Inspiring columns transform to film


Scene/Mix Editor

A man named Nathaniel Ayers attended the Juilliard School in New York on a scholarship, but suffered from schizophrenia his third year at the school. He became homeless and was forced to live on the streets of Los Angeles.

In 2005, journalist Steve Lopez met Ayers and began writing a series of columns in the Los Angeles Times about his relationship with the musician.

The columns Lopez wrote turned into a book, which is now being transformed into a film. “The Soloist” stars Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez, and Jamie Foxx as Ayers. It will be released in theaters on Friday, April 24.

The relationship

The author said he had never gotten so emotionally invested in a subject he had written about until he met Ayers.

“We’re taught as journalists to keep some distance and to not become advocates, even as a columnist, to hold on to some of your impartiality but this was a special circumstance,” Lopez said.

“I think that it was kind of cool for readers to see a writer become so involved, so maybe I’ve re-thought a little bit my history and tradition of keeping so much distance from the subject.”

Lopez first met Ayers on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

“There is no question that Skid Row is a different place then it was when I met Nathaniel four years ago, there is no question that far fewer people are sleeping on the streets. The question though, is where did those other people go?” Lopez said.

One reason Lopez said he got involved in this project was to not only show the struggles of Ayers, but others in similar situations as well.

“One of the points I’ve been trying to make since this adventure began was it’s not as if we don’t know what works to help people, especially those with a mental illness, come in off the streets, the problem is that we haven’t made a commitment to what does work,” Lopez said.

The inspiration

Lopez said he was very inspired by Ayers’ fight and the things that he was passionate about.

“One of the things that I found so captivating about Mr. Ayers was most people would look at him and see a bum; most people would look right past him, not even make any kind of a judgment about him, and when I got to know the man, I became captivated by this passion,” Lopez said.

Lopez said prior to meeting Ayers, there wasn’t anything in his life apart from his family that he felt so strongly about as Ayers did with his music.

“It was all about having found his purpose in life and having found passion, and I don’t know a lot of people in the world who ever find that, who ever get to where they really want to be, and in some ways, Mr. Ayers, although he’s not in an orchestra and would like to one day teach music, he’s not there,” Lopez said.

“But when he is in the moment with the music, he’s about as passionate and as successful and happy as any of us can ever expect to be. And he finds that every single day,” Lopez said.

The writer said he started to doubt his job and the journalism industry when it began to change, and it was Ayers who helped him realize how to appreciate his career fully.

“It was Nathaniel through his passion who opened my eyes to the fact I had my own [passion] and that I would never be happy doing anything other than what I do,” Lopez said.

“The form might change because the information industry is changing. I might not be a print columnist, but one way or another I want to tell stories, and I think that knowing that about my career, about my purpose was quite revealing,” Lopez said.

The film

The book has twice as many pages as the screenplay for the film, but Lopez said the film did a great job of touching on all of the most important aspects.

“The film is by necessity a reduction, but the film is true to all essential themes [of the book]. It does a great job of framing the relationship, the issues, my conflicts, so I’m really pleased with that,” Lopez said.

Lopez talked about the different ways the film could have been made, and that the producers shared their vision of the movie, and it came out exactly as they had planned.

“I’ve become very passionate about all of the themes, the friendship and the redemptive power of music, and just the simple power of human connection — the way two people could come upon each other from different walks of life entirely and have an impact on each other and a lasting change that results from it,” Lopez said.

“The movie gets that, and it’s just a great movie,” Lopez said.

While Lopez said he had no part in the casting of the film, he was pleased with the choice of actors to portray himself and Ayers.

“I’ve seen the movie a few times, and to see Robert Downey calling himself Steve Lopez is a little bit strange. But I’m flattered by the portrayal and very gratified by what they did with this movie,” Lopez said.

Advice for future journalists

Lopez had a lot of advice for hopeful journalists in an industry that is definitely changing.

“If you’ve decided that you really do want to do this, if you’re committed to it, if it’s your dream, if nothing else will make you happier, go ahead,” Lopez said.

“If you don’t feel that way, then now is the time to look into something else. But if you do want to do it, the reality is that there are more opportunities rather than fewer,” Lopez said.

Lopez also suggested journalism students study every subject other than journalism, from economics to medicine.

“Try to stay as versatile and as interested in as many different fields as you can possibly be, because it makes you more attractive to employers,” Lopez said.

“I think it’s going to take some time before we know how [the journalism industry] settles out, and maybe it won’t ever settle out — maybe the revolution will go on for decades,” Lopez said.

The Oakland Post was included in a college conference call with Lopez on April 1.