You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Screenwriters Puzzle Out Real-Life Subjects: Writers on Writers 2014

When it comes to historical figures, not all stories are created equal.

“If you’re writing the Nelson Mandela story, there are moments in that life that you can’t mess around with,” says “Wild” screenwriter Nick Hornby. “One needs to be historically accurate.”

But not all true stories are created equal. Less familiar real-life subjects, who aren’t well-defined in the public mind, offer screenwriters more opportunities to be creative.

That doesn’t give scripters total poetic license, though. There are limits, and the challenge for writers is finding those limits, because they differ on every project. Graham Moore, screenwriter of “The Imitation Game,” encapsulates the dilemma: “The trick is to balance drama and history in a way that’s ethical and responsible … while condensing and compressing so we can present things in a film.”

SEE ALSO: Writers on Writers 2014

Anthony McCarten, who adapted Jane Hawking’s account of her marriage to famed physicist Stephen Hawking into “The Theory of Everything,” says, “Distortion should be avoided at all costs. With facts so readily Google-checked playing too fast and loose almost always backfires with the public.”
Yet “you do a biography’s subject no favors at all if the film is dull and unwatchable,” he says. That’s the risk of inventing too little.

Each cine-biographer chooses a dramatic purpose, then draws a line based on that. McCarten calls it his “theme.” Hornby says for less-than-famous subjects, “It’s what that story represents that’s important. As long as you end up with the same feeling and the same meaning in your story, I think you’re at liberty to depart from what actually occurred.”

For Hornby, adapting “Wild” meant reducing Cheryl Strayed’s siblings by one and compressing her hedonistic period, the quicker to get to her life-changing Pacific Crest Trail odyssey.

“It’s such a raw book,” Hornby says, “so personal and brave, we felt we had a duty of care to Cheryl and her family.” Also to millions of fans.

Stephen Hawking is a beloved figure for most seeing “The Theory of Everything.” Yet his pre-ALS life is obscure — first wife and co-protagonist Jane even more so. And when they were alone together, McCarten wryly notes, “of course I wasn’t there.”

A scribe should “locate the big moments you need” out of what’s fully documented, he advises. “Where poetic license must and should come into play, is in those vast empty spaces between the known facts.” Such spaces include dialogue, for which “you engage in what I call emotional ventriloquism. … You can’t hope for literal truth, but what you’re after is emotional authenticity.”

McCarten proudly quotes the Hawkings’ daughter, who said to him: “‘How did you catch my childhood? How did you know we did that stuff?’ Well, we didn’t know. That goes under the heading of ‘inspired speculation.’ ”

Plenty of speculation was applied to Alan Turing on “The Imitation Game.” The Nazis’ Enigma code cracker was something of an enigma himself.

“We have no audio recording or video of Turing and he had layers and layers of secrets he had to keep in his chest,” Moore says, matters of national intelligence and personal illicit sexuality. Official files remain sealed, while contemporaries’ recollections proved frustrating. Turing’s stutter, for instance, was deemed debilitating by some and minor by others.

Where evidence is contradictory or lacking, Moore says, “you have to interpolate educated guesses from varied data points. … What can we do on screen to create, and remain true to, Turing’s experience of the world?”

Moore ended up employing the stutter as a thematic element reflecting inner turmoil and external isolation. “Alan’s mind is flying off in a million directions at once, and his mouth can’t keep up,” hence the stuttering.

“But when his mouth latches onto his mind for a second, flows of words come out.” Such verbal cascades, inspired by Turing’s actual, florid writing style, serve “as a tool to push people away.”

More Film

  • Ryan Murphy

    Netflix Acquires Tribeca Doc 'Circus of Books,' Exec Produced by Ryan Murphy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has acquired worldwide rights to the documentary “Circus of Books” ahead of its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Rachel Mason wrote and directed the pic, and also produced it along with Kathryn Robson, Cynthia Childs, Camilla Hall and Adam Baron. Ryan Murphy, Josh Braun, John Battsek, Rhianon Jones and Gerald Herman executive produced. [...]

  • Santa Fe Studios Netflix

    Santa Fe Studios Competes With Other New Mexico Stages for Streaming Business

    Albuquerque Studios entered the spotlight last October when it was purchased by Netflix. While the complex is clearly the jewel in the crown of New Mexico’s production infrastructure, with eight soundstages totaling 132,000 square feet, 100,000 square feet of production offices, a large backlot and support space, it’s not the only modern studio facility in [...]

  • Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Someone Great

    'Someone Great' Director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson on Reimagining the Rom-Com

    Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, creator of the MTV series “Sweet/Vicious,” recently made her feature debut with “Someone Great,”  now streaming on Netflix. The film follows three friends as they navigate relationships and work in New York City.  Here, the writer-director opens up on reimagining the rom-com, and women changing the face of Hollywood. The three young [...]

  • Brie Larson Takes On 'Beat Saber'

    Brie Larson Takes on 'Beat Saber' With Jimmy Fallon

    “Avengers: Endgame’s” Brie Larson took to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to play around in virtual reality. After chatting with Fallon about the upcoming Marvel superhero flick, Larson got hooked up with an HTC Vive with the talk show hit to give “Beat Saber” a try. Fallon was first up, who played through a [...]

  • Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan

    Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan Doc Hits Netflix June 12 (EXCLUSIVE)

    You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, but Bob Dylan fans have been waiting for some kind of reliable forecast to know when “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” might be rolling in. Here’s that storm alert: Netflix will be releasing the documentary June 12. [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    Box Office: 'Avengers: Endgame' Racks Up Massive $169 Million Globally

    “Avengers: Endgame” is barreling toward a record-eviscerating weekend after opening to a mighty $169 million in its initial day of global release. That heroic haul includes a $107.5 million debut in China, an $8.4 million launch in South Korea, a $7 million bow in Australia and a $6 million day one in France. All in, [...]

  • Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone

    Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone Boards Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cornerstone Films has boarded sales on “Herself,” the female-driven movie from “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady” helmer Phyllida Lloyd. Irish actor Clare Dunne, who starred in Lloyd’s all-female theater production of “Henry IV,” will play a single mother determined to build her own home with a free online plan, rebuilding her life in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content