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Digging for the Truth

COVER STORY

With tensions over accuracy in film running high, 'Erin Brockovich' pays attention to real-life detail.

March 12, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

The film also depicts a mysterious older man who follows Brockovich around and finally breaks his silence while they're seated at a bar. She thinks he wants to pick her up, but he actually wants to tell her that he had worked at the pumping station and had been ordered to destroy documents.

In real life, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys, there were two "Deep Throats," a man and a woman. The man was actually the bartender, not a patron. They were allegedly told to go to the "Boneyard," where all the facility's historical records were kept, and take everything to the dump. They used five pickup trucks over several nights between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. so no one would see them, attorneys said.

"Those were all the records over how much chromium was put in the system between 1952 and 1986," said Walter J. Lack, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys.

Brockovich said she was sitting in a bar on Highway 58 when an older man she had met before approached her and, just like in the movie, she thought he wanted to pick her up. Instead, he told her of the "Boneyard."

In the film, Roberts darts out of the bar to phone Masry with the exciting news.

"That's exactly like I did," Brockovich recalled. "I bolted out of there. I told him I was going to the restroom because I didn't want him to leave and I immediately ran and called Ed."

In the film, Finney tells Roberts that the case has grown too big for his small law firm to handle, so he seeks out the help of bigger law firms. In real life, those law firms were Girardi and Keese in downtown Los Angeles and Engstrom, Lipscomb & Lack in Century City. Together, the firms poured $12 million of their own cash into waging the legal fight against PG&E.

The real lawsuit nearly sank Masry financially.

"My law firm had literally run out of money," Masry recalled. "I had 30 to 60 days of operating capital left when Lack and Girardi stepped into the fight. If they hadn't stepped in, we would have been defeated."

Thomas V. Girardi and Lack recently attended an advance screening of "Erin Brockovich" and said they found it remarkably accurate.

"The single most memorable effect the movie had on me," Lack said, "was how it captured Ed Masry's great generosity and kindness and the agony he went through before finally making a commitment [to the case]. In terms of costs, it was a drain on him. He's an older man, not in good health. He really put his whole life into this case. He mortgaged his home, didn't take other cases. . . . By the time he came to me, he was out of money."

Brockovich today admits she was angered when Lack and Girardi initially entered the case because she had been working hard to uncover things and here were these two big law firms suddenly coming on board to help direct the case.

"I wasn't sensing it from the legal and financial standpoint, just from the emotional impact," she recalled. "I was uncovering the deceit."

Lack and Girardi said they loved Coyote's portrayal and were even amused that the character's arrogance somewhat resembled Lack's. "Yep, that's me," Lack said with a laugh.

As for Brockovich, Girardi still marvels at the way she was able to bond with the people of Hinkley.

"The truth of the matter is, she single-handedly was the liaison between that town [and the lawyers]," he said. "We did send other employees out [to Hinkley] for one reason or another and they were never as warmly treated as Erin, but they were always welcomed."

How did the real Brockovich compare to Roberts' portrayal?

"She was exactly like Julia in the movie," Girardi said. "She would come back with those quick retorts" like the scene in which Finney says some of the women in the office aren't comfortable with the way Roberts' character dresses.

"Is that so?" Roberts replies. "Well, it just so happens I think I look nice and as long as I have one ass instead of two, I'll wear what I like. If that's all right with you."

Masry said he thinks the filmmakers have accurately captured the relationship between Brockovich and himself.

"Erin and I had our arguments," he said. "We had our bad times and we had our good times. When I first heard that Julia was going to play Erin, I thought, 'What a horrible mistake.' The only movies I had seen Julia in, she was kind of like a vestal virgin. You know, 'Runaway Bride' and 'Notting Hill.' I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the film. She did a wonderful job."

And, how does Roberts' sexy attire in the film compare to that worn by the real-life Erin?

"If anything," Masry said, "Julia wore longer skirts."

*

Epilogue: Litigation against PG&E continues. Lack said that on Nov. 27, trial is scheduled to begin in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of 1,600 plaintiffs arising out of the same sort of allegations in Hinkley, only this time involving PG&E pumping stations in Topock, a remote site on the Arizona state line, and Kettleman City in Kings County, as well as some former Hinkley residents who came forward later.

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