I am writing a spec script that deals with an actual person who lived years ago. I have fictionalized many events in his life and now part of me is wondering if this is legal? Think in Titanic, James Cameron didn’t get John Jacob Astor’s permission to recreate him, give him words, and actions, in the film? How does that work? Is creative license totally creative? If you veer from the truth to exaggerate your story, is that technically slander?
Not if the person in question is dead.
Generally, slander refers to things you say, whereas libel refers to things you write. Either way, dead people can’t do anything about it, and the heirs aren’t allowed to sue on their behalf.
Certainly, whenever you are dealing with living people, or recently living people, you’ll want to be careful. There may be some hidden landmines. For instance, an estate may have control over a celebrity’s voice or likeness (think Marilyn Monroe). And copyright still applies. If Cameron based Titanic on Astor’s private diaries, the estate would have reason to go after him.