The star of the Detroit-set film was drawn to the story of a father and son, not the rise of a teenage kingpin

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Toronto — For star Matthew McConaughey and director Yann Demange, “White Boy Rick” is a story about family.

Sure, the real-life tale of the teenage drug dealer and FBI informant in 1980s Detroit is also a juicy crime story about corruption, youth and poverty set against a backdrop of the hollowed-out shell of the American dream.

But what drew the attention of McConaughey and Demange was the story of a father and child, and their connection amid the madness of the story’s other headline-grabbing elements. The R-rated drama opens Friday. 

ReviewTale of 'White Boy Rick' and '80s Detroit unfocused

“For me, McConaughey, the story was about a father slowly losing his son,” says the Oscar winner, who really does refer to himself as “McConaughey.” He is seated in a wingback chair in a large conference room at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival.

He knew nothing of the story of Richard Wershe Jr., the “White Boy Rick” of the title, before reading the script, which was more of a rise-and-fall of a gangster, “Scarface”-type story when it first reached him. The real-life Wershe was jailed at 17 and is still serving time in prison..  

McConaughey’s initial conversations with Demange, whose previous film was 2014’s “ ’71,” centered on the story’s father-son dynamics, and Demange explained his intent to beef up that aspect of the story.  

Demange was intrigued by the story of a man raised to believe in the American dream, only to see it crumble before his eyes through the fall of Detroit and the rise of the drug epidemic in the 1980s.

“Overnight it completely changed, and he was completely ill-equipped to raise a kid in this new landscape where the rules bestowed upon him by his father no longer applied,” says Demange, who was born in Paris and raised in London before immigrating to America. “And then this kid, he’s looking for a tribe and seeking the paternal, and I really identified with him as an outsider.”

Demange, a mixed-race child of half-French and half-Algerian descent, knows about outsider status.

He saw the story as an opportunity to engage with others and empathize with different points of view “at a time when everybody was tribing up and drawing lines in the sand,” he says.

During pre-production, Demange and producer Scott Franklin (“Black Swan”) visited Wershe, who at the time was locked up inside the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee. (Wershe is currently finishing his sentence in Florida.)  

“I just interrogated him about his family,” says Demange, a sharp, stocky fellow with a bald head and a thick British accent. “What he couldn’t understand is, I was asking about family, and he was sitting on an informant story. I was like, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got the paper trail, I’ve got people I can talk to, I’ve got consultants. I just want to hear about your sister. I want to hear about your mother, I want to hear about your father, I want to hear about your aunt that OD’d.’”

More: Film revives Rick Wershe Jr. controversy

McConaughey, too, traveled to Manistee and visited with Wershe, and their first meeting lasted more than four hours.

“I didn’t go to him trying to get information to give me the biography of his father. That was never my intent,” the 48-year-old says. “I stepped back and listened and we talked about family. I talked about my family, he talked about his family. He was very interested in my family, my kids, my relationship with my dad, things like that.”

McConaughey says he got brutal honesty from Wershe Jr.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of inmates, and 99 out of 100 say they’re innocent,” he says. “Rick Wershe Jr. ain’t saying he’s innocent. He was never pretending to be some choir boy. He was saying, ‘I was a criminal, I was doing this, I wasn’t doing it to the extent they blew me up to be doing it, but …”

McConaughey and Wershe are still in communication. “I spoke to him as recently as last night,” he says, a big smile creeping across this face. “He was like, ‘I was by the bay and I sat on a park bench and I saw five manatees.’ ” When telling the story, McConaughey impersonates Wershe’s drawl and stretches each syllable: man-a-tees.

“He was wowed by this,” McConaughey says. “I like him, I’m excited to see what he does when he gets out. I think he’s going to be an asset.”

Casting the young Wershe Jr. was an extensive process, and filmmakers eventually landed on Richie Merritt, a newcomer who was so green to acting he had never heard of McConaughey before meeting him. “And I’m glad he didn’t,” McConaughey says.

He and Merritt bonded during an afternoon in East L.A.

“He met a guy named Matthew McConaughey that was going to be playing his dad in a movie,” says the father of three, ages 10, 8 and 5. “He met me in a parking lot in a bowling alley, and we went and bowled, and he got beat in bowling by a guy named Matthew McConaughey. So his whole experience with me started from then and has lived ‘til now. He had no history of me, or no predated reverence for me as any kind of celebrity or actor or anyone other than the guy he met at a bowling alley in East LA.”

Budget issues and the loss of the Michigan film tax incentives meant having to film outside of Detroit, and Cleveland landed the role of the Motor City in the film, which Demange calls “heartbreaking.”

He had scoured locations in the city while shooting a Nike commercial in Detroit in 2015. Even if he wasn’t going to shoot in the city, he says he wanted to be “forensic” about the local details. As he says this, he excitedly whips out his phone and starts showing pictures he shot at Skateland on Alter Road in Detroit, which he says inspired the film’s roller skating scene.

Filming in Cleveland worked out, he says, because the east side of Cleveland is easier to double for the east side of Detroit in the ‘80s. “It was actually going to be a real production design number, because it would have cost us a fortune to get rid of all the foliage,” he says. He was able to shoot for two days in Detroit, grabbing shots of McConaughey and Merritt driving in and out of the city.

Distilling down Wershe’s story — which could have filled a mini-series, Demange says — was its own headache. Demange says his initial cut of the film was a “meditative art film” that ran three-and-a-half hours.

He had to boil down the FBI storyline to its most simple elements, make certain characters composites and cut corners where he could. For example, in real life Wershe had three children with three women by the time he was 17. In the movie, he has just one wife.

The father-son storyline remains the backbone of the film, and McConaughey says it was through family that he connected with Merritt — who before the film had never left his hometown of Baltimore — on set.

“I noticed early on that family is so important to that young man,” McConaughey says. “So no matter what, no matter how tired we were late at night, I knew that if I could always bring up family to him — whether it was me talking about my own family or talking to him about his own family — and it would ground him and he’d come right back, full focus. And if we stuck there, our relationship on screen couldn’t go wrong.”

As filming took place, another family reunion of sorts was taking place. The 15-year-old Merritt, whose mother left his family when he was 4, needed a chaperone on set because of his young age. His father and stepmother had jobs they couldn’t leave, and his mother volunteered to help and reconnected with her son during the course of filming.

“And all of a sudden, behind the scenes of a father and son movie, you’ve got a mother and son reconciliation taking place on the set, and they start getting to know each other again,” Demange says. “They hadn’t been together since he was 4 years old. The process being part of that, being with this kid that could access all these emotions he was going through and put it into the movie, that meant a lot.”

Merritt shared traits with his character that the real Wershe recognized, Demange says, which helped bring the entire process of the movie around full circle, a family that extended beyond the film.  

“Rick got really emotional when I cast Richie,” Demange says. “Like Rick, Richie’s not faking it. He grew up in an African-American community, he’s from a very similar background to Rick, and he was on a similar trajectory to him. It was mind-blowing to Rick that making the movie may somehow impact another version of him and change his life. For him, that was enough.”  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

‘White Boy Rick’

Rated R for language throughout, drug content, violence, some sexual references, and brief nudity

Running time: 116 minutes

In theaters Friday

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