“The truth doesn’t really want to line up and be a dramatic story very often,” says John Rice, co-writer (with Joe Batteer) of the Emmy-nominated Lifetime mini “Bonnie and Clyde” (pictured). “It goes down corridors that lead to nothing, and has beats that don’t make sense.”
Wrestling fiction from truth, while still keeping the grain of historical accuracy that makes the original story powerful, is a huge challenge for a screenwriter. But a completed project that successfully balances that tightrope between keeping it real and making it resonate can lead to audience — and awards — attention.
This year, no fewer than four films and miniseries pulled from slivers of history (including “Bonnie,” HBO’s “Normal Heart” and “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” plus National Geographic’s “Killing Kennedy”) will vie for attention in the Miniseries and movie Emmy categories, and each took its own unique path to find a literary start, middle and end to real-life events that don’t always pan out neatly.
One of the first questions the writers of those films had to face in tackling real-life events is just how faithful they would be to the subject matter. Actual historical dates tend to be sacrosanct, with those events — documented in the public sphere — providing the script skeleton its bones.
“If you’re writing a historical drama based on real characters and events, you cannot play loose with the timeline or the facts,” says “Muhammad” writer Shawn Slovo, whose story followed the boxer’s fight to achieve conscientious objector status (and avoid a ban from the ring) during the Vietnam War, a fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court. “You have to find the movie within the parameters you have.”
But beyond adherence to established facts and dates, crafting tales seems to be a matter of personal philosophy.
“It’s not about true life events, it’s true life sentiments,” executive producer Jason Blum says about “Normal Heart,” adding that he would not call the film about Larry Kramer’s struggle in the early 1980s to have AIDS recognized as a national health crisis and not a gay disease an “educational tool or history lesson.”
For Blum, “History is incredibly subjective. What is real to one person 30 years ago is not real to someone else 30 years ago. Part of me feels that it’s more important to capture a general feeling around an event or series of events than to depict actual acts. It gives storytellers the freedom to make a point, and get feelings across rather than sticking to ‘this is how it happened and in this way.’”
Too much initial material can make getting started frustrating for writers. Kelly Masterson worked from Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy” book, but quickly found himself drowning in a sea of previously written matter about President Kennedy and his assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald.
“All my life I was a Kennedy fan and a history buff, and I thought I could do it,” he says. “About a week after I got hired I was struck by my biggest fear: Oh, my God, what have I let myself in for? Such a wealth of material; I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.”
What every writer seems to be looking for is that key throughline that will guide them in a sensical way from beginning to end. For some, finding it means starting at the end of the story first, and Slovo knew exactly when that was: “Ali triumphs after three and a half years of being banned,” she says. “Once you’ve got that great ending, that suggests the structure — sets up the highs, the lows. As long as you’ve got that great end, it gives you somewhere to go.”
That worked for “Bonnie” writers Batteer and Rice, too — an end with the criminals gunned down in an ambush — but they took it a step further, feeling free to analyze Clyde Barrow’s state of mind and even make him a posthumous narrator in their miniseries. Since Barrow was rumored to have a sixth sense about when he was about to get in trouble (and it was documented that he had avoided several close shaves possibly because of it), the pair suggest that it was a moment of revelation that led Barrow to consciously drive into what he knew would be a game-ending shootout.
“We wanted to end with the realization that Clyde had begun to think, ‘What are we doing? What have I allowed myself to become?’ And that he allowed it to happen,” Rice says. “We don’t know that it’s true or not, but nobody can say it isn’t. It gave us an arc to the characters and took us on a journey that was more than the random ride the 1967 movie (directed by Arthur Penn) took us on.”
But at some point, a writer has to start inventing. Masterson says he didn’t “do a lot of ‘making up’” of scenes (adding that “National Geographic wasn’t interested in dealing with theories”), but knew where there was leeway in how facts could be presented. It’s known that Oswald had written answers to questions he expected to get when interviewed for the press; in the movie that became Oswald dreaming of those interviews and giving those answers.
Slovo, meanwhile, left a re-creation of Ali completely out of her film — he’s only seen in archival footage — and used Supreme Court documents to extrapolate interactions that were not otherwise on the record, based on known information about justices’ personalities and relationships.
“It’s about characters and character connections that transform it from a docudrama or documentary into fiction,” she says. “That’s where your inventiveness has to come in.”
In the end, however, it’s really about conveying the heart of a story — not the literal blow-by-blow facts. And, of course, keeping the future audience in mind. For Batteer, viewers are the ultimate arbiters of what should go, and what should stay, in this particular history lesson.
“Every choice you make you’re thinking about the audience, because you’re there to tell a story,” he says. “That’s the reason they’re tuning in. It’s all for the audience.”