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From real to reel: In fact-based films, reality and storytelling collide

Experts say that after a decade of reality television, the film business is finally catching up. But in tapping into factual events, Hollywood is also wading into choppy waters — creatively, ethically and even legally.

December 27, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Danny Boyle, left, the director of 127 Hours, confers with Aron Ralston, on whom the film is based. They differed on certain dramatic points.
Danny Boyle, left, the director of 127 Hours, confers with Aron Ralston,… (Chuck Zlotnick / Fox Searchlight )

When director Danny Boyle began making "127 Hours," the real-life tale of hiker Aron Ralston, who amputated his arm after five days pinned under a rock, he knew he had a compelling story to tell and an even better resource. After all, who better to steer the director through difficult dramatic terrain than the outdoorsman himself?

But for Boyle, an in-the-flesh, on-set guide like Aron Ralston also came with a liability: Aron Ralston.

The hiker insisted, for example, that his character (played by James Franco) let out a big laugh at the moment he cut off his arm, just as he says he did in real life. The director objected, saying a laugh felt out of place. Boyle eventually gave in.

And when the director wanted to use a raven as a comedic element, Ralston protested —saying a raven had been a symbol of hope for him when he was stranded. Boyle decided to use an inflatable Scooby-Doo instead.

"As a director, you like having a real story because that's what makes it more powerful," Boyle said. "But it's also hard because you know you're dealing with someone's life."

A movie theater was once a refuge from life's harsh realities. But this fall, those realities have come barging through the multiplex door. "127 Hours" is one of at least 13 movies based on a true story to hit cinemas in recent months. The films run the gamut of subjects, including a royal biography ( "The King's Speech"), a Silicon Valley history ( "The Social Network"), a legal drama ( "Conviction"), a boxing saga ( "The Fighter"), a heart-stopping action flick ( "Unstoppable") and a heart-tugging romantic dramedy ("Love & Other Drugs").

And that's not to mention a murder-mystery ( "All Good Things"), a prison-break love story ( "I Love You Phillip Morris"), a split-personality character study ("Frankie & Alice") and two political sagas ( "Fair Game" and "Casino Jack").

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Experts say that after a decade of reality television, the film business is finally catching up. Audiences and studio executives now not only tolerate a dose of real life in their feature films, they expect it. Stories like the ones told in "127 Hours" or "The Fighter" (about the working-class welterweight champion Micky Ward) go from ordinary to powerful in the minds of filmgoers the moment "based on a true story" flashes across the screen.

But in tapping into factual events, Hollywood is also wading into choppy waters — creatively, ethically and even legally.

As Boyle and others are finding, it's tricky to make a feature film while abiding by what are essentially the constraints of a documentary. Some subjects, like Ralston, want to be heavily involved — at times to the point of dictating mannerisms and other details. Others want no part of the process but disparage the movie or even threaten lawsuits if they're dissatisfied with the results. Controversies, compromises and conflicts lurk everywhere.

"I think everybody is exhausted by neat, shapely fictional stories we've had for so long, and a compelling situation from real life is much more interesting," says film historian David Thomson. "But there's a great danger. Every time a story is made out of a real person's experience, we enter into a process of distortion."

The team behind "Conviction" says it took great pains to hew closely to the real-life story of waitress-turned-legal-crusader Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school in a bid to free her wrongfully imprisoned brother. Hilary Swank, who portrays Waters in the film, recalls that she even felt the need to apologize to Waters for one scene in which she wore an outfit that Waters probably wouldn't wear.

"It's an enormous responsibility," Swank says of playing a real-life character. "You can't take a lot of liberty with the storytelling."

Yet even the best of intentions sometimes can't guarantee protection from controversy. The producers of "Conviction" could be facing a lawsuit from the family of a murder victim portrayed in the film. They have complained they were not consulted about the portrayal and have hired attorney Gloria Allred, but a suit has yet to be filed.

"All Good Things," director Andrew Jarecki's thinly veiled story of eccentric New York real-estate heir Robert Durst, strongly implies that Durst orchestrated his wife's killing and commissioned the murder of a friend who was about to go to police with evidence. In reality, Durst never even faced charges in either case. Jarecki changed the names of the characters in his film, but there's little doubt to whom he's referring.

The movie also drew fire from the Durst Organization, the development company once run by Durst's father. The company threatened to sue the movie's distributor, saying it cast "false and damaging aspersions on the honesty, ethics and good business character" of the firm.

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