d spent so many years on it, and she was a little worried about my psyche — and saying, “What’s important is you wrote something that you believe in.” The last thing in my mind is that it would ever be a movie.
My hope is that I don't ever let it into the process, because they really are different mediums. And I think if you try to reverse engineer it, that also will never happen. You’ll be writing hollow stories, you’ll be telling stories you don’t believe in, you’ll be thinking about something else, rather than the work of history or the story you’re trying to tell. If I’ve had any luck with it, it’s partly because I don’t think about it.
Have you ever been asked to do a cameo in any of these projects?
All right, I'll tell you a story I've never told. You'll get my one movie story. They were shooting a scene in Ohio for The Old Man & the Gun. I visited, and they said to me, “Oh, David Lowery wants you to come right to the set.” David wanted me to have a cameo in the film. You have to understand, I’ve never even acted — I wasn’t a theater kid. And I’m terrified of any kind of acting. They took me and dressed me in some kind of ’70s costume — bell-bottom pants — and my heart was palpitating.
And they said, “Your job is to open the bank door. You’re coming out of the bank counting money.” They gave me some fake money to hold while the cast of bank robbers, led by Robert Redford, is coming in to rob the bank. So we did a few takes of this, and I opened the door and then I walked down the street counting my money. And I was so horribly self-conscious, even though I had to do basically nothing.
And then, of course, when the film came out, they completely cut that scene out. I couldn't even open a door for the bank robbers and not end up on the cutting room floor! So that is the beginning and end — I'm happy to say — of my acting career.
From the unfolding crisis in the Middle East to the story of a detective whose petty feud with a prosecutor let a murder suspect walk free, Parker Molloy showcases six stories (and one podcast) worth your precious time. You’ll even learn which story brought Parker to tears.
Three pieces to better understand the Israeli-Hamas war, the terrorist attack that ignited the conflict, and avoiding the pitfalls of the U.S. response to 9/11.
“There Is a Jewish Hope for Palestinian Liberation. It Must Survive,” by Peter Beinart. The New York Times, October 14, 2023.
Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, Peter Beinart is a writer whose opinions are always worth reading, and this Times guest essay is no exception. In this piece, Beinart provides some historical parallels between the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the African National Congress’s 1988 opposition to South African apartheid. Where the ANC took the route of ethical, non-violent resistance to South Africa’s policies, Hamas pursues change through violence. Beinart urges Palestinians and Jews to unite in pursuit of humanitarian agreements and an end to the tit-for-tat approach that’s kept this conflict simmering for decades.
“What Israel Didn’t Understand About Hamas,” by Benjamin Hart. New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, October 13, 2022.
This Q&A with Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, is a thought-provoking exploration of “western logic” as it applies to Hamas, a radical group that embraces wanton violence in pursuit of its political goals. While some hoped Hamas would become more moderate once in power in 2007, Milshtein argues the incentives that appeal to western nations — like improved economic conditions and international diplomatic recognition — simply do not translate. Still, he argues that destroying Hamas through military means could lead to a power vacuum reminiscent of Iraq after 2008.
“Have We Learned Nothing?” by David Klion. n+1, October 11, 2023.
Writer David Klion warns of the return to post-9/11 censorship of political disagreement. After Hamas carried out a horrific terrorist attack, the world lined up behind Israel. Klion argues that in this rush to defend the victims of this attack, we should not forget the Palestinian people of Gaza, who are themselves victims of Hamas oppression. A contributing editor to Jewish Currents, he warns of extremists and opportunists who would be all too happy to stoke fear and denounces anyone who doesn’t buy into the “with us or against us” rhetoric of the early 2000s as terrorist sympathizers. The answer is simply to not let the extremists set the narrative.
Two ProPublica investigations that delve into power and corruption.
“We Don’t Talk About Leonard: The Man Behind the Right’s Supreme Court Supermajority,” by Andy Kroll, Andrea Bernstein, and Ilya Marritz. ProPublica, October 11, 2023.
The latest in ProPublica’s fantastic reporting on the shaping of the modern Supreme Court looks at conservative activist and political powerbroker Leonard Leo’s rise, how he’s remained relatively anonymous in the public eye, and what he plans to do now that he’s locked the American judiciary into a multi-generational conservative majority. Additionally, ProPublica and WNYC’s “On The Media” just launched a new podcast series on Leo, which will certainly be worth following.
“A Detective Sabotaged His Own Cases Because He Didn’t Like the Prosecutor. The Police Department Did Nothing to Stop Him,” by Jeremy Kohler and Ryan Krull. ProPublica and Riverfront Times, October 10, 2023.
Kohler and Krull offer a jaw-dropping look at the lengths St. Louis detective Roger Murphey has embarked on to undermine a local prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Murphey’s rift with Gardner began in 2019, when Gardner, a progressive, included him on her office’s list of police officers who had questionable credibility. This incident, combined with Murphey’s general opposition to Gardner’s politics, created an impasse. Ultimately Murphey went so far as to refuse to testify in a murder trial for a case in which he was the lead detective. After the detective refused to testify, the defendant was acquitted.
One heartbreaking story of a trans woman put through an unending hell of harassment, legal battles, and hate.
“A trans woman joined a sorority. Then her new sisters turned on her,” by William Wan. The Washington Post, October 14, 2023.
Unless you’re a connoisseur of conservative media, the name Artemis Langford probably doesn’t ring a bell. And it shouldn’t! Langford is a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, who, like hundreds of thousands of other students across the country, wanted to feel the friendship and camaraderie that comes with participating in a sorority or fraternity. Unfortunately, Langford’s decision to pledge membership to the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority at UW turned her into a target of hate and harassment, the likes of which no student should be subjected to.
Langford is a transgender woman, and she was legitimately worried that she didn’t have a place in campus Greek life. Through the urging of a friend, however, she gave it a shot, pledging and being accepted into Kappa. A group of her sorority sisters turned on her: They leaked unflattering stories to right-wing media outlets and ultimately filed a lawsuit to get Langford removed from the organization. For months, Langford was smeared as a deviant and exhibitionist. She received death threats, harassment, and even the wrath of a local church elder who set up a table in the student union with a sign that read: “God created male and female and Artemis Langford is a male.”
She was singled out and bullied. Langford moved into the UW dorms in hopes that the harassment would stop, but it didn’t.
Artemis Langford just wanted to fit in but instead was even more ostracized.
This Washington Post profile tells Langford’s story in a heartfelt and empathetic way that is vanishing among U.S. mainstream media publications. I’m using this space to recommend you set aside time this week to read or listen to this story (there is a 31-minute audio version of it on the Post’s website). I was brought to tears, and perhaps you will be, too.
This is the second year in a row the podcast was honored by Signal, and we want to thank everyone who voted for us. And stay tuned for more info on season three.
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