The story behind the story of a film based on a true story can be just as fascinating as the true story itself, according to participants at today’s Produced By discussion on the complexities of legal issues facing producers of movies based on real life stories.
These challenges can be particularly daunting when dealing with people who are still alive. Or as panelist Christopher Perez, partner in the Donaldson + Callif law firm put it, “The deader the better.” He suggested that “All films that are based on a true story have elements of “fictional embroidery” that some subjects don’t appreciate.
Grant Heslov, Oscar-winning producer of Argo, recalled the negative reaction he got from Don Hewitt when he gave the famed news producer a copy of the script for Good Night And Good Luck, which was based on Edward R. Murrow’s battles with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Waving the script in the air, the notoriously prickly Hewitt told him “This is horse shit.”
“What did we get wrong?” Heslov said he asked Hewitt. “We never drank in this bar,” he replied, referring to the saloon named in the script. After doing some more research, Heslov told the audience, “We found out that everybody did drink at that bar, but they just didn’t invite Don.”
Getting small details right may not be all that important to filmmakers, but they can be very important to the people being portrayed.
Lisa Bruce, the Oscar-nominated producer of The Theory of Everything, recalled that Jane Wilde, first wife of physicist Stephen Hawking, even had problems with the color of her dress in a scene. “She’d say, ‘I never wore green’ or ‘I didn’t part my hair that way.’ ” A film based on a true story, Bruce said, “is more like a poem. It has to be true to the spirit and essence of a life.”
Sometimes, cities and even whole countries don’t like the way they are portrayed. Matt Baer, producer of Unbroken, said the film never got released in Japan because of the film’s depiction of brutal treatment of American POWs during World War II.
And officials in Long Beach, NY, were so upset by the way their town was portrayed in City By The Sea, that Baer had to include in credits the disclaimer that the movie had been shot in another city. “All of these films are only as accurate as the story will allow, Heslove said.”
Obtaining clearance rights to the life stories of minor characters can particularly challenging. And that’s where the lawyers, insurance companies, and errors and omissions policies come into play.
“Anybody can sue you for anything,” said Christie Mattull, managing director of HUB International Entertainment Solutions. ” I have seen the wackiest lawsuits you wouldn’t believe. People come out of the woodwork.”
Telling the story of a person’s life in a 2-hour film requires lots of compression, or as Bruce said, quoting Alfred Hitchcock, “You realize how short your life is when you take out all the boring parts.”