6 Bizarre Lies Hollywood Tells When They Base A Movie On You
No one's ever made a movie about our lives, because nobody would watch a movie about us sitting on the couch in our underwear, scarfing sour gummy worms and binging on Netflix. So we reached out to LouAnne Johnson, whose life story was adapted into the 1995 blockbuster teaching drama Dangerous Minds, and asked about her experiences both as a teacher and as someone whose life was rewritten by a screenwriter and then acted out by Michelle Pfeiffer. We discovered that ...
The Money Isn't As Good As You Think
Dangerous Minds opened at number one at the box office, grossed $180 million dollars, and spawned a TV series. But LouAnne Johnson -- who wrote the book and, y'know, served as the basis for the whole thing -- saw precisely zilch in royalties (she did receive some money from the option). The problem is that she signed a contract for 2 percent of the film's net profit, but due to clever Hollywood accounting, a lot of movies never technically make any money. Those poor bastards!
If not for that distribution fee quietly going right back into their pockets, Hollywood would be ruined.
Winston Groom is the author of Forrest Gump, which was made into a movie you may have heard of. We naturally assume that when an adaptation of your book is that successful, you never have to work again. But Groom was only paid $350,000 for his story, because his contract demanded 3 percent of the profits, and when your movie is Forrest Gump, you sort of have to admit it's made some money. Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, on the other hand, pulled in $31 million each.
Good thing libraries are free. That way, authors can afford to read their own stories.
Hollywood Will Try To Make Some Disastrous Changes To Your Real Life
It's easy to see why Johnson's story was movie material. She's a former Navy journalist and Marine Corps officer who took an English teaching job with at-risk students from East Palo Alto. Unless you're a skydiving cop who polices the air for free-falling criminals, you can't have a more movie-worthy biography. But that was still not enough for jaded Hollywood screenwriters.
Take one memorable anecdote, for instance. After one of Johnson's students was shot in the leg by a gang member, he called her in the middle of the night to tell her that the rest of the gang was waiting for him outside. So Johnson got into her Fiat Spider ...
Another awesome detail cut from the movie.
... drove to his house, picked him up, and then took him to the basement apartment she rented on Skyline Boulevard outside San Francisco, because she "knew they'd never be able to drive one of those huge gangster cars up there." She literally hid one of her students from murderous gang members in her own home for a few days until they were able to sneak him out of the country like some kind of teenage Edward Snowden. But apparently this wasn't engaging enough, so in the movie version, they just had the guy killed off-screen. But not before they tried to make it oh-so-much worse.
"One of the writers said to me, 'You're going to have an affair with one of your students in this movie.' I said, 'No I'm not. That didn't happen.' They said 'Yeah, listen, it'll be great.'" The writers seemed genuinely surprised that Johnson didn't want the fictionalized version of herself committing major crimes in a blockbuster movie. "I said, 'It's child abuse, statutory rape, and a felony offense. I would lose my license and go to jail. I do not have any money, but I will sue you if you do this. I don't sleep with children.' They never invited me back to the set."
We're not sure what they feared more: a production stuck with lawsuits or their asses stuck with her boot.
It seems her plea was convincing, though, since Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't bang any teenage boys in the film. Much to the chagrin of teenage boys in the '90s.
Hollywood Will Cut Out The Entire Point Of A Story
In Dangerous Minds, Pfeiffer convinces the kids to care about poetry by playing the song "Mr. Tambourine Man" and explaining that it's secretly about a pot dealer. Then she challenges them to a "Dylan/Dylan Contest," in which they have to find a Bob Dylan song that sounds like a Dylan Thomas poem -- with the promise that whoever wins gets to take her on a dinner date. This happens because the people making this movie are white as hell, have never met a teenager, have no understanding of pop culture beyond the '60s, and really wanted to shoot a scene in which Michelle Pfeiffer fucks a high-schooler.
Pictured: Two women who very strongly preferred that never, ever even come close to happening.
The reality is far less stupid. Johnson got the kids interested in poetry by having them analyze the poetry in rap lyrics. Stuff they actually cared about. "The kids won't care about Bob Dylan, and smoking pot is not a big deal," she told us. "I knew that if I mentioned the word 'poetry,' they'd shut down, so I brought in lyrics to '911 Is A Joke,' printed out like poetry."
She asked them if they considered the lyrics poetry. They weren't sure. They wanted her to tell them. She made them decide. Poetry it was, and poetry they read. All kinds of poetry, including Shakespeare's sonnets. And it worked: Later, she overheard her students listening to rap on the radio, and one of them pointed out that the song they were listening to had "internal rhyme."
Do not go gentle into that good black planet
We're not the first ones to notice this change, by the way. When Roger Ebert reviewed this movie, he wondered if they cut that out because they didn't want to stretch white audiences' disbelief by implying that hip-hop could be art. "Hip-hop? Art? That's absurd!" cried Hollywood of the '90s. "That's clearly not art. You wanna see art? Check out these extremely detailed sketches we made of Michelle Pfeiffer banging a freshman!"
Sometimes, Hollywood Takes Out The Most Interesting Parts
In the film, on the first day of class, one of the students confronts and sexually harasses Pfeiffer. Like a well-behaved female protagonist, she runs out of the room crying. Not only did that never happen, but it's completely insane, because Johnson spent her pre-teaching years as an officer in the freaking Marine Corps. "If that kid had said to me what he said in the movie, I would've cold-cocked him," she told us. "Real fast. He wouldn't have known what happened. And I would've been fired! But I still would've done it.
"One time, a screenwriter called me and asked about that scene, and I explained what really happened: A kid threw a dictionary at me, and I confronted him. The writer said 'That's better than what I have here!' and I said 'Yeah, you should read my book!' He replied 'I don't have time to read the book. I have to write the movie.'"
"This awkward montage of a fun-park field trip that never happened won't write itself, you know."
That's not the only change. Pfeiffer teaches one class for one semester, and then tries to quit teaching forever because of how intense it is. Johnson taught a full load (because no teacher in the world only teaches one class per semester) for five years, and became a department chair. In fact, she's still teaching, in a classroom, right now, as you're reading this (depending on the time and your position on the Earth). It's like if they made a movie about Batman training exhaustively for his career as a vigilante, only to have him step out into the night for the very first time, punch a single mugger, scream "Parents avenged!" and then give up fighting crime forever.
Nobody Is Safe From Hollywood Rewrites
At one point in the movie, Pfeiffer lends a kid named Raul $100 and makes him promise to pay her back on the day he graduates. Then, at the end of the movie, she reneges on the deal by quitting teaching. The real Raul was kinda pissed when he saw the movie, because he did in fact pay her back. Overall, Johnson's students (whose real names were used in the movie) were pretty upset, because Hollywood had made them out to be assholes. "They said, 'We never disrespected you like that. Never called you 'whitebread,'" she told us. "They were hurt."
Clearly, the story of a teacher who earned enough love, respect, and trust to be allowed to hold her student's children wouldn't be complete without a little artificial racism.
There's another scene in the movie in which a student, Emilio, bursts into the principal's office to ask for help because a gang member is going to kill him. But he's rebuffed by the stuffy villain, so he goes out to face his enemy, and dies. The real Emilio did approach the principal and was rebuffed, but then a police officer found out and followed Emilio home. As he was walking up the steps to his house, the gang member appeared behind Emilio and put a gun to his head. But before he could pull the trigger, the cop stepped forward and arrested him.
In reality, Emilio understandably freaked out after this. He started driving around drunk with a gun on his dashboard, intending suicide by cop if he got pulled over. We know this because he called Johnson and told her. She talked him down from potential suicide and convinced him to join the Marines, and today he lives in California with his wife and children. So with the Hollywood way, you get yet another at-risk kid tragically gunned down and forgotten, while in reality, our protagonist saves a life in one of the most dramatic ways possible. We're not screenwriters here, but isn't that usually the other way around?
If You Need To Understand Gangs, Consult A Gangologist
In real life, the one rule in Johnson's classroom was that the kids had to respect both themselves and everyone else in the room. But the people involved in the movie "didn't believe it could be that simple" and decided to make her, well, let's be honest, a complete poser.
"Word to your mother. Which reminds me, parent-teacher conferences are next week."
"No, I never wore a leather jacket," she told us. "I didn't want the students to see a peer. I wanted them to see an adult. I tried to signal through my clothing that we were serious. That meant wearing serious clothing."
And doling out serious hugs.
But the worst part is what they did to the kids. In the film, all of her students are minorities, and all of them are criminals or have drug-addicted parents. "I told the producers, 'Ya know, there are black kids who don't have a crackhead for a mom, and there are Hispanic kids who don't speak Spanish.' Their response was that their on-set gangologist said the script was accurate."
What ... what the hell is a gangologist?
"Gangus: something gross/bad." Yep, sounds like a gangoloist to us.
"You know what I thought at the time? Some gangster got off the street and was smart enough to market his knowledge in Hollywood. Good for him. After all, the movie has its upsides. It had the greatest song. 'Gangster's Paradise' is a beautiful song. If nothing else, we have that."
Speaking of having that song and nothing else: Hi, Coolio!
She's right, of course. We should look at the upsides here. Dangerous Minds potentially helped a gang member get off the streets and finally earn his degree in gangology, and granted us all a great gift of music. Why, if not for "Gangster's Paradise," we wouldn't have "Amish Paradise," and that's no world we want to live in. Thanks, Hollywood.
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