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Steve Lopez's 'The Soloist': The journey from print to film

April 26, 2009 |  3:54 pm


Social dramas are usually low on the Hollywood pitch list, but “The Soloist” was a story that went from one newspaper column to a series of columns, to a book, and finally to a movie that was released Friday, which clearly resonated with the nearly 1,200 people who attended a panel about the movie at today's Los Angeles Times' Festival of Books. 

A self-described “angry dinosaur” of journalism, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez initially regarded  homeless street performer Nathaniel Anthony Ayers with a reporter's constantly watchful eye, thinking his story would just fill another deadline.

“I didn’t think [a movie] was possible,” Lopez told the crowd. But it was -- and discussing the transition from a newspaper column to a Hollywood production were Ben Hong, the music adviser for the movie, Gary Foster, one of the film’s co-producers, and Lopez, with film critic Ella Taylor moderating.

No, newspaper movies aren’t exactly being made left and right, but the essential appeal behind Lopez and Ayers’ story made sense for Hollywood: “It’s a human story about two men finding a common bond,” Foster said.

“It has a 'There but for the grace of God go I' element,” Lopez noted. “It’s a story of second chances.”

The movie was based on Lopez’s "Points West" column and life as he was writing about his encounters with Ayers, but there were a few creative liberties taken in the movie. 


“The essence of the story was there,” Lopez said, but he admitted that Robert Downey Jr., who plays him in the movie, “dressed a lot cooler than I do.”  Another difference between Downey’s portrayal and the real Steve Lopez was the use of a tape recorder. “Steve kept saying, ‘Where is his notepad?',” Foster said.

Lopez is also happily married – not to his editor at the time, Sue Horton, as the movie portrayed -- and has a daughter who was 2 years old at the time he was writing the columns.

Other things were dead-on, he said. “Sometimes it is a bottle of wine that gets you through, ‘OK what went wrong with that column?’,” Lopez said.

There was a balancing act between making the story ready for the big screen and keeping the integrity of the story, Foster noted, saying that they were trying to “give it size and cinema,” but “we didn’t want to make it a Hollywood movie.”

Can we call the movie a “period piece” because it shows newspapers thudding onto Angelenos’ front lawns? asked Taylor.

"That sound is the greatest sound there ever was,” Lopez quipped.

-- Lauren Williams

Photo credit: Steve Lopez by Matt Sayles (top); Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez in "The Soloist" by Francois Duhamel / DreamWorks