Monday, April 12, 2010

Genre Considerations - Historical and True Stories

(SPOILERS: Inglourious Basterds, The Hurricane)

Writing movies based on historical events or true stories can be more difficult than it seems. On the one hand you have a lot of material to work with and presumably it’s inherently dramatic. On the other hand, real life is messy. It seldom fits neatly into a compelling storyline. And you can have a problem with too much material to squeeze into a roughly two hour film.

One of the first challenges is deciding how accurate you have to stay to actual events. Ultimately we’re not creating documentaries we’re creating fictionalized stories. However, if you claim that your story is “true” there is some expectation of accuracy.

In general the more recent the events and the greater political or social agenda you have, the bigger the obligation of accuracy. Movies like JFK (screenplay by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar) and Hotel Rwanda (written by Keir Pearson & Terry George) must hew to facts more than movies like 300 (screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon) or Braveheart (written by Randall Wallace).

The Hurricane (screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon) was picked apart for any liberties it took with the facts because it was about a guy who was alive and in prison and suggested that he was innocent. There were real world implications to how accurate the movie was. Movies about people long dead are less likely to draw such criticism – with the exception of movies that take a negative view of religious icons or patriotic heroes.

If anybody in your movie is still alive or was recently famous you may have legal issues to contend with as well. I’m not a lawyer and so won’t offer any advice in this regard, but there are several books on legal issues for writers you can consult. And you would be wise to do so!

So now you’re faced with this messy true story. You’ve probably done a lot of research. How do you organize everything?

The first thing to do is figure out what draws you to the story. What is the movie you want to make really about? Keep in mind I might make a completely different movie about the same events. That’s why this is art and not a history lesson. Try to summarize your vision of the story in a logline of twenty-five words or less. Once you’ve got a logline that you think really captures the core of the story, hang onto that dearly as you outline your material.

In my personal experience and with my students who have written true stories one of the challenges you will likely face is too much material. That’s why this core logline is so important. You will probably need to reduce the big scope of true events down to a smaller, more manageable storyline. And that may mean losing things you really love but don’t serve your primary concept.

This is especially true if you are trying to write about a person with a long, interesting life. It’s difficult to cover the entirety of someone’s life in two hours. You may need to find a period that is representative of what drew you to the subject in the first place.

If you’re writing about a specific historical figure then you probably know who your main character is – though remember Amadeus (screenplay by Peter Shaffer) took the unexpected route of making Salieri the main character in a story about Mozart, so you might want to consider whether the most significant figure is actually your best main character.

If you’re writing something more sprawling you’ll want to identify a strong main character to lead us through the story. We need to become involved in a person to really care about the events of the movie. Hotel Rwanda told the story of that genocide through the eyes of Paul Rusesabagina and JFK used the character of Jim Garrison to get us inside the mystery of Kennedy’s assassination.

You’ll find you’re constantly honing, compressing and focusing the story. You’ll probably need to cut and combine minor characters. In real life someone may influence the story in an important way for one scene and then leave. In a movie you may need to combine that person with someone else to avoid having to introduce so many characters. If you’re dealing with living people, you may want to create a fictional character that’s an amalgam of several real people to avoid any legal trouble.

You’ll also have to combine events that happened at different times into single scenes for space reason. You will probably have to reorder events as well. Again, how much freedom you have to do that depends on how recent and political your story is.

You also have to consider how well known the events are. I had a big problem with Inglourious Basterds (written by Quentin Tarantino). I liked a lot of the movie…until the ending when Hitler is killed in the theater bombing. It broke my suspension of disbelief because I know how Hitler really died.

I think Tarantino could have told an excellent fictional story set against the backdrop of World War II where a fictional Nazi general is killed at the end. But by including Hitler the movie raises the bar for accuracy on itself and then fails to deliver.

The farther back in history you go, the more likely you are to find unique challenges. I once wrote a historical biography (as yet unproduced) set in 16th century Denmark where a significant conflict comes from the prohibition against nobles marrying commoners. Since we’re completely unfamiliar with those social conventions these days I had to work hard to give the audience the context for that conflict.

In the same story a lot of the historical arguments actually happened via letters. That’s not very filmic. So in my script I often took the main character (a noble) and the antagonist (the king) and put them in the same location so they could have their arguments face to face. Not accurate but it makes for a better movie.

Another challenge for historical movies, of course, is period dialogue. I covered that in my last post.

Ultimately when writing about historical and true events you must remember that story rules. Honor the truth not the facts. And keep it dramatic!


Sanket said...

I have started following your blog, rather vigorously.
Can I connect with you on Netflix, in order to see what you're watching?

Besides E.T., Would you plz analyze some of the other best movies? e.g. Taxi Driver, American Beauty, Sideways..?

Doug Eboch said...

My Netflix Queue has a lot of weird stuff on that I'm watching for various reasons (research or whatever). Probably more useful is my list of movies to watch: