Whenever a film screams the message “Based on a true story” across the screen, there is immediately a certain indescribable intimacy between the audience and the characters portrayed within the movie.
Whether it is the violence captured on the shores of a World War II battle scene or the recreation of an intimate real-life love story, these “true” adaptations draw the viewers naturally into the fabric of the lives and the cinematic world. But how much of what is presented on the screen actually true? And moreover, when it comes to art, what is truth anyway?
On Tuesday evening, the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences and the Master of Professional Writing Program put together “Based on a True Story: Hollywood Screenwriters on the Art of Dramatizing Real Life,” a panel of Hollywood screenwriters to discuss and answer exactly those questions.
The discussion was moderated by USC faculty member Prince Gomolvilas, author of the stage adaptation of the Scott Heim novel Mysterious Skin and creator of blog “Bamboo Nation.” The panel included Hollywood professionals Kyle Patrick Alvarez, writer and director of Easier with Practice; William Wheeler, screenwriter of The Hoax; and Iris Yamashita, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Letters from Iwo Jima.
These individuals provided students with a variety of perspectives on what they considered the most appropriate ways of dealing with “real-life adaptations.”
Each panelist brought a different idea and view of incorporating real-life events and people into their films. Alvarez described his experience with Easier with Practice as “not a Davy Rothbart movie,” meaning that he envisioned his film to not be an exact depiction of main character Davy Rothbart, but a “compelling movie” filled with believable and intriguing content.
With regard to The Hoax, Wheeler wanted to take Clifford Irving’s biography of Howard Hughes at “face value,” putting the emphasis not on the truth but on playing with the material and creating an experience fit for the screen.
Although Alvarez and Wheeler discussed the struggles of working with truths of living inspirations, Yamashita discussed dealing with the truth of the dead. In talking about her work, which is often based on a historical event, she acknowledged that it “is much easier to write about dead people,” as the truths revealed about living individuals can be more sensitive than those connected to the dead.
When asked about working with the subjects of his films, Wheeler quickly pointed out that it places limits on the story.
“Journalists want what the subjects least want to give them,” he said.
Because it is often difficult for the subject to break through their embarrassment and share experiences they might not want to, it is difficult to craft a transparent image of them. When the subjects put their “hearts and life into the sources,” Wheeler added, it affects where the character can go organically.
Regardless of the subject, a key to adapting real-life events is to transform those ideas into sellable scripts.
“What people don’t understand is that a novel and a film are two completely different forms,” Gomolvilas said, adding that the film and the inspiration behind it should not be seen in the same way.
Additionally, truth itself is a debatable issue — whether adapting it to film or just life in general.
“Whose truth is it anyway? Two, three, four different people could have different perspectives on the same thing,” Gomolvilas said.
Letters from Iwo Jima, for instance, epitomizes this concept as it represents the Japanese perspective of the events depicted in Flags of Our Fathers (the two are companion films directed by Clint Eastwood).
In the midst of the condensed and edited “true stories,” the line between the real truths and the fictitious “truths” often become blurred by the world on the screen. Although the audience and critics alike will scrutinize a film in attempts to demystify that blur, there arises an implied question:
“Why does it have to be true?” Gomolvilas asked.
For the sake of art, the truth is often bent to fit the screen.