Whenever Hollywood creates films about people who are still living, there are benefits and perils: The real-life folks can add details that enrich the film’s credibility — or they can refuse cooperation, making it harder to get to the essential truths.
Fox Searchlight’s “Conviction,” which bowed Oct. 15, was Exhibit A of the former, with Betty Anne Waters a constant presence in making the film. On the flip side, the filmmakers behind Sony’s “The Social Network,” about Mark Zuckerberg’s contentious rise as the public face behind Facebook, pressed ahead without any cooperation with its primary subjects.
In making Summit’s upcoming “Fair Game,” director Doug Liman and scripters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth had a mix of both cooperation and reticence: The pivotal Lewis “Scooter” Libby withheld any interaction with the filmmakers, while Valerie Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, were happy to help. The “Game” team also faced another factor that affects few filmmakers: Though Plame was cooperative, some of her experiences were classified information that she couldn’t reveal.
The Butterworths, says Liman, were “the only non-journalists to have attended every single day” of the trial of Libby, who took the fall as the source who leaked Plame’s name as a CIA operative to the New York Times.
“We figured out the facts of Valerie Plame’s spy life mostly from other people,” explains Liman. “(But) what the other people can’t tell you is how it felt.”
Plame and Wilson spent countless hours with the screenwriters and the actors, recounting tales they were allowed to tell, and acting as consultants.
Plame tells Variety that she’s happy with the results. She feels Naomi Watts “got it” in her portrayal and also praises Sean Penn’s work as Wilson. She also feels the film helped clear up the scandal for a lot of friends who were in the dark given the complexity of the case.
“I was pleasantly surprised because of her take on it,” says Plame about Watts, “not in a journalistic way but in a more personal way. So right away we just jumped right in into marriage and relationships and how at the end of the day, we’re both working mothers.”
The three films offer different insights into the question of whether interaction with a film’s subject is healthy for the pic’s creative vision. If the people don’t cooperate, there are possibilities of them stirring up negative publicity or even lawsuits. If they cooperate, there are questions of soft-pedaling harsh truths, or even auds’ assumption that the events have been whitewashed.
“Cooperation by the subject raises questions of whether the filmmakers are serving as, or perceived to serve as, hagiographers, making the subject look as good as possible,” says Bill Nichols, an author and professor at San Francisco State U. who teaches documentary, film theory and narrative theory.
“Subjects seem to want accuracy when it better fits their self-conception of the story and of their self-image,” Nichols adds. “They seem happy with artistic license when it intensifies desirable or admirable qualities in their character and less happy when it shows their dark side. But some may appreciate being given a more rounded representation. Complexity can be appealing.”
Liman says he approached the Wilsons with a journalistic sensibility. “I was very clear from the beginning that to tell my version of the story, there were details that were not flattering to Valerie and Joe, and that I was going to include them,” says the helmer. (Among other factors, the film illustrates the toll the events took on the couple’s marriage.) “And there were things that they didn’t always agree with from a personal P.O.V. (But) factually, they’ve supported all of the facts of the movie.”
Because Plame was legally bound to not reveal information about her CIA experiences that were redacted from her memoir, “Fair Game,” on which the movie is partly based, Liman and his screenwriters culled much of their info from public records, and from several people within the CIA who came forward to relate their views.
In fact, the collaboration was essential to Penn, who flew out to the Plame-Wilson residence after his Oscar win for playing the title character in “Milk.”
Wilson recalls Penn showing up at the couple’s house in Santa Fe in a rented car: “He said, ‘I have just one question: Do you like the script?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, we do.’ And he stepped outside, got on the phone, called his agent and said ‘I’m in.’ And then he spent the next several days with us here.”
A 300-page treatment from the Butterworths covered the couple’s public tribulations in meticulous detail, but Liman wanted to zero in on the yin-and-yang of the Wilsons’ relationship. “Separate from all the politics, I found the dynamic of this marriage where she’s really a superstar,” says Liman. “And then when she’s outed, she is suddenly out of work and he sort of becomes the superstar.”
Like the “Fair Game” filmmakers, “Conviction” screenwriter Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn had full access to Waters, whom Hilary Swank portrays when Waters attended law school with the sole purpose of freeing her brother, wrongly accused of murder, from prison after serving 18 years.
Waters’ involvement yielded “marathon” interview sessions over two years, says Gray, who also drew on Waters’ documents and several of the characters surrounding the trial on both sides, including Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which aided Waters in her cause. Gray even had access to recorded interviews with Kenny Waters, who died six months after being released from prison, culled from police records.
“We had all the facts,’ says Gray. “Betty Anne Waters had every document. She had every moment of that 18-year effort to get him exonerated, so that was all reliable. She was invaluable on the set. During production, she would either remember something or mention something offhand that would change certain scenes, little details.”
Gray was more interested in the relationship between Waters and her brother, played by Sam Rockwell, than in meticulously laying out the facts of Kenny’s case. In shorthand, the movie is “about Betty Anne’s quest to get her brother out, about the depths of their relationship,” Gray says.
But as with any real story brought to the bigscreen, nuances are sacrificed and not every point of view can be considered during production. The daughter and son of Katharina Brow, the murder victim portrayed in “Conviction,” last week questioned why the filmmakers hadn’t met with them. They hadn’t yet seen the film, but worried about their mother’s portrayal and how the murder was depicted in the film.
Their concerns point up other considerations for filmmakers. Can you be fair to all the real people portrayed?
And there are always considerations of libel. A signoff by key participants can help mitigate risks, but fact-based material is often likely to rile one side or another.
Charges of libel are rarely levied against filmmakers when dealing with public figures, though. As long as “the gist of the truth” exists, says attorney Lou Petrich, a partner at Leopold, Petrich & Smith who works frequently on movie projects, filmmakers manage to stay out of harm’s way.
“The courts just say, ‘We know that movies tend to dramatize, and what we’re really concerned about is if you come away with the wrong impression about this person,’?” Petrich says. “The question is whether the studio knew that what they were saying was false, or if the author of the screenplay was reckless. It’s not enough for the screenwriter to have just been negligent: (The plaintiffs) have to show that (the filmmakers) knew they were saying something false or that they just didn’t care.”
Petrich cites Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic “W” as an example of the license filmmakers get away with.
“You can be sure they didn’t get any cooperation from the Bush family,” Petrich says. “Why was that OK?” The movie was wacky, he says, “but the notion was the gist of the truth was given even if it mig
ht not have been literally true.”
Sometimes filmmakers hedge their bets by procuring “life story rights,” for which the subject agrees to provide additional information and even help in securing releases from third parties, such as family and friends.
But, says Petrich, “a so-called life-story right is nothing more than a waiver from the person who signs it that they’re not going to sue you for defamation or invasion of privacy no matter what you say about them.”
Of course, filmmakers can sometimes skirt such complications. Working without the cooperation of real-life participants can free the creative team to aim for a greater artistic truth, liberated from the actualities.
With “Social Network,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin acted as a sort of equal-opportunity free agent, writing without Zuckerberg’s cooperation and also exempting Zuckerberg’s friend/business-partner-turned nemesis, Eduardo Saverin, from the process. He researched and wrote his screenplay based on a 14-page outline of Ben Mezrich’s then-in-the-works book, “The Accidental Billionaires.”
“There were a number of different versions of the truth coming from three or four or five people,” Sorkin told Time magazine. “And rather than pick one and dramatize that, I wanted to dramatize the fact that there are three or four or five different versions of the truth.”
Filmmakers, though, generally do try to enlist the aid of a story’s subjects.
Producer Scott Rudin “made as aggressive an effort as you can make to get the cooperation of Mark (Zuckerberg) and Facebook,” Sorkin told Time. The billionaire entrepreneur decided not to participate.
Liman went so far as to screen a rough cut of “Fair Game” to one of Libby’s lawyers, as a way of “ratcheting it up — a Hail Mary” attempt for Libby to come forward. But it was to no avail.
“Most of (the Libby character’s) scenes are pulled from court transcripts, down to the minor details,” says Liman, so factually the filmmaker was covered.
With access to the subjects, though, filmmakers have a markedly better chance of capturing the real-life nuances that weren’t recorded for posterity.
“I’ve had those moments you really hope for as a writer, where they’ve told me, ‘That’s us,’ even though there were scenes I had to create,” says Gray of “Conviction.”
The filmmakers of “Fair Game” and “Conviction” enmeshed themselves deeply in the material, aiming to infuse details drawn from media reports, congressional hearings and trial testimony with insights from the participants themselves. But with based-on-reality films, there is always a danger that audiences will accept everything portrayed as gospel — or that they will assume that much of what’s onscreen is a Hollywood distortion of reality.
In “Fair Game,” for example, there’s a scene when Penn angrily confronts a swarm of political reporters. It’s the kind of raw emotion that the actor-activist has displayed in real life. And at the end of the film, Wilson lectures students on participatory democracy. Some auds might think these touches were added to tailor the role of Wilson to the actor, but Liman is quick to dispel that notion.
He recalls an episode at the Cannes Film Festival, which Wilson and Plame attended in support of the film in May.
“After the film screened, there was a big party on the beach,” he says, “and suddenly I hear this squeal of feedback. And I look and there’s Joe Wilson, who’s somehow managed to wrangle an amp and a microphone on the beach, and proceeds to thank everybody for coming, and then launches into a speech about how the Bill of Rights is really a bill of responsibility.
“And I thought anyone who saw this movie and was questioning whether that was Sean Penn or Joe Wilson at the end of the movie just needs to be here right now, and they’ll see that they may be similar, but it is very much Sean Penn playing Joe Wilson and not Sean Penn playing Sean Penn.”