Arts, Culture & Media

The writer behind the hit movie, 'Philomena,' shares his secret to storytelling

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Credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Actors Judi Dench (L) and Steve Coogan (R) pose during a photocall for the movie, "Philomena," during the 70th Venice Film Festival in Venice. It's based on the book, "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," by former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith.

Let me make a movie recommendation: "Philomena."

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the audio to hear it.)

It's the one featuring Judie Dench and Steve Coogan. Dench plays an aging Irish woman who had a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager. Nuns sold that child to an American family. It's a dramatization of a true story. And Coogan plays the journalist Martin Sixsmith who wrote the 2009 book that the movie is based on, "The Lost Child of Philomena."

Right in the beginning of the movie, there's a moment that is instructive for journalists. The scene is this: Sixsmith is at a cocktail party going on about a plan to write a book about Russian history. Then a waitress pouring wine at the party tries to pitch him a story. It's a story all about heart. Sixsmith nods and says he doesn't do "human interest" stories.

She asks why not? He fires off this retort: "Because human interest tends to be a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people; to fill up the pages of newspapers read by vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant people."

While Martin Sixsmith says he never said those actual words, he was that guy. He was a dead serious reporter for the BBC. He covered the end of the Cold War, and Washington, DC, in the Clinton years. He admits he was a journalist that tended turn his nose up a little bit at a human-interest story. He says it's something more suited for the glossy pages of a magazine.

The story of Philomena Lee, however, was a human-interest story he couldn't turn down.

Two main reasons helped convince him. And these two reasons are the secret to a good story. The first was Philomena Lee.

He says she is a real life force. And she's full of folk wisdom. The heart of the story is taken care of. But it wasn't just her story. It also deals with what the Catholic Church did to Irish women who had children out of wedlock in the 1950s and 1960s. It essentially took the newborns from the mothers and put them up for adoption. He says it happened to hundreds, and probably thousands of women.

"So yes it was a human interest story, but it also had this wider political and social significance as well."

And that's the secret to Sixsmith's successful stories. He combines reportorial heft, with heart.

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