Monday, March 31, 2014

The need for truth in "based on a true story"

Let me give you a little background to this post.  A little over a week ago, my friends Geoff LaTulippe and Scott Beggs over at Broken Projector discussed the issue of fidelity to the truth in content that's labeled as "based on a true story." In particular, they were discussing the case of a twitter account whose author claimed to be dying of terminal cancer.  Those who followed the feed found it to be inspirational and quite moving, and they were saddened when a final tweet announced the author's passing.

It didn't take long for people to begin questioning the veracity of the account.  As the story became less and less plausible upon examination, the followers started to feel duped and hoodwinked.  Geoff and Scott batted this issue around, with Geoff essentially taking the position, "Who cares? Does it matter?"  Is there a responsibility to be 100% accurate when telling a story that's ostensibly based on actual events?  They invited their listeners to write in with their thoughts on that debate.

This happened to be an issue I've given a lot of thought over the years, so I dashed off a not-small email to the fine gents.  On their show this week, they gave the issue another airing and encouraged me to post the letter in full on my blog. Then to drive home the point, they got on Twitter and attempted to get their followers to bully me into posting it.

Message received.  What follows is the email I sent them, with a few revisions and additions for clarity:

The first time I can ever really remember thinking about this question was when I was in middle school and ran across a Roger Ebert piece on JFK. The whole piece is worth reading in full, but I'll reproduce a few key paragraphs below:

"Their criticisms all boiled down to a couple of key points: They felt Stone's movie was based on unsupportable speculation, and they believed his film's hero, former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, was an unscrupulous publicity seeker who drummed up his celebrated case against Clay Shaw out of thin air.

"These points are no doubt well-taken. I believe they are irrelevant to the film, which is not a documentary, not a historical study and not a courtroom presentation, but a movie that weaves a myth around the Kennedy assassination - a myth in which the slain leader was the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. The pollsters tell us that most Americans believe this anyway. Even Tom Wicker, down deep in his piece, says he does not believe the Warren Commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Well, who does? And yet the image of Oswald as the lone killer has been the official establishment myth for 28 years. Is it such a terrible thing Stone has done, to weave a countermyth?

"Here on the movie beat, I always sort of quail when anybody makes a film that ventures out of pure Hollywood fantasy and into the real lives of the experts in the front section of the newspaper. I'm sure to be treated to many analytical studies of the factual accuracy of the film, in which the writers may be sound in their knowledge of history, but seem to have little idea why they or anyone else in the audience really goes to see a movie. People will not buy tickets to "JFK" because they think Oliver Stone knows who killed Kennedy. And when "Babe" comes out this summer, and inspires all sorts of disillusioned analysis on the sports page, that movie's factual accuracy will have nothing to do with the tickets it sells, either.

"People go to the movies to be told a story. If it is a good story, they will believe it for as long as the movie lasts. If it is a very good story, it may linger in their memory somewhat longer. In the case of "JFK," which I think is a terrific example of storytelling, what they will remember is not the countless facts and conjectures that the movie's hero spins in his lonely campaign to solve the assassination. What they will remember (or, if they are young enough, what they will learn) is how we all felt on Nov. 22, 1963, and why for all the years afterward a lie has seemed to lodge in the national throat - the lie that we know the truth about who murdered Kennedy."

A perspective like that is why I'm generally pretty forgiving about "inaccuracies" in movies like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. When the distortions are in service to the story and as long as nothing truly batshit happens like aliens rescuing the ship, I can live with some fudging in terms of specific characters and attitudes. But then I can't help but remember that in another review of a movie based on a real-life incident, Ebert muses that "for an entire generation, this will be how they remember the truth." I can't remember the film or the real life incident, unfortunately. But I get where this is coming from - if APOLLO 13 implied that the malfunction was the work of Russian spies looking to cripple the NASA space program, that would be beyond the pale, no matter how much drama it made for.

So to some degree, I think that the need for fidelity in filmmaking varies with the scope of the incident and the significance of the incident to the larger world. It'd be easy to say a blanket "Who cares?" but I don't think it's that black-and-white. Now just to contradict myself, I'll revisit an issue that was batted around a few weeks ago.  The whole story with THE BRINGING really strikes me as distasteful. To take a real life incident where someone actually died and use their real names while wrapping it up in a supernatural context strikes me as really distasteful. Even though this real-life story is relatively unknown (I hadn't heard of it until the film), it bothers me that the script seems to capitalize on that tragedy when it would be so easy to change the names and merely allow the story to be vaguely inspired by the real incident, as most LAW & ORDER eps are.

And yet, I don't have a problem with the myriad of time-travel stories that deal with someone going back to the Kennedy Assassination, even when the story reveals that the traveler ends up being the assassin. I recognize there are a lot of contradictions in my stance.

With regard to the internet hoaxes discussed on the podcast, I think that it's ridiculous to get fired up over things like if Diane in 7A was real or not. If someone was using that viral lie to solicit money or otherwise profit from it, then I'd have an issue. In general, most harmless Twitter hoaxes don't bug me. This also includes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I thought it was brilliant how they tried to add some verisimilitude to the whole thing by building that internet rabbit hole for people to fall down if they attempted to do an internet search on that story.

When it comes to someone like James Frey, though, fuck that guy. I mean, it turns out that lying to Oprah is the least of that guy's sins, but I think once you've gone on Oprah and tried to pass your hack writing off as a real memoir, you deserve what you get when people call it out. If the BLAIR WITCH filmmakers appeared on Oprah under the pretense they wanted to raise awareness about these missing kids and how Maryland was doing nothing to find them, then they'd be rightly drawn and quartered when the truth came out.

(And as indicated, my disgust with Frey is at an extreme because of the story in the link above. I think people who prey on naive writers are the lowest of the low.  Taking advantage of someone's naivete in order to get them to sign over basically all rights to their creative work with an insulting low pay scale is really offensive.  As far as I'm concerned it's indefensible.  For a fellow writer to do that to people who look up to him as a mentor is about the slimiest thing ever. So yeah, fuck that guy.)

So I don't know. I think it would help if there was agreement on what consisted a major inaccuracy in an adaptation. I'm tired of every Oscar season turning into hit piece after hit piece on these "based on a true story" films. Sometimes the changes are major, but when we get to stuff like nitpicking deliberate timeline inaccuracies or composite characters, it gets out of hand.

In the second podcast, Geoff touched in this and said that he had no issue with those kinds of articles if they approached it from a more academic standpoint.  In other words, if they come from the angle of "Look at what they changed and understand why some of that was necessary," it could be educational about the process of writing a script.  Too often, these pieces carry the subtext of "They changed a few facts so this movie doesn't deserve an Oscar."  I'm not sure that should be one of the main criteria when evaluation how effective a film is as a piece of drama.

So what are your feelings on adapting true stories?  I'm curious to see where some of you draw the line.


  1. We went through a lot of discussion on this when we were writing our making-of-Jaws script THE MAYOR OF SHARK CITY. Certain things were completely true, certain things were embellishments of the truth, and certain things were created out of whole cloth. We wanted to stay true to the spirit of what happened, but we also wanted those big movie moments, which are hard to find by staying 100% true to real life.

    What we ultimately decided was this... We tried to base any dramatic license, even things that we knew never happened, in some kind of truth. All of the creative embellishments could be traced back to some kernel of an idea, something mentioned in passing in an interview or article, some kind of emotion conveyed in real life. So every lie had a certain amount of truth to it, no matter how small. In that sense, what we were going for was: "Okay, maybe this didn't happen... But it feels like it COULD have happened."

    But more than that, we decided that any dramatic license we took with the script had to serve the EMOTIONAL story above all. It could not be an arbitrary choice to simply create dramatic tension or serve only as a plot device, as we felt that would ring false. It had to come from a place of character, and ultimately had to function as part of our hero's emotional journey. If you can ground both the true life stuff and the made up stuff in the same kind of real emotion, it's easier to connect it together and make it feel part of a dramatic whole.

    Our ultimate goal was to tell a good story, not necessarily a true one.

  2. It's about capturing the spirit of the story. Many of these stories are stranger than fiction, but simply wouldn't work as movies without dramatization. As an audience member, we trust the integrity of these filmmakers when they walk the line between real facts and good story.

    Some of the best adaptations made -- 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, Argo, The Social Network, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider, etc. have dramatized scenes or entire acts. Mark Zuckerberg didn't create Facebook out of social rejection from girls and clubs. The six Americans weren't chased down the tarmac at the airport in Tehran. CBS had legitimate concerns over The Wigand Story after ABC was sued by Phillip Morris for $10 billion.

    All movies based on true events must do this to some extent. The question is -- how is it done in a respectful and faithful manner? The audiences attending these movies are smart, and know when story is being warped for the wrong reasons. I think this is why Zero Dark Thirty was such a controversial movie -- no one cared that Maya was a composite who didn't truly exist, but the fact that waterboarding was shown tangentially in the hunt for Bin Laden raised a few eyebrows (I recommend Mark Bowden's piece in The Atlantic on this). American Hustle was an incredible film and every character felt like they had their own storyline, but in doing so too much of the true story was cannibalized.

    To bring this full circle, I recently brought an article to a studio based producer who worked on one of the movies mentioned above. The producer liked the article, but was worried about the morality and character of the protagonist. His concern was not about if the story was good or if it was commercial, but what I feel is the most important thing when telling a true story -- "Can I in good conscience tell this story, this way?"

  3. As an aside, I have read *many* books on writing, and James Frey's _How to Write a Damn Good Novel_ stands out in my memory as one of the worst by far.

  4. It depends on the movie-story. If there's a lot of historical inaccuracies for revisionist sake it can hurt a film for some people (like 'Kingdom Of Heaven' a number of years ago) but I also find that having too much truth can *also* hurt a film. One film I liked in the 90s was Ghost and The Darkness. I was surprised to find out that the Michael Douglas hunter character was made up for the film. The crazy lion traps which I thought were made up for the film were not. (Ebert actually pointed one out on how outright silly it is)

    Another example is let's say Titanic and Peal Harbor. In those films (both hits) we had fictitious characters interacting with real characters and events. I don't think audiences mind that so much.

    Again, I think it depends on a film to film basis.

  5. When writing something based on true events (I've now written four), I have one guiding principle: to find the tether between what those characters experienced and what we struggle with today WITHOUT exploiting the subject. Bottom line: be fair to the spirit of source, as subjective and vague as that sounds.

    If the tether doesn't present itself through research or a natural accumulation of emotional mining, I pass. But only after diving deep. Head first. Below the concrete in the deep end.

    Facts are stubborn things, but they are merely the walls to the room. There are numerous (subjective) versions of what was said and done in that room, even if there are living witnesses. The RASHOMON effect, if you will.

    Sharp turns and sudden lane changes are an inescapable part of driving with a creative license.

  6. This is always I sticky situation. A while back I read "A Country of Strangers", about a very famous, real life, unsolved kidnapping of three children in Australia. The script had been getting some buzz so I gave it a read. For the most part it was a standard procedural about a journalist investigating the kidnapping. But, it went totally off the rails in the last act and ended with the eldest child, a girl, being alive. Not only was she alive, but she had been brainwashed by the kidnapper and killed the journalist. None of which ever happened. I'm not sure what possessed the writer to bend the truth to such a degree. This was not only a fabrication, but insulting to the families of the missing kids.

  7. I'm sorry, but it seems to me two situations are being conflated here. YES, when a person lies on the Internet about being terminally ill, it matters. There's even a name for this--Munchausen by Internet. These people tend to show up in online support groups and forums and play on the empathy of people who are sick themselves--and often bilk them out of time and money. Here it looks like people were just bilked out of time. Can't really argue no harm done, but at least there doesn't appear to be hard-earned cash involved.

    I think "real" stories in movies and books are a whole different thing. On some level, if the audience is smart, they'll know there are smudges in the hard lines of truth. I think there have to be since it's impossible to do a large work about a historical or biographical event and not have an opinion on how it happened. History is, by nature, interpretation. And sometimes, the "truth" isn't even known. (But truth is out there, Scully!) :)

    This isn't to defend James Frey (I too think he can go fuck himself) or Greg Mortenson (THREE CUPS OF TEA). There's interpretation and then there's flat-out lying. But I tend to be forgiving of biographical and historical movies because I think they're great to give an accurate feel of an historical period or a person's life. But I don't think they're obligated to get bogged down in "just the facts, ma'am" or even tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Would be pretty boring if they did.