Real to reel

True stories challenge filmmakers

The Limerick streets of Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir of growing up poor in Ireland, “Angela’s Ashes,” no longer exist. So, after months and millions of dollars of painstaking research and production design, the streets of McCourt’s childhood were re-created in Limerick for director Alan Parker’s film version.

This wasn’t good enough for one Limerick resident, who buttonholed Parker during filming, insisting that the street set was all wrong. “He insisted that it didn’t look like this in the 1930s and 1940s, quite indignant about it,” Parker recalls. “But I brought out the photos and documents we researched, and held them up so he could compare pictures with set. He couldn’t really argue, because we had done our homework.”

Moviemakers everywhere, and especially in Hollywood, are doing their homework these days, as more and more are turning to material based on true stories. They may be biographies (“The Hurricane’s” Rubin Carter, “Topsy-Turvy’s” Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Messenger’s” Joan of Arc, “Man in the Moon’s” Andy Kaufman, “Music of the Heart’s” Roberta Guaspari), true incidents (“The Straight Story,” “The Insider”), memoirs (McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted,” Franco Zefferelli’s Italian boyhood memoir of “Tea With Mussolini”) or historical events (the rise and fall of the Federal Theatre Project in Tim Robbins’ “Cradle Will Rock,” Anna Leonowens’ entry into 1860’s Siam in “Anna and the King”). But fundamentally, they are all movies — and ultimately, imagination — spun out of actual lives.

They’re driven by audiences’ seemingly unending hunger for true stories: Parker notes how Paramount executives wished he would have included a closing credit note that “Ashes” was based on a true story, “because audiences are somehow more affected knowing this.” But with that drive comes the inevitable clash between hidebound facts and the demands of good storytelling. The barrage of almost-true movies in 1999 was a collective case of first doing the proper homework, and then making movies that didn’t always adhere to the facts.

This has upset not just the Limerick man, but critics of “The Insider” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” both natural lightning rods for controversy since each film deals with living characters who can talk back to the film.

“60 Minutes'” Mike Wallace, portrayed by Christopher Plummer in Eric Roth and Michael Mann’s script, has famously denounced “The Insider.” He’s charged the filmmakers with taking liberties with Wallace’s reporting of Dr. Jeffrey Wigand’s expose’ of tobacco industry malfeasance. Meanwhile, tobacco industry spokespeople have cried foul at the film’s inclusion of such Wigand accounts as finding a bullet in his mailbox.

Who, though, should come to the defense of “The Insider” — and, by turn, filmmakers in general — than David Brown, veteran producer (with Scott Rudin) of “Angela’s Ashes.”

“When you’re dramatizing based on a true story or a biography,” Brown says, “taking liberties is not only essential, it’s crucial. What was invented or altered for ‘The Insider’ has greater impact, and is truer in its own way, than plain facts. So the bullet may not have been in the mailbox. Does that really matter? What matters is that it works as a visual symbol.”

While much of the action in Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” is taken from court testimony and documents surrounding the 1994 murder of teenage gender-bender Brandon Teena, some of the crucial moments in the Teena tragedy were altered by Peirce.

Along with vast critical praise — “Boys Don’t Cry” topped Entertainment Weekly’s best-of-1999 films poll of nationwide critics — it has received unexpected knocks, especially from Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, whose docu “The Brandon Teena Story” is an account of the same story. Muska and Olafsdottir have complained that the movie is “outrageous” and “irresponsible” in its dramatic liberties by placing Teena’s girlfriend Lana (played in the feature by Chloe Sevigny) at the scene of Teena’s murder, thus suggesting that she is an accessory to a crime she never witnessed.

Peirce disagrees, noting that she “did a ton of research, and after talking at length with Lana and her mother, I waited three years for conflicting testimony to sort itself out before putting Lana in the middle of the action. If I had adhered strictly to the fact that Lana retreated to her bedroom during the killing, that would have dramatically violated her whole character, the only one who stood by Brandon’s side.”

Besides, Peirce adds, there were many episodes in the Teena saga, such as the young victim’s line of girlfriends before Lana, which could be included in a documentary, but didn’t fit the movie’s dramatic needs. “Norman Mailer remarked how he had to correct Gary Gilmore’s spelling in the letters he reprinted in ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ because he didn’t want to incorrectly suggest that Gilmore was stupid. You need facts, but they’re only raw material. Facts don’t teach. Stories do.”

“Anna and the King” producers Lawrence Bender and Ed Elbert have been facing a different kind of critic: Thailand’s film censor board, which first refused them permission to film on Thai soil citing “historical inaccuracies” and “disrespect” to the Thai royal family, have banned the film from showing in the country. The reasoning, said the board in its Dec. 28 announcement, is because “it makes jokes and insults the institution of our monarchy and distorts the facts.”

Bender has had to take it all in stride, insisting that he, Elbert, director Andy Tennant and, “more than anyone else, the writers Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, amassed months and months of pure research so that we were as accurate as possible to the cultural realities of Siam in the middle of the 19th century. It went way beyond Margaret Landon’s book or Anna’s own memoirs — we spent countless hours examining the Grand Palace occupied by King Mongkut, the costumes, everything, until what we re-produced was very close to the original.”

Nevertheless, other cultural elements, such as the royal decree that no human could stand taller than the King, were unplayable (Rodgers and Hammerstein even made comic light of this practice in “The King and I”). “It doesn’t matter what you have as far as authenticity goes,” observes Bender. “It has to play. The story has to work.”

“Girl, Interrupted” author Kaysen was in the odd position of seeing her caustic, hilarious memoir of time in a mental hospital turned into a film that she admittedly thought couldn’t be made. “I’m not surprised how different the film is from my book, because my book doesn’t have a main dramatic line, and I wrote myself as an observer, not really a character. It really was pointless to ask me to even be a hands-on consultant — what did the hospital look like, did the girls wear their hair this way — who cares? This was just so different.”

Some films, such as David Lynch’s film of “The Straight Story” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” are partly the result of the filmmakers literally retracing their characters’ steps. While Peirce actually hung out in Falls City, Neb. to talk with people who knew Teena, “Straight Story” writers Mary Sweeney and John Roach traveled the Iowa-to-Wisconsin route that the late Alvin Straight made in his five-mile-per-hour 1966 John Deere lawnmower to visit his estranged brother.

“I knew all along that this would be a quirky movie,” says Sweeney, “but it wasn’t until our trip to Iowa that John and I realized what an emotional story this was. It was this that David responded to.”

Ironically, Lynch notes, “if this had been totally made up, nobody would have believed it. Some had a hard time believing it anyway. But at the same time, because so many details of Alvin’s adventure were known only to Alvin, we had freedom to go off the beaten track and take flight with the story. As I think back on it now, I believe it helped me and the film that I never met Alvin. It may have had the effect of limiting the imagination.”

The kind of homework moviemakers undertake for these films is perhaps the most hidden, unappreciated element in the creative process, and yet it’s open to question whether there is such a thing as too much research.

“Insider” screenwriter Eric Roth certainly wondered early in his collaboration with Michael Mann: “I wasn’t sure at first if I could do this, because I tend toward more fantastic, imagined stories. I’ll do research, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth of research Michael embarked upon. It was all absolutely worth it, but it’s valuable to remind writers that research can often become an excuse not to do any writing.”

Journalist Marie Brenner, whose sprawling, detailed report for Vanity Fair on Wigand and “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman was the basis for Roth’s and Mann’s screenplay, was astonished when she met Mann: “Here he arrives with a legal pad filled with over 400 questions to ask me. That impressed the reporter in me. But then, his first question to me was if I thought Wigand would be sexually attracted to a nurturing woman. That signaled to me that Mann was serious, would go deeply into this story and wouldn’t just make things up.”

Still, no filmmaker surpasses Mike Leigh for intensity of preparation. “Topsy-Turvy’s” account of operetta maestros Gilbert and Sullivan’s career turnabout with their triumphant production of “The Mikado” obviously marked a departure for Leigh’s cinema — focused until now on contemporary British working class lives — but his unique practice of workshopping and developing characters with his acting ensemble remained intact. A year’s pre-production led to seven months of rehearsal and 20 weeks of filming — astounding numbers even by Leigh’s standard.

Researcher Rosie Chambers was, Leigh says, “like a dog with a bone, and wouldn’t let up on gathering as much information as we needed. I had every actor write their character’s biographies for the 10 years leading up to ‘The Mikado,’ and we figured out not only what each of them would wear on and off stage, but what they would have in their pockets.”

Significantly, with such a bevy of detail to draw upon, Leigh willingly altered facts of the G&S story to serve the film: “I have Gilbert visit a Japanese exhibition in London before he gets the idea for ‘The Mikado.’ Even though it didn’t actually happen in that order, sticking to the simple facts wouldn’t have made sense to the audience.”

“A (Mostly) True Story” is how Tim Robbins begins his screwball-comic account of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s struggle to stage Marc Blitzstein’s Federal Theatre Project production of “The Cradle Will Rock.” It’s an explicit message that this will be a movie freely blending history and invention: For every real figure Robbins includes — Welles, Houseman, Blitzstein, Nelson Rockefeller and obscure but heroic actor Olive Stanton — he invents others, from tycoon Gray Mathers and his wife Countess La Grange to ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw.

Echoes of E. L. Doctorow’s Gilded Age novel “Ragtime” resound through “Cradle,” especially in this melding of fiction and non-fiction, and Robbins says he received his highest compliment when Doctorow saw the film and liked it. “A French critic asked me why the movie wasn’t specifically about Welles,” Robbins says, “but this isn’t a story about celebrities. We were able to tap into eyewitness accounts of what actually happened, balance conflicting histories, but give voice to the little people like Olive who were at the center of events.”

It isn’t, Robbins adds, a docu-drama, either — something Parker repeatedly stresses. After having made plenty of films about true-life episodes, from “Midnight Express” to “Mississippi Burning” to “Evita” and now “Angela’s Ashes,” Parker is a bruised veteran of sometimes harsh response to his filmic interpretations.

“The worst was probably in Buenos Aires,” he recalls, “where I was nearly roasted alive for ‘Evita.’ One man accused me of desecrating Eva Peron, whom he considered a saint.

“But then, another man stood up and called her a whore. This set off a raging debate, which only confirmed for me that our movie had done something right. When it comes to history, everything is interpretation.”

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