Screenwriting : Need some thoughts on distorting historical facts. by Mike Chinea

Mike Chinea

Need some thoughts on distorting historical facts.

I came in as a producer and I am having some issues with the writer. I can understand if the story was inspired by certain events but this a project based on a real person, using the protagonist real name. The writer has changed the way the person died for more dramatic effect. For example if the person died of a heart attack why have he die in a blazing hail of bullets? Nothing is going to be 100% accurate but outside movies like ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER don’t you think we owe the audience some historical perspective?

D Marcus

I see no problem in changing things for a more dramatic effect. All "inspired by" and "based on" movies have done it. Your example is an extreme one. But there may be a reason to have him die in a blazing hail of bullets rather then a heart attack. I'm a creative person; I could come up with several. No, I don't think we owe the audience an historical perspective unless we are writing a documentary. I think we writers owe the audience a ripping good yarn. Most "inspired by" and "based on" movies stay close to the historical perspective while adding dramatic effect.

Mike Chinea

Good point.

James Chalker

Only a fool would get their history from a movie. Braveheart was wonderfully entertaining, but total crap as history.

Shawn Curran

Hey Mike, Take a look at any movie about Harry Houdini. They always tweak the details of his death to make it more dramatic.

Mike Chinea

True but at least in the movie William Wallace was drawn and quartered even if historically he was hung first. They did have him dying with a sword in his hand finding off a regiment of English soldiers.

Mike Chinea

That's what I was trying to avoid Shawn.

Shawn Curran

Completely understood, Mike. Good luck with the project.

Michael L. Burris

Will it be marketed, presented as historically accurate or historical representation? If not I wouldn't worry about it. This is from someone who isn't all that astute to the business and just a generalized opinion. Tweaking details of a death is one thing as with the Harry Houdini example but changing the way the person died altogether is quite different too I would say. Perhaps hopping up the details of the real cause of death would be more appropriate but would be dependant on other factors as well such as how the project is intended to be presented when finished. Again from someone not overly astute and just a generalized opinion. Good luck with it all.

Mike Chinea

Definitely not presented as historically accurate. More of a man and his time. We had a promo shown at Cannes this year and got a lot of buzz, raised about 30% and I am working with a cabler for the rest. We’ll see what happens.

D Marcus

I'm curious; in your specific situation does the death as written work? Does it make the entire story more dramatic even though it's historically inaccurate?

Mike Chinea

It works and the writer thinks it's more dramatic. I just would like a little more historical flavor. Who am I to argue with an established writer with pages of credits going back to the 70s?

Richard Toscan

Well... ARGO (2012) is a classic example of a screenplay and film that changed the ending of real events and real people for dramatic effect. In the actual/historical story, in the end, the six hostages and their CIA agent go to the airport, pass through security, get on the commercial flight and fly away. No drama, no excitement. The ending ARGO used was not exactly "untrue", but most likely reflected a probable scenario the CIA had gamed back at Langley. So it was an ending that could have happened. Maybe that's the test: could the screenwriter's ending have happened in reality without relying on alien intervention?

Richard Toscan

One more thought on this. A biopic lesson I learned from John Houseman: if your subject is born, does some exciting things, and dies in bed surrounded by friends and family, it's much harder to make work for audiences than with a spectacular death. That's not to say it can't be done -- it can, but requires more than a little finesse on the part of the screenwriter.

Mike Chinea

That's why it's called historical fiction and to me that has always been an oxymoron. Maybe I'll write something based on Benjamin Franklin and George Washington's text messages to each other.

Gregory Kauffman

I had similar questions and concerns in writing my novel, MANUELA, which covers the lifetime of an actual person of some renown in the South American struggles for indpendence. Since the events happened 200 years ago, some things were known and some not. My goal was to tell the known story, without changing it (based on my best research), but to add the day to day drama and the dynamics of her relationships. I was fairly successful, adding characters and events, but adding nothing that changed the known story. That is, I think, the best goal. However, screenplays (and even novels) do not exist to relay data. They convey what I call, "dramatic truth," not actuality. I would have changed actual events (the known story) if I had to, in order to convey the true dynamics of a relationship or the real emotions felt, or actual motivations. In your case, it may be that the gun battle tells a dramatic truth about the caracter better than the actual events. Here is my novel: http://www.amazon.com/MANUELA-Gregory-Kauffman-ebook/dp/B001E6K7HK/ref=s...

Edward St.Boniface

My view, purely subjectively, is that if you're dealing with recent events and real people you're duty bound to the verifiable truth of that person's life and passing as far as it's known or understood. If radical changes in life and/or death are made, it's much better to fictionalise the work and mark that by saying 'loosely based' or 'based on the life of' or a similar qualification in the credits. Passing imaginative reworkings off as biopics doesn't really work because narratively the 'joins' always show. That's to say the elements of fiction and known truth will almost inevitably jar against each other in the story and onscreen with incongruous changes of tone or obviously contrived events that don't fit into the rest. That's unless it's very, very scrupulously and carefully written. In fact there was a very good recent example of this in KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013) about the meeting of the young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University in 1943 and founding what became the literary Beat Movement. In a (entirely fictional) scene set on a boat on the Hudson river, Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg reads one of Gisberg's earlier and lesser-known poems to the others and they discuss it. The whole scene is an excellent character-play and helps to contextualise how all of them are developing as writers, putting their aspirations into their work. It's consistent with the rest of the story which is based on historical fact, biography, autobiography and reasonable suppositions. Harder than it looks but rewarding!

Georgia Hilton

THE FOLLOWING FILM IS... 1. A TRUE STORY, 2. BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS, 3. INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS, etc, etc... There are a lot of ways to sell the story that gives you various levels of wiggle room from what actually happened. You as the Producer and the executive producers, not the writer, need to decide which is appropriate for the film. Whomever writes the check makes the final rule... The producing team, the writing team, and the director should ultimately make these decisions as a team... but the writer hands the script over and its up to the rest of the team to make it happen the best way for the project. If the writer fights you. take the script ( I assume you have it properly paid for, optioned, work-for-hire,etc) and get it to another paid professional writer to do any last changes the production team needs....

John Totten

All I could think of when I read your post was the films noir movie on Al Capone's life (and death.) The film had him being beaten to death in prison, when in reality he got out of prison and later died of syphilis. There is no way that would have been portrayed in the Hays Commission days.

Royce Allen Dudley

Oliver Stone twists everything. So do others... everyone has an agenda of some kind and actually, the completely re-imagined history thing is quite popular now... and actual history gets re-written all the time depending on what regime one lives under. Merely changing a manner of death or another element is common in bio-based pics for dramatic effect. Is it a documentary that feels responsibility, or is it mere entertainment ? I think the answer is in the question

Kimberly Kaplan

Agree with Royce and others. You can make a movie where the Nazis win. What was that movie where the historical roles of blacks and whites were reversed. Great movie (I just can't think of the name). It depends on what you're making. I took a historical figure and made a new character that was based on her actions but gave her the same motivation. I tinkered but I was telling a story and still feel true to the original person.

Mike Chinea

Why not, if Lincoln can slay vampires then Elvis can slay dragons. Kimberly maybe the movie was WHITE MAN'S BURDEN?

Lynn P. H. Adrian

Nice thread. I appreciate the thoughts on historical film and the question "what is true." I am operating on one slice of a man's life (1929), creating an amalgam --female foil (in respect to the Lothario who did eventually commit), and collapsing characters to maintain a manageable cast. The author (of the book --adaptation) I am working with is the history resource -- I pull it together (or take it apart) to find the story. Truth versus history.

Edward St.Boniface

I have to correct Alle Segretti. You do not have creative license merely because you are making a drama. If you are dealing with actual historical and biographical events that are verifiable you have that license only if you are fictionalisng them and clearly stating this. Apart from legal liabilities over living persons, if you are specifying historical accuracy you have an implied if not actual duty to the truth. Oliver Stone qualifies all his films with disclaimers like in JFK. If you are playing with the facts and inventing incidents you have to indicate this or simply call it fiction.

Royce Allen Dudley

Edward, Oliver Stone chooses to make a disclaimer. There is no legal requirement to do so in the United States .... even with a totally skewed documentary, let alone drama, which may be "based on actual events"... as a matter of fact, the tag line " based on actual events" has been used to promote completely fabricated material. What is allowed in England, Oz or elsewhere may vary.

Georgia Hilton

Here's a real life example... the movie I just completed and delivered is "BASED ON REAL EVENTS".. Yup.. there was a WWII, yup, there were American Subs... yup convoys with materials and men went from the east coast of America to the UK, and yes there were U-boats off the New England shore.... But no!!....there was never a Ghost driven submarine that went into the past to change the course of history during WWII..... and.. FWIW... way to many people who read some of the pages on our website contact me and tell me that "this is crazy I didn't know the film was a real event..." As PT BARNUM once said.. :) ps: we did it as a bit of a spoof just for fun... little did I know people actually believe it...

Edward St.Boniface

Royce, ultimately it is up to the screenwriter or film-maker. Legal requirements are not really the issue. The issue is truth. Are you as a writer or film maker trying to portray truth or its possibilities or are you presenting fiction? It's interpretive but known facts and verifiable biographical details are not. All else is fiction and should be so indicated.

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Georgia Hilton) Unfortunately, you also can't legislate for stupidity. People sometimes believe amazing distortions of the truth for no apparent or obvious rational cause. I once knew someone who seemed more or less compus-mentus or intellectually sound, he was a music teacher and very well read on some aspects of music, literature and the occult. One day in conversation he casually declared to me, in perfect seriousness, that bees came from Venus. I thought he was joking but he wasn't. It was a theory advanced in an esoteric book he once read but he didn't qualify the statement, he stated it as a given truth and didn't understand my skepticism. It was surreal and not convincing but he meant this. People can become fixated on extraordinary and outlandish things and exploring that can be very rewarding when creating characters and explicating their motives. And we're ALL mesmerised by the lie of money...

Krystina Motsinger-Francis

The Ghost and The Darkness might be a good reference point for your decision. While based on real life events, a fictional character was created and took credit for the killing of at least one of the lions. And the situations were much more dramatized, such as total death toll. However, as a viewer, it simply piqued my interest to read the facts and do a bit of research. I didn't have an issue with the liberties taken by the filmmakers or writers.

Royce Allen Dudley

Anyone is welcome to impose their own restrictions on the scope of their own creativity. The idea that it's even a discussion is amusing; there are those who watch a show like ONCE UPON A TIME and are upset or confused because it mashes up fairy tales in unexpected ways... one of the very reasons it's so popular with people who find it quite entertaining. The same thing applies to facts... facts are often manipulated in documentaries to push an agenda and that causes a fight; reality shows are completely manipulated when shot as well as edited for drama not for correct context, and narrative / drama... need any of this even be discussed ? The conversation tells more about those who fight for rigidity than those who actually think creatively Narrative and drama are not journalism.

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Royce & Krystina collectively) I certainly agree, my concern is more attribution. Documentary can all too frequently lurch over into something approaching propaganda when a narrative is imposed on the factual content. But some narrative is inevitable for there to be a recognisable unfolding of the subject, whatever it may prove to be. I saw a doc years ago called HARDCORE (2001) about a rather naive English girl going to work in the porn industry in LA. Despite everything being real unstaged events (according to the maker) a definite story evolved of exploitation and actual danger at the end which was compelling, but also definitely implicit in the subject. You could tell this from the way events progressed but editorial ly assisted narrative was certainly there. Makers of fiction and fact-u-tainment do have a responsibility to present truth as its known or inferrable. But where there isn't enough it needs to be clear that much is fictionalised. But fairytales are DEFINITELY real and there's stuff about that gingerbread house that ain't been told yet...

Gregory Kauffman

Don't forget that Flaherty, who directed the first successful documentary, known in some circles as the father of the documentary film, staged many of the scenes in _Nanook of the North_ and actually did casting for the people he wanted to film. The film was very successful and, while not exactly "true" it is quite a fascinating film and has good "truth" in it.

Nate Matteson

You need to make an agreement with your audience off the bat as to the degree of accuracy you're presenting in the work, but yes creative license is a sliding scale. IN THE EVENT OF A MOON DISASTER is about an imagined accident involving Apollo 11 where it messes with historical events but is otherwise an earnest and straightforward depiction of the first moon landing. But you know from page 1 that you're getting revisionist history.... yet it's a compelling an incredible script.

Edward St.Boniface

Agreed emphatically! NANOOK OF THE NORTH is a classic but it's a heavily fictionalised and speculatively enhanced set of events based on real ones. Social realist documentary forms really only effectively evolved during the 1930s and reached an interesting apotheosis with the documentary units attached to the US Army and other branches of service during the Second World War. Billy Wilder headed one unit and this was hugely influential. NANOOK is more the view from the inside of the igloo...

Don Thomas

The problem with history is our perspective is screwed anyway. So much of what the average person believes to be historically accurate is wholly composed of myths, assumptions, and broad generalizations. Screenwriters weren't the first to take historical events and make them more interesting in the retelling. Just imagine if Longfelllow's poem on the midnight ride of Paul Revere solely consisted of the historically accurate quick couple of lines about how Paul early on made a quick detour to a tavern and quickly managed to get so drunk he was soon arrested and spent the entire night sleeping it off in Ye Old Drunk Tank....The End. Not to mention, if the audience is going to the movies for a honest historical perspective, they are going to the wrong place. The truth too often is a bitter pill to swallow. Movies are entertainment. From a historical perspective, the best thing to do is get in line with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and everyone else that has ever in some way perpetuated a historical myth and try not to shatter any important ones without providing an adequate replacement. Now you'll have to excuse me as I get back to writing Andrew Jackson: American Badass. http://www.cracked.com/video_18463_andrew-jackson-most-terrifying-man-ev...

Edward St.Boniface

Too true - I think THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY and THE AENEID also had a leetle poetic licence going on there. Verisimilitude is itself a Chimera! I myself have to get back to writing WINSTON CHURCHILL: THE JAZZ AGE GIGOLO YEARS...(all historically verified documentary fact; of course!)

Dave McCrea

Personally I'm 100% against creative license on true stories. More people are going to see a big movie than read the historical biographies of a certain person. That makes them human beings not idiots. These "non-truths" then get passed down to their kids and beyond. That influences people and cultures, and writers have a responsibility towards that. If the real story is not dramatic enough, don't make that story. If it is, leave it as is. Otherwise you're distorting history and that's a dangerous precedent. Although I do accept that history is a fluid, ever-changing thing depending on who is in power at what time and there is no such thing as the absolute definitive history of anything, there's always subjectivity involved.

Leo Sopicki

I'm writing a film that takes place in the 12th Century. I combined some historical characters and invented some relationships to make it a better movie. I wouldn't, however, change something of significance to the meaning of the story I'm telling.

Steven Michael

If the historical is changed because of "artistic license", it is a lack of creative capacity. My advice would be to keep the accuracy of events and re-wrap the fiction around it. It's what I always aspire to do. To distort history is to change it. History should always be accurate and fiction should demonstrate theme.

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Steven Michael) Steve, I agree emphatically. The entire point of historical fiction whether literary or cinematic is fitting invented, related events into established ones. Primary challenge for the writer is to make that work in a convincing way. BEN HUR being an interesting example, or Hilary Mantel's recent very successful novels about Thomas Cromwell such as BRING UP THE BODIES. My primary favourite is I, CLAUDIUS. Most of it is entirely invented but somehow has a ring of authenticity you seldom get even in the best wholly invented fiction; at least I think so. Cla-Cla-Claudius offers hope to all scribes (even if you end up betrayed by Messalina and poisoned by your own wife)...

York Davis

I agree with Stephen and Edward. With: "I Love You, Oscar Wilde" I've taken historical recorded events and real personages and invented a love story between a young woman and Oscar Wilde, from what was recorded as a strong and lasting friendship. Only trouble is people reading the longline and synopsis have trouble believing Oscar was a womanizer as a young man and realized his gay nature only later. He actually married Constance Lloyd and had two sons with her. To answer Mike Chinea's question, I think its fine to take historical persons and events and invent fiction around that. How many movies Mike do you know of, apart from documentaries that you accept as "biblical" fact. In fact which version of the Bible and Gospels do you believe??? Comments?

Mike Chinea

Great feedback from everyone. This thread seem to take on a life on its own.

Lynn P. H. Adrian

"Shakespeare in Love" went well.

York Davis

Agreed Lynn. It's one of my favourite films... ever and fun to boot!

York Davis

My favourite historical period is late 19th, early 20th.C. My 2 screenplays "I Love You, Oscar Wilde" and "Cakewalk" are both from that era. The more one researches and writes on a particular era, the easier it becomes. I'm finding that costume dramas, admittedly more expensive to produce are consequently not an easy sell Lynn. What's your preferred period/era?

Lynn P. H. Adrian

I'm in the 1920's forever working on "Johnny Blood" screenplay and now working on "Vagabond Halfback" stage play. Professional footballers are considered "sell outs" (unpaid college football is king) and only the grittiest and most invested of characters can thrive. I'm in.

York Davis

Interesting times 1920's Lynn. I'd like to keep contact to hear how things turnout for you. Today I have 11 local actors and directors table-reading: "I Love You, Oscar Wilde"... an interesting and I hope useful (for feedback) experience. There'll be about 20 people altogether, most stage performers, screenwriters and film friends. Just as well my place is big enough and I hope just enough seating.

Lynn P. H. Adrian

YES. We're doing a dress rehearsal for "Vagabond Halfback" down at the local pub! You go!

York Davis

Way to go Lynn.... break a leg!

Judyth Mermelstein

To me, it depends very much on the kind of movie you are making. If it's clearly identified as a fictional treatment of the subject, there's no problem altering details for dramatic effect. On the other hand, if the film is put forward as a true story about real people, it would be unethical to alter the facts in any significant way. IMHO, making a heart attack take place at the writer's desk instead of in bed during sleep might be an acceptable stretch but the "hail of bullets" scenario would simply be a lie and invalidate the truth of the story.

Tom Rooney

If you read the novel of Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, the end is a real let-down, and I for one felt cheated by the ending. If a movie were to follow the story to the letter it would be a flop so a screenwriter is almost obliged to provide a credible ending.

Tom Rooney

Hmm, good point "Is the novel historical?" Yes to the theme and background, maybe an exaggeration and twist to a real event, but I would say "No", it's just a story. But then again, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

Mike Chinea

I noticed a couple of movies that were recently released tagged as FACT BASED. I guess that's one way to hedge the truth?

Judyth Mermelstein

Often, a film calls itself fact-based but also contains a disclaimer indicating that names and details have been changed. If you don't plan to stick to the facts of a real-life story, I think it would be wise to indicate up front that it's fiction based on fact, not a documentary.

Leo Sopicki

Oliver Stone makes propaganda flicks. If that is not what your aiming at, and I hope it isn't, then perhaps the Mother Teresa rule would be the one to follow. You can't know all the events of Mother Teresa's life. Would it be reasonable to believe she may have suffered doubt, grief or even confusion? Yes, then put that in your film. Would it be reasonable to believe she was a arrogant bitch who exploited people? No, so don't put that in your movie.

York Davis

I like your comment Erik... so true!

Edward St.Boniface

Instinct is always your best guide creatively . It won't steer you wrong. But Erik, I CAN'T live with myself. I keep threatening and following me around. I've even stalked Me! It gets to be a claustrophobic kind of problem. Can you divorce secondary personalities? I think my radio is also possessed by a possible legion of devils. So many different voices scream out from it at me...

Edward St.Boniface

(sigh...)

Gregory Kauffman

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. Mark Twain

David Youngquist

They say never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But the death of a person is a fact that's hard to be ignored. You should tell your writer to play their death straight. People, even great people, can just die, and if this person is worth making a movie about, there has to be something other than their death that can serve as a dramatic climax.

Edward St.Boniface

(Replying to Erik Jacobsen's reply) ...Erik, you mean I'm STUCK with me?! I'm intolerable to myself. But of course that's why I write; a rite of exorcism in a sense. For years I avoided using direct elements of my own life in fiction because I didn't think they would be interesting enough. It was only when I realised that everyone's life has unique qualities and aesthetics and experiences and textures of emotional complexity, by definition endlessly variegated and potentially fascinating if empathically communicated, that I could draw on my own life effectively. After all, barring memories of reincarnation we have only one. 'Least, that's what the Legion in my radio (they also seem to have migrated into my portable stereo and Ipod now) have been ranting at me lately...

Chas Franko Fisher

Depends if it is INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or BRAVEHEART. I think it depends how recent and how famous it is. ARGO changed a lot of the facts to make it more dramatic but no one cared until after it had exploded. So you might get a more successful film with a handful of angry historians.

Simon Wilkinson

To comment on what James Chalker said a month ago, "Only a fool would get their history from a movie". I wish that were true. I used to be a history teacher and I can tell you all the kids believe what they see in supposedly historical movies 100%. Even some teachers were happy to perpetuate this myth as showing kids a DVD often whet their appetite for a topic. Once they've seen the film in class - there's nothing going to persuade them it wasn't just like that! I have written two "historical" scripts - one is pure fiction but I have tried to make it as historically accurate as possible (set in 1649) at the same time as making it dramatic and action-packed. Events, characters and dialogue are as true to the period as I can make them. To not do this would go against the grain for me. Why set it in a specific place and time if you're not going to be faithful to it? The other script is based on the true story of my grandfather and his brother and set between 1914 - 1922. I say "based on the true story" because I don't know the whole story and so I've had to invent large chunks of it. Consequently it has become a sort of "This is probably what happened" film. I had to make some hard choices - number one of which was to change the characters' names. Number two was to stop saying it's a true story - BUT it is still as historically accurate as I can make it. Even the ending is more of a wimper than a bang because it follows the true history. I want it to keep as much historical integrity as possible.

York Davis

I like your comments Simon. The big question for me is how one labels a historical work. With my current research into a biblical TV mini-series, from the times just after the Crucifixion, I think I'll just label the resultant script "firmly based on legends and unreliable hear-say". My main idea is to make it entertaining... otherwise it'll never sell!

Dave McCrea

Whoever has the loudest voice wins. In 40 years if someone with a lot of power wanted to distort history and claim that Hitler was in fact a black man, they could actually convince millions of people eventually of that IF they spent enough money and had a big enough movie. Those people wouldn't be fools, they would be human beings. People who say only a fool gets his history from a movie probably also believe that they're immune to advertising but chances are they're not..

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Erik Jacobsen) Thanks, Erik. Given my recent 'episode' over endorsing the career of Darth Vader and my advocacy of feeding the little green traitor guy in the sack feet first into a muppet-blender my license to reside in the community, at least of science fiction and fantasy fans, has been temporarily revoked. Again. A little more seriously (more or less), what we perceive as sanity or the normative around us is the novelist or screenwriter or film-maker's duty to puncture. In fact the world around me looks pretty bonkers, considering how much better we could potentially make it by actually cooperating instead of inventing more and more differences amongst ourselves. So I tend to make my characters crazier since so many people I observe around me including myself seem to rather have episodes of sanity amid the madness. ...but who wants to live in a sane world? No stories there! Just listen to the Legion in your own radio (DAB included)...you KNOW they mock sense...

Edward St.Boniface

More generally in the discussion about historical accuracy, in fact it's disturbing just how much our supposed historical knowledge IS informed by film and television, which occasionally has huge inaccuracies which we take into our collective consciousness. In American frontier history for example, I read that roughly half the cowboys and wranglers on many ranches or on cattle drives across the Midwest were in fact African American men. But generally they were segregated, including after the Civil War. How often do you see that in the classic westerns? And how many Native American attacks on frontier posts, cattle trains, settler convoys, patrols and the like in the daytime? In fact most such attacks happened at night guerilla-style. Wilful ignorance of historical fact (the evidence is there photographically for example in records from the time) and production convenience has more often governed the presentation of historical subjects like this on film. Most pharoahs and Roman emperors weren't English patricians either, 'cept Seti I and Claudius; of course!

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Dave McCrea) You're uncomfortably right. Lies in history are certainly as significant in our understanding as truth. Joseph Goebbels, head of Nazi propaganda, understood this and actually wrote that all you have to do is repeat a lie often enough and soon a sufficient percentage of people will believe it to force the rest to accept it. This is the fundamental basis of advertising and modern politics too, who use those principles in precisely the same way. The best example apart from all the current discredited rhetoric about the 'War On Terror' that I know are THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION. This Nineteenth century forgery about a Jewish-motivated conspiracy to control the finances and politics of the world was conclusively discredited at the beginning of the Twentieth century. Yet the Nazis used it as much of the basis of their racist ideology. Far right groups in America and Europe still quote it, as do many politicians, newspapers and state controlled media in the Middle East to this day. It's the basis for every crackpot conspiracy theory that's come since, and patently a pack of lies. But people love lies so they recur and repeat and elaborate themselves. It's fun if you understand they're lies, but I've met people who seriously, not ironically, believe stupidly and obviously deranged things like that and aggressively defend them. We're still the prisoners of ignorance and misconception even in this era of universal communications. So I've booked my ticket on the Mothership...it should be coming any day now if I can figure out the callsign...

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Erik Jacobsen) Yep; the human condition is ultimately healable - the benign and aspirational part of our collective history. Apart of course for those traitors in the Rebel Alliance and that creepy little green spirit-leader of theirs. They of course are f orever I WARNED Palpatine about him in 'The Yoda Protocols Of The Elders Of The AntiSithians'...

Edward St.Boniface

(sorry, accidentally hit POST COMMENT) Meant to say those traitorous Rebels are irredeemable, of course! And Yoda was made of poison rubber...

Joseph Dispenza

Mike, I just crossed this bridge with a story about the mayor of a conservative Texas city who abruptly left his post and ran away to Mexico with his (!) young male undocumented Mexican 'assistant' -- I had to throw out some of the 'real facts' to make for a dramatic rendering. Fortunately, my subject (the former mayor) went along with all the changes. Good luck!

Mike Chinea

WOW. I had no idea where this thread would lead and I am happily surprised by the level and deepness most of the comments have been. Thank you all. I think I will cut my writer some slack and maybe can come up with something that will work. I've seen three movies recently based of real people, THE THEORY OF EVERTHING, THE IMITATION GAME and SELMA. All three are excellent films, while the obvious dramatic license was taken they still held the essence of the events and individuals. I felt the integrity was kept. Stephen Hawking wasn't miraculously cured, Alan Turing did not have a sex change operation and became a diva and Martin Luther King Jr. didn't become a rich televangelist. I know I over exaggerated but I hope you get my point.

Patrick Opitz

While I have seen many movies which play fast and loose with history (BraveHeart, Gangs of New York, Reign, etc,) for the most part they at least keep to the spirit of the era, with the exception of Reign in which even the personalities of the main characters have nothing to do with the people they are based on. This is hardly new, as plays like MacBeth are basically propaganda pieces, which is why in my opinion an amount of creative latitude is important as long as it does not create a false impression. Once you get into that territory it is best to use an original setting while using historical themes, rather then trying to write something true to the historical narrative.

Rhiannon Kincaid

Randall Wallace (Braveheart) addressed this at AFF. It is important to be true to the characters, but accuracy never excites anybody. Does the essence of the character change through the way they die? Is the story still truthful if you omit or change the details for the sake of entertainment? These are the questions we should consider. If you strive to tell an accurate story, your audience will be bored.

Judyth Mermelstein

I must disagree with Rhiannon here. Even a quite ordinary life contains enough drama to prevent boredom if the characters are well-drawn and the audience can identify with them. Obviously, people don't take that approach in an "action" film that depends on carnage to create excitement, but it can work splendidly in biography. A film about the life of Marie Curie would indeed be boring if it showed nothing but the painstaking lab work, but how could it be dull if it really showed how a young Polish girl became a great scientist in an era when few men would admit a girl could learn basic mathematics, met and married a French scientist who respected her as an equal, and was devastated by his tragic death but went on with her work to achieve international respect and acclaim? Perhaps not everyone enjoys films like "Vera Drake," "Philomena" etc. but they are certainly appreciated by a great many people and there is no reason a historical movie couldn't be approached as realistically. If you are making things up about a historical character because you find his or her real life dull, why are you trying to write a script about them? I suspect you and your audience might be better off if you admitted your story is fictional and changed the characters' names accordingly ... except insofar as you might be hoping to sell your script by invoking a famous name. I'm sorry if this sounds snooty but I feel we do the public a terrible disservice when we give them a misleading idea of who real people were and what their lives were like. That's not to say one can't be selective about what aspects of a life one chooses to show and which to omit as irrelevant to the story. But if a man actually died in his bed from dropsy aged 62, however unattractive that may be, I think it's simply dishonest to have him shot in a duel at 45 for melodramatic effect.

York Davis

Thank you Judyth, wisely and well-said. Why on earth would we chose to write about an historical figure if we didn't think them interesting? I think we all realize shoot-em-up action movies are accepted as fictional and we shouldn't claim they are factual. "Argo" can only claim to be partially factual, since toward the end it veered into fictional glorification of U.S, interests. Perhaps more precise labelling might aid us to draw our own conclusions between true history and creative fantasy entertainment?

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Erik Jacobsen) I think, too, the dynamic between the misconceptions or sometimes outright lies that work their way through our collective understanding of history segues into a deep need we have for heroes. Homer and other ancient sources, and arguably Biblical sources too, were untroubled by our modern concept of historical accuracy. The wanted to tell good stories, with strong underlying moral and esoteric or metaphysical meanings, starring engrossing characters, in a way easily told. The origins of Homer, Biblical era stories, Gilgamesh and the like were verbal. They were meant to be told around a table or campfire or at a family gathering before turning in for the night. Tales always grow in the telling and the process continues today in our own literature and film and television and other means of storytelling. In fact I'd say the Internet for all its hysterical reactionary qualities demonstrates how a truth or lie can grow in a very short time into the most fantastic elaborations, good and bad. Happening all around us, and now on a frightening global level...

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Patrick Opitz) Thoroughly agree with this, it's another level of our complicated relationship between literature and history and fact and perception. MACBETH and JULIUS CAESAR and HENRY VIII and most notably of all RICHARD III are memorable historical plays but they bear little if any actual resemblance to the real individuals portrayed. But because of the talent of William Shakespeare they have become associated with those historical characters. Our whole theology today is just as much John Milton's PARADISE LOST as the Biblical account, to say nothing of the dogmas of both the Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity. Much of that has little if any connection to actual Biblical script. We're always building but all too often we forget what's fact and what IS fiction... ...Personally, I believe Darth was entirely in the right about those traitors...

Dave McCrea

Wow Lisa I'm glad you're not the head of a studio. You literally sound like one of the characters parodied in "The Player"

Georgia Hilton

I'm with Lisa here. First off, i'm going to make an assumption that we are speaking about a planned commercial product. If you're making a drama do what you need to make it interesting and commercial. Take all the liberties you want. IF on the other hand you are making a documentary or even a Docu-drama where you are offering up a "true" account of a historical person or event, then you need to stick to the facts and find a way to make it interesting enough to make it commercial without stepping away from key true facts. There are a lot of ways to add sub-plots, interesting moments, unique characters, editorial picture, sound and score tricks, delivery and directing to what might at first appear to be a "boring" story. But remember, either way, based on the assumption that this is supposed to be a commercially viable product, you need to make sure that the story is in both story and literal fact, interesting enough to get people to pay to distribute the project, otherwise its just a ego project and then... well do what you want, if its so boring that you can't get it sold most likely no one is going to see it anyway.

Dave McCrea

Georgia, the line between docudrama and straight drama is blurred. This is the power of lawyers - they get to decide the parameters within which businesses can make money. The rule should be this - there's fiction and non-fiction, that's it. If you're depicting any real people or real events, you should strive to be as accurate as possible, otherwise you're spreading lies and misleading people. You may as well be a car salesman selling a guy a car with an odometer that's been "messed with". I'm wondering how you or Lisa would feel about this - say I want to make a movie about the events in Ferguson, I'll call it "Showdown in Ferguson". But the actual story could use a little spicing up. It's a little undramatic that these guys just randomly encounter each other - so how about if Mike Brown was known to Officer Wilson - maybe because he molested Wilson's daughter? That would make a great opening scene. Wilson asleep, Brown sneaks in, etc... Maybe he's been threatening Wilson telling him he's going to kill him. Also if Wilson is unarmed, that doesn't allow for a great shootout sequence, so let's give him an AK and also he has some of his boys with him. Hey's it's "BASED ON real events", so I can just mess with it however I want, right? This is obviously an extreme example, but what you and Lisa argue for is the precedent for this, and subtle lies here and there can add up to big lies over time.

Dave McCrea

Also to the poster who mentioned Shakespeare - he had nowhere near the cultural power that he would have today in this post mass media world and he also had far less access to the truth about history and certain figures.

Georgia Hilton

you are looking at this the wrong way... If you want to use your example... then you can keep the facts straight on the encounter between the officer and the suspect... but you can add in other moments with other officers ( that might be based on a number of past true events ) by building other characters on the police side and the suspect side that build up the tension underlying in the community, and build the suspense and drama of the encounter without affecting the facts of the case. You can use subplots around the officer's life and sub plots around the suspect's life that build our interest and understanding.. these can be a dramatic representation of a collective set of events turned into fictious single couple days leading up to the encounter. Where, in reality, these events might have spanned months or even years... this more in-depth character study and adding other fictitious events around and leading up to the day "historically accurate event" is a way of increasing story without damaging the actual historical truth (more than necessary ). This is a business of creating commercial movies. If you are hired to create a documentary about the event, then keep it 100% truthful. If you are doing a drama based on actual events feel free to take liberties... If anyone is ignorant enough watch a drama to learn history then they get what they deserve. do you actually think The Monument Men, U57, Lone Survivor, Empire State, Saving Mr. Banks, Rush, the Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas BUyers Club, Captain Phillips, 12 years a Slave, Argo, Act of Valor, Lincoln, actually are completely Historically accurate? not a chance. They took an historical moment/event/figure and told a simplistic story with lots of embellishment in order to make a commercially viable movie out of those moments/people.

Georgia Hilton

going back to the original posters comment... no, I wouldn't take out lincoln with a rocket launcher... but there are a lot of ways to create drama and maintain enough of the true history to satisfy all parties. IF the moment/person isn't dramatic enough... maybe the project is not worth doing, unless you can afford to do a ego piece out of your own pocket or you have investors that are willing to pay for total truth and don't care if the project actually makes money...

Mike Chinea

For those you think film does not influence people, just remember that as innocent as it was, the movie IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT destroyed an industry, not the film industry.

Dave McCrea

Good point Georgia, I guess it comes down to one's own judgement - it's just there is a lot of grey area there. Condensing time obviously is about as inoffensive as can be, but there are lots of questionable choices where I think we should err on the side of being truthful. The issue I have is people in the film industry often choose personal gain over accuracy and that's something that needs to be kept in check. There's often a fear or a lack of faith in the material. Look at Zodiac - that was the quickest 2 and a half hours at a movie I ever spent, yet everything was kept accurate. The movie would have made more money if it had a Silence of the Lambs type climax I'm sure, but they kept the integrity of it. Moneyball was also fascinating despite not having the big climax one would expect. It was much more interesting than Draft Day which was contrived. There doesn't seem to be any incentive or law in place to preserve the truth but truth is stranger than fiction and real life is far from boring!

Michael L. Burris

I been watching this discussion a while and all I think it comes down to is Clarity of Perception that is entertaining whether it be debatable or relatable. There is no mis in representation of a story when it comes to entertainment as long as clarity of perception is there. Accuracy should really only involve clarity of perception causing entertainment. If you want history, read a history book. If you want accurate representation, watch a documentary. If you want an entertaining movie just nail the clarity of perception that causes entertainment. That’s my opinion, nothing deep, nothing heavy, my opinion and perception of what this discussion is.

Judyth Mermelstein

This discussion has been fascinating and also useful, I think. It seems clear there is a middle ground between strict accuracy and "anything goes" (to make money, because the public is ignorant, etc.) where most of us would feel justified. The "Law and Order" reference is helpful, I believe, since they began the series with the "ripped from the headlines" premise and make a distinction between episodes based on fact and pure fiction's, using an appropriate disclaimer for each (which I dare say most people don't read, but at least it's there). What is taken from the news is a crime with an unusual twist (e.g., the episode based on Alison Shelley's murder) handled accurately in a bare-bones way. But most of the actual drama comes from the (fictional) series characters' efforts and relationships, building towards discovery of the criminal and resolution of the case. The writers are careful to make the fictional characters engaging and (generally) realistic. The real-life crime is fictionalized and nobody pretends it is not. Some people might be silly enough to think "it happened just like that" but that's not the fault of the show. Meanwhile, there are obviously people who, writing a biopic, know how to use legitimate dramatic devices (skipping the boring spells in the life, simplifying and compressing the timeline a bit, imagining the behaviour of characters about which little is known, etc.) and others who just want to make a movie with instant recognition as a "high concept" commercial project. "Abraham Lincoln vs vampires" springs to mind as an extreme case. To my mind, the latter is legitimate (-ish) only because nobody could mistake it for history. But a Lincoln biopic that showed him fighting at Antietam or having Jefferson Davis as a best friend would definitely go too far, every bit as much as claiming Roosevelt was assassinated by a Wall Street broker because it makes for a more dramatic ending. No reasonable person expects the whole detailed history of a famous person to be covered in 120 minutes, but they do have the right to expect the writer hasn't lied outright. Unless it's clear the film is actually fiction, or is being made as blatant propaganda (like Shakespeare's "histories" of Richard III and the Tudors, skewed to obtain royal patronage and/or avoid prison), there's no excuse for actively disrespecting the truth. little exaggeration for effect, a little creativity in deciding what to show and what to skip over, or consolidating several minor characters into one to keep the budget in line and the story moving smoothly wouldn't violate the essential truth about the central character. But if you are just using a famous name as a "hook" for investors and taking-off point for a fictional story, I'm curmudgeonly enough to say you are treating both your subject and your audience pretty shabbily unless you include the proverbial disclaimer at the start.

Edward St.Boniface

(replying to Erik Jacobsen) ...Writers are loud and desperate and hungry and live in garrets and are starving visionaries and need immense amounts of money and attention from PLAYBOY or VICTORIA'S SECRET models and stroking of the ego in order to provide the ideas that keep the multibillon dollar empires of publishing and film and entertainment otherwise running! Alternatively lock them in small rooms, make 'em suffer unbearably and you will occasionally pick up the SUBLIME...

Lobotomous Monk

sounds like a writer with limited imagination. banal deaths can be the highest form of drama if you engineer the pathetic dimensions properly.

Edward St.Boniface

I like the way Klaus Kinski dies pathetically and multidimensionally spilling his milk (and most other vital bodily fluids) in COBRA VERDE. Fabulously banal - if you don't like Teutonic melodrama!

Mike Chinea

What some in Hollywood may call creative license, some audiences may call it heresy.

D Marcus

Mike, what "Hollywood" films have gotten it right? I'd be interested in indies that got it right, too.

Mike Chinea

It all depends what you call right. An Indie, by today's standards, I would go with SELMA. For Hollywood, FULL METAL JACKET comes close. While everyone knows CASABLANCA is totally fiction it gave us a timeless story with a flavor of WWII.

D Marcus

I'm interested in what YOU call right not what I call right. Movies about something historical that did not distort the facts. Just curious in YOUR views on the distortion of historical facts in a movie. Have you seen "Selma"? I saw it at the AFI fest.

Mike Chinea

I do not reference movies I haven't seen. I saw SELMA at the DGA and it depicted the brutality and some of the actual events as I remember them.

Judyth Mermelstein

Ultimately, all histories are selective: nobody has documented every minute of a life, even in this era of social media and selfies. The historian chooses which documents to quote and which elements are worthy of analysis and discussion. Writing a story is selective the same way, whether it's about a real person or a fictional character, and a screenplay is necessarily even more selective than a novel because you have additional constraints: a certain amount of screen time, a certain budget range, and the need to stick to what can actually be shown on the screen. To me, as for others here, there is no limit on making things up in a fictional film but it's simply dishonest to make everything up while purporting to tell the story of a real person or event. Few people would have mistaken _Casablanca_ for a documentary. _Braveheart_ was no documentary either, but I have no argument with them not showing the hanging: the audience would expect hanging to be fatal, whereas the authentic version was to half-choke the person but have them awake (as shown) for the drawing part and possibly still alive during quartering--barbaric but true to life. I also think the decision to have the "drawing" parodied while it was going on may have been fiction, it was fiction true to the time and place; it may not have happened specifically to Wallace but other people were in fact mocked as they suffered. _Mississippi Burning_ fictionalized real events but was very authentic in its setting and characters. There is no problem doing an obvious take-off on real people (like Abraham Lincoln, vampire killer, whatever it was called) but there is--for me, at least--when what purports to be biography falsifies known facts. If the person's death isn't dramatic, it's perfectly permissible to stop earlier in his/her life, with a denouement following the real dramatic climax. Just as a memoir needn't be a recital of every event from birth on, a biographical screenplay can concentrate on the crucial events that made the person interesting enough to write about. But if you really want to depart from the truth, I'd suggest renaming the characters and admitting the work is fictional.

D Marcus

Relax Mike. It's just curiosity. I should have worded my question better. I should have said, "I saw it at the AFI fest. Where did you see it? Were you there?" No offense was intended. I apologize. So I guess you won't answer my question. Sorry to hear that. It's been an interesting discussion.

Mike Chinea

Either I didn't understand your question or you didn't understand my answer, or something in between. If something says it is based on actual facts then it should represent actual facts. I believe I covered that earlier. This thread started because I am in development with a writer that has taken way too much creative license with a historical figure.

D Marcus

I apologize again, Mike. I'll stop asking any questions. My curiosity and interest in this subject got the better of me.

Simon Wilkinson

I had to laugh at this feedback I received yesterday from a script competition my true story was entered in: "Eamonn went through an interesting arc, and I appreciated that he had grown and learned a lot by the end of the script. I would encourage making him a more active protagonist so that he's moving the story along, and is not being dragged around by the actions of others. There are many scenes where he doesn't even appear or have dialogue, and it might be interesting to try to insert him into these - at the moment the Sean Boylan character is responsible for moving a lot of the action forward, which takes away from the notion that this is Eamonn's journey." I think this reader totally missed the point that the film was a true story! AND that I wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible or there was no point to it. Eamonn - the protagonist in the script, is a 19 year old IRA volunteer. In real life he wasn't a leader and how unrealistic would it be (even by Hollywood standards) to have a 19 year old rebel commander? Sean Boylan was the real-life leader. He was commander of the Meath Brigade and then the East Midland Division of the IRA throughout the War of Independence (he went on to reach the rank of General in the Free State Army) and I'm not about to write him out of a true story because he steals some of Eamonn's glory! Besides the fact that the Sean Boylan character is dynamic and a hero in his own right, where is it written that the protagonist HAS to be in every scene and HAS to drive all the action? Surely you can go on a journey without having to lead it all the time - can't you?

D Marcus

I haven't read your script but the feedback may be accurate. You can fight and resist it because you want accuracy. But a movie needs things that real life and absolute accuracy doesn't often have. I have covered many script that are historically accurate but are not entertaining or "dramatic" as a story. I'm only suggesting that you not easily dismiss the comments made. Perhaps in your quest for accuracy you have pushed aside compelling storytelling. It's easy to say the reader missed the point - it's difficult to consider that maybe the writer didn't make the point they thought they made.

Mike Chinea

Welcome to my world Simon. I would contact the Irish Film Board info@irishfilmboard.ie to get their take. I can ask an Irish-American producer if he might be interested.

Michael L. Burris

Definitely no expert here but since you named you work Eamonn's journey and he is your main protagonist. Maybe you got Eamonn's arc down well but perhaps what the reader missed was the development of the arc. That would be an aspect I'd consider based on what I read especially with your feedback being it seemed like he was dragged around. Maybe the reader could have stated they liked the arc but felt like they missed the development of the arc. That's what it sounds like to me, but again no expert here. It sounds worthy of a rewrite versus scrapping though. Maybe find scenes to write Eamonn in displaying more internal struggle. Good Luck Michael L. Burris "I want to believe nothing is pointless."

Judyth Mermelstein

It seems to me there are two ways the reader might have missed the point: 1) The reader assumes that a film must follow the model where the hero is the only character that really matters, all others being sidekicks or antagonists or bit players needed to move a straight-line plot along. There isn't much you can do to make real life fit that model unless you are willing to distort the facts for the sake of meeting expectations. 2) The writer needs to do better at showing Eamonn's development in the context. That doesn't mean that he must be present in every scene, but it does need to be clear why events that happen without him are important to him, and it's probably best to keep the scenes without him short and infrequent -- that is, instead of showing the whole of a meeting occurring "behind his back," showing only the crucial parts (who was there, what was decided) and then what happens to Eamonn when he learns about or is impacted by the decision. Not knowing the details, I can imagine a situation where (scene 1) a meeting of senior IRA men decides on a covert attack of some kind; (scene 2) Eamonn, as a young recruit, is told to come along but has no idea what is going to happen; (scene 3) what happens on the spot when Eamonn learns what he is to do, what he does, and how he feels about it. If the film were to be a straight documentary recreation of the event, of course, the expectations would be different: the focus would be on what happened and why, more than on a protagonist who played a minor role in it. But if it were meant to be a biography of Eamonn (real or fictional) the expectation of the audience is that the other characters matter mainly insofar as they influence his life; however important they might be in other respects, there don't need to be long scenes establishing their characters and actions. The trick is to convey the necessary information about them as briefly as possible...which can be very difficult in just a few lines of dialogue.

Simon Wilkinson

Sorry - didn't mean to hijack the thread. D. Marcus - of course you have a valid point, but without a synopsis or, better yet the script infront of you, you're not going be able to put the feedback in context. In my own defence, this script is pretty action packed as it is without having to focus all the action on one character. The film starts off with dual protagonists, brothers Eamonn and Christy. At the mid-point in the story Christy is killed (as happened in real life), from that point on the story follows Eamonn's life as an IRA rebel. The storyline is plenty compelling as it deals with family conflict, national conflict and international conflict - just it doesn't all focus on one individual who had a small part to play in freeing his country. Mike - Thanks, I'd love it if you wanted to show the script to an Irish-American producer. Would a message to Bord Scannán na hÉireann yeild anything tangible? I know they are involved in funding and training, but if you think they could put me in touch with someone... that'd be cool. Michael - Please see above re. protagonists in the story. The character of Eamonn is my grandfather. No offence, but I would not do his memory (or that of any of the main characters) the disservice of turning him into an all action hero when he wasn't. He was simply one small cog in a much bigger machine. The story is mainly from his POV and I think it works fine to have the heroic actions performed by others. Eamonn's character development is complex and multi-layered, just like the real human being. His physical journey takes him from a 17 year old teenager to a volunteer, to a company commander who leads a failed action at the end of the conflict (this in itself is inflating his actual role in the ambush). His emotional journey takes in the sulky, idealistic teenager in conflict with his older brother who joins the British Army in France, conflict with his parents as a result of this, guilt at the death of his brother before any chance of reconciliation, experiencing the horrors of taking a life, falling in love (and protecting his sweetheart from the shame of rape and unmarried pregnancy), burying his father, the fear of arrest and execution whilst on the run from the law, witnessing atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict and eventually coming to terms with all the changes in his world as a young married man. I think this is enough for any film!

D Marcus

Exactly what I said when I wrote my comment, Simon. I have not read your script. There is a very real possibility that your script is exactly right and the reader's comments were out of line.

Richard Koman

The movie is a story. It's not history come alive. Events may have to reordered, characters combined, and the hero more active than in reality. Your duty is to story not to history

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