As soon as he was cast as Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor John Walter in Clint Eastwood’s drama “Richard Jewell” last summer, Atlanta actor David de Vries began his research into the late newspaper editor’s life. In the film, sharing a scene with Olivia Wilde as AJC reporter Kathy Scruggs, de Vries has to play, perhaps, the most critical moment in Walter’s career — greenlighting the front-page story naming Jewell as an FBI suspect in the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park.
“I think John must have known this was a seminal moment in his professional life,” says de Vries. “I’m sure he thought things were going to go differently. This was the big ‘get.’ It had the potential to be a big differentiator in Atlanta media, for the AJC, in particular.”
Doing some research for the role was also critical to de Vries, because in the summer of 1996, the actor was far from his Atlanta home. Members of the U.S. Track and Field four by 100-metres relay team were residing in his house. De Vries was in Toronto watching the bombing coverage unfold on a Holiday Inn TV, between performances as Lumiere in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” musical.
And while he had done his homework, compiling biographical data on Walter, who was a founding editor of USA Today and served as AJC managing editor and executive editor from 1989 to 2002, on set, de Vries’ input was limited.
Explains de Vries: “When you’re not playing a major role but a vehicle role such as this, where your job is to help carry the story, you don’t have a lot of agency. There’s no ‘Well, I wanna play Walter with a mustache!’ You’re basically in a minute out of the film’s life.”
Ironically, Eastwood shot the downtown Atlanta AJC newsroom scenes for “Richard Jewell” in a Dunwoody business office complex located near the current AJC offices.
“The set was like a well-oiled machine,” says de Vries. “Eastwood, doesn’t [expletive] around. They don’t work really late or really long hours. They’re incredibly efficient. He has a team he’s been working with for decades and they know exactly what he wants. It just all works. He’s 89 and he keeps up with it all. The rigors of shooting a movie can put some 40-year-olds down for the count, particularly when you’re helming the project. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of hours but he knows how to do this work.”
In addition to the film’s pivotal scene in Walter’s office with Wilde, de Vries also filmed some improv non-dialogue material with Sam Rockwell, who plays Jewell attorney Watson Bryant, that ultimately wasn’t used in the final cut.
I working with the best of the best,” he recalls. “Olivia was delightful, charming and generous. Sam was a regular guy. Neither put on airs. They were both working on their characters and working on their scenes and talking about how they wanted to do it in the make-up trailer and I was privy to all that, which was fun. They’re two extraordinarily talented people who were just there doing their work. It was great to be a part of that.”
While the film crew was busy outside his faux managing editor office shooting footage in the newsroom, de Vries had an unexpected visitor join him — Eastwood himself. “We were just sitting in there chilling together,” de Vries says with a laugh. “He was hanging out with me and walking around with a portable video monitor. We just started talking about wives, ex-wives and the business. We were just having a nice chat about life. He’s very approachable. He’s quiet but fun.”
While de Vries has done his share of film work in Atlanta (including roles in “Captain America: Civil War” and the McDonald’s Ray Kroc bio pic “The Founder”), Eastwood’s directing style represented a first for the actor.
“He’s the only director I’ve ever worked with who does not say ‘Action!’ and he does not say ‘Cut!’” says de Vries. “He just says (imitating Eastwood’s laid-back whisper] ‘You can start when you’re ready…’ or ‘OK, I think we’ve got that’ or ‘You can stop now.’ It was funny because Olivia and Sam both loved to improv and they would just keep going. They would just riff. The set had a great vibe, very laid back and very amenable.”
By the time they got to Scruggs and Walter’s pivotal showdown scene, the summer Atlanta sun was sinking in the west, which was a problem because the Walter office set was on the west side of the office complex.
“It was getting late in the day and we were hoping to get this shot while we still had the sun,” recalls de Vries. “It was really striking because with the western afternoon sun right behind me, combined with the venetian blinds, these great shadows were cast on Olivia’s face. Then we started losing the light.”
Being so close to the Dunwoody MARTA station brought its own set of sound challenges to Eastwood and crew. Explains de Vries: “What you always want to try and do as an actor, especially in a vehicle role such as this, is to be as good as you can be every single time so they can focus on all the other things, losing the light or the noise from a MARTA train, but they don’t have to worry about you.”
In the run up to the 1996 Centennial Games, the real-life Walter spent years helping to get the AJC ready for its global close up. “We’re going to be the hometown newspaper for the Games,” Walter told The New York Times in 1992. “We’re going to have to widen the beats. We’ll have to develop expertise in water polo, for example.”
Under Walter’s leadership, the AJC won a Pulitzer in 1993 for a series of health stories focused on organisms resistant to antibiotics and pesticides. Throughout the 1990s, he also helped oversee the paper’s in-depth series on poverty in Georgia and the state’s growing rate of neglected and abused children.
When AJC editor Ron Martin retired in 2002, Walter, Martin’s long-time number two (some in the AJC newsroom sarcastically referred to the pair as Wal-Mart) departed Atlanta, moving to Martha’s Vineyard to serve as editor and publisher of the Vineyard Gazette. He died in 2008 at age 61. According to his Vineyard Gazette obituary, Walter’s death followed surgery for a rare disorder of facial nerves called trigeminal neuralgia. His wife, Jan Pogue told the Gazette that Walter’s last words to her as he was being wheeled into surgery were, “I love you and I love our family.”
In the Walter obituary published in the AJC, former deputy managing editor Don Boykin recalled, “He was a very bright, very aggressive editor and very creative. He wanted to give readers something beyond the predictable.”
Last week as a guest at the “Richard Jewell” Atlanta premiere at the Rialto Center for the Arts, de Vries got to see his role in the finished film. As an advocate of the fourth estate off-screen, de Vries says he felt the gravity of portraying Walter in “Richard Jewell.”
“The AJC story was not incorrect and yet two of the biggest losers in this whole scenario, in addition to Richard Jewell, of course, were Kathy Scruggs and John Walter,” says de Vries. “I felt badly for him. I feel like this kind of broke him. I’m one of those people who truly believes that the press is the fourth branch of government. That oversight role is in terrible danger right now. We have to do everything in our power to protect it.”
Throughout the month, Eldredge ATL December Guest Editor David de Vries, who is also busy this month playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” through Dec. 24, will introduce readers to some of his favorite Atlantans.
“Richard Jewell,” a new drama from director Clint Eastwood, shot in Atlanta last summer, is in theaters now.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.