David Grann is all over the multiplex, even if you don't know his name.
The New Yorker‘s David Grann considers himself a generalist: He’s written about everything from the death of a Sherlock Holmes expert to water tunnels in New York City, from giant squids to the 1920s-era search for a legendary ancient civilization in the Amazon (an article that he turned into his first book, The Lost City of Z). As varied as his stories are, there are two questions that always hit you while reading them. The first: How can this be real? The second: Why isn’t this a movie yet?
To answer the first question: The pieces are all true. “I look for stories everywhere,” Grann says. “I often say that the best way to find a story is a one-inch brief in a local newspaper.” Once an idea has clicked, he can spend months doing research before deciding whether or not to write anything. He works mostly out of a book-lined home office that’s filled with court records, transcripts of secret testimonies, and newspaper clippings — bureaucratic remnants of the forgotten histories he pieces together.
As for the second question, Hollywood has come calling — seemingly all at once. Much of Grann’s work has been optioned; two pieces have been made into films, and others are in the pipeline. Director James Gray turned The Lost City of Z into the just-released film of the same name starring Charlie Hunnam as the doomed explorer Percy Fawcett. And the film version of Grann’s article “True Crime” — about the connections between the killing of a businessman and a novel written by the main suspect — is now a Jim Carrey-led thriller called True Crimes that was picked up by Saban Films for distribution.
“He’s not just sitting behind a desk in New York, doing intellectual research and making his conclusions and observations from that,” Hunnam says of Grann’s work. “He actually goes and puts himself in the environment and replicate as much as he can the journey that Fawcett took. I guess that’s the thing that really struck me — how visceral, exciting, and personal his work is.”
Our next chance to see Grann’s work on the screen is The Old Man and the Gun. The film, which is currently shooting, is based on his piece about folk-hero bank robber Forrest Tucker, starring Casey Affleck and Robert Redford. Redford has said that Tucker will be his last role before retirement. “It’s one of those stories that is inherently cinematic,” says the film’s director, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and the upcoming A Ghost Story). “I find that to be the case with all of Grann’s writing.”
Grann was still polishing his second book, Killers of the Flower Moon (out April 18), when it hit the Hollywood auction block back in March 2016. Movie execs clamored for the chance to make it; the bidding war reportedly involved J.J. Abrams and Leonardo DiCaprio (though neither came away with the rights, which went to Imperative Entertainment for a reported $5 million). There’s already a script by Oscar winner Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and Imperative hopes to start shooting later this year.
“When I learned that he was researching a new book, I knew that, whatever the subject, he would pursue it with his characteristic diligence, integrity, and heart,” says Dan Friedkin, one of the film’s producers. “I was not disappointed.”
It’s easy to see why Flower Moon set Hollywood on fire. In the 1920s — thanks to the massive oil reserves beneath their reservation — members of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation were some of the wealthiest people in the world, boasting mansions, fleets of cars, and white servants. When the Osage began to die in mysterious and often gruesome ways, the case became one of the first major homicide investigations for J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling FBI. “In some ways, it’s a classic mystery or detective story,” Grann says. “But the detective story gives us the illusion that there’s a singular bad man.” As he points out, it’s much more chilling to realize “What if there weren’t a singular bad man? And the levels of corruption and complicity ran much deeper?”
“At so many levels, it’s a sensational story. It’s about the richest people in the world, who were Native Americans in the ’20s,” Grann says. “It’s about serial murder, oil, greed. It’s about the FBI’s first major homicide case. It’s all of these things, but hopefully, it’s a story about racial injustice and some deep scars within our country that we don’t always recognize or reckon with, and that there’d be some historical accounting.”
The vastness of the conspiracy that Grann uncovered almost defies logic. Although a central mastermind imbued with Hannibal Lecter-levels of evil was eventually apprehended (Grann describes him as “something out of Cormac McCarthy”), some co-conspirators never went to trial, and not all the murders were actually solved. “Much of the civil society around the Osage was either actively participating or complicit or willing executioners or they just turned a blind eye,” Grann says. “The thing that was most shocking to me was to realize was that it wasn’t so much a question of who did it, but by the end, it became a question of who didn’t do it?”
Speaking to his desire for historical accounting, Grann — who spent more than half a decade unraveling the case — went a step further than sharing this horrific chapter of history. By the end of Flower Moon, he identifies one of the assassins very likely for the first time.
“When criminals go free, the hope is that history will come in and provide some level of justice,” Grann says. “It won’t correct the sins, but it will at least record them. The sinners would be known, and the victims’ stories would be known. I wanted desperately to do that.”
Flower Moon plays out as a distinctly American horror show that clearly displays the limits of our cultural memory. How, Grann wonders, could the story about the systematic murders of so many Native American millionaires be forgotten? “This story is a microcosm that contains all of the forces that have gone on in our history for centuries, of the original contact between Native Americans and settlers,” Grann says. “The story is about the birth of the country with this inherent tension and sin at its heart that has not yet been fully resolved. What’s amazing is that those forces are playing out in the 1920s, when the country has been modernized.”
After nearly half a decade of work, Grann had told as much of the story as he could with the hope that some historical wrong had been set partly right, but he walked away as perhaps as unsettled as he ever has been about our past. “I always thought that the horror of history was what you know,” he muses. “The thing that this book taught me was that the horror of history is often what you don’t know.”