A former Inky columnist returns to discuss his latest brush with Hollywood.
From the April 23, 2008 Philadelphia Weekly.
Steve Lopez stumbled across Nathaniel Ayers while wandering through a park in search of a story idea. Ayers, a homeless man who suffers from mental illness, was creating beautiful classical music on a beat-up violin with only two strings.
Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist who penned narrative tales for the Inquirer for 12 years before leaving the paper in 1997, was intrigued. He spent countless hours learning about this destitute man who turned out to be a Juilliard-trained musician and former classmate of Yo Yo Ma.
Three years ago Lopez began writing columns about Ayers and his tribulations. The two men developed a friendship that changed both of their lives. Lopez documented the transformation in his new book The Soloist. The book is now being made into a film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.
Lopez spoke to PW last week from his home in Southern California.
Were you surprised by the reaction to the Nathaniel columns?
"It's a bit of a dark subject and I didn't realize that people would so quickly develop a rooting interest in Nathaniel. But they did. I got thousands and thousands of emails and phone calls after the first few columns. Then they started to send instruments."
Can a newspaper columnist still make an impact?
"These days, anybody is a columnist, so to speak. Anybody can open a website, become a blogger or call in to the radio talk show and spout off on whatever they want. They've encroached a bit on what used to be the columnist's turf. It's much harder to stand out and make a difference. But there is a difference between spouting off, and researching and telling a story. I think that's what newspapers have to focus on if they are to survive. What distinguishes us is that we still do original reporting and still chase thought-provoking human stories like this one."
Many of the columnists we have today are just pundits.
"Gasbags. Bloviators. There are all sorts of different columns. Maybe that's a distinction that needs to be made. I don't write your traditional op-ed, commentary-type column. I'm more of a storyteller."
This story ultimately made you consider leaving journalism.
"When I was into it for about a year, things got really bad at the paper. They got so bad, I wondered if I wanted to hang on and be one of those guys sitting behind a desk bitching about the good old days. When I was working on the Nathaniel story, the bad stuff really began intensifying - we're talking about publishers being forced out, editors being forced out, constant change at the top, constant pushes to reduce the staff and diminish the product. I thought maybe it was all going downhill and it was time to get out."
What made you decide to stay?
"Nathaniel, who I so envied for his passion, has this art that drives him, that he lives for. Nothing else is important. He sort of helped me realize through this story that I had that drive too. If I could block out all of the bullshit that's been going on in the industry and just enjoy the continued privilege of chasing stories that they gladly put into the newspaper, then that's what I've got to do. I love it too much to leave it."
Then Sam Zell buys the Times and tells the staffers at the Orlando Sentinel [a sister paper] that they have to make enough money for him to afford them.
"How is that a smart move to insult the people who are most essential to his financial success? People are kind of shell-shocked and baffled by what he might be up to."
How are your friends at the Inquirer ?
"Everybody's frustrated. Everybody's disappointed. Everybody's hoping for a way for things to turn around. Most newspaper people are just too damn busy to worry about it. That's a blessing."
Do you or Nathaniel make an appearance in the movie?
"No. It's strange enough to watch them make a movie about you without having a cameo in it."
Robert Downey Jr. was quoted as saying it's really a love story between you and Nathaniel.
"I do love and admire Nathaniel. It's a difficult relationship. There are times when I just have great fun with him, and there are times when it's just exhausting. That's just the nature of hanging out with and working with someone who has a mental illness. And his is pretty severe. I found through this relationship that I have my own passion. I had let it slip away and was ready to walk away from it, and that was premature. I had forgotten how important this is to me. Even with this industry in the midst of a revolution, I still have a great job."
* Click here for a previous Q&A with Steve Lopez from August 29, 2007.