Did Murdoch stop George Clooney film based on phone hacking book?
GEORGE CLOONEY was thwarted from making a film about the phone hacking scandal by Rupert Murdoch.
The fascinating claim was recently made by former Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, at an event marking the tenth anniversary of the scandal he helped expose, which led to the closure of The News of The World and the Leveson public inquiry.
According to Davies, when Clooney optioned his book Hack Attack: How The Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch he warned the movie star that the media mogul’s malign reach in the US would cause him “trouble”.
Clooney had a script he “really liked” but couldn’t get the film made because “you can’t make a film exposing the power of Rupert Murdoch because he’s got too much power,” Davies told an enthralled audience last month.
Only, when contacted, Clooney’s people disputed this.
Smokehouse, the actor’s company he runs with Grant Heslov, optioned Davies’ book and planned to produce a film with Sony Pictures Entertainment, part of the Japanese owned media conglomerate.
In a press release announcing the project in September 2014, the actor said:
“This has all the elements – lying, corruption, blackmail – at the highest level of government by the biggest newspaper in London. And the fact it’s true is the best part. Nick is a brave and stubborn reporter and we consider it an honour to put his book to film.”
The publisher of Hack Attack naturally capitalised on the film project to promote future editions of the book. But after seven years no film has appeared.
Davies was asked for an explanation in front of a friendly audience in London during a panel discussion on 29 November organised by the press reform group Hacked Off.
The now retired reporter said:
“It’s another interesting story about Rupert. When I first started dealing with George Clooney I said, ‘You know you are going to run into trouble here? You are talking about a man who is so powerful he doesn’t actually need to tell people what he wants to happen. There’s this kind of passive power. People think, ‘What would Rupert want, that’s what I’ll do?’
“So, over a period of years the second writer produced a 90-minute script for a feature film, which Clooney and all his people really liked. So then he’s got to go out into the world of Hollywood and raise whatever it is, 20m, 30m dollars and he couldn’t do it.
“Even a Clooney with all his connections and all his prestige couldn’t. Why? Because people don’t want to get into a fight with Rupert Murdoch, who owns 100 newspapers and all those television stations and they review movies. Let’s not start a fight. So the whole project ran into the ground because you can’t make a film exposing the power of Rupert Murdoch because he’s got too much power.”
The Upsetter contacted what are known in the movie business as ‘Clooney’s people’. They were sent a link to the video of the Hacked Off event and asked for a comment on behalf of a national newspaper.
A well-placed individual close to Clooney and Heslov responded but only on a “for background” basis.
The source said:
“George doesn’t want to get in a fight with Nick, he respects him, but it wasn’t as explained. He’s implying a secret message from Rupert Murdoch, that’s not our experience. We couldn’t get a script. It never worked. There was never a produceable script and people lost interest in it. Maybe Nick knows something we don’t.”
Davies certainly believes he does. Asked yesterday if he’d like to comment, the award-winning journalist said he stood by “every word” and any suggestion otherwise was "completely false.”
A source close to Davies explained why the journalist felt so strongly - but also only on a background basis. It’s a breathless explanation that involves suspected North Korean hackers and Julian Assange, for starters. Almost a film within a film. Here goes.
Sony was hacked some weeks after Clooney announced their joint plan to turn Davies’ book into a film. The hack might have been carried out by the North Koreans. In any event, Assange posted the haul online and Davies word searched it.
He found email exchanges between Sony media and legal people on the day in September 2014 that Smokehouse announced the joint production. For Davies these were smoking guns.
The emails showed there was consternation in Sony about whether the press release had been signed off. This was followed by agreement that care should be taken with the film project so as not to “alienate” Murdoch or “inflame” the situation.
Nevertheless, far from backing off, Sony went on to fund the film project for the next three years at great cost.
A writer chosen by Clooney had the first stab at a script and then Peter Moffatt. By summer 2017, Smokehouse and Sony were also looking for a UK partner. But come autumn, Sony pulled out having invested significantly.
Was it Murdoch? Sony Pictures did not respond to a request for comment.
But the source close to Davies said the scriptwriter had told the reporter that funders’ lack of interest in the film project was down to “the Murdoch effect”.
In November 2017, Davies emailed his agent asserting that Smokehouse had confirmed the funding problem was mostly down to a lack of balls and Murdoch’s power in the film industry.
Maybe Smokehouse said this to soften the blow for Davies, who, like the hacking scandal, was not as big a deal in the US as in the UK.
Smokehouse certainly assured Davies in an email that they were still looking for more funders and were in talks with Channel 4 and UK based production companies to turn the film into a multi-part TV drama.
Channel 4 had agreed to fund a new script by Moffatt, an accomplished writer. However, that project also went nowhere and Smokehouse ended their involvement with Hack Attack and Davies.
The journalist told The Upsetter he does not know why Channel 4 also walked away, but he did not suggest it was down to Murdoch exercising passive or active power.
Despite repeated requests Davies did not provide conclusive evidence that Murdoch power had scuppered the Clooney project. He threatened to sue and assert malice by The Upsetter if it was suggested otherwise.
All is not lost for the Davies fan base. He told the Hacked Off audience last month that, although bound by a confidentiality agreement, it could be revealed that he is now working with an “A Team” and the US-based streaming platform, Netflix.
Thankfully any power Murdoch exerts did not cower HBO in the US from commissioning British writing talent in 2016 to produce a pilot of Succession.
The first season aired in 2018 and Succession is now in its third stellar season with no sign of abating in its thinly-veiled assault on the entire Murdoch seed.
And so it goes.