Chances are at some point you’ve been waiting on line to check out at a supermarket, scanning the magazine racks as you bide your time, and an eye-catching National Enquirer headline has caught your attention. Filmmaker Mark Landsman explores the infamous tabloid’s history in his latest film, Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer, which is making its World Premiere at the 2019 Hamptons International Film Festival.
We recently chatted with Landsman about Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer, the tabloid’s evolution and defining stories, and much more.
After Generoso Pope Jr. purchased the Enquirer, which originally covered mostly racing and sports, it underwent quite the evolution throughout the years. Were you aware of the tabloid’s origins and how many times it shifted its focus?
ML: I hadn’t been aware of it. So, it was really exciting to discover as we researched for the film.
What inspired the project?
ML: What inspired the project was my wife’s best friend’s father [Malcolm Balfour], who came in around the holidays in 2018. He was here visiting his daughter, we went out for dinner and we invited him. He started regaling us with stories of his former career as a tabloid reporter at the National Enquirer at the dawn of the 70s. He basically held court, I listened and the stories were so phenomenal that I started to think about a film. As the time progressed, a few months later, the whole New Yorker story with Ronan Farrow broke with Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, and catch and kill started to enter the lexicon. It all started to get very, very intriguing to me. In the coming months after that, Malcolm would come to LA and he would say, “Oh, hey, you know, I’m having drinks with some former Enquirer buddies of mine. Would you like to tag along? Which I would do, and these guys… It was like sitting down with a bunch of former spies.
Do you feel like the Enquirer was the first publication to, as one of the reporters said in Scandalous, really “sensationalize” stories?
ML: We know that, obviously, historically speaking sensational journalism has been happening since the time of William Randolph Hearst, and that sort of muckraking journalism of that era was legendary. There’s always been Confidential and fan magazines and things like that that have spun gossip. But, the Enquirer just took it to a much different level than had ever been done before and that’s what was unprecedented.
What would you consider to be some of the Enquirer‘s defining stories?
ML: Well, most certainly, I would say that the most defining story of the 70s was a photograph, which was around the death of Elvis Presley. At the time, Elvis was the biggest celebrity on planet Earth. His family had made it extremely clear that no photographers would be permitted anywhere near the viewing line in the mausoleum, where his coffin was, he had an open casket. Thousands and thousands of people lined up and it was a huge deal and there was security. The Enquirer basically sent out a massive team of people that created this network of sources in Memphis, within hours after Presley had passed. I thought that that was extraordinary. Then they basically, through a bunch of shenanigans that are outlined in the film, they managed to get the only photograph of Elvis in the coffin, which to date I think is the highest selling tabloid cover in history – it sold nearly seven million copies. So, that was certainly one of them that was incredible.
The John Belushi story, which many people don’t remember and don’t know. It’s just an example of the lengths that these guys would go, and the ethical lines that they would easily cross in order to get a story. They essentially hole up in a hotel in Toronto, Canada for ten days with the woman who injected John Belushi with a lethal dose of heroin, party with her, become a friend, and then illicitly tape her confessing to having killed Belushi. This is even after the LAPD had closed the case. So, that was a phenomenal example of the borderline illicit behavior that these guys would do to get a story.
Then, of course, in the 80s I was very fascinated with the stories that traversed the political landscape. So, the Gary Hart story, and how they went about getting that photograph that would end up putting the nail in the coffin of his presidential bid was just fascinating. Then, the stories to kind of follow, obviously there’s OJ and the death of Diana. Obviously in the current day, all you have to do is pick up The New York Times, The Washington Post, if you want to see what was on the covers of the Enquirer in the ramps up to the election.
How did the editorial changes impact the Enquirer‘s trajectory?
ML: I’d say that originally the Enquirer was a racing paper. It was a small racing paper in New York City in the 50s that had a really poor circulation, under 20,000. The first trajectory was to take it from that and turn it into a gory rag that featured decapitated bodies and gunshots and murder scenes and photographs that would shock people. The circulation shot up to a million. Then, I think the next trajectory is okay, well, a million is fine, but this is not enough. What I think is so fascinating is that the founder of the Enquirer, sort of a mad inventor, he was insatiable. So, it was never enough for him. He kept raising the bar, let’s go for more, bigger, stronger, faster.
So, then you see this period of time where they introduce celebrity news. He is the first person to kind of tap into the fact that TV stars are going to have a massive appeal as big, if not bigger, than the movie stars that America was loving. He latches onto that. And then, of course, the Elvis thing. That sends it into the stratosphere. Those are the major trajectories. Then, it doesn’t take another significant turn until the 90s, really. That’s when this sort of odd moment happens where the paper kind of dabbles with legitimacy in a really weird way.
I mean, this is this trashy supermarket rag that women in beauty parlors were sort of trading bits and pieces of gossip with. But, in the 90s you have OJ and Clinton, and they start getting some praise from mainstream outlets and journalists, places like The New York Times, actually, for their journalistic practices. That had never happened before, so that could fit into a different trajectory. Then, of course, the Pecker era is a whole different thing, entirely.
When Princess Diana was killed, the Enquirer was singled out for her death. Was that a turning point for the publication?
ML: Not really. Basically what it was a moment when the paper had to answer for itself. There’s only been a few times in history where the paper has had to really be accountable, and that was one of them, because they were losing circulation. People were ripping the paper off of the newsstands. They were burning them. There were protests at the offices in Florida. You had major celebrities like to George Clooney calling for them to have accountability, accusing them of having blood on their hands. Diana’s brother came out and said the same thing. That was really the first time that they were publicly shamed like that. I mean, Carol Burnett had sued the paper in the 70s, and she won. That was actually a big story. But, it didn’t hurt them, it helped them. The paper got back on track after Diana, very quickly.
Who did you want to interview for Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer?
ML: We had this great access because of Malcolm Balfour, who was one of the earliest Enquirer reporters, and he’s a legend. All these doors open, and so it was like a domino effect that was going in multiple directions. You would get one person who would say yes, and that would open up to x number of people who were in his camp, and then this woman would do it, and people in her camp would do it. It all started to piece together.
We really wanted people in the film who were there when it happened. We wanted people who were part of the original, the OGs, the men and the women who made it happen, who wrote the playbook, who brought over the playbook from England, or wherever they were from. The Fleet Street reporters brought over this kind of ruthless tabloid style. We wanted those guys. I also believe it’s really important to get people at different levels of the papers, so we have people who were reporters, people who were photo editors, and we have two former editors-in-chief. We have the first big editor-in-chief, Iain Calder, and the second really major editor-in-chief, Steve Coz, before before Pecker takes over. Because I really wanted to understand how the hierarchy worked, and how it ran on all these different levels. That was really exciting to be able to get that kind of access.
As time goes on, the Enquirer forms a unique relationship with President Donald Trump. Could you speak to that?
ML: There’s not much to say because it’s playing out in the papers. The relationship itself has been chronicled in all the major papers and on all the major networks. It’s there. I think that what was intriguing to us, as filmmakers, was sort of the how and the why of it. You know, why this guy? There are lots of people who were sort of hovering around the Enquirer, and were on their radar. So, why was he particularly seductive to them? And why were they irresistible to him? The movie sets out to explain that.
At one point National Enquirer ends up assigning Larry Haley directly to him, which was quite interesting.
ML: I think they saw something early on, because they dedicated two full time staffers to sort of just be on his watch. Kind of like babysitters, in a way, to follow his every move. These guys spent a lot of time around him, they spent a lot of time at Mar-a-Lago, they spent a lot of time in New York City with him. The downside of that is they were fielding calls at all hours of the night because he was extremely aggressive about managing his image.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
ML: We’re excited about the premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival. I have a special history with them. My first film premiered there 25 years ago, almost to the same weekend that this is premiering there. So, it sort of feels like a homecoming. I’m really looking forward to that.
The 27th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will take place Columbus Day Weekend (October 10 through October 14).
Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer will screen on Friday, October 11 at Southampton SH1 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, October 13 at East Hampton UA4 at 8:30 p.m.
For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.