‘ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD’ screenwriter David Scarpa gets to the heart of the Getty (mis)fortune

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

All of us have a number in our minds where we’ll be free. The point is that number is fictional.

Back in 1973, one kidnapping captured the world’s attention, though not necessarily because of the crime itself. No, it was gripping because of a greater corruption at hand. Screenwriter David Scarpa cuts to the quick of the matter with his astute interpretation of these true-life events, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

In the film, sixteen-year-old J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped in Italy. But what the kidnappers hadn’t anticipated was their target, richest man in the world J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), wasn’t about to give into their ransom demands. This then launches a battle between the hard-nosed billionaire tycoon and the boy’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams). It’s tale about the destructive nature of fortune – one that’s almost too crazy to be believed, yet is totally true.

At the film’s press day in Los Angeles, I sat down with the affable screenwriter to discuss why this case is as fascinating now as it was then, that 11th hour actor switcheroo, and this film’s connection to one of Ridley’s brother’s films.

This family has such a rich history – pun intended – and lots of misfortune too. I’m surprised this story hadn’t been told before, had it?

It had not – which is remarkable. I too am sort of surprised it’s taken this long.

Do you have any insight as to why now with the interest. There’s also the TV mini-series, TRUST.

This came into my life in 2006, so it’s actually been awhile. I couldn’t really tell you. With movies in general, there’s sort of a cultural moment for everything. If you remember back with the Capote films. It’s also a matter of how much time has to go by and all that stuff. What’s kind of unique about this situation is that other project is in a different medium. I think that’s interesting. That could be complementary in the sense that one is a concise version and the other has a chance to stretch out in a lot of different directions.

I loved how you balance Getty Sr.’s narrative with a story about a woman finding her place in this male-driven empire. Gail’s resistant, yet she’s forced to weaponize the things she learned as a Getty in order to triumph.

Yes! I’m glad you got that and that came through. In a sense, the movie’s about her relationship with money – and the Getty money. First she wants it, then she doesn’t want it, then she regrets not wanting it, and she needs it. That’s the central problem of the whole movie is this money creates intractable problems. It rules everyone’s life in the movie. Even the poor mafia guy. How do you get around it? The real villain of the movie is money itself. Getty is a victim to it. The kidnappers are stupid. It’s how does Gail control money? How does she beat it? How does she make it work for her. That’s her journey.

Was the ear scene always in the script and written as graphically? Or was that Ridley’s doing?

Ridley definitely brought that. In the script, it was there, but there’s always a question of how you want to handle it. You can be way back, or you can cut away from it. I had scripted it differently – a slightly different way. And Ridley wanted to do it that way.

The author of the novel Man on Fire credits the Getty kidnapping for the inspiration. And that’s Tony Scott’s movie…

You caught that!

Was that something that was ever discussed?

It has never been discussed, but I knew about it. It’s something that I’ve never underscored with anybody else, but yeah, that was part of its inspiration and it’s a very, very different movie in terms of how it feels. There’s no question. I knew about it, but I didn’t consciously didn’t veer away from it, per se. To me, that movie didn’t give me what interested me, which is the themes about money, the themes about Getty. There was a whole other dimension. That’s a great movie, you know. I have purposely not underscored it, but somebody, someday will hold this up and say, ‘Here’s Tony. Here’s Ridley.’ I had never brought that to his attention and it may blindside him too. You’re very perceptive. That’s absolutely true.

You nailed this air of how wealthy people talk about money and relate to it. What was your research like beyond the book this was based on?

A lot of it was there was a lot of first person accounts of this. There’s John Pearson’s book. There are other books about the Gettys –and Getty himself. Part of what drew me to it, I remember a quote from a multi-billionaire that basically said, ‘I don’t think I could ever feel secure unless I had a billion dollars.’ All of us have a number in our minds where we’ll be free. The fantasy number of freedom. The point is that number is fictional. That number is constantly changing. That number gives you the license to not do what you want with your life. It gives you the license to not make those choices. That was the backdrop.

Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg star in TriStar Pictures” ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

Another thing that occurred to me watching this was the lack of security surrounding people of this stature. Maybe it’s because it was a product of the time, or there was only so much disguise you can do when you live somewhere.

They were living on their own. Part of the fantasy was, ‘We’re normal now.’ They were trying to live normal lives. They weren’t traveling in Rome – and he was out on his own. It wasn’t as if they were living in a stealthy way. That’s the thing though. Even if you try to divorce yourself from it, it’s still gonna come back. Mind you, I don’t think that really existed – this culture of the wealthy being very careful about security didn’t really exist. Part of that is the result of stuff like this.

When Christopher Plummer was hired, was there a need for new or more dialogue?

It was discussed, but then we sat down in a glass box and said, ‘We’re gonna do this thing and we don’t know if we can pull it off and we may have to write new stuff.’ But there was also a restriction, handed down to us by our editor, Claire Simpson, who did such a heroic job, she should literally be sitting center stage. She basically said, ‘If you guys start tinkering, we will never make our release date. It has to fit in the spot. It’s all got to drop right in there.’ We initially were going to do it to entice the actors, which turned out to be not a problem.

Does this change how you’ll approach writing in the future?

No, you’ll never be able to do something like this again. It’s very unusual. It’s only because of the nature of all of this.

***Minor Historical Spoilers Ahead***

The card reads “inspired by” at the beginning instead of “based on a true story.” Is there a difference between the two?

Whenever you do anything, to a certain extent, that’s a little bit of covering your legal issues. Pretty much with any movie rendering – even when you’re making a movie documentary, you’re still cutting things in such a way you’re creating a certain narrative that has a tilt. We definitely have a specific point of view and also very specific things where we took a bit of dramatic license. Frankly, there have been a lot of other movies that have taken far more liberties. We felt like we could present it as “inspired by.”

Was there any inkling to stay faithful to how it played in real life versus shuffling a few small pieces around? For instance the grandson’s phone call is act one in the film, but in real life, that call came after the kidnapping.

That’s a case of license. That’s such a great moment that you wanna pick it up and move it up front. That’s sort of the first glimpse of Getty and then we back up. That’s a classic example of there’s all these little bits and pieces. For instance, Getty actually died some span afterwards and it felt more dramatically concise to have these two events playing out in parallel. It’s all these little decisions that are rather small, but allow you to shape the story to make more vivid.

And Gail was or was not given the Getty Museum to run?

She was not given the Getty. That’s an important point. Basically, after this went down, she was estranged from the family for a long time. She have the feeling’s you’d have about them. She was gradually courted back into the fold. Her children – she had four children. Her son Mark, became the founder of Getty Images. We show how she wanted out, then after the kidnapping, she really wanted out, and yet her children kind of became the heirs to the throne. She’s the matriarch. That’s what we’re depicting.

In terms of how the Getty empire unfolded, it’s a little more complex. Getty had other sons we don’t put in the movie. Gordon Getty engineered the sale to Texaco. There was a lot of other stuff that went on and we compressed a lot of that. It made more sense for us timewise.

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD is now playing.

Header photo: J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) has a conversation with his young grandson (Charlie Shotwell) in TriStar Pictures’ ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

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