Blinded by the light of the big screen, I’ve cozied up to countless films to escape reality without realising that they were actually true stories of someone’s life… movies like My Name is Dolomite, The Mule, The Irishman, 1917 and a TV series Unorthodox.
Ellin Stein, former script analyst for Zoetrope and Miramax and teacher at Goldsmiths at the University of London, encourages building entertainment and an emotional narrative into factual films. Her view was, “They don’t need to know it’s true, all they need to know is why it is so, and that makes a great story.”
Why take liberties?
Why should a true to life story be told? It’s probable that more people will see the movie than read history. History documents actions of institutions and public crisis, often missing the emotional rollercoaster of people involved. This is the juice, she shared. A winning film reveals all of it, historic moments, emotional truth and its telling details. Take liberties!
It’s all about character. Her advice. Invent them, that is to invent why they are who they are. The magic of humanity comes from emotion that is not in the history books or journalistic accounts.
How does your character feel? The best way into a character, according to Ellin, is to imagine what the character is thinking. This is commonly missed and adds a powerful connection to the audience.
Take liberties and add colorful larger-than-life emotions and personal details, like eating hot sauce on everything, and there will be resonance. A story based on a true moment in time can be heavily fictionalised with emotional moments while maintaining the historical integrity of the event.
Intense emotion works well with fewer choices and that could mean a lean cast. Ellin says, “… no more than four main characters and seven supporting roles.”
In Clint Eastwood’s recent Richard Jewell, he slimmed things down and used one composite to replace all the real-life police who questioned his security guard hero. The security guard’s public persona goes from hero when he discovers a bomb at the Olympics and to zero as the tables turn and he becomes the FBI number one suspect. By simplifying the resistance, the spotlight remained with the protagonist.
Now, now, now. Does the story resonate today? Do the values and lessons of old translate? How personal is it?
The Crown masterfully highlights crucial moments of transformational growth and relationship dynamics that still exist today. In Hidden Figures and Harriot, the quest for mass unity in the face of discrimination has become more resonant in the context of anti-racism protests.
Ellin also recommends avoiding flashbacks, captions and narration. Good true stories can stand on their own with context and characters the audience knows.
CELEBRITIES, SOUGHT AFTER, RECOGNIZED AND IN DEMAND
Celebrity stories can be approached from a tangent, by making your protagonist a secondary character who made a difference.
Ellin illustrated this tested technique using the 1994 film Backbeat. Backbeat hitches on to the legendary Beatles history without having to acquire complicated rights. And it does this by telling the story of Stuart Suitcliffer, the Beatles’ first bass player who died in 1962, and his German girlfriend Astrid Kitcherr.
The audience sees the start-up of a band that would change music forever and the moment Kitcherr invented the famous Beatles haircut and look. By jumping to a pre-fame story of their rise in the smoky dives of Hamburg, the production avoided the need to purchase rights that would break the bank, while still telling a relevant celebrity story.