Before They Were Movies

The Longform guide to magazine articles that became (mostly) great films.

Cast members of Argo and a few of the real-life  diplomats who inspired the movie: John Goodman, Lee Schatz, Cora Lijek, Bryan Cranston, Ben Affleck, Clea DuVall, Kerry Bishe and Scoot McNairy

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

OK, so the movie is rarely is a good as the book. But is it as good as the magazine story? Read these and find out for yourself.


The Suspects Wore Louboutins
Nancy Jo Sales • Vanity Fair • Mar 2010
Film: The Bling Ring

The motley gang of L.A. teens that cat-burgled celebrities, sometimes repeatedly, in search of designer clothes, jewelry, and something to do.

“On November 16, [Alexis] Neiers arrived at Los Angeles Superior Court for her arraignment with an E! reality crew in tow. Her show, originally intended to be about her life as a party girl on the Hollywood scene, had now become a chronicle of her effort to stay out of jail. She was being charged that day with one count of residential burglary of Orlando Bloom’s home. In the media, she was being called a member of “the Burglar Bunch,” “the Bling Ring,” nicknames for the most successful and outrageous burglary gang in recent Hollywood memory: a gang of well-off kids from the Valley.


“Camera crews from local news stations, Good Morning America, Dateline NBC, and TMZ were waiting outside Department 30 on the third floor of the courthouse. Producers from various shows murmured as Neiers—a former hip-hop- and pole-dancing instructor—sat calmly on a bench, allowing a makeup woman to touch her up.

“A leggy girl with long, dark hair and shimmering blue-green eyes, Neiers was wearing a tweed miniskirt, a pink sweater, and six-inch Christian Louboutin heels. ‘I have a pretty cool shoe collection going on right now,’ she said.”

Orchid Fever
Susan Orlean • The New Yorker • Jan 1995
Film: Adaptation

An orchid-enthusiast goes to battle in Florida.

“John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. He is thirty-four years old, and works for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery on the tribal reservation near Miami. The Seminole nicknames for Laroche are Crazy White Man and Troublemaker. My introduction to Laroche took place last summer, in the new Collier County Courthouse, in Naples, Florida. The occasion was a hearing following Laroche’s arrest for illegally taking endangered wild orchids, which he is passionate about, from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, which is a place he adores. Laroche did not dress for the occasion. He was wearing wraparound Mylar sunglasses, a cotton-blend shirt printed with some sort of scenic design, and trousers that bagged around his rear. At the hearing, he was called forward and asked to state his name and address and to describe his experience in working with plants. Laroche sauntered to the center of the courtroom. He jutted out his chin. He spoke in a rasping, draggy voice. He stuck his thumbs in his belt loops and said, “I’ve been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years. I’ve owned a plant nursery of my own. … I have extensive experience with orchids, and the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures.” Then he grinned and said to the court, “I’m probably the smartest person I know.”


The Great Escape
Joshuah Bearman • Wired • April 2007
Film: Argo

How the CIA used a fake science fiction film to sneak six Americans out of revolutionary Iran.

“Everyone was in costume before dawn on January 28, 1980. Cora Lijek had used sponge curlers to give herself a Shirley Temple look. She thumbed through the script as they waited. Kathy Stafford donned heavy, bohemian-looking glasses, pinned up her hair, and carried a sketch pad and folder with Kirby’s concept drawings. Mark Lijek’s dirty-blond beard had been darkened with mascara. Anders thought of their escape as an adventure and flung himself into his role as Argo‘s flamboyant director: He appeared in a shirt two sizes too small, buttoned only halfway up his hairy chest to reveal an improvised silver medallion. He wore sunglasses, combed his hair over his ears, and acted slightly effeminate. Schatz played with his lens. During the previous two days, they’d done several dress rehearsals, with a Farsi-speaking staffer from the Canadian embassy dressing up in fatigues for mock interrogations, probing for cracks in their cover. They’d learned the movie’s story line and their characters’ backgrounds and motivations and were now waiting, essentially, for call time. By 4am, they’d packed, thanked their hosts, and were on their way to Mehrabad Airport.


The Man Who Knew Too Much
Marie Brenner • Vanity Fair • May 1996
Film: The Insider

The man who blew the whistle on big tobacco.

“It was never Jeffrey Wigand’s ambition to become a central figure in the great social chronicle of the tobacco wars. By his own description, Wigand is a linear thinker, a plodder. On January 30, when he and I arrange to meet at the sports bar at the Hyatt Regency in Louisville, he is in the first phase of understanding that he has entered a particular American nightmare where his life will no longer be his to control. His lawyer will later call this period “hell week.” Wigand has recently learned of a vicious campaign orchestrated against him, and is trying to document all aspects of his past. “How would you feel if you had to reconstruct every moment of your life?” he asks me, tense with anxiety. He is deluged with requests for interviews. TV vans are often set up at DuPont Manual, the magnet high school where he now teaches. In two days Wigand, the former head of research and development (R&D) at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., will be on the front page ofThe Wall Street Journal for the second time in a week. Five days from now, he will be on 60 Minutes.


“Wigand is trapped in a war between the government and its attempts to regulate the $50 billion tobacco industry and the tobacco companies themselves, which insist that the government has no place in their affairs. Wigand is under a temporary restraining order from a Kentucky state judge not to speak of his experiences at Brown & Williamson (B&W). He is mired in a swamp of charges and countercharges hurled at him by his former employer, the third-largest tobacco company in the nation, the manufacturer of Kool, Viceroy, and Capri cigarettes.”

The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon
Elizabeth Gilbert • GQ • Mar 1997
Film: Coyote Ugly

Adventures in bartending.

“Lil could drink with her customers until they were all blind, and then she’d make men suck tequila from her boots (and sometimes, I’m sorry to report, from her socks) while maintaining complete control. Lil was always in charge. Men loved her, but their love was tempered with a healthy touch of fear.


“My favorite story from the canon of Lil goes like this: One night Lil traveled all the way to the Upper East Side to play pool at a snobbish tavern. An affluent-looking young man in a suit and tie made the unwise comment that women shouldn’t be allowed to play pool, since they only got in the way of men. So Lil challenged the fellow and his friends to a game of pool. She ended up beating them three times in a row.


“Humiliated, the young man claimed, ‘You’re winning only because we’ve been drinking and you haven’t.’

“Here he made his mistake.

“’How many rounds of drinks have you had?’ Lil asked.

“’Four,’ the man said.


“So Lil ordered herself five shots of Wild Turkey. She slammed the shots down, one after the other. Then Lil beat those little pricks once more just to teach them some manners.”

The Storm
Sebastian Junger • Outside • Oct 1994

Six young men, a boat, and the worst gale in a century.

“By now the storm had engulfed nearly the entire eastern seaboard. Even in protected Boston Harbor, a data buoy measured wave heights of 30 feet. A Delta Airlines pilot at Boston’s Logan Airport was surprised to see spray topping 200-foot construction cranes on Deer Island. Sitting on the runway waiting for clearance, his air speed indicator read 80 miles per hour. Off Cape Cod, a sloop named theSatori lost its life raft, radios, and engine. The three people in its crew had resigned themselves to writing good-bye notes when they were finally rescued 200 miles south of Nantucket by a Coast Guard swimmer who jumped, untethered, from a helicopter into the roiling waves. An Air National Guard helicopter ran out of fuel off Long Island, and its crew had to jump one at a time through the darkness into the sea. One man was killed and the other four were rescued after drifting throughout the night. All along the coast, waves and storm surge combined to act as “dams” that prevented rivers from flowing into the sea. The Hudson backed up 100 miles to Albany and caused flooding, so did the Potomac.


“Brown tried in vain all day Wednesday to radio Tyne. That evening he finally got through to Linda Greenlaw, who said she’d last heard Billy Tyne talking to other boats on the radio Monday night. “Those men sounded scared, and we were scared for them,” she said later. Later that night Brown finally alerted the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe • Playboy • Sep 1981

At age 22, the author went undercover at his old high school. Here’s what he found.

“It was nearly the end of the line. The awards were about to be announced, mimeographed caps-and-gowns information had gone out to the seniors along with Grad Nite tickets. The annuals were almost ready: Spicoli was counting the hours.


“Since Spicoli was a sophomore, an underclassman, there weren’t many graduation functions he could attend. Tonight was one of the few, and he wasn’t about to miss it. It was the Ditch Day party, the evening blowout of the day that underclassmen secretly selected toward the end of the year to ditch en masse. Spicoli hadn’t been at school all day, and now he was just about ready to leave the house for the party out in Del Mar. He hadn’t eaten all day: He wanted the full effect of the hallucinogenic mushrooms he’d procured just for the poor man’s Grad Nite-Ditch Night.


“Spicoli had taken just a little bit of one mushroom, just to check the potency. He could feel it coming on now as he sat in his room surrounded by his harem of naked women and surf posters. It was just a slight buzz, like a few hits off the bong. Spicoli knew they were good mushrooms. But if he didn’t leave soon. he might be too high to drive before he reached the party. One had to craft his buzz, Spicoli was fond of saying.”


The Boys in the Bank
P.F. Kluge
, Thomas Moore • Life • Sep 1972
Film: Dog Day Afternoon

A young Brooklyn man attempts a bank robbery to finance his lover’s sex change surgery.

“By mid-evening, the atmosphere in the bank has changed markedly. To put a damper on Wojtowiez’s budding publicity campaign, police order the phones to be cut, isolating both robbers and hostages, who now divert themselves by listening to the New York Mets eke out a 4- to-2 victory over the Houston Astros. Gone, too, are the police floodlights which had bathed the bank in the aura of a theater on opening night. Worst of all, the air-conditioning is also shut off, and a trip by Barrett and Wojtowicz to the controls in the cellar of the bank fails to restore it. When they come back upstairs, Wojtowicz decides to shove a desk in front of the cellar door, knocks his gun against the desk, and discharges a shot dangerously close to his own foot. The sound of the shot sends hostages diving onto the floor and under tables. Still, for every moment of fear, the hostages have moments of weird laughter and something that might also be friendship. After all, the robbers and hostages are in this together, but the determined men with guns outside the bank are strangers.”


Life’s Swell
Susan Orlean • Outside • Sep 1998
Film: Blue Crush

Hanging with surfer girls in Maui.

“The Maui surfer girls love each other’s hair. It is awesome hair, long and bleached by the sun, and it falls over their shoulders straight, like water, or in squiggles, like seaweed, or in waves. They are forever playing with it—yanking it up into ponytails, or twisting handfuls and securing them with chopsticks or pencils, or dividing it as carefully as you would divide a pile of coins and then weaving it into tight yellow plaits. Not long ago I was on the beach in Maui watching the surfer girls surf, and when they came out of the water they sat in a row facing the ocean, and each girl took the hair of the girl in front of her and combed it with her fingers and crisscrossed it into braids. The Maui surfer girls even love the kind of hair that I dreaded when I was their age, 14 or so—they love that wild, knotty, bright hair, as big and stiff as carpet, the most un-straight, un-sleek, un-ordinary hair you could imagine, and they can love it, I suppose, because when you are young and on top of the world you can love anything you want, and just the fact that you love it makes it cool and fabulous. A Maui surfer girl named Gloria Madden has that kind of hair—thick red corkscrews striped orange and silver from the sun, hair that if you weren’t beautiful and fearless you’d consider an affliction that you would try to iron flat or stuff under a hat. One afternoon I was driving two of the girls to Blockbuster Video in Kahului. It was the day before a surfing competition, and the girls were going to spend the night at their coach’s house up the coast so they’d be ready for the contest at dawn. On contest nights, they fill their time by eating a lot of food and watching hours of surf videos, but on this particular occasion they decided they needed to rent a movie, too, in case they found themselves with 10 or 20 seconds of unoccupied time. On our way to the video store, the girls told me they admired my rental car and said that they thought rental cars totally ripped and that they each wanted to get one. My car, which until then I had sort of hated, suddenly took on a glow. I asked what else they would have if they could have anything in the world. They thought for a moment, and then the girl in the backseat said, “A moped and thousands of new clothes. You know, stuff like thousands of bathing suits and thousands of new board shorts.”


Racer X
Kenneth Li • Vibe • May 1998
Film: The Fast and the Furious

Drag racing in New York.

“The hands drop. 10 mph: Off the starting line, the Nissan pulls ahead by one car length. 40 mph: Still in first gear, the driver jams the stick into second, and his head snaps back. The tires let out a brief squeal. 100 mph: The Starion pulls closer. There’s a halting moment when it looks like the Nissan might lose. It lasts about one hundredth of a second. 160 mph: Gritting his teeth, the man behind the wheel of the Nissan begins to shake from the speed; his vision is a blur. He doesn’t see the Starion closing in. Crossing the finish line, the Nissan driver, Rafael Estevez, wins by one car length. In less than a minute, the guy in the Mitsubishi has lost $7,500. Glowing with confidence, Estevez immediately challenges him for $2,500 and offers an 18-car lead and beats him again. Estevez, a 30-year-old Dominican drag racer from Washington Heights, is considered an OG among a growing legion of young speed junkies terrorizing the back alleys, highways, and legal racetracks around New York City.”

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