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From real to reel: In fact-based films, reality and storytelling collide

When director Danny Boyle began making “127 Hours,” the real-life tale of hiker Aron Ralston, who amputated his arm after five days pinned under a rock, he knew he had a compelling story to tell and an even better resource. After all, who better to steer the director through difficult dramatic terrain than the outdoorsman himself?

But for Boyle, an in-the-flesh, on-set guide like Aron Ralston also came with a liability: Aron Ralston.

The hiker insisted, for example, that his character (played by James Franco) let out a big laugh at the moment he cut off his arm, just as he says he did in real life. The director objected, saying a laugh felt out of place. Boyle eventually gave in.

And when the director wanted to use a raven as a comedic element, Ralston protested —saying a raven had been a symbol of hope for him when he was stranded. Boyle decided to use an inflatable Scooby-Doo instead.

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“As a director, you like having a real story because that’s what makes it more powerful,” Boyle said. “But it’s also hard because you know you’re dealing with someone’s life.”

A movie theater was once a refuge from life’s harsh realities. But this fall, those realities have come barging through the multiplex door. “127 Hours” is one of at least 13 movies based on a true story to hit cinemas in recent months. The films run the gamut of subjects, including a royal biography ( “The King’s Speech”), a Silicon Valley history ( “The Social Network”), a legal drama ( “Conviction”), a boxing saga ( “The Fighter”), a heart-stopping action flick ( “Unstoppable”) and a heart-tugging romantic dramedy (“Love & Other Drugs”).

And that’s not to mention a murder-mystery ( “All Good Things”), a prison-break love story ( “I Love You Phillip Morris”), a split-personality character study (“Frankie & Alice”) and two political sagas ( “Fair Game” and “Casino Jack”).

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Experts say that after a decade of reality television, the film business is finally catching up. Audiences and studio executives now not only tolerate a dose of real life in their feature films, they expect it. Stories like the ones told in “127 Hours” or “The Fighter” (about the working-class welterweight champion Micky Ward) go from ordinary to powerful in the minds of filmgoers the moment “based on a true story” flashes across the screen.

But in tapping into factual events, Hollywood is also wading into choppy waters — creatively, ethically and even legally.

As Boyle and others are finding, it’s tricky to make a feature film while abiding by what are essentially the constraints of a documentary. Some subjects, like Ralston, want to be heavily involved — at times to the point of dictating mannerisms and other details. Others want no part of the process but disparage the movie or even threaten lawsuits if they’re dissatisfied with the results. Controversies, compromises and conflicts lurk everywhere.

“I think everybody is exhausted by neat, shapely fictional stories we’ve had for so long, and a compelling situation from real life is much more interesting,” says film historian David Thomson. “But there’s a great danger. Every time a story is made out of a real person’s experience, we enter into a process of distortion.”

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The team behind “Conviction” says it took great pains to hew closely to the real-life story of waitress-turned-legal-crusader Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school in a bid to free her wrongfully imprisoned brother. Hilary Swank, who portrays Waters in the film, recalls that she even felt the need to apologize to Waters for one scene in which she wore an outfit that Waters probably wouldn’t wear.

“It’s an enormous responsibility,” Swank says of playing a real-life character. “You can’t take a lot of liberty with the storytelling.”

Yet even the best of intentions sometimes can’t guarantee protection from controversy. The producers of “Conviction” could be facing a lawsuit from the family of a murder victim portrayed in the film. They have complained they were not consulted about the portrayal and have hired attorney Gloria Allred, but a suit has yet to be filed.

“All Good Things,” director Andrew Jarecki’s thinly veiled story of eccentric New York real-estate heir Robert Durst, strongly implies that Durst orchestrated his wife’s killing and commissioned the murder of a friend who was about to go to police with evidence. In reality, Durst never even faced charges in either case. Jarecki changed the names of the characters in his film, but there’s little doubt to whom he’s referring.

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The movie also drew fire from the Durst Organization, the development company once run by Durst’s father. The company threatened to sue the movie’s distributor, saying it cast “false and damaging aspersions on the honesty, ethics and good business character” of the firm.

Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, didn’t threaten any legal action over “The Social Network,” which traces his path from Harvard prankster to billionaire. But he and some other early Facebook employees made no secret of their disdain for writer Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of the founders’ motivations as well as the party atmosphere around the company in its early days.

Sorkin told New York magazine recently that “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling,” adding that he didn’t want “the true [to] be the enemy of the good.”

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Still, the film may not have exactly been negative for Zuckerberg — it elevated him to a household name and probably contributed to Time magazine’s naming him its person of the year.

Jamie Reidy, a former pharmaceutical salesman whose memoir “Hard Sell” formed the basis of “Love & Other Drugs,” acknowledges some marked changes between his life and the movie version. The film, for instance, concludes with Jake Gyllenhaal driving his sports car alongside Anne Hathaway’s bus for a happily-ever-after moment. In real life, Reidy ended up a single guy living in the South Bay trying to make it as a screenwriter.

Said Reidy: “I want to be in Hollywood and I don’t want to get a reputation as a guy who was hard to work with.” (He also admitted that “I knew I was signing my life away when I did it, and I did it for a large chunk of money.”)

So what do filmmakers see as so valuable about stories like Reidy’s?

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For one, they can buy credibility with an increasingly jaded audience.

“We never could have made our movie if it wasn’t true,” said Glenn Ficarra, who co-directed the new Jim Carrey film “I Love You Phillip Morris,” a story of a gay con man who repeatedly escapes from prison. “The audience would have thought it was too far-fetched.”

And Mark Bomback, the writer on the Denzel Washington train thriller “Unstoppable,” says it’s not just the audience that has lost interest in purely fictional stories — he has too.

“When I read novels now, I’m much more aware” that they’re made up, “and it takes me out” of the story, said the writer, who based his script on the tale of rail workers who saved the day when an unmanned locomotive barreled through western Pennsylvania.

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He added that he probably wouldn’t have even worked on the film if it weren’t rooted in true events. “It would have felt hollow,” he said.

Mark Wahlberg makes a similar point about “The Fighter,” which he produced and starred in. “You [feel] like you were watching a documentary about these people as opposed to a film about their lives,” he said.

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Fact-based stories come with a slew of entanglements. Wahlberg upended his home life for “The Fighter,” moving Ward and Ward’s hyper-eager, garrulous half-brother Dicky Eklund for months on end into his family’s Los Angeles home to make sure they were on board with his interpretation. When they began shooting, Ward’s real-life sister, Cathy “Pork” Eklund, came to the set every day and offered nitpicky criticisms over dialogue and wardrobe to the actress playing her.

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Thomson, the film historian, said he sees this as a profound shift, one in which Hollywood, which has always prided itself on creating a machinery of make-believe, needs the real world in a way it never has before.

Even as fact-based movies allow filmmakers to supercharge their stories, they throw up new issues for audiences, who now might be tempted to see their daily existence as a feature-film pitch.

“When movies start to become about real life, it doesn’t just turn life into entertainment,” Thomson said. “It dilutes the texture of real experience.”

Ralston wrestled intensely with such concerns and had grave reservations that Hollywood could do justice to his ordeal. But for a man with such an outside-the-mainstream approach to life — he quit an engineering job at Intel in 2002 to dedicate himself to mountain climbing — he seems to have come around to the big-screen telling of his tale with remarkable enthusiasm.

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He walked the red carpet at the “127 Hours” premiere this fall and stood up after the screening to thank Boyle and his screenwriter. “I still cry every time I watch the last five minutes of the film,” he said.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and John Horn contributed to this report.


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