Cops, Preachers and Serial Killers: Casting the Film

As Christine Collins navigated her way through landmines of wavering public opinion, disbelieving police and shadowy gun squads to find her son, she was joined by a group of supporters and detractors. From activist Reverend Gustav Briegleb, the pastor of St. Paul’s and Westlake Presbyterian churches in Los Angeles, and attorney S.S. Hahn, a defense attorney known for high profile criminal cases, to Police Captain J.J. Jones, the stalwart adversary who would continue to be a presence throughout Collins’ seven-year quest for answers, the screenwriter kept the actual names of players in Collins’ world whenever possible. L’Échange would also allow for characters that were an amalgam of people and types who lived in L.A. of the day.
Reverend Briegleb was considered a fearless activist who positioned himself as a watchdog against the unbridled corruption in city government, and even the film industry. Briegleb was quick to point out that fellow Los Angelenos were too easily buying the stories of police who claimed their dodgy actions were beneficial; he preached that citizens should look closer at the truth and ferret out the corruption. Portrayed by accomplished actor John Malkovich, the reverend’s insider knowledge of the city’s political machine played a pivotal role in Collins’ search and, ultimately (in our story), saved her life.

Of the impact Reverend Briegleb had on Christine Collins, Jolie explains that the two had a “wonderful friendship.” She offers, “He’s quite a voice at the time, and he really draws her to him and helps guide and teach her. He gives Christine this sense of strength, which can only come from somebody of a different kind of authority. The reverend says, ‘You are not crazy, and these are not good people; even if they’re in authority, that doesn’t mean you should give them that respect. You should question them.’ He helps her to find her own voice.”

Eastwood previously worked with Malkovich on the drama In the Line of Fire and was keen to again partner with the film and stage performer. “I’ve liked John’s acting for a long time,” says the director. “I thought that he would be an interesting casting choice for the role. John brings a little edge, a little quirkiness to the table; he’s a chameleon.”

Malkovich was curious to tackle the part of this early crusader for justice. Of Briegleb’s activism, he offers, “It’s probably a fairly early example of the kind of pressure that can be brought to bear by the media. Briegleb had his radio show; he did his radio address and read his sermons. He really put a spotlight on the LAPD and on what he perceived to be their horrendous practices.”

Reverend Briegleb saw the 1920s LAPD as the most incompetent, violent and corrupt police force “this side of the Rocky Mountains.” Malkovich viewed his character as a man who rallied for justice, even when it was unpopular and dangerous. The performer admits he found it, “amazing to think…as my character quotes of Police Chief Davis: ‘We will hold trial on gunmen in the streets of Los Angeles. I want them brought in dead, not alive, and I will reprimand any officer who shows the least bit of mercy to a criminal.’” That kind of pressure on Davis’ officers could explain their interest in quickly solving the Walter Collins case…and ignoring the fact that the wrong boy had been returned to the right mother.

Legendary attorney S.S. Hahn, played by character actor GEOFF PIERSON, took on the Collins case and sewed the seeds for future legislation that would eventually overturn “Code 12” incarcerations. As the scion of the prominent Los Angeles family, his political legacy spanned decades…and includes future generations of politicians from former L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn to its recent mayor, James Hahn.

Actor Jeffrey Donovan was cast as the merciless, by-the-book police Captain J.J. Jones, the head of LAPD’s juvenile division who bullies the traumatized Collins into accepting the young boy as hers. Although Collins filed a civil suit against the city and Jones and won $10,800, she never recovered any of the monetary judgment against him. That would not keep the crusader from coming back every couple of years to try and reclaim the damages to fund the search for her still-missing boy.
Donovan was fascinated by the fact that not only was his character based on an actual person, but also by the amount of power Captain Jones wielded. The actor notes, “It’s unfathomable what he did to this woman. I talked to Angelina about the scenes when I’m committing her to the insane asylum; what I’m saying is actually in public record. I couldn’t believe that another human being—without warrant and without regard of any facts—could actually commit someone with such a quick snap of his fingers.”

Even as the Walter Collins case remained unsolved, a stunning revelation from a parallel investigation would come to light for local law enforcement. The twisted story of a charismatic child predator named Gordon Stewart Northcott would set the stage for years of a psychological cat-and-mouse game between Northcott and Christine Collins.

In 1928, Gordon Northcott’s (Jason Butler Harner) 15-year-old nephew, Sanford Clark (EDDIE ALDERSON), led police to a grisly discovery at his uncle’s chicken ranch near Wineville, California (located near Riverside and today known as Mira Loma). There the officers, led by Detective Lester Ybarra (Michael Kelly), uncovered the remains of children killed with an axe and buried nearby. Sanford swore that young Walter was one of those killed, but the truth is still unclear today.

The subsequent investigation uncovered the grisly life of the Northcott “murder farm” and partially solved the mysterious disappearances of some of the dozens of young boys who had vanished in the region. It was found that 24-year-old Northcott, along with his mother, Sarah Louise Northcott, had kidnapped, tortured and killed young boys on their land. The serial killer was ultimately convicted and executed for the slaying of four boys, though the number is estimated to be much higher. A narcissistic publicity hound, Gordon Northcott—until the day he was executed by the state of California—used contradicting statements to toy with Christine Collins about the fate of Walter. Northcott’s conspiratorial mother was given a life sentence at San Quentin Prison.

When casting Northcott, Eastwood was shocked by a similarity in look between the infamous murderer and performer Jason Butler Harner. The director comments: “Ironically, he has a certain resemblance to our serial killer. He has a certain look, and when he was fixed up, he looked very much like Northcott. Jason’s a terrific actor.”

Though difficult for any performer to thoroughly embody a sociopath, Harner was moved by the twisted game Northcott played with Christine Collins. Notes the actor, “From the moment Gordon meets her in the courtroom, the first time he sees her, he plays cat and mouse with her. The minute he sees and recognizes her, he assumes a familiarity, because she’s in the headlines…as he is in the headlines. Therefore, in his eyes, they’re kindred spirits.”

The filmmakers sought to build the supporting roles through a mix of stage and character actors from New York and Los Angeles. Stage and screen performer DENIS O’HARE, who recently co-starred opposite Jolie in A Mighty Heart, was cast as Dr. Jonathan Steel, a psychiatrist who brutally rules the County mental ward in which Christine is forcibly placed under a “Code 12.” O’Hare explains that term “was a catchall excuse to punish anyone who dissented, protested, caused trouble or objected to police methods. I think the net was pretty wide, and it tended to punish women.”

One of Steel’s unwilling patients was Carol Dexter, a prostitute who had a relationship with a police officer that went awry. Dexter, now forced to endure subhuman treatment at the hands of the mental ward’s staff, becomes an unlikely savoir to Collins after the grieving mother’s incarceration. The detainee enlightens the terrified Collins on the realities of their incarceration, and attempts to spare Christine the indignities to which she’s been subjected. To play the “soiled dove,” (a term of the era for ladies of the night), Academy Award®-nominated actress Amy Ryan was cast.

Fresh off her lauded performance in Gone Baby Gone, the actor was eager to visit another era of American history and play a wrongfully accused character. Notes Ryan: “Carol says to Christine, ‘If we’re crazy, meaning women, nobody has to listen to us.’ If a woman had an opinion or went against any voice of authority, she must have been crazy. Therefore, the attitude was ‘lock them up!’”

Angelina Jolie comments that when she last played a character in a mental institution (and won an Oscar® for her performance as escape artist Lisa Rowe in 1999’s Girl, Interrupted), her role was similar to her savior in L’Échange. Jolie reflects, “Last time I was in a mental institution for a film, I was certainly more Amy’s character. I was the more aggressive, kind of fun one.”

To further drive the story, the filmmakers fleshed out the real-life individuals of Christine Collins’ era by creating several merged characters. Remarks producer Lorenz, “Joe did an excellent job of putting all the facts in order and then crafting these composite characters that we fit into the story so they could move it along. It’s amazing that it comes together so neatly as a story and, yet, it is still rooted in truth.” These characters include Lester Ybarra, the LAPD detective who would break the Northcott case and establish a possible link with the Walter Collins case after local law enforcement are tipped off by Northcott’s nephew, Sanford Clark. Additionally, the life and back-story of Police Chief James E. Davis (portrayed by Colm Feore), a man who was quite eager to have Christine Collins disappear, was reimagined by the screenwriter/historian.

Last but not least, young performer GATTLIN GRIFFITH was cast to play the nine-year-old Walter Collins and actor DEVON CONTI appears as his doppelganger, Arthur Hutchens, the manipulative 12-year-old who simply wants to escape life in the Midwest.

Cast in place, the director and producers would go about the arduous task of imagining the world of Los Angeles as it existed almost 80 years earlier.

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