The Good Lie is an inspiring film about love, survival and triumph over adversity and a powerful reminder of what’s really important in life. Philippe Falardeau directs the moving story of “The Lost Boys” who were uprooted by the brutal Sudanese Civil War that lasted from 1983 to 2005. Young orphans of war, both boys and girls, trekked thousands of miles on foot through hostile, treacherous terrain to escape the violence and find safety. Fifteen years later, a humanitarian effort would bring 3600 of them from Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp to America. The entertaining drama stars Reese Witherspoon, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Corey Stoll, Kuoth Wiel, and Sarah Baker.
At a recent press conference in Nashville, Witherspoon, Oceng, Duany, Wiel, Stoll, Baker, screenwriter Margaret Nagle, producers Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill and Trent Luckinbill, and UNICEF’s Kent Page talked about the importance of telling the story with integrity, Nagle’s exhaustive research, the lengthy development process, the struggle for financing, finding the right cast for the film’s central roles, how the part of Carrie was written with Witherspoon in mind, why they chose not to play up the white girl coming to the rescue angle, how the African actors found making the film a difficult but rewarding experience, and their hope that it will raise awareness and create change. The film opens limited October 3rd and goes wide October 24th. Check out the interview after the jump:
Question: Reese, this is a spectacular season for you with Oscar talk, this movie, producing Gone Girl, and reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice. Was this all planned?
REESE WITHERSPOON: No, it wasn’t planned. For a few years, I was a little bit lost as an artist not being able to find what I wanted to do and making choices that I wasn’t ultimately very happy with. What started this whole string of things that I was doing personally was just getting back to wanting to play interesting, dynamic female characters. When I read Margaret Nagle’s script, I was so moved, and I enjoyed the idea that when I met with the director, the first thing he said to me was, “This movie isn’t about you, and I just wanted to be really clear about that.” I’d never had a director say that to me before. It actually made me happy because I didn’t want to make a movie where I was a white American girl coming to save African people. My character is as emotionally distraught, as lost, as without family as they are. I thought it was a beautiful opportunity to talk about how family is where you find it. As for all the rest, it’s just I’ve made these movies and they all seem to be coming out within three months of each other. I have a little bit of a traffic jam, but hopefully you’ll be able to see all of them and see them for their different qualities.
For Arnold, Ger and Kuoth, can you talk about how you got cast in this movie?
ARNOLD OCENG: I was cast from London. It’s a funny story. The breakdown came through of the script and then my agent sent my picture to the casting directors. I got turned down. I wasn’t even allowed to audition for it because they said I was too short. Standing next to him (referring to Ger Duany), you can see why. (Laughs) So I didn’t pay any mind, and then a month later, they contacted my agent and said, “We can see him now.” Then I went up for the casting. I put myself on tape, and they sent it to L.A., and I didn’t hear back from them for maybe a month and a half. Then my agent called me and said that my tape was the only tape they liked in Europe. My agent asked me, “Are you available to fly to L.A.?” I was like, “Dude, even if I’m not available, you’re crazy! I’m flying over!” Then I came over and I had more castings over here. That’s when I got to meet Reese, and we cast it together, and then everything came together from there.
GER DUANY: I came across this story ten years ago through a man that I met. His name is Bobby Bonwyan (sp?) and his family was here somehow. I met Bobby Bonwyan (sp?) and he told me that he wanted to make a movie about the Lost Boys story. On the other hand, I was among the kids that fled the country in 1987 by foot to Ethiopia, and then back again to South Sudan, and then back to Ethiopia again. There was too much gambling with my life. I don’t know why I’m here, but maybe it’s that I had to talk to you guys. When I heard that Bobby died in 2004, I thought this story died with him because he was the only person I had met at the time and the only guy I knew that this story remained with. When he died, I said, “Now we have to go forward to the next thing.” Then, in 2013, I came across the script that was written by Margaret, and I read it, and I was blown away. I made sure I sent an email to the casting director, a lady named Mindy Marin, with my head shot. She said, “I found your head shot already through one of your colleagues. His name is Bryan O’Dell.” I was like, “Okay.” Then, she sent me a part where I had to audition for it, and I taped myself as well with my own camera, and I sent it in. That’s how I ended up here.
KUOTH WIEL: For me, the story had somehow made its way to me through social media. A friend of mine had told me about the audition on Facebook. At first, I was a little taken back by it because I had never seen the script that was specifically looking for South Sudanese people or South Sudanese actors. I saw it as something special because of the fact that this is not so regular. At that time, I was still in university at Oxford College, and I knew that doing this movie was going to be a sacrifice for me because I had to give up getting my degree in that time. Mindy Marin made a point to me. She was like, “We like you, but if you choose to do this movie, you’re going to have to give up your life and leave school.” So, I made that sacrifice to leave school and to go do this movie because it’s my history. It’s the story of my country. I felt that it was a valid sacrifice for me and that’s why I did the film. Eventually, I got to graduate.
Reese, what was it about this story and the message of the movie that made you want to do it? And having three kids, how are you juggling all this?
WITHERSPOON: You should see my hotel room this morning. It was chaos – pancakes and milk and fruit and teenagers. It was madness. I thought the script was so beautiful. Margaret did an incredible job. You could tell there was so much research involved, because when I started watching documentaries, it was all completely accurate. Every story that you heard the Sudanese refugees tell was somehow in the film and in the script. So, we met and we talked about it. I met with Margaret and Molly Smith and Philippe Falardeau, the director, and we thought it was wonderful. There are so many times you think you appreciate your life, but then you see someone else’s perspective on our privileges and the opportunities we have, whether it’s education, healthcare, food or running water. One of my favorite scenes is when he’s running his hands as he’s turning the water on and off after they’ve walked through the desert and been without water and food. I thought it was a great message also for families. It’s important to say that I think it’s great to take your kids to see this movie. It brings up a lot of dinner table conversations that we should all be having. And yeah, I’ll take my kids.
For Corey, you also have been on a tear. You’ve got The Strain going on, and you have This Is Where I Leave You out, and Ant-Man on the way. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to do this film and how you fit this into your schedule?
COREY STOLL: Well, like Reese, I was really attracted to how it wasn’t about her. (Laughs) No offense. I was very excited to work with Reese, but I think there is a problem in Hollywood with making stories about the white savior coming in, and this was so not that movie. Just reading the first 30 pages that Margaret was so courageous to keep in the story, that we don’t come to America for 30-35 minutes, which takes a lot of courage in the writing and then in the directing and producing to maintain that running time just with the kids, I was really sold on that. In terms of fitting it in, I don’t need that much time off. (Laughs) I like to work. It stops me thinking too much about real life.
Sarah, this is a bit of a departure from some of the roles we’ve seen you in. Can you talk about how you got involved with this project and what the experience has been like?
SARAH BAKER: It’s been incredible. I mostly do much more lighthearted fare than this. A lot of my friends and people I work with are like, “What’s the movie about that you’re in?” and I’m like, “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” and they’re like, “You’re in it?” and I’m like, “I know, I know.” My part is not super serious in the movie. It’s great to be involved with something [like this]. I love all that I do, but this movie is such a special story. It’s an honor to be a part of something like this that tells the story of so many people and a story that a lot of people haven’t heard.
Reese, it must have been an incredible challenge to play a character where you don’t get the backstory and you have to discover it along the way. How did you avoid the process of researching this, and what did you learned about South Sudan and the Sudan in general?
WITHERSPOON: I came from a place of not knowing, so other than a random newspaper article or something, I knew very little about the story. There were a lot of interesting documentaries and some stuff on 60 Minutes that was very interesting. And still, I didn’t know. A lot of the things that I learned were from talking to Emmanuel (Emmanuel Jal who plays Paul) and talking to Ger. Sometimes we’d be doing scenes and I’d say, “Did that really happen?” Ger would tell us stories about being a young boy and walking all that way and what it was like. It’s hard to even conceive. Then, at the very end of the film, we got to go to the Kakuma refugee camp. Even though I didn’t shoot any scenes there, I didn’t want to just do the part in Atlanta and be done and go home to my life. I really wanted to see what the experience was like. So, I took my teenage daughter and we went.
It was very emotional seeing over 250,000 people displaced and sleeping on concrete slabs and the sprawl of that many people living, and twelve different languages being spoken, seven different kinds of religions, very little healthcare, very little food. It brought it all home to me that this is an opportunity to raise awareness, but it’s also an opportunity to create change. I was talking to Rick Warren yesterday who’s an amazing religious leader. He said, “Sometimes we assume that if people are poor, they’re not intelligent, or they don’t have anything to offer to society.” These are people who were at the top of their field. They’re doctors, they’re educators, they’re community leaders, and they’ve essentially been displaced. It’s been amazing through this process, and even two days ago to be in D.C., and how all these wonderful men and women from the Sudan are there and they’re doing incredible things in America. One of them is a war veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan. One is a community leader. It’s been very educational for me to learn about refugees and their contributions to society and how we can hopefully lift more of them up out of those situations.
DUANY: Oh there’s so much to learn about Reese.
OCENG: Maybe I can speak for all of us when I say this. When we found out we’d be working with Reese, you can’t really get bigger than Reese. I was nervous thinking I’d be on the same screen as her. But to be honest, we weren’t ready for the humbleness and the strength, and just her whole entity, and how great she was with us. We probably haven’t said it before, but at least we all get to say it now. We thank you because you made the experience so much easier. It was a hard journey for all of us, but just knowing you were there to support us and to help us through, we really appreciate that.
WITHERSPOON: Thank you.
DUANY: I wanted to relay a little story. Mindy Marin called me and told me, “Hey Ger, there’s a lady named Reese. She’s going to be in the movie with you.” I said, “Who is Reese?” She sent me a link, and I said, “Of course, I know this lady.” I watched all her movies since I came to America, because I learned English through watching movies. When I knew that it was Reese that I’d been watching for many years, I was excited. It’s incredible to work with Reese because she can turn things into something that brings all of us together. We couldn’t find another person that could really tell the story of the South Sudanese people who have been suffering for decades. Reese was the perfect person who helped us to get this story to you.
Margaret, this has been a journey for you alone as well. Can you explain how this project came to you and what you went through to get it to where it is today?
MARGARET NAGLE: This was an open assignment at Paramount with the producer Robert Newmyer 11 years ago. I had written a spec script, Warm Springs, and I’d just become a screenwriter. I really wanted this job. They were like, “We’re seeing big screenwriters. You’re not even in the Writers Guild.” Every week I would call my agent and say, “Get me a meeting with the kid who gets the coffee. Just get me in the building. Get me in the office.” So one day, six weeks later, I finally got in and I met the baby development executive. I went in and I had the whole movie planned out – Theo and Mamere, the first 30 minutes are Africa, they come to America. Literally, I thought, I have this one shot. I have to have the whole thing done. He just kept passing me up and went, “Okay, hang on. Let me get my boss.” And I’d pitch it again and they’d go, “Let me get my boss.” By six o’clock, I was pitching to Bobby Newmyer, and then a week later I went to Paramount and I got the job.
With Bobby, we worked on it for two years and then he sadly, tragically passed away. Bobby and I had gone all over the country and met Lost Boys in every city. At his funeral, the Lost Boys gave the eulogy. It was really hard. And then, Paramount put the movie into turnaround and wouldn’t let it out. I was able to get it back out five years after the last time I worked on it through a Writers Guild reacquisition rule. I took it to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and worked on it. It was an 18-month option. We worked on it for 12 months there and then we lost our financing. We went out to look for new financing and we found it in Molly and the Luckinbills, and it was the very final day of the 18-month option. We got a cashier’s check to Paramount at five o’clock. I’m not kidding you. It was so funny because Molly called and she goes, “I’m going to give you a check today. Put it in your account and then you go write the check to Paramount.” I’m like, “I can’t write a check to Paramount. I don’t have that much in checking. That check’s not gonna clear. The check’s gonna bounce.” We were racing around town calling Paramount saying, “Don’t lock the doors. We’re gonna get the check in.” So, we bought it and then we were shooting ten years to the day I was hired. I had written the part of Carrie Davis with Reese in mind from the beginning. They called me and they said, “You’re going to have a meeting with Reese Witherspoon.” I was like, “No way! This is crazy!” It took a long time, but good things take time.
Why did you think of Reese for that role?
NAGLE: She’s so strong and she’s got light and dark going in. And she’s got a strong sense of the feminine, but she’s got this strong sense of the masculine. She’s incredible. You look at her and there’s so much going on behind those eyes. I love that she surprises you when she’s on screen, and there’s fierce intelligence in what she does, and yet she’s every woman. I just love her work and she’s just perfect for this role. Even the name Carrie, I went, “That’s a good name for Reese.” I was very lucky. There was just no one else.