A Good Story: ‘Sleepers’ and ‘A Million Little Pieces’

 

A memoir comes out detailing a larger-than-life unbelievable story. When researching the story, researchers and journalists find that the story is falsified or fabricated. When the movie comes out, it largely ignores any controversy the book experienced.

This is the situation of both Barry Levinson’s Sleepers (1996) and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces (2019). Both films are at least in part written by their director and star many notable cast members.

‘Sleepers’

Hell’s Kitchen. The late 1960’s. After severely injuring an innocent bystander in a prank, four friends are taken to a boys’ home, where they are abused by guards.

1981. Now grown up, two of boys kill the head guard (Kevin Bacon). Now the four friends and their neighborhood must band together to expose the guards.

The Book

n 1993, Lorenzo Carcaterra published a book called A Safe Place. The book covered Carcaterra’s relationship with his father, an abusive man who killed his first wife. It also dealt heavily with the ramifications of having such a father. Two years later, Sleepers was published. Unlike A Safe Place, Sleepers had clearer plot, moral, and good guys and bad guys.

The Book told the story of four friends. Carcaterra grew up to become a journalist. His friend Michael Sullivan became an assistant District Attorney. His two friends, John Reilly and Thomas Marcano, became gangsters. When Sullivan finds out that Reilly and Marcano murdered the head guard, he decides to throw the case in order to acquit his friends and expose the multiple abuses by guards.

Before becoming an author, Carcaterra worked as a reporter for the New York Daily News. The book includes references to books, movies, and comics. The film includes many references to The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Controversy

In the prologue of Sleepers, Carcaterra admits that he changed names and dates to protect the innocent. Almost everybody else involved denied the story happened altogether. This includes the Catholic league for religious and civil rights, Carcaterra’s Catholic school (Sacred Heart) and people thought to be the friends.

Many institutions outright denied all assertions that Carcaterra made in his story. Sacred Heart (which Carcaterra does not change the name of in the book) and the priests there denied the story. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office investigated and found that no case ever existed.

The real-life counterparts of the three friends denied the story in different ways. All said they barely knew Carcaterra. At the time of the book’s publication, only one boy who went to Sacred Heart grew up to become a district attorney. In response, the DA said that Carcaterra wrote a fictitious story. He also said that it made people assume the worst about him.

According to sources, Carcaterra based John Reilly and Thomas Marcano on two real life members of the west side gang the Westies. Author T. J. English claimed that Carcaterra based John Reilly on Richie Ryan, a real-life criminal covered in English’s book The Westies (1990). Character similarities include Reilly being a suspect in five murders and dying young of alcohol poisoning. Thomas Marcano is allegedly based on Thomas Maresco, another convict who was stabbed to death in the early 1980s. Maresco’s brother, TV producer Robert Maresco, denied the book ever happened.

Response

One internet forum of true crime writers created and signed a petition for a recall of Sleepers. True crime writer and petition signer Lowell Cauffiel said that this argument would not exist without the internet. Crime writer (and friend of Carcaterra) William Diehl came to the book’s defense and asked that it not be recalled. Other true crime writers felt the petition either set a dangerous precedent or decided to stay out of the conflict altogether.

In response to much of the controversy, Sleepers book editor Peter Gethers claimed that he had proof the book really happened and that all the critics were simply jealous that Carcaterra sold the book for 2 million dollars. In a Time magazine article, Carcaterra responded by saying:

”You have to change dates, names, places, people. The way they looked; you have to make them look a different way. If it happened here, you have to make it happen there.”

Stephen Seplow of the Baltmore Sun said that he did not care if the book was fact or fiction due to the quality of the book’s writing. The Baltimore Sun is also the hometown paper of Director Barry Levinson.

The Film

Sleepers follows a story where two criminals literally get away with murder in order to take down an abusive system. The film sees this transgression as illegal, but just.

In terms of storytelling, Sleepers exhibits the least amount of subtlety possible. The movie spends its whole runtime telling the audience what it means. Every song or musical number has an obvious context or dramatically underlines a message. Many characters have speeches and dialogue about decisions. This includes discussions about what decisions the characters will make or have made. When the dialogue stops, there is narration describing how the character feels, their motivation, and their revelations. The opening narration announces what happened to Carcaterra’s three friends.

The Creative Team

The Film has an all-star cast from the time. Besides Bacon, the film also features a young Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman. Each plays the type of role that an audience member would expect them to play. Bacon knew that Levinson wanted him to play the abusive guard just by reading the name Sean Nokes. Pitt plays Michael Sullivan, the junior DA who throws the case. Then rising star Brad Renfro plays the young version of the role. De Niro portrays Father Bobby Carillo, the cool priest who comes up against a moral dilemma of having to lie on the stand. Hoffman plays Danny Snyder, an alcoholic attorney who used to be great at his job.

The crew is also well-known. Oscar winning director Levinson had previously worked with Bacon (Diner (1982)) and directed Hoffman to his second Academy Award (Rain Man (1988)). Levinson would later go on to make Paterno (2018), a film about Penn State’s cover-up of the abuse of young boys by an assistant Football coach. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus previously worked for director Martin Scorsese multiple times. John Williams provides the Oscar-nominated score.

Father Figures in the Film

In both films, there are distinct father figures and mentors for the hero to follow. Sleepers features two prominent father figures: Father Bobby Carillo and mobster King Benny (Vittorio Gassman).

Father Bobby is a cool Basketball playing priest. He emphasizes that the boys can leave by telling them a story about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. When Carcaterra ends up in the reform school, Father Bobby comes to visit him and tells him not to become like a felon Father Bobby knew went to the school.

A fixture of the neighborhood, King Benny has been around forever. He worked for gangster Lucky Luciano in the old days. At the beginning of the film, we see a flashback of King Benny getting revenge on the man who broke his teeth by shooting him in the legs. With King Benny, Father Bobby also had to make the lifestyle decision the boys did. After Father Bobby threatens the stepfather of John Reilly for beating John up, King Benny says it’s a shame that Father Bobby went to the other side.

Dead End Kids

In many ways, the film is like one of the Dead End kids pictures of the 1930s and 1940s. In those films, a group of juvenile delinquents would have to decide between an authority figure and a cool yet dangerous criminal (most famously played by somebody like Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney). Unlike those films, in this film, the Father Figures team up to expose the real villains, who all represent a broken institution.

The Book itself includes the famous final line from Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). In that film, two boys run away from the police. One escapes, while the other does not. The one who escapes becomes a priest, Father Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien). The other becomes gangster William “Rocky” Sullivan (Cagney). When Rocky dies at the end of the film, Jerry Connelly asks the boys to say a prayer for “a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”

How They Address the Controversy

Sleepers does very little to address the controversy of the book. The film has Michael saying he had his record expunged, but that is about it. At the time of the film’s release, Levinson said he believed Carcaterra’s story and hoped the controversy would not overshadow the work they had done.

‘A Million Little Pieces’

October 1993. After getting burnt out on drugs, a doctor puts James Frey (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a plane and sends him to rehab. There, he meets a group of colorful characters who help him through his troubles.

The Book

The book A Million Little Pieces (2003) follows author James Frey through his journey to sobriety. It has a much larger scope than the movie, which mostly takes place in the rehab clinic. Frey also wrote a sequel called My Friend Leonard (2005).

Before writing the memoir, Frey had worked as a screenwriter. Most famously, he wrote the David Schwimmer romantic comedy Kissing a Fool (1998) with future Entourage (2004-2011) creator and executive producer Doug Ellin. His recent credits include an adaptation of his book I Am Number Four (2011) and the story for Queen & Slim (2019).

The Controversy

A Million Little Pieces gained notoriety partially because talk show host Oprah Winfrey chose it as part of her book club and invited Frey on her show.

Journalists at The Smoking Gun decided to investigate after having a hard time believing the book’s opening scene: Frey getting on a plane with a hole in his cheek. It seemed implausible to them that an airline would let this happen. With that, they decided to investigate Frey’s criminal history.

In their investigation, they found that Frey had fabricated multiple parts of his story, including what his childhood was like and how he was arrested. Their report focused primarily on his criminal record and his many small claims.

There were other inconsistencies found in Frey’s books. A blog post in Freakonomics found that Frey had fabricated parts of his relationship with his girlfriend Lilly, a prostitute from the age of 13. In particular, the blog found that Frey had lied about either her past or her suicide by hanging. While they did find a death that vaguely resembled it, it was committed by a college graduate.

Response

When the Smoking Gun Article came out, it opened with the line “Oprah Winfrey has been had.” Frey denied the story. However, all the mounting tension eventually led to him admitting that he fabricated parts of the story. After inviting Fey on the show, Winfrey chastised Frey on air (an event she later apologized and expressed remorse for).

This incident and controversy created much discussion about correctly representing events in memoirs. A lot of it was serious, but some of it not. In response to the controversy, HarperCollins released a parody book called A Million Little Lies (2006) by James Pinocchio. The book makes light of Frey’s many storytelling devices, from the opening to the love story in the book.

The Film

A Million Little Pieces was a film that was planned for a long time, but got shelved after the controversy. The final product is not a perfect film, but a very emotional film. The first half hour is exhausting. It has many scenes of characters approaching Frey and getting into fights with him. A lot of the scenes throughout the movie have a defiant Frey having situations happen to him rather than him acting on his own.

Although the time focuses primarily around the performances, there are a few big visual scenes. The opening scene of the film sets the tone for the piece. It is a long shot that has a strung-out Frey dancing naked in a red room full of people. The opening title plays over Frey grabbing pills that are falling from the sky like snow. Another scene has Frey recounting his messed-up life in a notebook at a bus stop. As he does so, we see another version of Frey grow from a boy to a man next to him.

Come Back, Little Sheba

Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) is a film starring Burt Lancaster. In the film, Lancaster plays a recovering alcoholic. To illustrate his struggle, they have multiple scenes of Lancaster grabbing onto a bottle of alcohol in his cabinet. He almost always closes the cabinet door without taking the bottle though.

A Million Little Pieces ends on a similar scene. Frey and his brother (Charlie Hunnam) go to a bar and Frey orders a beer. Frey orders a beer and grabs onto it, but realizes he cannot drink it. The film ends with Frey going back and playing pool with his brother. This is all reflected in the glass of beer Frey ordered.

The Creative Team

The film is co-written by star Taylor-Johnson and wife Sam Taylor-Johnson, who also directs. According to them, this was less intentional and more that none of the writers they wanted to work with were free at the time. The Director had asked Frey for the rights to the book. He gave them to her on the condition that she actually made the film and not somebody else.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson had previously made two feature films before this. The first (Nowhere Boy (2009)) stars her husband as John Lennon.

The second was the financially successful yet widely panned first installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) series. Grey became the most successful sex film of all time in the United States and Canada. In the casting process of that film, she originally cast Charlie Hunnam as Christian Grey. The initial casting did not work out and Sam Taylor-Johnson had to replace him with Jamie Dornan. In A Million Little Pieces, the director cast him as Frey’s brother.

Father Figures in the Film

In A Million Little Pieces, there are two father figures: criminal Leonard (Billy Bob Thornton) and judge Miles Davis (Charles Parnell). In their lives on the outside, both are on opposite sides of the law, but neither sees the other as an enemy and neither sees it as something that young Frey should go into. Unlike Sleepers, the father figures are more comedic and less dramatic.

Leonard is one of the primary reasons that Frey stays. When James walks out of the facility to leave, Leonard follows him and insists that Frey give it another 24 hours. In terms of dramatic storytelling, Leonard tells Frey his own story of getting into crime and hitting rock bottom before going to rehab. As a comedic presence, the filmmakers dress Leonard in the most flamboyant eccentric outfits.

Leonard is also one of the most beloved character in the book and its sequel My Friend Leonard. In the book, he is described as looking like Gene Hackman, but the casting of Thornton nullifies this.

At the beginning of the story, Miles Davis becomes Frey’s roommate. In a recurring joke in the movie, he plays the clarinet horribly. This is Miles’ second time in rehab. Knowing this, Miles warns Frey to get it right the first time. One of the last interactions Frey has with Miles Davis has him tell Davis to take a walk with Leonard.

How They Address the Controversy

At the beginning of the film, there is a Mark Twain quote about truth. Beyond that, director Sam Taylor-Johnson says in a making-of featurette that A Million Little Pieces is a good story, despite any fabrications or exaggerations.

Conclusion

Both films tell stories that many believed to be fiction. In both cases, the filmmakers decided to tell the story, regardless of the veracity of it.