True-Life Stories: Getting “Real” In Hollywood

Basing a film project on true-life events has obvious benefits. True stories — particularly strange true stories — are inherently compelling. Such tales appeal to our desire for authenticity. Plus, if an event that is a matter of public record, it can never be criticized for being “unbelievable.”

While Hollywood has a seemingly insatiable appetite for true stories, such ventures can be fraught with peril. Critics and pundits can eviscerate a film based on perceived historical inaccuracies or political agendas, as we saw happen with this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Just launching such a venture can tie you up in a knot of legal red tape that will make you think Grimm’s Fairy Tales might make a far better source of inspiration.

If you’re still intent on creating a film based on true-life or historical events, here are some key issues you need to consider.

1. Is there a “story” there? Not all true-life events are suitable feature film fodder. Just because a story is “true” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dramatic or even interesting. (For example, a real estate agent may love to regale his friends about how he sold a run-down house for twice its market value, but that would probably make a poor feature film.) Ideally, the story you want to tell has the same elements present in wholly originally works:

  • A protagonist with a worthy goal and something major to lose if he/she fails.
  • A powerful antagonist that prevents the hero from achieving his/her goal.
  • A series of conflicts, triumphs and setbacks that tests the protagonist along his/her journey.
  • Late in the story, a moment of apparent failure.
  • A climax that pits the protagonist against the antagonist.
  • A resolution that is satisfying emotionally or intellectually.

In other words, ask yourself, “Would this make a good movie if the story wasn’t true?”

2. Who owns the story rights? If you’re basing your film on events more than 100 years old, chances are the story and the people involved are now in public domain. Even then, if you use one or two particular books as source material, you may have to get the rights to those sources before moving forward. (As Steven Spielberg did with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, when making last year’s Lincoln.) You definitely need to get clearances from living private figures before making your film. And even so-called “public figures” such as politicians and celebrities — even dead ones — often require filmmakers to get clearances before such individuals can be portrayed in commercial entertainment. (The estates of such late notables as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and even Albert Einstein are quite strict when it comes to how their images are used in commercial ventures.) Be sure to work with a lawyer experienced in these matters before committing time and treasure to your film project.

3. How close do you have to adhere to the “facts”? This is where writing true-life stories gets really tricky. Very few true events fit smoothly into the classic motion picture template. Events must often be compressed and/or re-arranged to make narrative sense. Some characters need to be eliminated, some combined and others created out of whole cloth to satisfying the demands of the story as a whole. Sometimes, what really happened isn’t quite dramatic enough, and you need to embellish with a bit of Hollywood magic. (As director Ben Affleck did when he staged the thrilling climatic airport chase in last year’s Oscar-winning Argo.)

This then leads us to the age-old argument, how much does a writer or filmmaker owe the “facts”? Some argue that any major deviation from the historical record undercuts the project’s impact. Others argue, “We’re making a movie, not a documentary!” and inevitably point to the historical plays of William Shakespeare which, although based on real events, are more products of the Bard’s imagination than historical verisimilitude.

In fact, since the earliest days of filmmaking, Hollywood has played fast and loose with the “facts,” preferring instead to focus on a story’s “truth.” What’s the difference? “Facts” are quantifiable data points that, by themselves, mean nothing. “Truth” is the meaning we derive from our interpretation of those facts. As works of art, movies are always far more concerned with truth than they are in facts.

In other words, as a filmmaker, you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. This approach may be controversial in some quarters, but it rarely yields anything but positive dividends. From Disraeli(1929), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Pride of the Yankees (1942) , Laurence of Arabia (1962), All the President’s Men (1976) and Chariots of Fire (1981) to Schindler’s List (1993), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Moneyball (2011), Hollywood has always had a casual relationship with the “facts,” still managing to produce motion pictures of enormous emotional and sociological impact that has managed to stand the test of time. – Allen B. Ury