The shocking “based on actual events” story caught the attention of Academy Award®-winning producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who have excelled at bringing real-life stories to the big screen—notably with such critical and box-office successes as American Gangster, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Friday Night Lights and Apollo 13.
“There is an excitement for me when drawing from a true story,” remarks Grazer. “I liked the subject matter of L’Échange, found the culture surrounding this incident to be fascinating, and in some ways appalling, but it captivated me. The fact that it did happen gives this story so much more emotional gravity.”
Knowing director/producer Clint Eastwood had a similar sensibility when it came to fact-based material, Grazer and Howard called the filmmaker to discuss the script they had optioned. “I took it with me on a trip to Berlin,” recalls Eastwood. “On the way back on the plane, I read it and I liked it a lot. As soon as I got in, I called Brian and Ron and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this.’ And they said, ‘Angelina Jolie liked the script and wants to do this.’ I said, ‘She’d be great. I like her work a lot.’ And that’s how it came about—very quick and simple.”
Eastwood’s longtime production partner, Rob Lorenz, was just as awestruck as others who had read Straczynski’s tale. “I was about 15 pages into the script, and I had to flip back to see if it was really a true story; it was just so amazing to me,” Lorenz remarks. “Joe [Straczynski] had done something very clever. He stuck photocopies of news clippings every 15 or 20 pages in the script, just to remind you it was true. I was not only amazed it was all true, but astonished that I had never heard of the story before and nobody seemed familiar with it.”
With their interest piqued for a script in which Eastwood found the “truth was stranger than fiction,” Eastwood and Lorenz agreed with the Imagine Entertainment team that the unbelievable events would make a captivating film, as long as Academy Award® winner Angelina Jolie took the role as the working-class single mother who made it her life’s mission to find her boy. Of his Christine Collins, Eastwood remarks, “Angelina is unique. She reminds me a lot of the actresses from the Golden Age of movies in the ’40s—Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, all of them. They were all very distinctive, and they all had a lot of presence. She’s a tremendous actress.”
Howard and Grazer were pleased with the outcome on all fronts. Notes Grazer, “I bought L’Échange’s script and, like everybody does, created a list of the top directors in the world. You start with your dream and you work your way down. I started with a dream and got it with Clint Eastwood, and then to have Angelina Jolie step into this role was very exciting. She is just perfect for it. She’s so emotionally available, alert and present.”
Despite a riveting story and the high caliber filmmaking team, Jolie was initially reluctant to tackle the role of a mother whose son is kidnapped. Understandably so, as she had recently finished a heartbreaking portrayal of Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, the true story of the kidnapping and execution of journalist Daniel Pearl. However, she was willing to explore options and read the screenplay. Straczynski’s interpretation of Christine’s tale changed her mind.
“It’s an extraordinary story,” Jolie reflects. “I couldn’t stop reading it. When she faced a setback and would get back up, I’d think, ‘Good, you’re back up.’ Christine Collins is a woman whom I came to admire but, as an actor, there was a lot about the story I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to do a film about a child being kidnapped, because I think there’s something to bringing certain things into your environment, in your thoughts and in your world. But ultimately, it was her strength when faced with such odds that swayed me. I’m most fond of this story because of how it exposes corruption of those in power. It’s very timely; we still deal with that today.”
With the director, producers and lead actor in place, Eastwood and the other filmmakers began their search for the other players in Christine Collins’ late 1920s and early ’30s world—the men and women who would shape the story of L’Échange.