10/09/2014 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Writer Margaret Nagle Talks About The Good Lie

It took 14 years for screenwriter Margaret Nagle to bring the wonderfully touching and inspiring "The Good Lie" to the screen.

Reese Witherspoon and Corey Stoll are in the cast, but they are supporting players. The heart of the film is the story of four immigrants to the U.S. from Sudan, survivors of the civil war that killed millions of people and left 20,000 children, mostly boys, walking for hundreds of miles to refugee camps. Three of the actors, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, and Kuoth Wiel, are themselves survivors like the characters they play. They are superb in the film, bringing not just authenticity but warmth and humor.


Nagle spoke to me about her commitment to getting this story told. It began when she was selling handbags out of the trunk of her car to make money.

I had every part time job in the world. So I was the bag lady and two of my suppliers were guys whose families had originated in Sudan. They were older and they were not part of the Lost Boys. I watched them as they adjusted to the United States. I had them for Thanksgiving and got to know their children. When I heard Paramount was going to do a movie about the Lost Boys in Sudan I was like, "That's something I want to go in on."

They were seeing all these fancy screenwriters for the assignment but I just keep calling my agent saying, "Could you get me in? Could you get me in?" Meanwhile, I was selling bags to a lot of women in law firms and one of them helped me by using Nexis to print out everything about Sudan that's ever been written in the world. I ended up with these ginormous binders with every article in the last 30 years written about Sudan, about relocation programs and the kids and the tribes. And I was fascinated. I tracked down the only Sudanese professor in the world, he was at Yale and I got his text books, and I just immersed myself, in case they ever brought me in for this job interview.

I couldn't get in to see the producer but when you're a woman and you're a screenwriter, and no one is offering you a job ever, you have to figure out a way to get in. So I said, "Let me go meet the kid who's the Assistant Development Executive. By then, I had written a 16 page outline of the entire story and I had all the characters and I had everything worked out in my mind.

Nagle, whose favorite book as a child was The Swiss Family Robinson, has always been drawn to stories of survival. She wrote the pilot for the new series "The Red Band Society," about a cancer ward for teenagers, and "Warm Springs," about Franklin Roosevelt's determination to return to politics after he lost the use of his legs to polio. As she worked on other projects, "The Good Lie" was bought but then held up through the usual Hollywood executive turnover and the perpetual Hollywood concerns that audiences would not want to see a movie about Africans and whether it would be "depressing."

Five years after the last time a writer has been paid to write on a script, he or she can go back in and option the script for 18 months at no charge. By then, Nagle's "Good Lie" script was on the "Black List" of the best unproduced screenplays. So she exercised her option and producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard invited her to work on the script in their writers' lab. It had been "watered down" by the studio, so she worked on it for a year "to put the script back the way it needed to be." After a deal was made and then un-made with another studio, a young producer named Molly Smith stepped in. "She has a kind of indie sensibility. And it's not just some crazy, beautiful, out-there indie thing. There's soul to her indie style." Smith's family had befriended one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and helped him get his PhD. She wanted to back the movie to share his story.

Nagle always pictured Reese Witherspoon in the role of the employment specialist who is one of the refugees' first contacts in the U.S. But she was concerned that the Oscar-winning actress would not take a supporting role.

We had to have someone like Reese. It's not about her character and yet it's scary to market a film with four children who are real life refugees of war from Africa. You can't open a movie like that. It doesn't work like that. In the first 35 or 40 pages of the movie, she's not even in the script. And she wasn't 10 or 12 pages into reading the script when she said, "I'll do it." So she's amazing, she's been incredible. She said, "I want to help." and she's so good in the film, by the way. She's terrific!

Nagle says the movie looks exactly the way she envisioned it over so many years, sitting in the carpool line, waiting to pick up her children. She was committed to going beyond the headlines to make the stories real and personal.

Once you see it, you get it. It goes into the emotional truth of people, to the part of their brain that isn't shut down from too much information or whatever their biases are, political or religious or geographic. It seems to go into people and crack them open, the story, in the right way and not in a manipulative way. Film is a language that everybody speaks. When you're watching the film, it doesn't matter where you are or who you are. You can respond. We watch this grand film and we drop our biases quite often, our defenses. We don't realize that but that's what we do. My hope is that the film can move people, touch them, and also that it can help Sudan. What I've worked so hard to do is to create a film that could do that, a delivery system for peace and for a better way of sharing our world.