Getting real can lead to Oscars — and headaches
Actors often talk about “becoming” a character, but when it came to “The Fighter’s” Dick Eklund — a former real-life welterweight boxer — Christian Bale outdid himself.
“We were shooting the movie, and Dickie’s sisters stopped by the set,” recalls producer Todd Lieberman. “One of them was in the room with Christian, and he had his back to her, and he’s always in role and in character — and the sister for a minute thought he was her brother. He had transformed himself so much that his authenticity became reality.”
Reality can be a fluid thing when it comes to the movies, and this year “based on a true story” films all but dominate the field. They’re catnip for voters in award season — five of the last 10 lead actor and seven of the last 10 lead actress Oscars have gone to real-life portrayals, a list of prizes that only scratches the surface of potential wins for the right picture.
But turning real life into believable fiction has its challenges and requires walking a thin line for filmmakers and actors alike, since what “really” happened is nearly always a gray area.
In the case of director Doug Liman’s “Fair Game,” his primary source, Valerie Plame, was forbidden by the CIA that once employed her to give him many details about her work there. Liman used a creative workaround: namely, his CIA-approved USA Network TV show, “Covert Affairs.”
“We spied on the CIA itself by sending people in as though they were part of ‘Covert Affairs,’ when in fact they were part of ‘Fair Game,’” Liman says.
Sneaking in where they didn’t belong to root out facts also applied to John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, co-directors of “I Love You Phillip Morris,” who had a main real-life character (Steven Jay Russell) in a Texas jail.
“We said we were his cousins and had someone vouch for us, so we could go visit him in prison,” recalls Ficarra.
Keith R. Clarke, producer of “The Way Back,” had a stickier situation: His script was based on a cult book that came out in 1956, and the story it apparently told of gulag escapees had gaping holes of credibility. He and director Peter Weir — who “is not one who likes to do nonfiction,” says Clarke — went on a six-month research adventure to uncover the truth about the long march from Russia, often speaking to secondary sources.
Eventually, Weir conceded that they would make the film as a fictional retelling, as he did with “Gallipoli” in 1981.
In a nutshell, that remains the ongoing question for filmmakers wanting to make a feature rather than a documentary, or even a movie of the week, about real-life stories. Just how much has to be real and how much has to feel real?
One major subject of debate from filmmakers and actors alike is how involved the real-life people should be in the production. Mark Wahlberg says he’s been a friend of Micky Ward, whom he plays in “The Fighter,” since he was 18 and says he was often asking for Ward’s input during shooting.
“You want to be respectful to the people you’re playing,” Wahlberg says. “They should feel good about the process.”
Jesse Eisenberg didn’t have the option of having Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on set for “The Social Network” but says he’s not sorry about it.
“It’s always better not to have the person you’re portraying on set,” he says. “That must be very distracting. Your allegiance should be toward creating character rather than flattering somebody.”
“Secretariat” director Randall Wallace kept his leading lady, Penny Tweedy (played by Diane Lane), in the mix, including giving her a shot as an extra in a key scene, but admits, “The potential problem is the inhibition factor. When we were doing ‘We Were Soldiers,’ the man who was the centerpiece of the story was alive and he was a general, and generals are very attentive to details. I told him I wanted his expertise before filming, but once we were filming I would not want experts on my battlefield — just as he wouldn’t have wanted them on his.”
Characters aside, the other major factor in shaping a “based on” film is how much is invented and how much adheres to facts. Most filmmakers agree that time compression and the occasional “collage” character are acceptable, but there’s still room for disagreement over just how literal the story should be.
Tom Hooper, director of “The King’s Speech,” says he “agonized” over “the relationship between historical truth and the needs of dramatic structure. We live in a culture that’s very casual about historical truth.”
But Hooper is an admirer of screenwriter Peter Morgan, whom he says “deserves a lot of credit for reinventing the biopic for the modern age. He has the confidence to know that sometimes you have to make a leap of faith to invent something to make a story work as a drama — the drunken phone call in ‘Frost/Nixon’ or the stag scene in ‘The Queen,’ for example.”
Such license has opened up near-literary possibilities for writers; “Conviction” writer Pamela Gray says she invented a scene between her lead Betty Ann Waters (played by Hilary Swank) and her two sons during an emotional car ride. “When I asked [Betty] how the kids felt they were portrayed in the film, they said, ‘That’s us.’ They didn’t say, ‘We didn’t say those words.’ I had to give myself permission to use my imagination.”
Which is why no “real life” story comes to the big screen without a creative screenwriter (two of the last 10 adapted-screenplay Oscar winners have come from nonfiction books). No matter how “out there” the story, ultimately it’s the writer who pares down the details into a coherent, prosaic whole that resonates long after audiences leave the theater.
“We need storytellers to connect the dots to make a very particular story connect with everyone in the cinema,” says “127 Hours” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who often speaks of his film presenting an “emotional truth” rather than a factual truth in many scenes. “Increasingly, we’re recording ourselves and our stories — and that has a limit because they don’t touch everyone in the audience. A writer can understand the emotional process the subject is going through, and that’s what the storytelling filmmakers do that documentary filmmakers and YouTubists don’t.”