True stories have always had a way of getting the attention of the Academy, especially when it comes to the best picture race. Of the 2018 films that were nominated last year, only “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born” were complete fiction. Many of this year’s contenders feature stories based on real events, but find unique ways to approach their subjects.
In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Quentin Tarantino once again played around with established history, this time surrounding the murder of Sharon Tate, while “The Irishman” explored with its own theories as to what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. “Queen & Slim” is a fictional story about a young black couple on the run after killing a cop, but it is rooted in far too many recent tragedies. “Rocketman” turns Elton John’s life story into a bright and bold musical. “Bombshell” tackles the very recent sex scandals at Fox News with Charlize Theron not just playing one-time network host Megan Kelly, but
also serving as narrator and guide to what happened.
For all these films, finding an unconventional approach is an essential aspect of the storytelling. For years, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue knew they wanted to make a movie about the legendary Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). But in doing their research found, in Harpster’s words, that “he wasn’t the good subject for a proper biopic. He was just pretty amazing for about 74 years, which is not, you know, what you want from your protagonist.”
So they instead decided to explore their options when it came to people who had known Rogers, a process that led them to the Rogers archives. There they found a box of letters between Rogers and journalist Tom Junod, who famously profiled the host for Esquire Magazine in 1998.
“From there, we got Tom to fly out to Los Angeles, and we locked him in an airless room and interrogated him for three days,” Fitzerman-Blue says.
By the end of the process the writers, per Junod’s request, had transformed Tom’s story into that of Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a journalist working on a story about Rogers.
“In a way, we position Fred a little bit as the antagonist in our story,” Fitzerman-Blue says. “The building blocks of the story are Matthew Rhys is trying to write an article about Tom Hanks. And Tom Hanks won’t let him do that.”
While Lloyd ultimately is a fictional creation, Fitzerman-Blue adds that he did think Junod responded to how the film depicted his real-life relationship with Rogers. “It’s more true than it is accurate.”
Also aiming for truth over accuracy is Universal’s “1917.” The initial seed for the war drama was planted in director Sam Mendes’ mind by a World War I story told to him by his grandfather, according to co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, about “a man carrying a message through no man’s land.” That idea became the core of the film, which follows two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) on their essential but extremely dangerous mission, deliberately shot to appear as if it was all one take.
Telling a story about the reality of what it was like to fight in World War I from a soldier’s perspective made sense to Wilson-Cairns, she says, because “the first World War takes place over four years, and millions of men and civilians are killed. I can’t write a script in which I can make you care about the deaths of 10 million men. I don’t think anyone can. Because that number of deaths, it becomes a statistic. Our brains can’t possibly fathom that level of carnage and despair.”
But by literally tracking these characters for every minute of the film, Wilson-Cairns says, “1917” is able to “tell a very honest look at the First World War, but incredibly character driven.” And by creating those characters, she and Mendes weren’t “bastardizing a real person’s story. We amalgamated many true stories, in the hopes that we could serve to the public a view of what it was like to fight in that war — of what it was like to try and survive that horror.”
Also playing with fiction and reality is Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Woman.” While the classic novel about four girls growing up in the 1800s has been adapted for the screen many times, Gerwig was the first to go deeper into the fact that author Louisa May Alcott based the book on her own life and family, playing with the original ending of the book in order to do so.
Producer Amy Pascal says it was one of the first things Gerwig mentioned, in discussing the adaptation: “Louisa May Alcott, in her day, was not someone who felt that she could end the story the way that she wanted to — she didn’t want Jo to get married, but she changed the ending so that it would be quote-unquote commercial and it would sell. But we wanted to give the movie the ending that Louisa May Alcott actually wanted.”
We get glimpses of the book’s “official” ending through Jo’s conversations with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) that were drawn from Alcott’s real-life relationship with her publisher Thomas Niles, including a scene in which Dashwood, having originally rejected Jo’s manuscript, changes his decision.
In real life, Pascal says, Niles “did reject [‘Little Women’] and said he thought it was dull. It took his niece — which, in the movie, we portray as his daughters — saying, ‘Wait a second, what happened to the little women?’”
Thus, Pascal believes that the final film is, in the long run, not really an adaptation of Alcott’s book, but it’s also not exactly an Alcott biopic.
“What we wanted to do was take the collective consciousness that everybody in the world has about ‘Little Women,’ both from the novel and from what you know about Louisa May Alcott’s life, and play with everything to tell a very different story about women and money and independence,” she says.
Pascal sees a lot of value in bringing aspects of real life into fiction.
“The heroic and amazing things that real people do; we understand our lives through stories, and stories about people who we admire are inspirations to all of us,” she says. “There is something about true stories that gives movies a different kind of gravitas. Because it’s the way that we understand our own history with the truth.”
Fitzerman-Blue agrees. “I know when I’m watching a movie, the thing that I’m the most desperate to feel or see is a reflection of myself on screen. And for me, whenever I know going in, just in the back of my mind, that this really happened in some capacity, it gets me halfway there. I love ‘Star Wars,’ I love sci-fi, but I have to go further to find myself in it. Whereas if it’s just the clue at the beginning that, like, ‘Oh, this is real, you can go look this up’ — somehow it greases the door a little bit, for me being able to see my own self on the screen.”