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