Issue 2: Feature Article—What is Authenticity?

When adapting from any type of source material it is accepted, and indeed required, practice to compress events, amalgamate characters and shuffle timelines in order to achieve a strong narrative. But where do you draw the line with the fact-based film? RSL starts its look into the big debate by considering what we mean by ‘authenticity’…

For many years, screenwriting experts, historians and filmmakers have been debating the importance of ‘accuracy’ when portraying historical events on screen. This debate runs the gamut from ‘if it ain’t true, why bother?’ all the way through to ‘who cares, as long as the film works?’.

In the first camp is the notion that makers of fact-based films have a responsibility to real life and to accurately depict events. There is also the idea that a film becomes stronger and delivers a more engaging experience for audiences if it strives for authenticity.

But what is authenticity?

Is it how a film looks?

How the characters are portrayed?

Whether it tells the story ‘as it really happened’?

Take a film like 2012’s Lincoln (pictured above), which went to great lengths to recreate the world in which Abraham Lincoln lived, right down to authentic costume and set decoration details that all but the most eagle-eyed and historically informed viewer wouldn’t even notice.

When you strive for such visual detail there is a danger that this appearance of authenticity creates a ‘veneer of truth’ that leads audiences to believe the events happened as portrayed, simply because the film ‘looks the part’. This is problematic because achieving true authenticity requires more than just appearance; it requires a commitment by the filmmakers to infuse the whole film with the ‘truth’.

In the case of Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin, respected historian and author of the non-fiction book it was based upon (Team of Rivals), was on hand to offer advice on authenticity. It’s also clear there was a commitment by director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner to ‘get it right’.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg, Spielberg talked of the opportunity he and Kushner had “to delve more vertically into Lincoln and the minutiae, the details, which I think we celebrate. Of all the movies that I’ve made, I think there’s more details that I care about in this film than anything else I’ve ever done.”

This commitment to authenticity also comes through when reading director Sidney Lumet’s comments on his 1973 film, Serpico (based on the real Frank Serpico’s fight to expose corruption in the NYPD):

One of the first obligations one feels towards the audience is, ‘hey, folks, this really happened’. We may have combined people, but essentially everything that happened in this movie really happened.”
Sidney Lumet (Director, Serpico)

Efforts to achieve authenticity in Serpico extended to hiring actors which were largely unknown to audiences (lead Al Pacino was just becoming famous following his turn in The Godfather) as they were more “naturalistic”. The filmmakers also scouted locations which were the actual locations frequented by the real life participants, and had a couple of cops with the crew throughout the shoot.

Of the finished product, the film’s producer, Martin Bregman, said of Lumet: “Not many people…can make a reality-based film and draw audiences in to that.”

Inherent within that compliment is the idea that one of the filmmaker’s duties with the fact-based film (and one Lumet succeeded in) is to take real life and turn it into sympathetic but effective screen drama. Indeed, speaking about Serpico, Bregman discussed the importance of taking the material to another level:

Truth is often duller than we want it to be, so how can we heighten it?
Martin Bregman (Producer, Serpico)

This goes to the heart of the fact-based film – how to retain authenticity while creating effective screen drama. It’s a fine line to tread, but one that skilled filmmakers have developed – recognising how real life can offer rich source material for film projects, but equally that real life needs a helping hand in order to become screen-worthy.

This is illustrated by another Sidney Lumet-directed film (which incidentally also stars Al Pacino and was produced by Bregman). This issue’s analysis delves further into 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, but it’s worth noting that one of its achievements is taking an interesting and offbeat real life tale (about a bank heist that goes wrong) and constantly asking the question: how can we tweak the source material to make it dramatically stronger?

Coming back to Lincoln, it is clear some experts appreciated efforts made by the filmmakers to achieve authenticity in a fictionalised account of the last few months of Lincoln’s life.

In an interview with NPR, Ronald White, author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, said of the film: “I think the delicate balance or blend between history and dramatic art comes off quite well.” Similarly, Hendrik Hertzberg, a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker said in an article that following a critical first viewing of the film, he had a change of heart:

On second viewing, I put aside the nitpicking. I realized that the very narrowness of my complaints was backhanded evidence of the enormous amount that the film gets right. And, indeed, virtually every point that the story and script of Lincoln makes is grounded in historical fact, even if the conventions and limitations of a theatrical film.”

Hendrik Hertzberg (The New Yorker)

Of course, every screenplay is different and the skilled writer will develop a sixth sense for determining how to treat each individual story and its source material. In this vein, Hertzberg also makes the point that “compromise is inevitable—in life, in politics, in movies”.

In terms of the latter, compromising authenticity can mean sacrificing detail for drama, secondary characters for heightened conflict, an accurate timeline for logical plot development…and any number of other devices screenwriters use in order to produce a piece of screen-worthy drama.

In discussing 2005’s Madison (about the 1971 hydro-plane Gold Cup championship in Madison, Indiana), co-writer Scott Bindley said:

I felt very strongly about staying close to the absolute truth…I felt we owed it to the people who lived this story to research it properly and see how well it stood on its own before [we] started tinkering.”

Scott Bindley (Screenwriter, Madison)

However, Scott, along with co-writer and director, William Bindley, found that while “God’s truth version would have made a terrific documentary or compelling magazine article”, in order for it to work on screen, the real story required “a lot of compressing and combining”.

So, authenticity in this instance came from extensive research into the real life people involved, as well as the use of archive footage. All of which combines to “capture the spirit of the Madison story”.

This leads us back to a point raised in the first issue:

When we talk about ‘truth’ in the movies, maybe it’s enough to mean a deeper truth. In which case, the key question to ask is: does the story stay true to the spirit of the original story and the lives of the people portrayed?

Reel Screen Life

If the answer is ‘yes’, then maybe the filmmakers have succeeded in putting real life authentically on screen, even if the finished product is not strictly “God’s truth version”.

Next issue, we step across the divide to look at the opposing view – the one that believes authenticity can easily be sacrificed to make the story work on screen?

Meanwhile, take a look at our list of films that transformed real life tales into something completely different and check out our full analysis of Dog Day Afternoon.

Issue 3 of RSL is out on 22 June.

Additional sources:

  • Quotes from Sidney Lumet and Martin Bregman: Serpico, ‘Making of’ Documentary, Paramount Home Entertainment (DVD release date: 23 December 2002)
  • Quotes from Scott Bindley: Richard Krevolin, How to Adapt Anything into a Screenplay (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) pp 131-132