Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reader questions - Overdone concepts and integrity in "true stories"

Lamtim had a few good questions. I'll tackle the first bunch.

How about a blog about how you'd approach tackling a really hoary old story? If you were well-paid by a company (and let's assume you need the gig) to adapt or develop material that felt played-out?

I've thought about doing something like this, but the problem is that any time I've started, I've fallen so in love with the idea that I feel like I'd rather develop it in private. And when I haven't fallen in love with the concept, I find that I don't have much enthusiasm for spending a blog post or several going through the motions.

On a related note, it'd be great to see a list from you on the top ten overdone stories you see in specs. Which ideas land on the readers' desks over and over again? 

I feel like I've touched on this before. Overdone cliches tend to bug me more than overdone stories, though I have really hit my limit on the following:

1) Morally-conflicted hitman has to pull one last job.

2) Teenage guys are determined to lose their virginity before Prom/Homecoming/Graduation only to get into a lot of gross, bodily humor-driven conflict. (An inventive way to flip this that I really can't recall seeing? Make the protagonists teenage girls!)

3) Dramas where the long suffering lead character is a martyr dealing with an aged parent with Alzheimer's/Cancer while dealing with their own terminal illness/evil spouse/hellion of a spawn.

4) Slasher scripts that don't bring anything new to the table.

5) Scripts where an uber-straight male is forced to "act gay." The motivation is always forced and implausible. This is the updated version of "I have to pretend to be married so I can get that big promotion" and it's not any more inventive here.

6) Plotless stories where a bunch of guys in their early 20s sit around talking about their lives, drinking, and getting laid by insanely hot but insanely stupid women.

Next question. "Based on a true story." How faithful to actual events/people do you think a movie carrying this description needs to be... or is it nothing but a marketing hook? 

Honestly, I struggle with this one. If we're talking about an incredibly well-known event, then I think the filmmaker has a responsibility not to take too many liberties. If I was working on something like this, I'd never forget that this film could be how an entire generation remembers the events depicted therein. I'd want to be able to look at the finished project and feel like I maintained my integrity in telling that story.

With something like The Social Network, I get the sense that most of the events happen in a way close to the truth, though they take some liberties with regard to Mark Zuckerberg. There's no mention made of the woman he was seeing at the time, who eventually became his wife. There's also a sense that Jesse Eisenberg plays him with a demeanor rather unlike how he is in real life.

The thing is, The Social Network is a great movie, so I'm more willing to overlook some of the changes made for the sake of drama. On the other hand, if Apollo 13 had been less faithful, my appreciation of it would probably be diminished.

And yet, it doesn't really bother me at all that A Beautiful Mind took so many apparent liberties with regard to its protagonist. JFK is another film that brings up this conflict. Compelling as a film, but historically dubious.

Better example - I loved The Hoax (see it if you haven't) and when I bought the book detailing the true story, I discovered that I think there's a limit to what the audience will accept. Mess with a history they know, and they'll approach the whole thing with skepticism. Give them an "untold" story, and you might have more leeway in how loose you can play with the truth.


  1. They're less common, but there are some girl versions of the virginity-loss script out there, too..THE TO DO LIST (with Aubrey Plaza) will be out next Valentine's Day:

    Also, I agree with all your cliches and will add 7. Guy who turns out to be crazy unreliable narrator

    1. My first spec was an attempt at a girl version of Superbad, before risque female-led comedies started to become a thing. But my script was too unmotivated because the girls weren't specifically on a quest to lose their virginity. (Which seems kind of implausible as a driving goal for a feature, since all a girl has to do to lose her virginity is pick a guy, any guy, and tell him she'd like to have sex with him.)

      I love Aubrey Plaza and am a big advocate for more female-led comedies so when The To Do List comes out I'll be watching with lots of mixed feelings!

  2. Re:Sample True Story

    Social Network was based on "The Accidental Billionaires" which had already been vetted by the publishing house, additional court records and exhibits attached to those court records.

    Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is based on book consultant Eduardo Saverin's interviews about him and Zuckerberg's behavior in the hundreds of hours of recorded depositions.

    Priscilla Chan wasn't in the movie because she wasn't a public figure and she isn't named in any of the court records.

    If you're doing true story on a living person you can't vary from public record or they will sue you. Studios like to base things on books like "A Beautiful Mind" where the legal team at the publishing house has cleared the book, the book is in print and no one has been sued.

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  4. Who is your typical rejected screenwriting applicant? Is he an unemployed college graduate writing about funny stories in college life, high-school life, bachelor life? Do you get thousands of these scripts? What is like the archetypical rejected script if there is one? Thanks -John