Multiple factors contribute to the rise of films based on true stories — but getting it right isn’t easy
The line between fiction and reality keeps getting blurrier.
So it’s little surprise that there are twice as many reality-based films currently vying for awards attention as last year, when one of those, “Argo,” took home the best picture Oscar.
Even though such movies are tough to pull off, filmmakers agree that the jump in numbers (from 8 to 17) is due to several factors, including audience tastes, studio responsiveness, filmmakers’ determination and the social-media world we now inhabit.
“The boundary between public and private is starting to merge,” says Bill Condon, who directed “The Fifth Estate,” about Julian Assange and the creation of WikiLeaks.
Condon suggests that thanks to public platforms like YouTube and Twitter, “People are starring in the movies of their own lives and sharing those things with everybody else.”
Hollywood biopics have flourished since the 1930s, and found new energy in recent years with the success of such commercial and critical hits as “The King’s Speech,” “The Blind Side” and “The Fighter.”
Studios are increasingly receptive, as these tales provide a built-in marketing hook. Last year with “Argo,” Warner Bros. smartly invited retired CIA agent Tony Mendez to accompany his onscreen portrayer, Ben Affleck, to industry events, to underline the truth behind the stranger-than-fiction tale.
“Audiences need familiarity with a topic,” Condon says. “The big problem with movies today is not only getting them made, but getting them seen, and real-life narratives help audiences feel they are going into something they are already aware of.”
It’s not a surefire track, however. Open Road’s recent release “Jobs” sank and disappeared without a trace, despite the marketing hook of social-media maven Ashton Kutcher playing Steve Jobs. And Radius-TWC’s “Lovelace,” about “Deep Throat” porn star Linda Lovelace, failed to find any love at the multiplex.
But filmmakers remain determined to get such projects made. Writers, producers and directors say they are often attracted to based-on-fact tales, and become hopelessly hooked as they do research and meet the subjects.
“Real-life material adds a layer of drama and intensity that fiction has a hard time competing with,” says writer Danny Strong, whose credits include “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” as well as HBO’s political fact-dramas “Recount” and “Game Change” (about Florida’s hanging chads and Sarah Palin, respectively).
Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, who produced Focus Features’ “Dallas Buyers Club,” about Texas homophobe-turned-activist and AIDS victim Ron Woodroof (played by Matthew McConaughey), underline the fact that truth-based stories can easily become passion projects.
As Winter says, “These stories for whatever reason seem to take longer than fictional films, but filmmakers don’t give up, because the story has gotten into their souls.”
Peter Berg, who wrote and directed Universal Pictures’ year-end release “Lone Survivor,” agrees, saying he was inspired when he read the story of Marcus Luttrell, which got under his skin. Luttrell was part of a Navy Seals mission in 2005 to capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd; the film’s title tells the outcome.
“After spending time with the survivors, family members and colleagues of the Seals, the power of the story continued to grow, as did my resolve to tell (it),” Berg says. “It was far more impactful than any fictional script I’d read.”
In addition, audiences are increasingly receptive to films that reflect what they see every day.
DreamWorks’ “The Fifth Estate” opens Oct. 18, amid nightly news debates about Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden that explore issues of government secrecy. That said, Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks documentary, “We Steal Secrets,” attracted little theatrical business when it had a limited release in early summer.
The Weinstein Co. is planning to produce a narrative feature based on its current documentary release “Salinger,” which was critically savaged and is also struggling at the box office.
In theory, factual projects would seem to have an automatic story arc: With “12 Years a Slave” and “Captain Phillips,” for example, it seems clear where the narrative begins and where the characters eventually wind up. But real-life inspired projects are tricky, especially when the people on which those films are based are still living.
Brenner and Winter, who spent years researching “Dallas” (which bows Nov. 1), point out that these projects are often more complex and time-consuming than fictional works. Aside from legal considerations in the depictions, the subjects often have strong ideas about how they want to be portrayed, and producers feel a responsibility to respect them — as well as balance storytelling needs.
“You have to pick the moments of their lives that show them going from A to Z,” says Brenner, whose project got high marks for authenticity from members of Woodroof’s family. “It’s not easy.”
In 1999, “The Blair Witch Project” confused audiences when it pioneered the “found footage” genre, presenting scripted scenes as if they were actual documentary footage.
Television has furthered the bewilderment, with a flood of unscripted series being defined as “structured reality,” including shows like A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” in which real people are put into contrived situations.
Meanwhile, scripted shows borrow docu elements, among them NBC’s “The Office” and ABC’s “Modern Family,” making viewers all the more familiar with the idea of reality-style storytelling.
Strong’s script for “The Butler” fictionalizes the life of White House servant Eugene Allen, but it also incorporates actual events from the civil rights movement — one more case of the blurred lines between fiction and reality. And with both his original script for “Butler” and his scrupulously factual “Game Change,” audiences are embracing the cross-pollination.
So perhaps the question should not be why there are so many fact-based films this year, but why there aren’t even more.