Why Based on a True Story Movies Repeatedly Unravel

Posted by Christina Hamlett on

If you're thinking of making a based on a true story film, read how and why these impassioned attempts to make Art imitate Life repeatedly unravel.

Based on a true story is one of those unfortunate catch-phrases that usually has the opposite effect in courting a producer's enthusiasm than most writers assume. Of the several hundred projects a year I review as a script consultant, nearly 20% are prefaced with some variation on the theme "Everything in this plot really, truly happened." Translated: "That's why I know/hope/expect you will really, truly like it."

Whether such events happened personally to the author or someone else, however, these claims of authenticity garner pretty much the same reaction as whenever I see a car sporting one of those perky yellow "Baby on Board" decals. Specifically, if you have to warn everyone to cut you some slack because you're distracted by transporting the greatest bundle of joy in the world, you should probably not be on the road to begin with.

Reality, it seems, has become a popular excuse to go light on substance and even lighter on the rules that constitute a marketable film. Here's a look at how and why these impassioned attempts to make Art imitate Life repeatedly unravel.

Ripped from the Headlines

Daily newspapers are replete with characters and incidents that lend themselves to compelling plots. If the media is your primary source of inspiration, you need to be aware of two things. The first is that the rights to adapt a blockbuster news story to a feature film are probably being negotiated by a major screenwriter, publishing house or producer while you're still working on your first cup of coffee. Murders, political scandals and catastrophic disasters rank high as potential film material; even if the project gets put on a backburner, the first powerbroker to secure an option will render it hands-off for anyone else. Secondly, human interest stories that get tucked somewhere into the back pages involve people who are just as real as the front-page headliners and, accordingly, could acquire real lawyers who aren't going to take kindly to their clients' real names being used without written permission.

Interestingly, the majority of projects I've read that purport to have used actual names, dates, and locales of stories that weren't front-page material aren't exactly blowing out all the stops on a Google search. The message? If it didn't hold the public's curiosity two weeks after it happened, it's probably not going to hold their attention for two hours in a movie theater, either.

Public Popularity Does Not Equal Public Domain

As recently as last month, I received a script that revolved around a glamorous Hollywood couple that was adopting children from impoverished countries as well as making babies of their own. Hmm. I wonder who that real-life couple could possibly be? When I pointed out to the author that more than a few similarities might be drawn to Brad and Angelina, his defense was, "Aren't they fair game? They're always in the spotlight." True. But the same laws that protect the privacy rights of ordinary citizens extend to high-profile celebrities, even the ones who liberally open their mouths, their closets, and their pasts to the tabloids and, thus, leave little to their gossip-hungry fans' imaginations. Just because a lot is written about them isn't an invitation for you to cut and paste it into your next screenplay.

You should likewise tread lightly insofar as peopling your plots with dead celebs like Elvis and Marilyn. An area of law called "right of publicity" protects deceased icons from trademark infringement, defamatory inference, and the commercial exploitation of their names, images and personalities. The survivability of these rights varies from state to state (in California, it's 70 years after death) as well as internationally. If you want to base your script on the bona fide exploits of flesh-and-blood personalities without acquiring legal permission, your safest bet is to only choose those who have been dead for at least a century. Worried about lawsuits from heirs? Privacy rights and the right to protect one's reputation from unflattering portrayals are considered personal rights in the U.S.; upon death, these rights don't descend to the estate or progeny.

History 101 Ad Nauseum

The downside of writing about dead people, of course, is the compulsion to explain in copious detail the era and circumstances in which they lived. Yes, it proves that you did your homework but audiences generally don't like to feel as if there's going to be a test afterwards to see how many names and dates they were able to memorize. When the breadth of facts exceeds the depth of character, no one is going to care.

An example I often use in my workshops relates to a client who wanted to pen an epic about Lewis and Clark and how they discovered a passage to the Pacific Northwest with the help of Sacajawea. By page 73 of the screenplay, however, the lads had yet to even leave the St. Louis city limits. Sacajawea, in turn, hadn't advanced past the toddler stage by page 102. This protracted style of plot development is a fairly common error amongst new writers and ignores a simple truth: People are not born interesting but, rather, become interesting as a result of their environment. If you're going to write about historical icons, start the story at the point that their existence and sensibilities are actually challenged.

And Then the Actors Wander Around for a Few Scenes

The only crime worse than telling us too much is telling us far too little and assuming that the actors will get so swept up in the real-life personas they're portraying that they'll feel inspired to go perform their own independent research. I once reviewed a script, for instance, in which the writer penned an action line that read:

While they sip their tea, the other characters do a Q&A ad lib with Marie about why she decided to become a scientist and maybe she can also throw in some anecdotes about how she met her husband. I think there are a lot of books about this.

Yes, really. I swear I don't make this stuff up.

Even if you're writing about historical personalities who have been represented in more movies than anyone else (and according to Film Facts by Patrick Robertson, the record is currently held by Napoleon), you can't leave their dialogue and interactions as an improvisational exercise for the cast. In a nutshell, never trust actors to "wing it" for you.

Memoirs of a Shiksa

Several years ago, I was approached by an elderly feminist who wanted me to adapt her self-published memoirs to a feature film. The project started out somewhat fun at first. Toward the end of the first act, however, things took an ugly turn when what she believed was important ran counter to what I thought was unnecessary. I should have known, I suppose, that when the length of her email suggestions started exceeding the page count of the specific scenes under discussion, it was a smart time to bail.

Her: So what's with deleting the Seder scene with Uncle Herschel?
Me: It didn't really add anything to the plot.
Her: Like you were there to hear it? It was really funny.
Me: I'm sure it was but--
Her: But what? You should put it back in already. It'll make him feel good.
Me: Respectfully, you told me he's been dead 20 years.
Her: And this means what? You think he's not going to know you dumped him on the cutting room floor?

Tweaking someone's fondest memories to fit the parameters of a different medium brings with it the ongoing challenge of reassuring them that (1) you're not criticizing how they lived, (2) you're not diminishing an event's importance by deleting it, and (3) you're not jeopardizing the original content because, truth be told, most people who have ever read a book know that its movie version won't follow verbatim. Unlike the random meanderings of real life as recorded in a diary, an adaptation to film means that the dull parts can be edited out, the setbacks can be magnified to evoke sympathy, and the intentions manipulated to resonate with a target demographic. Unless the person whose life-story you're adapting understands these distinctions and agrees to defer to your creative judgment, the stress you endure during the collaborative process may not be worth the paycheck.

Been There, Done That

Inspirational stories of famous people who triumph over tragedy generally make for a more watchable product than the true-life accounts of workaday folks seeking commercial validation for the setbacks they endured, setbacks that don't necessarily qualify as "unique." Most of the ones I review fall under the labels of (1) surviving an illness, (2) surviving an accident, (3) surviving a bad relationship, or (4) surviving an earthquake, hurricane, monsoon, tornado, etc. While it's commendable they survived these tests that rattled their status quo, what a lot of this autobiographical content has in common - and what subsequently results in its rejection - is that the primary focus of the plots is on saving themselves as opposed to making sacrifices for a greater good.

Cynthia Whitcomb's The Writer's Guide to Writing Your Screenplay addresses this phenomenon through a five-step evolutionary process that goes from an individual's self-preservation instincts and moves into bonding/family/community and, finally, humanity. A script wherein the protagonist never moves past his Act 1 tier of development isn't going to resonate with an audience as much as one in which he/she is not only able to see the bigger picture but also engages in proactive measures instead of simply reacting to each new crisis as it arrives. On the flip side, a character whose emotional journey is predicated on a pattern of descent - King Lear, for instance - is equally compelling because of the underscored message that no one is truly immune to a fall from grace.

One *#%&! Thing After Another

Many screenwriters who try their hand at true-life tales make the mistake of stringing a linear succession of unrelated conflicts together instead of focusing on the conflict that is the most filmable of the bunch and parsing it into three acts that escalate the risks at each turn. By ignoring the traditional formula of chasing one's protagonist up a tree, throwing rocks at the tree and then setting the tree on fire, the result often looks like this:

Act 1: Ed, a high school freshman, survives falling out of a kayak and being chased by bears.
Act 2: Ed, recently divorced, survives an incident of botulism from eating his Aunt Harriet's cream pie.
Act 3: Two years short of retirement, Ed gets fired from the factory for sleeping on the job.

Although our beliefs, fears and dreams are shaped by the things we experience at various stages of our lives, every scene and conversation in a film derives from - and revolves around - a single inciting incident that calls for resolution. If the plot reads like a checklist of isolated dilemmas and accomplishments, it's just not going to sell.

Unmasking Cads for Revenge and Profit

Last but not least are wanna-be writers who use the medium of film as a platform to publicly embarrass those who have wronged them. Whether said wounds were inflicted by a glancing insult, a stab in the heart or a blow to the ego, catharsis may be great for the soul but it doesn't always translate to success at the box-office. While the exercise of chronicling personal events has merit as a way of understanding them - and perhaps preventing repetition - it seems to fuel the belief that a retrospective payback will be as riveting to strangers as it was to those who lived it. By imbuing their scripts' villains with enough similar traits as to make their real-life identities obvious to anyone who sees the movie, writers end up stooping to a level of immaturity in which their 15 minutes of fame comes at the price of a lifetime of pity and/or distrust.

I am reminded of a client who was insistent on not only using her own name (and the names of her bedfellows) in a salacious, gritty drama about her sexual exploits but who also confided she was continuing to troll the online dating sites and classifieds in search of everlasting love. "Call me a romantic," she said. Call me confused. What kind of prince does she hope to attract by dishing the dirt on his predecessors? If there's no redeeming value beyond one's desire to confess (or brag), I always advise that it may be a better course to pitch such tell-alls as a work of fiction. Should they ever be asked what inspired the plot, the proper response can then be a sly smile that will leave the inquirer guessing.

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