“Money. Sex. Violence. Kidnapping.”
Donald Sutherland, looking meditative over breakfast at an upscale diner here in late January, was contemplating a question: Why were people suddenly fascinated by the Getty family and what happened to them in 1973? How, he added, “did this family who had so much success also have so much failure?”
Mr. Sutherland plays the billionaire J. Paul Getty in the new FX series “Trust,” which debuts on March 25. Like Ridley Scott’s recent movie, “All the Money in the World,” the first season of the show — three different season-long stories about the Gettys are planned — deals with the 1973 kidnapping of the patriarch’s teenage grandson, John Paul Getty III, and the concatenation of family tensions around money and power that frames the event.
“There is an ecosystem around it which is as extraordinary as the kidnapping itself,” said Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”), who directed the first three episodes and is an executive producer on the show alongside the producer Christian Colson and the writer Simon Beaufoy. “An amazingly compelling world emerged out of the research.”
Clearly others had found the 1973 kidnapping compelling too; FX had already greenlighted the project when they discovered that Mr. Scott was working on a movie on the same subject, with Kevin Spacey as the Getty patriarch. That already buzzed-about project acquired a great deal of notoriety when Mr. Spacey, accused of sexual harassment and assault, was removed from the finished movie and his scenes reshot with Christopher Plummer. But the movie disappointed at the box office, perhaps a sign that audiences may not find this particular family’s Shakespearean dysfunction as fascinating as the creators do.
Forty-five years ago, the kidnapping of the 16-year-old Paul (as he was known) in Rome, and the subsequent $17 million ransom demand, made headlines all over the world. But his grandfather — possibly the world’s richest man at the time, thanks in large part to his oil empire — first treated the kidnapping as a hoax. “If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren,” he famously pronounced. It was only when, several months later, an Italian newspaper received a package containing a severed ear and a lock of hair, that Getty Sr. agreed to provide the money. (He told Paul’s father that it was a loan, to be repaid at 4 percent interest.)
Mr. Beaufoy, who collaborated with Mr. Doyle and Mr. Colson on the Academy Award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” said in a telephone interview that he had become fascinated with the kidnapping after reading an article four or five years ago. “I started delving into the mystery about how no one would pay a ransom,” he said. “The more I delved, the more interesting it became: The complexity of these ridiculously wealthy people who were so locked in their own pain that they couldn’t just write a check.”
Although Mr. Beaufoy was about to embark on another project for FX, he proposed the Getty kidnapping as a potential series. “I thought about it for television from the beginning because it was so complex,” he said. “The generational issues needed those 10 episodes. And the story was so apposite to now, to the crazy wealthy element of our society, that I felt I should do it right away.”
FX agreed. “It was really their larger ambitions that drew us in,” Gina Balian, executive vice president of series development at FX Networks and FX Productions, said in an email. “It felt like their approach to exploring how money influences family bonds would be original and not another story that idealizes the wealthy and powerful of this world.” After seeing early scripts, Ms. Balian said that it was “an easy decision” to greenlight the show.
Mr. Boyle had begun casting — signing up Hilary Swank as Gail Getty, Paul’s mother, and Brendan Fraser as the former C.I.A. operative James Fletcher Chace, who was Getty Sr.’s security specialist — when it emerged that Mr. Scott was making a movie on the same subject. Although FX ultimately pushed back the series release date from January, to put some distance between “Trust” and the December opening of “All the Money in the World,” there was no erosion of confidence from network executives, Mr. Boyle said, adding that they felt that a 10-part series was quite a different beast from a two-hour film.
It’s definitely a lot more experimental. Episode 6 is spoken entirely in the Calabrian dialect of Paul’s kidnappers. In several episodes, Chace speaks directly to the audience (shades of “House of Cards”), offering an epoch-spanning perspective on the events depicted during the rest of the show.
“I mentioned that it’s like Chace has a prescience, like he is a time traveler,” Mr. Fraser recounted in a telephone interview. “That developed into a touch of magical realism.”
In the first three episodes, which Mr. Boyle directed, the plethora of characters, split screens and montages of often-puzzling, nonlinear events eventually begin to resolve into a coherent story line: Paul, badly in debt to drug dealers, has planned his own kidnapping to raise money from his famously tightfisted family, then becomes a helpless victim as events spiral out of control. (This offers a different perspective to “All the Money,” which paints Paul as a victim from the outset.)
“The more research I did, the more I realized he arranged his own kidnapping,” Mr. Beaufoy said. “It was a huge attention-seeking device; they’ll pay because they love me. It became an extraordinary metaphor for the third generation saying, pay some attention to me, show me some love.”
But only Gail, Paul’s mother, seems to have any love to give, and is the only one who desperately fights for her son’s release. “There is probably nothing as scary as something happening to your child when you don’t know what the outcome will be,” Ms. Swank said during a day filming Gail’s meeting with Walter Annenberg, the American ambassador in London at the time.
“I felt that what was important was that Gail is the story’s emotional anchor, for all those others who treat the kidnapping like a business transaction,” Ms. Swank said in a subsequent telephone interview. “From being someone who was dependent on others, she has to take charge because no one else is going to. What does she have to do to get her son out alive?”
One of the things she has to do is persuade Getty Sr. to agree to provide the ransom, which was reduced to about $3 million. When it was suggested to Mr. Sutherland that Getty Sr. was perhaps not the nicest of men, he fiercely defended his character’s choices.
“I have huge respect and admiration for him,” Mr. Sutherland said. “He did what he did himself, he worked on oil rigs, and he was desperately anxious to have his children carry on what he had worked so relentlessly — not ruthlessly — to achieve. He offered the children everything, and instead they didn’t work and took drugs, and he gave up on them.”
Ultimately, Mr. Boyle said, the story is about willpower. “It’s the willpower of each of the individual characters, the willpower exercised between old Paul and his grandson, first as one tries to get money from the other, then extending into different arenas, some tragic,” he said. “The joy of working in this format is that you can show how complicated any narrative can be.”
Or as Mr. Sutherland put it: “To try to capture the truth of a human being, la condition humaine, it’s the most extraordinary business in the world.”