Writing about real events

questionmarkI’m writing a spec akin to The People vs. Larry Flynt or Catch Me if You Can that involves several real people, the FCC and a major U.S. company. There’s a lot on record regarding the incident in newspapers etc. I’ve hunted down the main character (a private citizen) and will talk to him about rights to his story. Assuming there hasn’t been a book written about the incident, what is the protocol for using real people (high profile like the former head of the FCC, etc) as characters?

I’m going to guess anything transcribed in a public hearing is available as dialogue but of course it’s the juicy stuff behind closed doors that I will have to infer to progress the story along. And what about using the major company’s name? Could I use, say Kmart, if the film is about an incident with Kmart?

– Matt
San Diego

John’s Standard Advice applies here: if you’re writing this as a spec, just write the best possible script you can. Yes, down the road, there may be some legal hurdles. You might have to change a company’s name, or lose/combine/alter a character for icky defamation reasons. But those are all making-the-movie concerns, not things to freak out about while writing the script.

However. You seem like a diligent guy, so there are things you can do now to save yourself some trouble down the road. First off, make a list of “facts” as you understand them. Who is who, who knew what, when things happened. For each of these facts, make a note of how you know this. Is it a matter of public record (i.e. you’re looking at court testimony), a newspaper story, or an interview you conducted yourself? Basically, pretend you’re a fact-checker working on a major story for the New York Times. Be detailed. Be obsessive.

Then tuck this list away. Don’t even think about it while you write.

A lot of what makes a script interesting isn’t fact. It’s the stuff in-between the facts: conversations that probably took place, motives that make sense but aren’t documented. While you’re writing about real people, you’re writing characters, and characters can’t be found in court testimony. You’re going to have to make some stuff up — so make it compelling. Find a point of view. You’re trying to create two hours of great movie, and great movies are rarely objective.

Do people sue when movies are made about them? Sometimes. But the fact is that no one is going to sue you, Matt Screenwriter from San Diego, for writing your script. It’s only when a script becomes a movie that the fear of lawsuits really merits any attention. And by that point, you’ll have more studio lawyers than you can handle. Hand ‘em that list you made and let them do their job.

See also:

Based on a true story
Third-party storytelling
“Fictional events” disclaimer

How to include abstract images

questionmarkThere is one element that I have to include, as it is integral to the script. It is a recurring image of a curved line that reveals itself as a circle to the background of a high speed train.

How can I format this properly as there is no scene heading for it?

– John C.
via IMDb

Beginning screenwriters often get too nervous about formatting, scared that one missing scene header will make their scripts un-filmable. Or worse, un-commercial.

Get over it. If you need to write your curved train tracks, just write ‘em. Images like this don’t need their own scene headers; just treat them as stand-alone sluglines, or little mini-scenes.


slowly moves across the screen. We’re looking at something from a very high angle, but it’s not clear what.



And a scene happens.

Later in the script, when you need to finally reveal what this image actually is, you might try something like this:


stretches across the screen. Now, a high-speed train enters from the bottom of the frame, running along the arc — actually the tracks of the French TGV.

We RUSH IN closer, feeling the energy of the train as it races through mustard-yellow fields. We drop alongside the fourth car, looking in through the window to find Charlotte asleep, her head tilted against the glass.

Movable Type vs. WordPress

questionmarkNot a screen-writing question, I’m afraid — more a “Geek Alert” one.

I’ve got a blog on blogger.com at the moment, and am thinking of moving to a different blogging tool. I’m a techie by background (computer science degree) now working in film visual effects (currently on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), and would love to have much more flexibility than blogger.com gives.

How have you found WordPress vs. Movable Type? They are the two that I am currently thinking about switching to, and would love to get your take on the two. How flexible are they, and do they allow you pretty much any access to the data that you would want?

– Hugh Macdonald

In another post, I’ll talk about blogging recommendations for the not-so-technically inclined.

geek alertIt sounds like you, Hugh, are geeky enough that either WordPress or Movable Type will work fine for you. WordPress is done in PHP, while Movable Type is (mostly) Perl, so if one of those languages is more your strong suit, let that be your guide. And if you don’t feel like climbing under the hood, the default installs of either WordPress or Movable are pretty powerful, and both have plug-ins that let you do a lot without touching a line of code.

There are some technical and philosophical differences between the two systems as well. WordPress generates each page on-demand (at the moment someone requests it), which allows more flexibility in design and upkeep, at the cost of a slight delay in page loading. Movable Type, on the other hand, stores static pages that can be loaded very quickly — but can slow down when you make a change that ripples throughout the site. In recent revisions, both WordPress and Movable Type have taken on some of the other’s strengths — MT can generate certain page on the fly, while plug-ins for WP allow it to cache frequently-requested pages.

Both in terms of pricing and spirit, WordPress is “more free” than Movable Type. Movable Type is an honest-to-goodness company, with the goal of making a profit. For a single user, the MT software costs $70. WordPress, on the other hand, is open-source, and free. Both platforms have active support forums, but in my experience, the basic documentation on Movable Type is better.

I found WordPress much easier to install, however. The trickiest part is setting up the MySQL database, and the instructions do a good job explaining that. Movable Type has a much better exporting system, which ironically makes it a lot easier to move from MT to WP than vice-versa.

In summary, they’re both good. My gut tells me you’ll pick WordPress. But if you really want to impress the geeks at the FX bay, also check out Ruby on Rails, which is very much roll-your-own, but allows for immense customization.

Whether to pitch or to spec

Craig Mazin has a good article on Artful Writer today about whether screenwriters are better off pitching their ideas, or just writing the script and trying to sell it as a spec. I largely agree with his points.

Keep in mind that Artful Writer is geared towards screenwriters who are already working in the industry, so the pitch-versus-write decision wouldn’t be the same for most aspiring screenwriters.

Whether or not to American-ize

questionmarkI am from the UK and have written a script which I think would work either side of the Atlantic. Though the theme is generic, some minor details would not seem authentic to an American reader as well as technical differences, such as spelling.

Should I send an amended US version to American agencies and a British one in the UK, or send the original version to both?

– Paul James
via IMDb

I don’t think there’s a wrong answer, but here’s what I would recommend if I were in your place.

If it really wouldn’t suffer from setting it in the U.S., then go for it. Keep your UK version for British agencies and filmmakers, and do up a separate-but-equal version for the U.S. (Hint: put a “UK” down by the date on the title page, so you can easily tell which one is which.) While most Hollywood folks are clever enough to realize that a good script is a good script, there’s always a chance that a reader will see “Bristol” and think, nope.

Next, if you do set it in America, with American characters, you’re probably better off using American spellings throughout. That way, there’s no weird disconnect when Tyrell starts talking about “gang colours.” And have a native-born American whose opinion you trust do a careful reading through your script, just to make sure there’s no dangling British-isms.

Having said this, a UK writer shouldn’t worry about being too British. Or Scottish. Or whatever. There’s a long history of talented filmmakers crossing the Atlantic to work in Hollywood (and vice-versa). You shouldn’t try to sublimate your natural writing style to match some mythical American standard — which all too often resembles the lowest common denominator. But if you decide to American-ize this script, make sure you do so thoroughly.