Charles Lyons is an AwardsLine contributor.
Late last year, the acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Morell, took the unusual measure of voicing the CIA’s distaste for a Hollywood film. “The film takes significant license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate,” Morell wrote in a letter to CIA personnel, later widely republished. “What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts.”
Of course, no one thought Sony’s Zero Dark Thirty was a documentary, but Morell’s letter speaks to the conundrum that any screenwriter crafting a script based on real events must confront: How to tell the story in a dramatically engaging way while remaining true to the facts.
Ultimately, the perceived liberties that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal took with Zero Dark Thirty overshadowed the art. A barrage of negative publicity during last year’s awards season, including charges that the filmmakers were given unauthorized access to classified information, fueled an insidious whisper campaign from which the movie never recovered.
Even outside the spotlight of awards campaigning, any film based on a true story runs the risk of pushback from anyone who wants the truth without any distortion of facts or historical figures. Nevertheless, the medium by its very nature distorts, as any screenwriter who’s compressed a real event can attest.
With a long list of fact-based films in this year’s awards conversation, there’s considerable difference of opinion about the extent to which one can and should drift from the source material in order to create a well-paced screenplay, and how such drifting might impact a film’s Oscar hopes. Among the contenders are Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks; the Weinstein Co.’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Mandela: The Long Walk To Freedom, Fruitvale Station, Philomena and One Chance; Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years A Slave; Universal’s Rush and Lone Survivor; Focus Features’ Dallas Buyers Club; Sony’s Captain Phillips; Entertainment One’s Diana; and DreamWorks’ The Fifth Estate.
Prolific producer Mike Medavoy, who knows all too well about how picking apart the facts can hurt a film, says there’s always going to be “naysayers shooting daggers and arrows at your film,” which happened with 1988’s Mississippi Burning when Coretta Scott King spoke out against the movie. “If you’re trying to make a documentary, you have to be accurate. One needs to have creative license to make a movie,” says Medavoy.
But how the public and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters connect with these stories can depend on the approach of their creative team. “I’ve got to be true to the facts as much as I can,” says Mandela screenwriter William Nicholson. However, he says he allowed for certain liberties when adapting the South African leader’s autobiography. For example, Nicholson didn’t know the specific details of the conversations Nelson Mandela had with his wife, Winnie, and their daughters during his time in prison. “You have an opportunity to create those moments (using) everything you know about what was happening to them,” he explains.
“There’s nothing in the film that didn’t happen,” Nicholson continues, but adds that he deliberately left out certain facts to focus the story on Mandela and his wife.
When it came to dramatizing the feud between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda in Rush, producer Andrew Eaton says screenwriter Peter Morgan similarly didn’t dwell on the drivers’ personal relationships and “probably” exaggerated the rivalry. “I don’t feel like it’s being untruthful,” Eaton explains. “I think if the essence of the story is still truthful, then you’re OK.” However, he says there are certain lines that should not be crossed. “I’d be very cautious about rewriting history—adding in people who didn’t exist or people who said something that they never said,” Eaton concludes.
But never say never when it comes to the tools screenwriters must use to create a taut story with layered characters and well-constructed arcs. Lee Daniels’ The Butler was inspired by an article in The Washington Post about Eugene Allen, a White House butler. Though the film was carefully researched, screenwriter Danny Strong used a composite character—an invented second son the real butler never had—to create the script’s central conflict, and the filmmaking team turned the butler’s wife into an alcoholic prone to affairs.
“The son is an amalgam of multiple people who fought in (and) who were part of the Civil Rights movement,” Strong explains. He and Daniels argue that such liberties were justified because the essence of the story remains and the history is accurate.
“For me, it was important to educate my children, who literally weren’t taught this in schools, and they go to pretty fancy schools,” Daniels says. “They know more about the Holocaust than the Civil Rights movement or Martin Luther King Jr.”
Strong, who also wrote HBO’s fact-based Recount and Game Change, defends his technique as classic fictionalizing. “So it’s like this,” he says. “The history needs the truth, it needs to have integrity, but through the course of that, can you use fictionalizing to capture the essential truths of an historical event? Absolutely.”
Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond says veering from actual characters won’t hurt the film’s Oscar chances. “It would be a problem if they didn’t admit it, if they try to say, ‘This is what happened,’” he says. “But because they are so upfront—that this is a device basically to tell the greater story—I think they’re given a pass.”
Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, whose movie is based on Richard Phillips’ account of his capture by Somali pirates on the Maersk Alabama, as well as on other research, says the choices he made for the film reflect the uniqueness of cinema.
“Movies are not journalism and they’re not history,” Greengrass says. “They’re something different. They can give you certain things that only cinema can give you; they can (show) you what it felt like to be in this experience. You have to make the judgments based on what the facts are, understanding the story you want to tell.”
In researching the story about HIV-positive Texan Ron Woodroof for Dallas Buyers Club, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack drew from hours of interviews that Borten had recorded before Woodroof’s death. But they also made a conscious decision to use composite characters—Woodroof’s transgendered business partner, Rayon (Jared Leto), and his doctor (Jennifer Garner). Wallack says adding the characters really helped tell Woodroof’s story. “You want to service them in the best way because they’re real people,” she says, “but at the same time you have to find the narrative of the movie.”
However, in the cutthroat world of Oscar campaigning, strategists are often on the lookout for weaknesses. “I don’t think if you stray slightly from the prescribed story, an Academy member will like it less,” says Grace PR’s Flo Grace, who has overseen Oscar campaigns for many nominated films, including Moulin Rouge, District 9 and The Social Network, among others. “The only reason it may harm you is if it allows competitors to use that to create a sense of uncertainty about the film.”
Hammond says Captain Phillips will have to fight that uncertainty to avoid becoming a victim of such tactics. Media reports, timed to the October release of the film and a December trial date, mention a lawsuit by Maersk Alabama crew members, who are suing Phillips for “knowingly” sending them into pirate-infested waters without adequate protection. The suit was filed prior to the release of Phillips’ book and has nothing to do with the movie. Yet it’s becoming part of the conversation.
How a studio responds to innuendo and direct attack can determine how a movie fares during an Oscar run, Hammond adds. Once the controversy over the accuracy of Zero Dark Thirty erupted, Sony made crucial mistakes. “Instead of coming out early on and confronting those criticisms and directly addressing them, they chose to say, ‘We stand beside our movie and that’s it,’” he says.
But if past is prologue to this year’s Oscar race, smear campaigns don’t always succeed. Even anti-Semite and homophobe accusations thrown at the real-life John Nash from A Beautiful Mind couldn’t derail Ron Howard’s film, which went on to win best picture and best director Oscars in 2002.
Despite the risks filmmakers take in dramatizing real life, there remains a drive to tell true stories. When comic-book characters and fantasy worlds are the norm, viewers—and voters—look for material that hits closer to home. “There’s a sensible instinct of trying to connect to the real world again,” Eaton explains. “And whether it’s Captain Phillips or The Butler or Rush—those are all stories with humanity, and I think people connect with that.”