Director Steven Soderbergh dips into the "truth can be stranger than fiction" files for a fact-based farce about a financial scandal that rocked an American agriculture conglomerate in the 1990s.
In the mid-1990s, Mark Whitacre, a top executive at ADM - Archer-Daniels-Midland - became a 'whistle-blower,' informing the FBI about alleged criminal activities by the giant agri-business corporation.
The amino acid lysine, derived from crops like soybeans, is widely used in agriculture to help boost livestock production. If multi-national corporations were conspiring to fix the price of the chemical, it could increase the cost of food around the world; and it would be against the law. The probe launched by Whitacre's allegations uncovered massive fraud that led to the company paying a $100 million fine 10 years ago: to that time, the largest such anti-trust penalty in U.S. history. But along the way, questions popped up about the reliability of the inside source.
One moment Whitacre is the hero; then he is the subject of another investigation, accused of embezzling millions of dollars from his employer. The often-bizarre true story was detailed in a best-selling book that caught the eye of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who says "My sense was he would be this guy whether he was working at ADM or not, so I never looked at as a movie about corrupt corporations. I really was just thinking about Whitacre."
Oscar-winner Soderbergh tackled the topic of corporate wrongdoing in his 2000 drama "Erin Brockovich;" but he says the Mark Whitacre story just naturally lent itself to a comic treatment.
"I'm becoming more and more convinced that a good movie idea is rooted more in a character than a subject and there were so many times in the book when the 'shoe would drop' and you would just gasp and have to reframe everything that you knew up that point. That's a really good situation to build a movie around. That's what I liked about it: unlike most films where you have external forces acting upon your protagonist, the external forces acting on the protagonist were all generated by the protagonist. So it was a really fascinating situation. He's the good guy and the bad guy at the same time. That was another reason we started thinking in terms of the comedy," he says.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns adapted the book by New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald for "The Informant!" script.
"The amazing thing that happened …a sort of 'perfect storm' of events …is a person who constitutionally can't really tell the truth is sent in by a truth-seeking organization to explore a big corporation that is lying. That in itself is pretty comic," he says.
Matt Damon, whose roles include the sinewy secret agent of the 'Jason Bourne' movies, packed on more than 15 kilos of weight to play "The Informant." He studied the books and news coverage about the true story, but Damon says he decided not to meet the real Whitacre before portraying the film version.
"Once Steven made the decision to take it in a more comic direction tonally, for all of us it became less important to do rigorous character studies of the actual people. It became more about having fun with this terrific script. All the answers we needed were in the actual text, like when you do a play," he says.
A basic dilemma, however, is whether audiences see Whitacre as the selfless hero or the self-serving villain. Director and producer Soderbergh says 'why not both?'
"As I get older I realize that two opposing ideas can actually both be true. I think he was a hero. To my knowledge it is still the biggest case of its kind that has ever been prosecuted in the United States. He also embezzled money. So it is one of those weird things. I had no interest in judging him. I just wanted to lay it out there and let people have their own reaction to it. I didn't think he was worthy of condemnation, but it is also obvious that he had a very complicated relationship with the truth," he says.
"The Informant!" also features New Zealand-born character actress Melanie Lynskey as spouse Ginger Whitacre. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale play the FBI agents trying to discover the truth inside Mark Whitacre's increasingly strange tales. A jaunty score from Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch punctuates the comedy.