What happens when a New Yorker with ties to the mob buys a supermarket tabloid and sets out to make it the most widely-read paper in the country? This is the foundation of the new documentary, “Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer.”
Director Mark Landsman sets out to tell that true story, complete with all the intrigue and plot twists of a good tabloid story. And the craziest part is that it’s all true. Featuring interviews from former Enquirer employees, as well as others from more “legitimate” outlets, this doc tells the whole history of how the Enquirer grew from a supermarket rag to one of the most significant pieces of propaganda in the country.
“Scandalous” is screening this weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival, and I had the opportunity to speak with Landsman about this fascinating story. Please enjoy our conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I’ll start with the obvious first question. How did you decide to tell this story?
Mark Landsman: To be completely honest, in a strange way, the story found me. I was at dinner with a very good family friend and their father over the holidays in 2017 and after several rounds of drinks, he started to talk about his former career as a tabloid reporter in the earliest days of the National Enquirer. He’s a phenomenal storyteller, and as he was talking, the stories got crazier and bordered on elicit activities and blurred the lines of ethical norms of journalism. It kind of sounded like a spy novel, really. So I got very excited about it as a storyteller.
That was several months before the Ronan Farrow article broke in the April 2018 issue of the New Yorker about Catch and Kill. So the timing was almost freakish, actually. And right after that article broke, this man—his name is Malcolm Balfour—he was back in LA and he invited me to lunch with a couple of his former Enquirer buddies. That was sort of like sitting with war buddies swapping stories from the trenches. The stories just went on and on and they were all really fantastic raconteurs. They were funny, they were unapologetic. They kind of took pride in the tactics they took which was, frankly, really interesting and kind of challenging. So, basically, that was when I really felt like we had a film.
I asked Malcolm if he would mind making some introductions to me to various people in the Enquirer world and we began reaching out. And then it got very tricky because it was sort of like a game of dominoes where if you got one person to say yes then three more people would say yes. But if one guy said no in a certain other camp then everyone in his camp would say no. And so it was a bit of cat and mouse for a while to get access to the people we wanted to get access to, but it worked out because you get a few main people—some of the major figures—then other people came forward, which was great.
KP: You have some really interesting people that you interviewed for this, from reporters to the guy who ran it for years. Who is included that was really reluctant to talk to you at first?
ML: The hardest nut to crack was Ian Calder. Ian ran the Enquirer for 30 years. He was Generoso Pope’s consigliere. He was the number two. He was notoriously difficult to get to and his reputation was accurate. It was very, very hard to convince him that we weren’t trying to hang him at the gallows. This is a guy who oversaw a lot of the Enquirer’s formative years and all of the tactics that were employed and were developed under his tutelage. He would talk and put me through the ringer. Literally holding my crew up at his driveway [laughs] until he got his terms met. We didn’t have to sacrifice or compromise our terms as documentarians. But this is a tabloid guy to the core, so he wanted to try and control as much as he possibly could, which was both interesting and a challenge to us to get through to him.
Other people were a little more challenging, just because they were a little bit suspicious at first. Obviously there have been things done on the Enquirer in the past and either they were totally fluff jobs and puff pieces, or they were complete gotcha, slam ’em kind of things. We were saying we want to tell the story and we want to tell it from your perspective. We want to understand what it was like to be you back in 1977 on a Lear jet to Memphis to try and get the photo of Elvis Presley in the coffin. We want to understand what it was like to be in the room with the woman who injected John Belushi with a lethal dose of heroin and what tactics you employed to convince this woman. Why in the world would she talk to you? How did you also sleep at night, doing what you did? How did you not feel like you were compromising?
Some of these guys had come from respectable mainstream outlets like Reuters and places like that and the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times, and now they’re working for the Enquirer. People had come from Harvard and now they’re working for the Enquirer. How do you rationalize that? Naturally, people were kind of suspicious and then they warmed up to us. And then there were people who just outright said no.
KP: Some you understand why.
ML: Yeah. Anyone from the current administration just said no. But they led us on, which was very interesting. There were a lot of carrots dangled for us. I personally think we were played for a bit by them. You know, to the point of even having my producer come to the AMI offices in New York City and sit with the leadership there and explain what we were doing, only to be told a significant time later that they would decline. But we tried! We really, really tried. We tried from the very early onset to get as many as we could and a lot of them were, frankly, fearful to speak because of NDA’s, and then the top people, Pecker, Howard, it was obvious why they declined.
KP: One thing I really found interesting—there’s so much that’s interesting—but as I was starting to watch I thought, “Okay, this is a fairly standard story-type documentary.” But what I found as I was watching was that it isn’t a standard documentary. Because you start having these really interesting moments where you see how the National Enquirer influenced world events, and then also when world events influenced the National Enquirer. It was so interesting the way you structured it. Can you talk a little bit about how you landed on the stories you specifically chose to cover?
ML: I really appreciate the way you just phrased it because we struggled. The last thing we wanted the film to be was standard and conventional because what’s interesting about the Enquirer is that people assume it’s standard and conventional, but it’s such a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And we wanted to do justice to that in the film, structurally. And that’s the complex thing, because you talk to the average person and they’re like, “Yeah, that’s the supermarket tabloid that I either absorb or ignore when I’m standing in line for my groceries.”
So in order to get into what it would become, we had to figure out the best way to tell its story. The way that we structured it was to make the paper itself—sort of anthropomorphize the paper as a character. We called it the Frankenstein. It was really a Frankenstein story. In order to understand the Frankenstein story, we had to begin with the origin of the original mad scientist, which was Generoso Pope, who created this monster—this paper—really for relatively innocuous purposes, right? To give the average American a sense of escape from the hard times that the country was facing in the 70s. That was his intention and he said it outright.
And then over the years, as you just articulated, both external events and internal marketing savvy results in the paper transforming and morphing, much like the Frankenstein monster morphs. This is a very docile creature in the beginning. Plays with children and is not harmful. But then, in the wrong hands, and under the wrong circumstances, becomes a very dangerous force. And that’s exactly what happened to the Enquirer. So we had to figure out a way to get in.
The beginning of the film, filmmakers always struggle. How do you get into the story? And it’s tough to get into the story in some sort of newfangled way, right? So we just embraced the fact that people had to understand who Generoso Pope was—who this original inventor was. That’s why I think as you’re watching it seems standard, and then we were very happy to careen the car off into oncoming traffic. [laughs] Such a terrible analogy! But that’s what it’s like. The Enquirer is just pulled into the other lane.
KP: I remember seeing TV commercials for the Enquirer when I was a kid.
KP: And I always thought it was just this dumb magazine, but they actually had real stories too. I was surprised that some of their stories were actually true. What was something that really surprised you?
ML: I think exactly that. I think that what’s really fascinating about the Enquirer and what I think makes legit, mainstream journalists have night sweats, is what you’re talking about. The fact that there were—interwoven with stories of UFOs and stories of Roswell, crying statues of the Madonna, and Jean Dickson predictions and miracle cures and sextuplets and what Loni Anderson is wearing with Burt Reynolds—were embedded these quasi-legitimate stories. Stories that looked like real efforts of traditional, investigative journalism. Of course the real big one was Belushi in ’82. And then, of course, really reaching the apex with OJ. Where the paper is utilizing this network of sources that they’ve built over the years primarily just for celebrity gossip, and turning it towards investigative work.
That’s where it gets really confusing, right? Because the average person—the person that picks it up in the grocery store is reading about Liz Taylor’s sixth husband and 18th diet and right next to that is a story about something that appears to be news. Appears to be something you’d read in the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe or the New York Times. And so it starts to plant this seed in the mind of readership where, “Okay, this is a one stop shop. I can get everything in this place. I can get my gossip, I can get my celebrity obsession, and I can get my predictions and my astrological stuff, and my fascination with the supernatural, and I can also keep up with what’s going on in the world, in a way.”
And that’s what makes the paper, frankly, a threat to mainstream journalism. Particularly in the 90s, when things really get blurred. When the New York Times publishes an article by David Margolis that says, “Enquirer required reading in the Simpson case.” You have the paper of record basically pointing its finger to the paper of your kitty litter and saying, “You should read this.” And not only saying it, but going on television and saying it, amplifying. You have David Margolis being interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. [laughs] That’s when you had people like AR Rosenthal and Carl Bernstein and some giants of legitimate journalism in America—Fred Friendly—people going what’s going on here? Why is the editor of the Des Moines Register, an award-winning paper, why is she looking over at what the Enquirer’s doing? Why should she care? And that’s where I think we can look at how we got to where we are today.
KP: What is it you hope audiences will walk away with after they see this?
ML: I honestly hope that audiences will walk away from the movie and want to go and grab a copy of Brooke Gladstone’s, “The Influencing Machine.” And what I mean by that is that I hope audiences will take a moment to reflect on how they consume media. What they consume, how they consume it, and what filters they’re using to process whether it’s true or not. I think that would be the ultimate takeaway from this film is that it sort of agitates the viewer into looking at themselves. I think we’re really accustomed in American society in particular to finger pointing. Everybody wants to blame it on the “media god” that’s out there pulling the levers. That’s a quote from Maggie Haberman. I didn’t invent that. And Brooke calls it the Influencing Machine. It’s this idea that there’s this evil media out there that’s controlling everything we do—how we think, how we buy, how we vote, but the truth is at the end of the day, whose decision is it to pick up that Enquirer and open the pages and inhale it? So I hope the film causes people to reflect on their own participation in consuming media.