Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns finds the humor behind one of history's most famous corporate mole cases in The Informant!.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Corporate price-fixing and embezzlement don’t exactly seem like topics you could play for yucks on the silver screen, but the new film The Informant! – written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the same-titled book by Kurt Eichenwald, and directed by Steven Soderbergh – has a secret weapon: real-life informant and brainiac blatherer, Mark Whitacre.
Played by the dedicatedly doughy Matt Damon, Whitacre is a brilliant, goofy, bi-polar grandstander who, in the maw of a bollixed extortion attempt, turns mole for the Federal Bureau of Investigation against his own firm Archer Daniels Midland, helping the Bureau expose what was at the time the biggest price-fixing scam in history.
While Burns, a soft-spoken Minnesota native, lacks an iota of the rambling grandiosity that marks the Ivy League PhD’s behavior in the film, he clearly has the wry sense of humor to know exactly how to capitalize on the absurdity of the scenario. Of his understanding of the film biz in college, he deadpans, “I didn’t even know people from Minnesota were allowed to make movies,” until, while studying English literature at the University of Minnesota, a friend asked him to invest money – his student loan money, actually – on an independent film by two brothers named Coen. Burns didn’t cough up the dough, but the film Blood Simple got made anyway.
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about working with Soderbergh, researching The Informant! and his final take on whether his lead character, Mark Whitacre is a hero or villain.
Tell me about what kind of tone you wanted to set with this film being that it’s a comedy but also based on a true-life story about the serious matters of agri-business price-fixing, embezzlement and whistle-blowing.
I think the thing that first attracted me to this story was the fact that, if you look at Whitacre himself through one lens, he’s kind of a hero, and through another, he’s kind of a bad guy. I’d find when I was pitching the movie and talking to people about the story, it was hard not to find yourself sort of dumbstruck by his actions.
Photo: © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures
Matt Damon in The Informant!
When Steven and I started talking about how to approach this, we realized we couldn’t do a whistleblower movie like Erin Brockovich or The Insider – both of which I really liked – largely because Whitacre wasn’t a whistleblower like those people. This was someone who had a very difficult time telling the truth, which is not exactly what you’re looking for in a whistleblower.
So a lot of the tonal approach was shaped after you spoke with Steven?
Yeah. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Steven came down to the fact that what he said to me at the beginning was, “Go and write a version of this that only you could write.” He felt and I felt that the most original telling of the story would probably be as an offbeat comedy.
So, in a way, you thought puncturing the balloon and looking at the absurdity of this guy was the best way to grapple with the gravity of the events here?
Exactly. I don’t know if this story can stand a serious telling. When you think about scenes like Mark Whitacre describing himself to his gardener as Secret Agent 0014, which really happened...
That really happened?
Yes. So how can you drop a scene like that into the middle of The Insider? Because of the antics of Mark Whitacre, there was no way that this could be told with that kind of gravitas.
How much did your knowledge of Soderbergh’s films inform the tone for you?
It’s hard to answer. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Steven was that from the beginning, he encouraged me to use my own voice. The great thing is that he’s done so many types of movies from The Limey all the way back to Sex, Lies and Videotape, the fact that he’s been so fearless, as a screenwriter, you can be free to go places and know that he’ll be able to follow.
He’s not a director with a very particular, rigid voice...
Exactly. When you’re writing for Steven, it’s also great because he’s a writer. When you know who your director is and who your actor is, life gets a lot easier.
I know both you and Steven elected not to speak to Whitacre himself for this, but aside from that, this seems like it was a research-intensive project.
I spoke to as many people as I could. The A.D.M. people were not so exited to talk to me, for obvious reasons. I spent a fair amount of time taking to psychologists and [Whitacre’s] lawyer... I’ve always tried to do a fair amount of research at the beginning.
In the book [Kurt] Eichenwald tells us that Whitacre suffers a kind of bi-polar condition, so I looked up manic syndrome. Characteristics of that are people who are grandiose, who exercise bad judgment, who are prone to distractibility and go off on rambling tangents. All of those things seemed consistent with the portrait of Whitacre in the book, so I wanted to create a character from the inside out.
So this was key research?
Research manifests itself in so many ways… There’s a polar bear monologue in the film, for example. I knew from my research that that he liked National Geographic so I got some National Geographics, and there was this article on polar bears that, using his tendency to ramble, I turned into this monologue that seemed perfectly representative of his personality.
I also spent a lot of time in Decatur, Illinois [where Whitacre lived and worked], driving down the same roads he did.
Finally, for the sake of this script, as the writer, was Mark Whitacre a hero, a villain or a clown to you?
Not surprisingly, I have two answers to that. He’s both the hero and villain in this movie. It’s unusual to find a character like that… The other thing from a logic standpoint, at the beginning, when he says there’s a mole and the mole wants $10 million, with the assumption that the 10 million was for him and he was the mole – so would Whitacre have been an informant if he hadn’t dug himself the hole of this aborted extortion? He wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t fucked himself over.
But at the same time, he did wear a wire and go way beyond the call. He grew into the roll of informant. I’m always fond of saying Mark Whitacre did the right thing in the worst way.