March 07, 2013

Five Facts of Fact-based Fiction

This news is big. Steven Spielberg is about to create a mini-series on Napolean Bonaparte. But the fact that actually makes it such a big news is that Spielberg is basing the series on the script which is often termed as the “greatest film never made”, the most ambitious unrealized project of the giant that was Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, who with his 13 films over a career of 46 years is the biggest cinematic illustration to the cliché of “quality over quantity” had reportedly studied close to five hundred books during his research for the film. And I, as would all other die-hard Kubrick fans, always wondered what that film would have been. Well, now is the time to look forward to it and hope Spielberg does justice to the vision of the master.

This brings me to my topic of this post. I’m presently working on a screenplay based on true events and real people and it’s such a great coincidence that most of recent releases I’ve seen recently have been ‘fact-based fiction’. Just check this out: ‘Argo’, ‘Special Chhabees’, ‘Lincoln’, and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Watching these, and reading about them, and simultaneously working on my script has led me to these five broad observations about fact-based fiction.

  1. You do not have the liberty to do whatever you want with historical characters, and the story’s plot points and resolution, unless you decide to do an ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009) and assassin Hitler in a movie hall. So, the structure of the film is more a matter of selecting that period of the concerned history that makes for a compelling film. For example, ‘Lincoln’ deals with just one major achievement of the president and finally his assassination. There can be a separate film on the childhood of Lincoln until he becomes the president. It is up to the writer to choose what part of history he wants to recreate, as he can hardly ‘create’ something original.
  2. However, you know that you’re not making a documentary. In feature films, you have to make sure that the larger appeal of the film is not compromised. Cinematic liberty is not only a tool, but often an inevitable necessity. And you always run the risk of losing the credibility if you barely cross that thin line. Watch the climax of ‘Argo’ to understand what I mean.
  3. The bigger fight is internal. As a writer you do not want to lose your integrity. In most cases, you chose a certain character/event because you are personally fascinated by him/her/it. It becomes increasingly difficult, then, to alter facts to make your script spicy. You want to portray the truth in the most truthful way, but understand that point 1 mentioned above will always conflict with your intention to achieve something using point 2. This ethical and moral dilemma is something that you can never escape when you are writing fact-based fiction.
  4. There is this predictable risk of the controversies and legal issues. After all, how can you ever make a film on the real CIA agent who helped in nabbing Osama Bin Laden? Hence you create a fictitious character, Maya, and symbolically portray the determination and efforts of all those who had contributed in the real life. Going by that, I think, the protagonist of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a smart achievement of the writer. Otherwise, it was impossible to make a film on this remarkable historical event.
  5. And then there is the limitation of the budget. When you’re writing about a certain historical period, you painstakingly recreate that world in your screenplay. Knowing that when seen on film, it is the details of art and costumes that will actually make things look ‘real’. As a writer, if you start wondering about whether the budget will allow your director to achieve everything that you are trying to imagine, chances are you would be failing to do justice to your product.

So, what is the answer? In my opinion, the only way out is to take pleasure in these challenges. Working within defined parameters can often be enlightening for the writer. And to be honest, similar challenges are faced while adapting a novel into a film script. Being able to deliver a good script under these circumstances is difficult and rewarding at the same time. Difficult and rewarding – perhaps this is the only similarity between this kind of adaptation and creating a completely original work!

P.S. Today, incidentally, is the death anniversary of Kubrick. Some people deserve immortality of flesh and blood!

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