Film: The truth about telling lies

Stoned at nine, drunk at 11. Brad Renfro is the perfect kid for the latest Joe Eszterhas script. James Christopher spoke to him
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"It don't matter how you get it ... as long as you get it," says Kevin Bacon to an astonished 15-year-old who has just discovered he has lost his virginity to a prostitute. That's how Karchy Jonas's rites of passage are bought and sold in Telling Lies in America, a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas that has taken 15 years to migrate from page to screen.

Set in Cleveland in 1961, the film plots the fortunes of a Hungarian immigrant who is picked on at high school until he lies himself into a job on a local radio station with a slick but corrupt disc jockey, Billy Magic (played by Kevin Bacon), up to his neck in payola. Those were the days when managers passed over fat brown envelopes to get their clients' songs played.

Remarkably, this autobiographical film cost $4m [pounds 2.5m] and took 24 days to make. That's not far off what Eszterhas alone usually gets paid for a script. What sets it apart is a display of character acting by Bacon and his young co-star, Brad Renfro, that gives the screenwriter's bitter take on the American Dream - you've got to lie to get places - a startling authenticity.

Screenwriters don't usually have a profile. In fact most are lucky if they make the credits at all. But when Eszterhas walked off with a record $3m for the script of Basic Instinct it made him the highest paid screenwriter in history. For his latest script, Foreplay, Eszterhas is the first writer to receive a percentage of takings.

Recently, though, the writer of such classics as Jagged Edge, Betrayed and Music Box has been suffering a backlash, his films ringing alarm bells rather than till bells. Sliver was big on pyscho-sexual thrills and low on political correctness, while he was mauled by the critics for Showgirls and Jade.

If Telling Lies is Eszterhas's version of humble pie, it's an exquisite recipe. The quality and understated comedy of Guy Ferland's film applies balm to the critical bruisings. Shot in his adopted home town of Cleveland, the film evokes the working class melting pot where Eszterhas was reared from the age of six. His own feelings of insecurity, gawkiness and inferiority are distilled in Karchy Jonas, the teenage protagonist who, with his father, has to sit the citizenship test.

His screen alter ego and fast-rising star, Brad Renfro, found Eszterhas difficult to picklock. "I asked Joe if there was a point to the way I was playing him," said Renfro at his parents' house in Knoxville, Tennessee. "He said I was pretty much doing it." What does Renfro do? He stares in the mirror, puts gel in his hair, tells lies to stay on a keel with his class-mates, gets into trouble with the Catholic priests running the school and spends his free time in awe of the sophisticated, cynical world of his mentor, Billy Magic. Only 15 himself, Renfro is blessed with the self- possession of someone twice his age. The slight Hungarian accent and the stilted, awkward demeanour of the insecure teenager is seamlessly stitched into his performance.

"The reason why it's taken such a long time to make is they couldn't find the right kid," Renfro says. "I guess Joe and I have this fuck-you- I'm-gonna-do-it-my-way attitude." It sounds like arrogance but there's more than a whiff of truth about Renfro's claim. His is already an auspicious and precocious talent. They originally shot three-quarters of the movie with Ricky Shorter, but like his screen character, Shorter didn't quite fit the bill. Renfro fills it magnificently.

Wasn't it a gamble to do it on such a low budget in such a short time? "It's a no-gamble situation when you've got Kevin Bacon on board," says Renfro. "I mean, he's one of the greats. He's been around forever since Friday the 13th."

There's a streak of anarchy in Karchy Jonas that is all too apparent in Renfro; the latter's own heroes are Cronenberg, Kubrick and David Lynch, his favourite film is Clockwork Orange and he's been playing rock guitar since he was six. He smoked his first joint at nine and got drunk at 11. His parents persuaded him to join a drugs rehabilitation program called Dare. The officer who ran it got some of the kids to audition for a movie.

"That's why I'm a firm believer in God," says Renfro. He was picked out of 5,000 kids to make his acclaimed debut in John Grisham's The Client with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. In rapid succession he starred in The Cure, Tom Sawyer, and with Kevin Bacon in Barry Levinson's Sleepers. He is still pro-cannabis, but is he a rebel? "Call me when I'm 18 and I'll probably be a priest."

Maybe Eszterhas saw the possibility that if he could steer Renfro back to 1961 he might find something of himself. "It's a coming-of-age story which has a wonderful simplicity," says Renfro. "There's so much insecurity and concern about social status in school. Kids take ruthless advantage of weaknesses. It isn't hard to work out how much worse it is for someone like Joe from another country. A lot of people think the film is saying, 'It's OK to tell a white lie'. You have to look past that to the real point. Karchy cheats to fit in. He lies to get attention."

Is there much difference between Karchy or Eszterhas's experience and today's disaffected youth? 'My cousin said that sometimes he feels so left out he could kill to get attention. I said, 'Fuck that - you have to eat someone these days to get attention. Kids, just shooting people ain't enough,' " he drawls sardonically.

After Telling Lies, his next movie is with Ian McKellen in Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil. "I think McKellen is a genius but we're two totally different actors," says Renfro. "I prefer working with the audience, i.e. the camera, in my face. Ian works with audiences with whom he has to project. I find the more you project the less real you become." In terms of real deals, the teenager has little to prove.

'Telling Lies in America' is on general release

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