In 2005, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez happened upon Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless but tremendously gifted violinist, playing on the streets of Skid Row. Fueled by curiosity, Lopez kept coming back to unearth Nathaniel’s story, developing rapport with the musician in the process. Eventually, the chronicle gained national attention; by then, the two had established a friendship that would change both men forever.
Now, after four years of sharing Ayers’s story in his column, Lopez is bringing it to the silver screen. The story is unique in that the tale’s journey to prominence (culminating in this film) is nearly as interesting as the premise of the work itself. As the saga of Nathaniel gained a larger reader base, people who had seen the column began to try to help the musician; this is as much an anecdote about journalism as it is about music or the needy. Lopez talked to North by Northwestern via conference call about Ayers, journalism and the creation of the film based on this incredible true story.
Upon first meeting Mr. Ayers, what was it that struck you most about his playing and his personality?
What struck me at first was simply that he might be a column for me. I, at the time, was writing three columns a week, and you’re always under the gun. Writing a column, as you may know, is like feeding a hungry monster. As soon as you’ve fed it, you’ve got to start fighting for the next meal. So I’m always with eyes and ears open as I go about life in California. It’s a matter of looking at everything when you drive, taking it all in when you walk someplace, listening to what people are talking about.
I was in downtown [Los Angeles] when I heard some music and turned and I saw what I think any journalist would have seen, which was this striking image of a guy whose story needed to be told. It was a guy playing classical music really well, despite missing two strings on his violin. So the obvious question is “All right, what is his story? Where did this guy get that training? Why does he have only two strings?” I moved in closer and saw that he was living out of a shopping cart and I saw that the violin was battered. When I asked him why he played there (because he wasn’t collecting money), he pointed to the Beethoven statue across the street and said “I play here for inspiration.” So it was all of that that played into it and then I realized it would take a while to get the story out of him, so I kept going back to learn more about his past each time. And then the time when he was scratching these names on the sidewalk and I asked “Who are they?” and he said “Those are my classmates at Juilliard,” that’s when I knew.
I had my column that I wrote, the first one, and the response was overwhelming. People sent the missing strings, they sent sheet music, they wanted to send money and they sent violins. I got six violins in the mail [...] I took them out to him and he was just about in tears at the generosity of people. So the story just played out really well, beyond any notion I had when I saw him that first day. Four years later, I’m still writing about him, still hanging out with him, still trying to figure out how to help him continue his recovery, so it’s been one of the greatest journalistic inspirations of my life.
During your experiences with Nathaniel, when you were writing your column, did you ever consider the cinematic potential that your story would have?
No. I didn’t even consider the book potential. All I was thinking was, “What’s the next column?” and “Where’s this thing going to end?” When the book was suggested by my editor at the Los Angeles Times, I said “How can I write a book? I don’t even know where this thing’s going, I don’t even know if I’m helping him at all.” She said “Just save your notebooks. The story is in part about these conversations. It’s in part about your conflicts, about your doubts. It’s about the things that are not getting into the columns, and you’ve got a nice mark here for a story about an amazing adventure. Hold onto it.”
When we went to Disney Hall together, I started getting a lot of calls from studios. I got ten feature film calls and ten documentary calls, and I didn’t return them because I had two novels optioned to be films that never really got anywhere, so I knew the odds were tremendous. Later, I reconsidered the book thing and wrote the book proposal, and then there was interest in the collection of columns and the book proposal, and even then, when I met with the guys who are the producers here, I said “How can you make the movie, not knowing the ending? I don’t know the ending.” And they said “We don’t need to worry about the ending. This is a story about two guys who have come together from different walks of life and have a lasting impact on each other. It’s a love story, it’s a friendship story, it’s about the power of friendship and the power of music, the serendipitous nature of a chance encounter that changes two lives. We’ll figure out the ending later, but don’t worry about it; there’s enough natural and powerful drama in this thing that we know we can make a good movie.” I liked what they said but didn’t believe it entirely. But they pulled off exactly what they said they were going to do.
Regarding journalism, do you think your original columns about Nathaniel could have had the same success if they were only being published online?
Well, I’m not sure I know the answer to that. I like print. I’m an old guy. I like waking up in the morning and getting ink on my fingers. I like sitting there and picking a section and going out back and sitting on the deck with that section, and I like that I can stuff the section into my backpack when I go to work. I like having a buffet, I like turning the page and there are six headlines, and on the facing page are five more headlines, and I feel that presentation of newspapers on the web is kind of confining and not as attractive to me; it’s harder to find an attractive buffet. However, it’s where we’re headed. I’m learning to adapt.
It’s kind of a complicated answer to your question, because the [Los Angeles Times] Web site hits are from all over the area rather than just from LA. In fact, the majority are not from California. I think it’s harder for somebody who’s not from California to identify with the Nathaniel series – it’s about Pershing Square and Skid Row and Disney Hall, places that Californians are familiar with, and it’s easier to present that story in print. The people who responded early on, donating violins, I think most of them were seeing it in print. So, I don’t know, it was much easier to lay this thing out and give it a good ride in print.
I would like to think, though, if we end up going online only, which is a possibility that’s happening to papers around the country, that there’s still going to be a way for us to connect and do this kind of community journalism and tell stories that need to be told. I’d like to think that I’ll find new stories out there and new ways to tell them.
How involved were you in the making of this film?
I was not directing any scenes, I was not rewriting the screenplay; I didn’t have much to do with the screenplay. I wasn’t involved in the casting, but I’ve been involved from the beginning, mostly through the director at first and Robert Downey [Jr.] a little bit. We hung out just a bit so we could get some sense of me and my take on the story. This whole thing began when they did the casting. Nathaniel and I were going to a concert at Disney Hall, and Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. went with us. Nathaniel and I sat next to each other and Robert and Jamie sat next to each other just observing us and observing the music. Jamie Foxx had a tape recorder with him and recorded everything that Nathaniel said. Within a couple weeks, it was pretty eerie because Jamie Foxx in makeup and costume looked and sounded and walked just like Nathaniel. It was almost difficult to tell the two of them apart.
I was involved to the extent that I dealt on a regular basis with the producer, Gary Foster. They had questions about different scenes and the real story of what happened and what I felt or how Nathaniel acted. There were lots and lots of questions like that. I was happy to be available for that because I felt that the better informed they were about the real story, the more true the movie would be to the essential themes of my experience with Nathaniel. So I’ve been involved to that extent and I’m glad that I was because I’ve made some good friends through this, in particular, the producer Gary Foster. He was true to his word; it’s a great movie.
Do you think that by projecting this story, which was initially told through a column over time, onto the medium of film, something is gained or lost?
[The film] takes it to a different and broader audience, so there’s that gain here. This movie is going to run around the world, and the book has been published in several countries. So for starters, just taking those themes to a broader audience is great.
I think some people relate better to stories visually than through words. I think that in a way, because a movie is by necessity a reduction when it’s an adapted work, it’s like all the highlights. All of the great mile-posts are hit in this movie. I think it’s a great way to get a real sense of the power of the story in just two hours. I think also that Joe Wright, the director, as well as the actors … although they were telling an established story, they brought their own touches, insight and experience to it and I really appreciate all of that. I didn’t want them to make a movie that was a copy of the book, I wanted them to make an artistic contribution and I think that they’ve pulled that off in just amazing ways. I heard from my producer last night at a screening that he screened it for 1,500 people and they were applauding when it was over. It’s a very moving piece of work.
The other thing that’s so great about the movie is that they captured both the heartbreak and the hope. It’s a story of great uplift. I won’t give it away, but I think the last scene in the movie is one of the most gorgeous, uplifting scenes I’ve seen in a movie in many years… it’s just a beautiful, slow-motion scene. The other thing I’ll say is that it’s not often these days, given our culture, that you’ll see a mainstream movie that combines art and commerce and social commentary. This movie does that. It’s a compelling drama, so people will enjoy seeing it and it’s rich in many ways because of the love and friendship and the soaring music, but also I think you’ll walk out of the theater a changed person in many ways. That’s a power thing and I think it’s what people get into storytelling for, whether it’s as newspaper columnists or as moviemakers. I consider this a success in every way.