(SPOILERS: Titanic, Valkyrie, Captain Phillips, 42)
Basing a movie on true events immediately heightens our interest in the story. That’s probably why so many awards season movies are based on true events (this year 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, 42, Lone Survivor and The Butler are just a few examples). If the story is obscure enough – such as with 12 Years a Slave (screenplay by John Ridley) – we might not know what happened and watch to find out how it comes out. But what if you’re writing about well-known events?
Stories where we know the ending can still be good and popular. But you can’t make the dramatic question of the movie be about the well-known outcome. For example, Titanic (written by James Cameron) was widely mocked when it was announced. “Why would anybody watch that? We already know the boat sinks!” Of course, when it was released it became the most popular movie of all time.
Why? Because it wasn’t about whether or not the boat sank. Cameron used the backdrop of the Titanic to tell a love story. The dramatic question was, “Will Jack and Rose end up together?” We didn’t know the answer to that question.
The movie Valkyrie (written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander) wasn’t nearly as successful, partly because the dramatic question was about whether the attempt to assassinate Hitler would be successful. But we already knew it wouldn’t, so the suspense scenes weren’t very suspenseful. (Even if you weren’t familiar with this story, you probably know that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker with the allies closing in.)
When developing a movie based on well-known events, you have to find the story within the story. Is there something interesting that is not widely known? You should think about what drew you to the material in the first place. What is the thematic element that intrigues you? Can you build a compelling story using the true events to illuminate this thematic idea in a fresh way?
For example, everybody knows that Lincoln freed the slaves. The movie Lincoln (screenplay by Tony Kushner), however, revealed the political maneuvering required to achieve that goal. It explored the pressure on Lincoln to accept a lesser step, and on Lincoln’s own self doubts about the constitutionality of what he was doing. These nuances were unfamiliar to most of the audience.
The best place to look for this is in the character. For example, 42 (written by Brian Helgeland) tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. But we know how that story comes out. We know about racism and we know Robinson was successful. We know baseball became integrated.
What the movie shows us is Robinson’s struggle to resist fighting back when he was attacked. He’s set up as a strong, proud, somewhat short-tempered man. But when he was recruited to the Dodgers, Branch Rickey knew that he would be taunted and that if he reacted violently, all people would remember was that a black man had been violent. The story within the story here is how hard Robinson had to work to overcome his understandable instinct to defend himself.
Similarly, if you follow the news at all, you probably thought you knew how Captain Phillips (screenplay by Billy Ray) ends. But if you see the movie, the ending is powerful and surprising – because it is more about the emotional impact of this experience on Phillips than on whether he physically survives. That’s the story within the story. Captain Phillips also reveals the motivations and life of the pirates, something most people are not as familiar with. (Even so, the movie is a little slow to get going because we're mostly just waiting for the attack we know is coming.)
After watching Valkyrie, I thought one solution to their problem would be to change the main character. Valkyrie tells the story of Claus von Stauffenberg, the organizer of the attempted coup. But von Stauffenberg decides at the very beginning that Hitler is bad for Germany and has to be stopped. And he never wavers in this belief throughout the movie. Thus the question became, “Will von Stauffenberg’s coup succeed?” – a question we knew the answer to.
However there was another character, General Fromm, whose story was much more interesting. He thought Hitler was bad for Germany, but struggled with whether he could betray the legitimate leader of his country, a country he loved. A very compelling movie could have been made about Fromm’s struggle, with the dramatic question: “Will he join the plot or not?”
Digging into the internal struggle of a character is a good way to bring a new perspective on a true story that we already think we know. It allows you to explore the meaning of the events rather than just what happened. And if you’re going to tell a familiar story, you better have a new perspective on what it all means.