The hot topic of late has been the blurred line between journalism and fiction. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned last week after admitting to plagiarism, and a novel by Stephen Glass, the former New Republic writer who was fired for concocting a rainbow of sources, is due out next week. Thus the topic of a Thursday panel that was part of the Tribeca Film Festival proved apt: “Life … Or Something Like It.”
The 8:30 ayem discussion drew an impressive crowd of coffee-and-bagel-fueled Gothamites (including Tina Brown) eager to hear what scripters had to say about adapting real life to celluloid.
“We’re all storytellers,” said moderator Stephen Schiff. “The truth we’re all responsible to is that storyteller’s gut.”
Noting the difference between art and reportage, he said: “We create composite characters. When a journalist does that, he’s fired.”
Stephen Gaghan, who won an adapted screenplay Oscar for “Traffic,” said, “There’s a certain attempt at objectivity, a grasping for realism. The trick is to find the really tiny details that stand for what a character is about.
Gaghan thought for a second. “There’s a really great word for that.” He paused. “Synecdoche! That’s the word.”
Consensus seemed to be that at the end of the day in filmmaking, the lens through which truth is distilled is that of the writer’s.
Establishing that truth was often a lot of work, though. Kimberly Peirce said she spent three years reviewing court documents in order to write “Boys Don’t Cry,” and she still was left to decide whether Lana (played by Chloe Sevigny in the film) had been present at the rape of Teena Brandon. Peirce decided she had been, but then questioned whether to include the detail in the film.
About the reactions of films’ subjects to the films, almost everyone had a cringe story.
Peirce said Lana’s sister wrote her emails saying she had portrayed her family as “white trash,” and asked, “Why do you lie?”
“Her other complaint was that I cut her out of the movie,” Peirce said.
“Erin Brockovich” scripter Susannah Grant got a memorable response for her work on Disney’s animated “Pocahontas.” A class of sixth graders in Ohio sent her letters about misrepresentations in the film.
“They were great letters,” she said. “They were all about what was wrong with the movie.”
The conversation was succinctly and honestly concluded by Ron Nyswaner, who wrote “Philadelphia” and, more recently, “Soldier’s Girl.”
“A writer is someone willing to betray the people he loves in order to impress people he’s never met,” Nyswaner said.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Gaghan affirmed with a grin.