Writers on Writing: 'The Informant'

Script digs into our archives to bring you advice on writing from the pros. Scott Z. Burns, writer of "Contagion," "The Report," and co-writer of "The Bourne Ultimatum," takes us back to 2009, sharing his experience writing "The Informant."
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Writers on Writing: The Informant

Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in 'The Informant!'

[Originally published in Script magazine November/December 2009]

I have never met Mark Whitacre. 

There are two reasons:

1. I didn’t need to. Kurt Eichenwald’s book The Informant provided me with a 500-page portrait of Whitacre’s triple life as an FBI informant, vice president for agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland, and convicted embezzler of extraordinary proportion. Whitacre and the truth had gone their separate ways some years ago. Whitacre had gone to jail in North Carolina, while the truth ended up in Eichenwald’s inspired piece of reporting. From our earliest conversations, Kurt suggested to me that talking to Whitacre about what actually happened—and why—would prove to be a little like touching your nose with your nose. In talking to Whitacre, I would confront the fundamental paradox in seeking explanations for bizarre behavior from the people who have committed it—rarely are such people equipped to give you answers that will lead to anything other than more questions.

2. I didn’t want to. Steven Soderbergh met the real Erin Brockovich while shooting that movie. He had already done a whistle-blower story and quite reasonably wanted to do something different this time. He told me he wanted to do ... a comedy! This being the case, Steven decided that he would not meet with Whitacre. And if Steven wasn’t going to meet with Whitacre, and I did, it seemed likely I would find myself in collaboration with the wrong guy. Instead, he told me to go and write the version of the story that only I could write. This struck me as the most flattering of invitations, so I went home and wondered what that iteration might be, and how I could recognize it.

I spoke to most of the other people involved in the case—FBI agents, Department of Justice officials, Whitacre’s first lawyer, and the woman who purchased Whitacre’s oversized house in the middle of a cornfield in Moweaqua, Illinois. And I drove the stretch of Route 51 that leads from the mansion in the maize to ADM headquarters in Decatur, a drive Whitacre took most days in the early 1990s in one of the fleet of cars purchased with his purloined fortune and with a wire taped to his chest. I wondered how he had driven past his friends and neighbors in a Ferrari and then a Porsche and then a BMW and then a Range Rover without anybody stopping to ask: “What the fuck?”

I sat in the parking lots of the Econo Lodges and Holiday Inns where Whitacre dropped off tapes and met with FBI Agents Brian Shepard and Bob Herndon. The recordings revealed a conspiracy between ADM and their competitors to fix prices on food additives and ingredients all over the world. I visited the closet-sized FBI office in downtown Decatur where Agent Shepard spent his career watching the stacks of ADM puff profit into the sky. I sat in the movie theater at the Hickory Point Mall where Whitacre watched The Firm over and over again, cribbing from Tom Cruise’s Mitch McDeere on how to escape the clutches of an evil, far-reaching corporation.

Scott Z Burns

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns

I breathed in the sickly sweet reek of processed soybeans and corn that permeates Decatur most days and is railroaded out of town and down the throats of the world. I sat on the shores of the poisoned man-made lake in the center of town. I learned that the locals called ADM “Another Dead Man” because of the frequency of fatal accidents at the plant. And I sat in the Country Club of Decatur dining room where the raid that brought down ADM commenced on June 27, 1995 and I wondered—as one DOJ lawyer put it—why did Mark Whitacre “shoot himself in the foot and then just keep working his way up his leg?”

[Script Extra: A Starter Guide to Researching World of Story]

A Tenuous Hold on Reality

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly called the DSMIV, describes a manic episode as marked by the following: “grandiosity ... unwarranted optimism ... inflated self-esteem ... foolish business investments ... abrupt changes of topic ... destructibility.” Years ago, doing research for another project, I met a man with bipolar disorder at Bellevue Hospital in New York. He had been arrested for disrupting a WNBA game. When the psychiatrist asked him what had happened that day, the man’s 20-minute explanation skipped from falafel to Joe Willie Namath to the side effects of Sudafed®—and we were no closer to tip-off than when he started the tale. It was a path only Jonathan Winters could follow. The psychiatrist scribbled in his book: “tangentiality.” It is the most disruptive force that narrative faces. A bipolar storyteller in the midst of a manic episode leaves the listener lost in the dust of non sequiturs.

Whitacre was diagnosed as bipolar by Dr. Derek Miller after he went from being the FBI’s most devoted wire-wearer to a suspect in 35 counts of fraud. On the day Whitacre was supposed to appear before federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., he tried to asphyxiate himself in his gigantic garage.

[Script Extra: Using Therapy to Break Story]

There is plenty of evidence that Whitacre's disorder existed before he began working undercover—he had lied about being adopted, and more, while at Cornell University. His family had called him “Corky” since childhood because he was always flying around like a champagne cork. Colleagues joked that coffee should be kept away from Whitacre because of his indefatigable energy. And a relative of his had committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of medication used to treat bipolar disorder—generally thought to have a genetic component. But, the pressures of his informant/executive double life undoubtedly exacerbated his condition. Giving someone with a tenuous hold on reality a second reality to monitor isn’t going to improve his condition. Whitacre found that a lie cannot go alone through the world—it needs the company of other lies. And with each new lie came a mandatory reconstitution of the facts.

Scott Bakula as Agent Brian Shepard and Joel McHale as Agent Bob Herndon

Scott Bakula as Agent Brian Shepard and Joel McHale as Agent Bob Herndon

(Contrary to all the psychiatric evidence, Agent Shepard insists that Whitacre is not bipolar. Shepard’s wife goes further and sees Whitacre as a pathological liar who irreparably damaged Shepard’s career and made him a pariah in a small town where the two men and everyone they were spying on worked, played, prayed, and raised their children. Shepard’s wife is adamant that the diagnosis was a trumped-up legal defense. Her version would certainly not be a comedy!)

In literature the unreliable narrator runs the gamut, from mentally ill in, say, Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground to deliberately manipulative in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Soderbergh and I discussed how such a device might work in film, not a Rashômon study of perspective, but the story of a man who can’t tell the truth who finds himself tasked to record the activities of a company that is also lying to the world. Mark Whitacre is part an involuntary Roger “Verbal” Kint, part Tyler Durden, and part George Carlin.

Because I did not study screenwriting, I was unaware of the fatwah against voiceover. So I blundered forward by decorating most scenes with a very persistent and wandering inner and unreliable narrative. Since Whitacre wore a wire and Eichenwald had access to the tapes, I tried to stay true to what was actually said for the basics of plot and dialogue. The rest is inspired by what the DSMIV suggested to me about the landscape of Whitacre’s mind. The dual-dialogue feature in Final Draft made it easier to write—however, not always so easy to read. At one point I contemplated having the voiceovers annotated, or put in another document, or on clear plastic overlays. I am grateful to everyone involved— particularly Matt Damon—for reading it as many times as it took to figure out my intentions.

[Script Extra: Unreliable Narrator and "Fight Club"]

Whitacre’s Take

I first learned of The Informant on Ira Glass’ This American Life in 2001. I drove in circles around my destination rapt and cringing at the escalation of Whitacre’s bad judgment and at ADM’s arrogance. After lunch I went to Book Soup and bought Eichenwald’s book. The next week I pitched The Informant to Steven Soderbergh’s company Section Eight and to Sydney Pollack’s Mirage Enterprises. I had breakfast with Mr. Pollack who told me that Steven was a gifted filmmaker and an excellent developer and that if I decided to take the project there, he would understand and hoped that one day we would work together on something else. I am sorry that never happened and grateful for the breakfast. In a way, he gave me the same invitation that Steven did—write the version that only I could write. It is the only way for any of us to push at the boundaries of genre.

I still have not met Mark Whitacre. He is out of jail, medicated, and back working in bio-tech. He and his wife Ginger saw the movie in June. Afterward he wrote the following to our producers Greg Jacobs and Jennifer Fox: I think that the Steven Soderbergh team, Matt Damon, and all of the others involved did an excellent job. It is a great movie!!! It is also extremely accurate, and illustrates what happened very well. Ginger and I are both very impressed. It was painful to relive parts of it, as you can imagine. I sure did some crazy things as we look back at that case.

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