The Good Lie, showing in theaters this Friday, tells the story of a group of Sudanese young men who find safe haven in the United States through a humanitarian mission and meet their employment caseworker, Carrie Davis (Reese Witherspoon). Before long, Davis is forced to get involved in more than their employment, and the men’s stirring story of faith and survival changes their community forever. Today, I sat down with the screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, who also writes and produces FOX’s Red Band Society, the story of sick teenagers in a hospital ward.
I asked Nagle how the two stories compare, and given her strong teenage subjects in both, if she had teens herself. “Yes, I do!” Nagle responded with a grin. “Being a mom is central to my life. I know how they talk and think- but these Sudanese young men were so different, because they’d been stripped of everything down to the essentials. The same is true of sick kids.”
Nagle warmed quickly to the way that these children-turned-men were bared souls, in the way that other characters she’d written were as well. “For Warm Springs [an HBO movie about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s battle with polio], I realized that these were about situations when you can’t have things that you thought you needed or wanted, and you have to move forward. [The Good Lie] is something I’d been working on for eleven years, marveling at how these kids had grown up with nothing, like Lord of the Flies in reverse, no parents or grandparents, like Castaway, on their own. But they were so civilized, so beautiful at heart, and their faith gave them what they needed, as they formed a structure of brotherhood.”
The parents of these young men had taught them stories from the Bible at an early age, and they stuck to it even after they were orphaned. The only possession they carried over miles and miles of the Sahara was sometimes their Bible! And now, for fifteen million dollars, the story of these twenty thousand children is being told thanks to Nagle’s script and the work of others, like producer Molly Smith.
The script was being sampled but they couldn’t find the check, the money to make it work, until a copy landed on Smith’s desk. Smith’s father had adopted a Lost Boy through their church in Tennessee, and paid for his education- he now works in the family business. When Smith read “the story of my brother,” she knew the movie had to be made. So, even though she had yet to meet a Lost Boy, Nagle had told their story, thanks to hours of interviews and research.
“I’m a storyteller,” Nagle says. “Instead of being the life rights of one boy, we’ve used the film to start The Good Lie Fund, asking everyone who sees the movie to give a dollar or two that goes directly into an educational fund, as we also raise money for humanitarian aid for the thousands stuck in the Sudan because of 9/11.”
I asked Nagle how she came to settle on Witherspoon as the person to play Davis. She told me that she had originally thought of Kathy Bates, who she’d worked with on Warm Springs, but that a Paramount executive had suggested she think of Witherspoon. “The movie is really about the kids, and Reese signed on without even reading through to her part after just a few pages! I had named the [aid worker] Carrie because it fit Reese. But we’ve used the publicity to screen it for Rick Warren, Glen Beck, because we know that churches really supported the boys. We wanted to make a movie that acknowledged that, too.”
We’re wrapping up and I ask Nagle what comes next. Currently, she’s writing a play about the day that JFK asked Eleanor Roosevelt to support his campaign, and the conversation they had; her musical is coming out in the spring about the first country-western female band in Texas, remarkable because they were all inmates, playing for their lives.
And then it happens, the best nugget you can only hope for. Nagle tells me that when she was a child, her older brother was in an extended coma, and that when he emerged, he could tell her all about what people had said around him. Red Band Society fans already know how important that is to the narrator of the show, a young man in a coma, named Charlie.
“I named him after my brother,” Nagle says, and I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this storyteller helps us understand bared souls, because she bares her own.