I recently spent some time talking about how hard it is to pair the right hero with the right concept. The hero needs to have a volatile relationship to the story. They have to be able to transform the story and the story has to be able to transform them. They need to have the power to resolve the dilemma. They need to be the only one who can solve the problem.
This is true for fictional stories and even more true for docudramas. One question they asked us all the time in film school is “whose story is it?” But when it comes to docudramas, Hollywood has gotten too lazy to figure out the best answer to that question. Instead they wait until a hustler comes knocking on their door trying to sell his own “life rights”. If the pitch is good enough, Hollywood bites, without ever asking is this person is actually the real hero of this story.
The hard-fought efforts to mount the Woodstock festival (and the unsuccessful efforts to control what it became) could make for a great story. The story of the local non-rock-fan slacker who briefly tried and failed to rent his farm to the organizers? That’s not a good story. But that’s the guy who sold his life rights. Once again, the poor marketers discovered that they could have sold “the Woodstock story”, but they couldn’t sell Taking Woodstock, which was “sort of the Woodstock story, but… not really.”Another example: I liked Breach a lot. It’s an underrated movie, due to Chris Cooper’s amazing performance as real-life traitor Robert Hanssen. But it has the wrong hero. The FBI agent Ryan Phillipe plays was brought in at the last minute to gather some additional evidence, after Hanssen had already been exposed. In real life, he did so without ever confronting Hanssen, then instantly quit to sell his story to Hollywood. Nobody would have picked this guy to be the hero of this story, if he hadn’t brought in the pitch.At least those two were about movie-worthy events. Even sillier are those movies that have no business being made, but some enterprising hustler convinced Hollywood that their story “had to be told”! Remember that guy who spent twenty years suing the car companies, claiming that he had invented variable-speed windshield wipers? Probably not. He eventually got a pay-off, then got another pay-off from Hollywood, when he suckered them into making a bio-pic about him called Flash of Genius. Nobody cared.
One of the reasons The Social Network and The King’s Speech worked so well is that they were not based on books written by the actual people involved, all of whom would have had a vested interest in warping reality into a too-tidy narrative.
The best recent example of how to do it right was Milk. The screenwriter simply decided that this story ought to be told, so he did the research himself. He didn’t buy anybody’s life rights, as far as I know. The surviving participants just shared their memories because they agreed that this was a worthwhile project. The hero of the movie was the actual hero of the story: Harvey Milk.