"Watching The Lord of the Rings” by
"The Screenwriter in the Editing Room" by Christopher Vogler
"On The Firing Line" by Christopher Vogler
"What's the Big Deal?" by Christopher Vogler
"Fusing Fact and Fiction for Art's Sake" by Brad Schreiber
"Biographical Sketches Revitalize Telepic World" by Brad Schreiber
The Lord of the Rings” by Christopher Vogler
"The Screenwriter in the Editing Room" by Christopher Vogler
The screenwriting process, I discovered, doesn’t stop when the writer hands in the final draft. A film is re-written many times in the production and post-production process by the choices of directors, actors, producers, editors and technicians. These choices can have drastic, deep-reaching impact on the whole concept of the work, evolving it into something more, and sometimes less, than the vision the screenwriter has labored to put down on paper. I have always assumed that opportunities to shape the narrative continued deep into the process, but because most of my work has been in pre-production I rarely got to see just how true that is. Then I got one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls. In the language of myths that I expound in this book, this was my Call to Adventure.
The voice on the line was that of actor Steve Guttenberg, veteran of mainstream Hollywood entertainment such as POLICE ACADEMY, COCOON, DINER, and THREE MEN AND A BABY. He said he was a fan of my book and that he wanted my help on a new project he was undertaking. He was about to start shooting his first feature film as a director, an adaptation of the Broadway play P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD.
Intrigued, I met Steve at a Santa Monica deli and discovered he is an intelligent, high-energy, upbeat, sincere guy. He has been part of the movie business since he was a brash eighteen-year-old infiltrating himself onto Hollywood lots, and his move into directing is a natural progression. His approach to directing his first feature was to surround himself with smart people in key positions.
One of his advisors had told him that rather than producing an original story for his first film, he would be better off optioning an existing property, something that already had a track record and some kind of reputation. He was able to secure the rights to P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD, a play and novel by the late James Kirkwood, co-author of A CHORUS LINE.
I later discovered that many people have fond memories of this material from having seen productions of the play or from having read the novel at a certain formative time in their lives. It deals with the dashed hopes and unquenched creative drive of the artist on the fringe of show business. It’s known for its intense two-character scenes which are often chosen by student actors for their exercises. Various producers and studios had tried to develop a movie version over the years, but until now no one had managed to bring it to the screen.
Steve quickly laid out the story of P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD. A down-on-his-luck actor walks into a barrage of bad breaks one New Year’s Eve. In short order his best friend has died, his one-man play has folded, his girlfriend is ending their relationship, and his cat is sick with a bladder infection. Someone has burglarized his apartment, taking the only copy of a novel that he labored over for a year. He wishes he could get his hands on the burglar, and unexpectedly that wish is granted when the burglar strikes again. The actor catches the burglar, knocking him out in a struggle and tying him up. At first he seeks revenge on his enemy, a feisty, funny guy who hurls insults even while tied up on the kitchen sink. But the actor soon realizes the burglar is human, in fact more human that he is in many ways. By the end of the evening, they’ve gone through a crisis together and they’re on their way to becoming friends.
It was a courageous departure for Steve, who gained stardom as the likeable hero of broad, commercial comedies and fantasies. He wanted to try something different, he said, to show what he could do as an actor but more importantly to establish the range of things he’d like to do as a director.
Steve was now just a few weeks away from starting to shoot the movie. He had secured financing, had co-written the script with standup comedian and screenwriter Jeff Korn, and would serve as producer as well as directing and acting in the film. He would play Jimmy Zoole, the down-and-out actor. He wanted my help in looking over the script before going into production.
I jumped at the chance to influence a “go” picture. Much of what I do, even for major studios, is working on scripts that might get made, someday. This was more immediate and real than ninety per cent of the projects I deal with. I agreed to serve as a consultant, one of several “godfathers” who would help guide Steve through the process of making an independent film.
My first step was to go home and read the current script and its underlying material, the stage play and the novel. I felt the script was a little scattered in its attempt to touch on the many themes explored by playwright and novelist Kirkwood. It seemed to be about many things -- the frustrations of being an actor, the difficulties of love, the torments of creativity, the dangers of dependency, the meaning of friendship, the challenge of adversity. When Steve and I met again, I made a few suggestions for refining the narrative to support a single theme, something that I hoped would encompass all the interesting sub-themes while creating a coherent dramatic experience. I suggested that the core of the play was the idea of what it means to be human. The playwright presented two men, reacting to difficult situations in different ways. One (the actor) responds from a baser, less human part of himself, while the other (the burglar) reacts in ways that show he is more evolved, more completely human. The journey of the hero in this case is to recognize the humanity of his enemy, acknowledge his own brutality, and begin to change for the better.
I offered this observation along with many lesser notes about details and mechanics of story. Steve accepted my notes and incorporated as much as possible into the script before commencement of shooting.
After Steve and his crew had been shooting for a few days, I visited the set and looked at the dailies which they had already assembled into a rough cut of the first scene. I was impressed with the production value but a little concerned over the direction they were taking in terms of coverage and camera angles. Steve and his editor, a talented young man named Derek Vaughn, had chosen to keep the camera at an almost Martian distance from the actors at first, with a plan to gradually move in tighter as we got to know the characters better.
I thought this approach was a little too intellectual, and that it defied the desire of the audience to see deeply into people’s faces, to read the play of emotions in their eyes. I suggested that they back up their bold experimental approach with slightly more conventional coverage, and more closeups, just in case their experiment didn’t work.
I also felt the scene they showed me was overcut, jumping back and forth between the actors unnecessarily in the effort to generate tension. I counseled them to relax and trust the materiaI, the dramatic situation, to provide the tension. I think they heard me. In the end they struck a balance between artful, innovative technique and sturdy, classic methods that let the story tell itself.
Then I went away for awhile, only visiting the set a couple of times during shooting. From those visits I could see that Steve was an unusually collaborative filmmaker, welcoming suggestions from everyone including the fellow who delivered the pizzas. He kept a happy set for the most part, and I was pleased to see that his screenwriting partner, Jeff Korn, was on set most of the time, rewriting lines and scenes as needed, or reminding Steve of why they had decided, months before, to set up a scene a certain way.
As the crew completed principal photography and Steve and Derek began to edit the picture, Steve’s line producer, Kyle Clarke, approached me about taking on a bigger role in the production as an executive producer. He felt, and Steve agreed, that someone was needed to guide the production through the next phase. I found myself accepting the role without any real notion of what that might mean.
Steve and Derek, meantime, had edited the film to a rough cut of around two hours. They screened it for audiences of crew and friends and began making changes based on feedback from the viewers. What we saw in all these early versions was a fascinating, unpredictable, but ultimately exhausting expanse of drama and comedy. There was simply too much of a good thing. The scenes, one by one, were riveting, but the audience was worn out by the struggle between the two antagonists. Certain scenes seemed to repeat information, or developed ideas and backstories in greater detail than was really needed. The story began strongly with a rousing argument between the actor and his girlfriend that played much funnier on the screen than it did on paper. The audience roared at the impotent fury of the actor as his girlfriend walks out on him on New Year’s Eve. However, the movie then turned much darker as the actor discovered and confronted the burglar, and their conflict, at first mesmerizing, seemed to lose focus and drive. In addition there were many rough spots in editing and sound that drained away the good will of the audience.
I had a hunch there was a real movie in there somewhere. Professional filmmakers who saw the rough cuts agreed, predicting that Steve had months of editing ahead to bring out the potential in the material. Everyone sensed that another eye was needed to find the movie in that embarrassment of riches. This is not an uncommon situation and is no slight upon the skills of the director. Directors understandably grow close to their material and may not be able to see all the possibilities in what they have shot.
While the situation stewed, I visited the editing room to give my notes on the most recent version. I spent an afternoon going over the film scene by scene with Steve and his editor, Derek. By the end of the day it was clear we clicked and could make a formidable team. Somehow I balanced between Steve’s impetuous, restless creativity and Derek’s intellectual, almost Vulcan logic. I found myself coming back the next day, and the next, and then pretty much every day for the following four months, during which we chopped and shaved the film down to a tight eighty-four minutes.
I fell in love with the editing process, realizing it is an extension of the writing process. I relished the absolute power to shape the narrative, to seek out and emphasize different themes at will, to direct the thoughts and feelings of the audience.
We were joining in the writing of the film, in the telling of the story, as fully as the screenwriter. We were able to make choices over such things as point of view, degree of comic intention, level of intensity, tempo, rhythm, and velocity. For example we made the choice early on to tell the story primarily from the actor’s point of view, on the writer’s principle that the story “belongs” to whichever character has the greatest distance to travel.
We did a lot of writing with silence. In many cases, lines of dialogue had been written and filmed to explain things or to express a character’s reaction to a dramatic turn, but we found that a more effective statement was to say nothing, or to find a hint of a smile or a glint in the actor’s eye that said it better than words.
In one scene, a critical moment when the actor rings up a shady friend of his, inviting him to come up and harass the tied-up burglar, we struggled for a long time with the dialogue on the other end of the phone call. Lines had been written and shot, showing a character receiving the call on the other side of town, but the footage was technically flawed. We decided not to use it, leaving us free to write any dialogue we wanted for the other side of the phone call. It was a tempting opportunity to lay in a number of ideas that would help to explain Steve’s motivation or add shadings of menace, and we wrote and recorded several versions of this call. However, it occurred to me that we could also delete that half of the conversation, so that we only heard Steve’s end of the call. When we tried it, we found the effect was electrifying. It threw much more weight to Steve’s character and his action, making him appear more brutal and calculating. It also gave more emphasis to the burglar, who is listening intently to Steve’s half of the conversation for clues about his fate. It put the audience in the same position, getting the same information that the burglar gets.
This experience was but one example of a principle that kept asserting itself in the editing (re-writing) process. Every time we made a change, especially when we cut something we had become attached to, we would discover three or four unexpected benefits from the change. There was abundant endorsement for the idea that “Less is more.”
Another principle emerged that works as well on paper as in the editing room: It’s better to be clear than to be pretty. Often we were faced with a choice of approaches to a scene or a shot -- one way was artful and mysterious, a little obscure or clever, while the other option was straightforward, not as interesting perhaps, but certainly clearer. Again and again we found that the overall purpose of the work was better served by the simple, clear choice. Intelligibility and lack of ambiguity allowed the audience to participate fully in the experience, following every idea and emotional development, instead of intermittently losing the thread of the narrative while we tried to impress them with an arty shot or an obscure reference. In our process we made many “passes” over the entire film from front to back, looking for and correcting various things, and one of our passes was devoted entirely to intelligibility, rigorously asking ourselves if everything made sense, if the intention of the scene was clear, if the audience could understand everything the characters said and did, and more importantly, why they said and did everything. We sacrificed many beautiful shots and actor moments because their intent was not entirely clear. “When in doubt, cut it out” became our motto.
Focus was another useful principle that came into play as we re-wrote the movie through editing. By determining the intention of each scene, and eliminating anything that did not serve that intention, we achieved a much greater sense of focus and direction. Focus had been scattered in the production phase because there are so many things to keep in mind and keep track of -- lighting, sound, performance, set decoration, continuity, a variety of themes and motifs that you wish to be consistent, and so on. It was as if a great many lights were aimed at different subjects in a frame, producing a fuzzy, out-of-focus effect, but when we shut off the distracting side lights and illuminated a single subject, the whole picture came into sharp focus. We tried to maintain a laser-like focus throughout the film, so that there is certainty about where it’s going and what you’re supposed to be considering from moment to moment.
The natural impulse when adapting a stage play to film is to “open it up” by adding exterior scenes or action sequences. Most plays are designed for minimal sets and as few actors as possible. The P. S. team had shot ample material to “open up” the play, including excursions to a local grocery and a New Year’s eve party at the home of the actor’s rich aunt. They had also staged the physical and verbal battles with an eye towards avoiding the sense of claustrophobia. The hero frequently went to the window to look out and sigh, and some of the fight scenes were covered from a P.O.V. across the street, outside the building. The team shot the film in such a way that the audience had opportunities to escape, fearing that they would tire of being caged with two angry men in a small apartment.
In fact we found that just the opposite was true. Instead of opening it up, what worked best was bottling it in. We were stoking a boiler, and the excursions and trips to the window let the accumulated energy dissipate. What the audience seemed to like most, and what they really needed from the narrative and dramatic point of view, was to be as close to the two men as possible, right in their faces, nose to nose. That’s where the action was, and the dramatic explosions that the script was trying to ignite could only happen when the pressure was kept tightly contained.
With that in mind, we cut the film again and again, looking for ways to streamline it and throw focus onto the dramatic conflict at the spine of the story. We had to sacrifice some moments of comedy and even a few substantial scenes to do it, but it was worth it. One elaborate scene had been shot outdoors for a moment in the film when the hero returns to his apartment from a party he has been to. He sees emergency lights and fears that something has happened to the burglar whom he left tied up. Rounding a corner, he sees a firetruck and crew attending to a car fire, and is relieved. Although considerable time and expense had gone into this scene, in the end we left it out because it didn’t serve the hard dramatic core of the narrative. Many other scenes and moments, though effective on their own, went the same way. Perhaps the expense could have been avoided by more thoughtful, rigorous screenwriting before production began.
The editing process began to seem something like building a boat. The spine of the story, the simple idea of a man discovering his own humanity, became the keel. To that we attached the ribs, the key turning points and confrontations. Over those we laid the planks, the individual scenes and speeches. Then we began to plane and sand, shaving the craft down to an efficient shape that could cut through the water. At one point I thought of the old Viking story of the shipwright who astonishes his apprentices by gouging deep wedges out of every plank on a ship being built for the king. They think he’s ruined the ship for some reason, but upon reflection realize he’s simply guided them to plane all the planks down to the level of the gouges, producing a ship that is almost supernaturally light and slender, slicing through waves instead of shouldering them. That’s what we were doing, cutting to the bone, making the most efficient version of P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD possible with the footage that had been shot. To Steve’s credit, once he grasped the principle, he led the charge, ruthlessly taking his axe to many scenes that featured his acting skills, but did not serve the speed and efficiency of the boat we were building. In one memorable session he suggested a drastic cut that eliminated fourteen minutes of intense and moving exchanges beween the two antagonists. He was right -- although these scenes deepened the characters, they did so at the expense of the velocity and sense of narrative drive.
One of our most effective tools became the manipulation of the audience’s breathing. We discovered that by cutting out all pauses and hesitations in the dialogue during tense scenes of conflict, the audience tended to hold their breath or to breathe very shallowly until we reached a climax or turning point in the scene. Then we would create a pause, sometimes by drawing back from tight, edgy closeups to a more serene long shot, sometimes by allowing the actor on screen to sigh or draw a breath before beginning the next run of dialogue exchange. These pauses subtly cued the audience to breathe, creating an important moment in which the brain changes gears, the mind absorbs realizations, the emotions flood in.
The screenwriter working on the page has many of the same techniques at hand, and can control breathing and other physiological functions in the reader. It’s a thrill to read a good script that takes charge in this way, getting your eye to fly along the page, clicking seamlessly through sparse volleys of crisp dialogue and action that get your pulse pounding, leaving you gasping, and then every so often, under precise control, letting you rest, recoup, and reflect.
Narrative is biological, working on the organs of the body, playing them like the instruments in a symphony orchestra. When I evaluated scripts as a development executive at Fox, my criterion was that they had to affect me in at least two organs of the body, grabbing my gut and raising a lump in my throat, or making my heart throb and bringing a tear to my eye. I came to depend on my body as a judge of material in other ways. If my head nodded or my posterior went numb while reading a script, I knew the writer had succeeded in boring me. If I grew restless in my chair and began tapping my foot, I knew the writer had overstayed his welcome.
My impression is that writers rarely have anything to do with the editing stage of the filmmaking process, and that by and large they are excluded from the editing room. If they are lucky, they might get a chance to comment after a screening of a version, but it would be unusual for a writer to be invited into the day-by-day process of editing. In the case of P. S., the three-person team of Steve, Derek, and myself took a run at editing a version of the picture all on our own, but then were most eager to get reactions and ideas from the primary screenwriter, Jeff Korn, and invited him to spend several days with us as we did one of our “passes” over the film. There were many opportunities to write additional dialogue, voice-overs, parts of phone conversations, and “wild lines”, that is, lines over shots in which the actor’s lips are not shown so that any reasonable dialogue can be inserted. We got out of many difficulties with Jeff’s help, and kept the new elements consistent with his “voice” and style of writing. In addition, his eye and ear were useful in testing our choices, pointing out where we had failed in our intention to make things clear and crisp. He often was the only one who could remember why choices were made long ago, and guided us to recover the original intention of a scene or a line of dialogue.
One of the last stages of post-production is smoothing out sound and music. This stage, like all the others, was a continuation of the writing process, and we found ourselves rewriting the script by the subtle choices about where music begins and ends, where the climax of a piece of music is placed, and what version of a piece you select. Screenwriters are often told that they shouldn’t put specific music cues into a script because producers may not be able to secure the rights, and it’s probably unwise to hang an entire story or major plot point on the lyrics of a Beatles tune or a Beach Boys recording. However, it can be very effective to mention a familiar composition, quote a line from a pop song, or suggest a type of music when you are writing the script. The reader sometimes resonates to these suggestions, and as an executive evaluating scripts, I would find myself humming the music the writer had mentioned, or unconsciously reading the script with the rhythm of the music that the writer had planted a few pages before.
As we polished P. S. and added levels of sound effects we also added a dimension of reality, creating the impression of a consistent sound ambience in the apartment, and now and then evoking the feeling of a whole city pulsing outside the building. Once in awhile, the sounds of cars and people outside helped to emphasize the hero’s isolation and loneliness. Again, these tools are also available to the screenwriter, who can sometimes drop in a telling reference to the sounds in the environment, summoning up another sensory stimulus for the reader, and contributing to the overall effect of the story being a lived experience with depth and dimension.
Finally, I observed that the writing process continues, in a way, in the minds of the audience members who see the finished film. They complete the circuit, taking in the images, words and sounds that the writers and their collaborators have assembled and drawing conclusions from them. Each person arrives at a unique judgment of the film and its characters, writing his or her own version. How often have you gone back to see a loved or hated old film, only to realize you remembered it in an entirely different way, and that you have rewritten scenes in memory to match your own idea of things?
Screenwriting is a process that extends far beyond the composition of a screenplay, stretching both backward into the imagination and experience of the writer, and forward into the hands of the directors, editors, producers, and technicians who will continue to shape the vision. On P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD I had the chance to see how the screenwriting truly continues through the entire filmmaking process, even if it isn’t always the nominal screenwriter who is doing the writing. Along the way I discovered that some of the tools of post-production and techniques of film editing could be just as useful at treatment or screenplay stage to focus the story and invite the full participation of the reader. It’s good to try on the other fellow’s hat once in awhile, and I wish all writers could have the experience of time in the editing room, so they could see how closely the worlds of editing and screenwriting are bound. Screenwriters should be more involved in all phases of production, and smart producers and directors will budget for some of the writer’s time in the post-production phase to insure continuity of voice and vision, and to make full use of the writer’s skills in the editing room as well as on the page.
A behind-the-scenes look at the development of THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's acclaimed comeback film.
Hollywood is a sink-or-swim industry where they rarely take time to teach you anything. But I once got a useful lesson early in my career when I was a reader for Orion Pictures. Our story editor called a meeting of the readers to tell us none of us had any idea what a scene was. I was surprised; I thought I knew. A scene is a short piece of a movie, taking place in one location and one span of time, in which some action takes place or some information is given.
Wrong, she said. And proceeded to explain that a scene is a business deal. It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power. It’s a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end.
It could be the reversal of a power structure. The underdog seizes power by blackmail. Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity. Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation. A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer. Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival. A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching. The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period. If there’s no new deal, it’s not a scene, or at least it’s not a scene that’s pulling its weight in the script. It’s a candidate either for cutting or for rewriting, to include some significant exchange of power.
The story editor pointed out that many writers don’t know what a scene is, either, and put in non-scenes that are just there “to build character” or to get across exposition. They don’t know when to begin and end a scene, wasting time with introductions and chit-chat and dragging the scene out long after the transaction has been concluded. The scene is the deal. When the deal is done, get off the stage.
I found this principle very useful in pinning down the essence of a scene, and I found it also works at a macro level in identifying the bigger issues in a script, for every story is the re-negotiation of a major deal, a contract between opposing forces in society.
Romantic comedies are a re-negotiation of the contract between men and women. Myths, religious stories, and fantasies rework the compact between humans and the greater forces at play in the universe. The terms of the uneasy balance between good and evil are re-evaluated in every superhero adventure and story of moral dilemma. The climax of many movies is a courtroom judgment that lays out a new agreement, passing sentence on a wrongdoer, proclaiming someone’s innocence, or dictating terms of a disputed transaction. In all cases, we go in with one deal and we come out with a new deal having been cut.
Knowing when the big deal of the movie has been cut tells you when the movie should be over. Many movies today go on long after they have truly ended, as far as the audience is concerned. They know it’s over when the last term of the deal has been decided, and they get restless if the filmmaker goes on with extra flourishes and codas and flashforwards to ten years later, etc.
And at the most macro level of all, storytelling itself is a deal. It’s a contract between you and your audience. The terms of the deal are these: They agree to give you something of considerable value--their money--but much more importantly, their time. You are asking them to pay attention to you and you only for ninety minutes. Think about that! Focused attention has always been one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the universe, and it’s even truer today, when people have so many things vying for their attention. So for them to give you even a few minutes of their focus is huge stakes to put on the table, worth much more than the ten bucks or so they shell out, and therefore you’d better come up with something really good to fulfill your part of the bargain.
There are many ways to fulfill that contract. I used to think the “Hero’s Journey” model that I describe in my book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY was an absolute necessity. I still think it is the most reliable way to honor the terms of the deal with the audience, providing them with a metaphor for their lives that includes a taste of death and transformation. They tend to read it into any story anyhow, and it’s actually hard to tell a story without including some of its elements.
But I’ve come to see it’s not the only way to hold up your end of the deal. At a minimum, you must be entertaining, in the original sense of the word, to hold their attention with something a little novel, shocking, surprising, or suspenseful. Be sensational; that is, appeal to their sensations, give them something sensual or visceral, some sensation that they can feel in the organs of their bodies, like speed, movement, terror, sexiness.
A good ride to another place and time can fulfill the contract. I don’t remember being moved much by the story of THE ABYSS, but I felt well repaid by being taken to a cool dark place under the sea for two hours on a hot summer afternoon. Giving them stars they like in appealing combinations or new costumes is a way the studios have always used to uphold their deal with the public. If you loved Kevin Costner in his cavalry outfit, you’ll love him in tights as Robin Hood. Sheer novelty weighs heavily with audiences, justifying the investment of their time and attention. It’s worth a lot to people to be able to talk about the movie everyone’s buzzing about, be it PULP FICTION, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, or 300. Fulfill a deep wish the audience has, to see the dinosaurs walk again in JURASSIC PARK, or to fly and wield superpowers in SUPERMAN. The audience will forgive a lot of story problems and plot holes if other terms of the contract are satisfied.
At first, I resisted the idea that it’s all wheeling and dealing. It can’t just be about business, can it? But I came to see it is, in a way. From the Bible on down, we have lived by our contracts, for the Bible is an account of the deals made between God and his creation. We all have an unwritten deal with the rest of society, called the social contract, to behave ourselves in return for our freedom and relative safety. The essential documents of our civilization are contracts, agreements made or statements declaring the terms of a new deal, from Hammurabi’s Code and the marriage contract to the Bill of Rights.
Just be sure when you tell your story that you’ve thought about “What’s the deal going down here?” in every scene and “What’s the big deal?” of the whole story. Think of the attention and time your clients, your audience, have put on the table, and try to fulfill your part of the bargain with something that at least entertains them, stimulates and amuses them, and maybe even transforms them a little bit.
|Fusing Fact and Fiction for Art's Sake by Brad Schreiber|
Daily Variety, Feb. 20, 2002
Henry Ford said it is bunk. Napoleon said it is a set of lies, agreed upon. But history, as depicted in motion pictures, can revive interest in people and events which may otherwise remain generally overlooked.
In the recent past, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman won the Golden Globe award for his script about the schizophrenic, mathematical genius John Nash in A
Beautiful Mind, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar. The biopic posed historical challenges, as Nash had in reality divorced his wife Alicia before returning
to her, had a child out of wedlock and homosexual tendencies. Miramax Pictures allegedly participated in a campaign to discredit the accuracy of A
Beautiful Mind, and
by association, Universal.
Perhaps Gregory Allan Howard had even more of a daunting task concerning economy of storytelling, as he is credited
with the story and wrote the original draft for Ali, about one of the most recognizable people on the planet. "What I wrote was a father and son story,"
says Howard, one which concentrated on Muhammed Ali's life from age 12 to 40, as opposed to the decade covered in the film.
Eyre elucidated Murdoch's views
through a series of lectures in the film, but realizes that an emotional truth is often a substitute for an historical event. "I'm not being entirely
facetious where I say certain elements of it are not biographically true, in the literal sense. You know, who knows what goes on in private in a marriage?"
Gillon, whose books include That's Not What We Meant to Do, examining legislation which achieved the opposite of its intended effect, lays out clearly the battle lines between historians and historical films: "I think historians have to understand the requirements of filmmaking, sort of the limitations...and the need and desire to reach a wider audience. And filmmakers also need to understand the importance of presenting as much as possible a portrait that's historically accurate."
|Biographical Sketches Revitalize Telepic World by Brad Schreiber|
Daily Variety, June 14, 2002
While network telepics have generally receded into the mists of time, there are still TV movies that can artistically compete with those of the silver screen.
TNT's "James Dean" seems one of the front-runners in the category this year, a nice successor to ABC's winning biopic last year, "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows."
The script for "James Dean," written by noted playwright Israel Horovitz, was a feature project for seven years, originally at Warners, before Turner Network Television decided to bring it to life. Finding an actor, outside of a then-too-young Leonardo DiCaprio, to play Dean was a dilemma, solved with a career-making performance by James Franco. And Horovitz's psychological insight into Dean's abandonment by his father became the fulcrum of the storyline.
"Why would a father ship his wife's body back on a train with an 8-year-old son, never go to the funeral and never pick the son up again, never bring the son back out to him?" Horovitz recalls of the ideas that helped fuel the creative process.
The train ride from Santa Monica to Indiana book-ends a unique chronology that Horovitz created, working with former Actors Studio cohort director Mark Rydell in a fashion Horovitz describes as "very invested." Their agreement to not work on the project if the right actor was not found suggests just that.
A cultural icon of an entirely different stripe, convicted killer Gary Gilmore, in 1997 was the first person in over a decade to be executed, by a firing squad no less. His brother, journalist Mikal Gilmore, wrote a searing, honest memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle award for biography and became HBO's "Shot in the Heart."
"I actually tried to keep myself out of the book as much as possible, until my place in the story became the narrative drive," explains Gilmore, played by Giovanni Ribisi, matched in onscreen charisma by Elias Koteas as older brother Gary. "I never saw it as about me. I saw the book as about family and I saw the central character as my father ... and the hero as my brother Frank."
"I know in a way Mikal's book was so popular, so you're actually responsible for the popularity of the book," says writer Frank Pugliese, who focused on the relationship of the two brothers, with flashbacks including the alcoholism and physical abuse that were a large part of the family dynamic.
Mikal praises the production for not settling for an ending with the ever-popular idea of closure, especially in such a dark tale. "The story is the consequence, the story is the aftermath ... that there are things that you have to live with that you cannot live with. ... And that the only grace that you're left with is memory and love and a kind of limited forgiveness."
Executive producer Tom Fontana was an essential element, having proved at adept at a gloves-off approach with "Oz," his HBO prison series that has upped the ante on dramatic shock value.
"One of the things I learned about with 'Oz' was that these are people who pay for this specifically so they're coming to it the way that people who go to the theater go to the theater. ... They're not like other television audiences," he says. "They seem to want this kind of intensity as opposed to backing away from it."
Audiences and critics demand a certain accuracy in historical feature films. But do cable and network biopics get held to the same standards of the truth and nothing but the truth?
Pulling no punches, Showtime's "The Day Reagan Was Shot" concentrated on the power vacuum that ensued after the assassination attempt on the life of the president. Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh exhaustively researched the event, producing a riveting portrait of Alexander Haig, played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the little-known fact that a medical student got past security into the hospital room of the president.
Nevertheless, Nowrasteh objects strongly to the concept of total accuracy for either feature or television films. "If we accept these standards, what are we going to do, take about a dozen of Shakespeare's historical plays and throw them out? There's a larger truth at work here in some of these historical adaptations or dramas that's more important than the accuracy of each incident."
Steve Gillon, University of Oklahoma history professor and resident historian for the History Channel, feels "The Day Reagan Was Shot" and "Shackleton" particularly capture an essence of history and character.
"Maybe because it's a smaller audience they're appealing to," he says, "but these television movies … do a much better job of dealing with personality and motivation and the complexity of human nature than do Hollywood movies, feature movies which present a very superficial and very monodimensional view of character and personality."