Assaying the “True-Life” Screenplay
I am currently having fun working one-on-one with several screenwriters who are writing either a true-life or a based-on-true-events screenplay. These are the “adaptations” we sometimes write, and just like any other script, they follow the same rules. One thing all writers have to be mindful of, but especially those that are writing anything based on fact, is the painful requirement to kill their “darlings.”
What are they?
William Faulkner said that “In writing you must kill your darlings.” These are the little gems, the bits of writage you can see yourself talking about with Anthony Lane or Ebert & Roeper over cocktails at Cannes where they tell you how brilliant you are — but in fact the darlings don’t do anything to help the story. In biography, in true-life, in historic adaptation, the urge to keep the darling is more severe. But it really happened! You tell me. And it is my painful duty to tell you: So what? Poof! There goes your witty banter on the red carpet at the Oscars. Sorry! Hate to burst your bubble. But that’s what’s gotta happen.
Don’t we all think of William Goldman, who wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade about attempting again and again to put that “true life” scene of Butch Cassidy in as his opener of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Try as he might, as good as it was, and as true as it was, it didn’t work. So out it went. And often it is MY painful duty to tell writers that the whole biography is bad. Ouch!
As I like to point out, look at the movie Alexander. How is it possible that a guy with the most amazing feats of accomplishment in the history of mankind makes for such bad movies? They’ve tried it twice now, the latest directed by Oliver Stone, and each time nada. Why? Maybe because Alexander’s isn’t a very good story? Because really what is it? He conquers Persia, he conquers India, he conquers Asia, The End. Sad, I know! It seems impossible, I know. But many times I must point out how the biography you are working on falls into the Alexander category. Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting. As history, fascinating! As story, a snooze.
And yet there are always ways to tell any story in a compelling fashion — as long as we are willing to get rid of our darlings, or in some cases, the darling that is our approach to the project as a whole.
We are storytellers. And as we know: All stories are about transformation. Tell me a story about a guy or gal who… transforms, and how that transformation effects those around him or her. When we lay out that story we ask: What does the hero want, and what’s stopping him from getting it? And anything that doesn’t attach itself to the spine of that story must come out.
If you don’t have the pieces to make the connections in a “true-life” piece…. make them up! For in fact the opposite rule holds as well — the Beautiful Mind Rule which says that it’s okay to whitewash, fuse together two or more characters into one, change locations of events, and even alter facts to make the story work. Yes, it drives historians batty. Yes, you may get flack from critics. But we must serve the story first. And so long as we are in sync with the spirit of the truth, and don’t create anachronisms or falsehoods in the process, it’s fair game.
I encourage you all to try this form at one point or another in your careers. The darling-killing muscle this exercises will become most useful when you return to the pure fiction of making up stories from scratch. Now when I tell you that the brilliant scene you came up with for your fictional cast of characters doesn’t work, you may be less inclined to cling to it, and more inclined to serve the story first.
p.s. And speaking of Story… yes, it’s official, as of this morning Save the Cat! is now outselling Robert McKee’s Story on Amazon, making Cat! the #1 screenwriting book overall. Have a great weekend everybody!
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