Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: "Based on a True Story"

I saw THE BLIND SIDE this weekend, a movie based on the true story of a homeless teenager who gets taken in by a wealthy southern family and eventually becomes and All-American football player and first round draft pick after developing both his athletic and academic ability. It was a decent film, and certainly worthy of all the good reviews it has been getting. However, I get the sense that it's one of those movies that in three years I'll have completely forgotten.

Anyway, during the film there were a few moments here and there where I would occasionally - and involuntarily - think "I bet that scene is either made up or at least an embellishment." In fact, after the movie, I briefly considered looking up more about the real story and seeing if any of my guesses were right. Then I asked myself, "Does it really matter? Shouldn't the only question be 'Was it an entertaining movie?'"

There are no Oscars given out for "Best Movie Based on a True Story" or "Best Movie Most Like the Actual Events" that inspired it. If the only objective is to produce a well-made movie that's an engaging piece of drama, why should it make any difference if the story is faithfully adapted or made up out of whole cloth?

I see a lot of scripts - some interesting, many boring - that put "Based on a True Story" on the cover page. While I can see the merit in it, there are times when the concept is so dull, or so overused, that it seems like the "true story" hook is meant as a preemptive defense against criticisms of derivative plots or weak drama. Suppose the script in question is yet another story about a teacher who inspires inner city students to find their inner Whitmans. Let's say it hits every expected beat - with the added bonus of only tepid conflict between the main characters.

But when one tries to give the writer notes that would make the script more interesting and dramatic, or suggests changes to make the lead character more flawed and compelling - the writer resists, saying "That's not what happened in real life!"

Should we care? Is there anything that says one can't just change the names to divorce the story from the real people and then rewrite the story with abandon? It is that important for a story to be "based on a true story?"

I've felt that if the only hook your story has is that it's "true," then you're in trouble. Real life is often boring. Would sticking "Based on a true story" on top of, say, BRIDE WARS automatically make it a better script? And at the same time, is the only appeal of PIRATE RADIO that it's "based on a real story?"

That's why the yearly scandals about how the "true life" Best Picture nominee takes liberties with real life are so ridiculous. By the same token, if you enjoy a particular reality show, do you watch because you find the drama compelling, or because the show is "real?" If the former, would it really matter if something like THE HILLS is staged and scripted more tightly than your average sitcom?

So let me ask you this - does it matter to you if a movie is "true?" Would that fact alone get you into the theatre? If not, at what point does that fact become a selling point? If you wouldn't see the movie when it's total fiction, why would claiming fidelity to actual events make the story any more compelling?

And if any of that makes a difference, why is it that audiences care about such details?


  1. I have a period piece based on early 19th century history in Michigan. It's had some actual interest, so we'll see how it proceeds. The research into "history" was enlightening, because it was the white man's history of despicable events and ruthless people. One character, John Shields Tipton, was an federal Indian agent. Tipton's father, uncle and father-in-law were all killed by Indians, so became an Indian agent.

  2. Juno is based on true events that occur umm about 2800 times a day :).

    I liked Juno though lol

  3. "Flame and Citron" (an excellent movie about the Danish resistance in WWII) is an intersting example. After I'd seen it, I looked up some of the history. I found that:

    1. All the more implausible bits of heroic action were true

    2. The femme fatale character in the film was in real life not only promiscuous but also bisexual. The film-makers omitted the latter detail as they thought the audience would find it too much of a cliche.

  4. I was watching the Steelers/Ravens game this past Sunday night, and the broadcast commentators mentioned that Michael Oher said the film-makers embelleshed some of what happened in the movie.

    Still, I thought "The Blind Side" SOUNDED pretty good conceptionally, interesting to read that the bitter script reader thinks in the grand scheme of the movie landscape it's going to end up being a forgettable movie. I'm interested to see it JUST for Sandra Bullock's performance and verbal barbs that from the commericals appears this movie is ripe with.

    "Paranormal Activity," "The Forth Kind:" Aren't these shows propoting the claim they are at least partially "based on true events?" In my house that moniker has become a cliche. A cliche that really means you're telling a far fetched story that is suddenly supposed to have highted interest because it really happened somewhere.

    Don't get me wrong, sometimes "based on true events" works. But mostly nowadays I just roll my eyes when I hear that phrase. Everyone knows the movies don't portray life verbatim.

    Recently I finished a romantic comedy entittled, "After the Glory." It was INSPIRED by the off-season Brett Favre drama of how a longtime star athlete copes with retirement. Started out thinking this story would have a lot of football in it, but suprisingly the longer I wrote that stuff kinda peeled away and a differnet story emerged... A story with a more universal theme. Brett Favre -- to universal theme -- that could possible be a romantic comedy?! Well, you'd haffta read it yourself to believe it. Pending the coverage from my reader, I'm very happy with how it turned out. I'm working on a sci-fi, government conspiracy script now. Something different from anything I've written before...

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  5. I think an essential component of "inspired by" stories that work on screen is the emotional wallop they deliver. When evoked by great storytelling, the emotions of triumph and sorrow can elevate a movie to "timeless" status -- IF the audience internalizes the meaning of the reality freighted by the "true" events.

    I've just completed one of these, a tragic "anti-sports biopic" ... more BRIAN'S SONG than RUDY. Both of those are timeless stories, and both are in the Hall of Fame of "inspired by" films. Why? Because both make grown men weep...one via triumph, the other via tragedy.

    Would either have a chance of getting greenlit today? Yes, I believe they would...

    John Arends

  6. I like it when they just totally BS and use the true story angle to make things more lurid, like FARGO and HOSTEL. I remember talking to people who were convinced BLAIR WITCH was real as well.

  7. Lest ye forget...
    Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy

    "The following is based on actual events. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed."