Issue 4: Lesson 4—Research (Part One)

So, you’ve found a great true life tale that you’re sure will make a terrific film. The next thing to do is sit down and bang out your screenplay, right? Well, not exactly. First, there’s the little matter of research. For some writers, this step is a joy; for others, a chore. Either way, it’s a necessary step. In this first lesson on researching the fact-based film, we look at how research benefits your script…

We start with a question: In the context of screenwriting, what’s the point of research?

You might have your own ideas about this, but it seems the overriding reason is to understand the world your story take place in. Armed with this understanding, you can place your characters within this world and tell their story in a believable way.

When writing the fact-based film, research takes on a whole new dimension as the characters will based – either closely or loosely – on their real-life counterparts (or composites thereof). This means you have to develop a solid and thorough knowledge of where and when your story takes place and the real lives of the people you want to portray. This might seem like a big ask, but the benefits are invaluable…

You can retain authenticity if you depart from the ‘facts’
When you write a fact-based film there’s lot of information that’s impossible to find out – private conversations and unrecorded meetings for example. As a screenwriter, you’ll be required to ‘fill in the blanks’.

Let’s say you want to write a film based on the last few months in the life of a great American President. He’s facing a tense time trying to bring an end to a bloody and costly war that threatens to irrevocably divide the US. In the process, he will free the slaves. You do all your research into this period of US history and the people involved. However, there are some doors your research can’t open – such as private meetings in which pivotal decisions are made. You want to take your audience into the eye of the storm and throw those closed doors wide open. Fortunately you know your world; your characters and their motivations; and the outcome of these discussions so well that it’s not a huge stretch to recreate those meetings in an authentic way, utilising a combination of creativity and meticulous research. (We’ll be analysing Lincoln in a future issue.)

Understanding the wider context gives a story greater depth
If you conduct thorough research, you can use what’s going on in the wider world to infuse your script with a fuller reality. It moves beyond a simple story into becoming part of the cultural zeitgeist (yikes!). This works whether your film is set in the nineteenth century or last week.

Let’s say you want to tell the story of a bank robbery gone wrong. It’s a compelling real life tale with colourful characters that lends itself perfectly to a lively script. You read all the newspaper accounts and magazine articles, talk to the people involved and get a decent understanding of the facts. But then you look at the wider context in which the real life tale took place. The USA in the 1970s – a fractured society hurting from Vietnam and Watergate that’s lost faith in its leaders and those in authority. Suddenly your desperate bank robber protagonist becomes the perfect ‘hero’ for his time and your script takes on a whole new level of meaning. (See our analysis of Dog Day Afternoon for more.)

You can counter criticisms of your choices
As we’ve previously discussed, when you write the fact-based film, you leave yourself open to all kinds of criticism with regard how you depict characters and events. Don’t forget that there are people out there who are experts in whatever time period your story is set, and some who might even have been directly involved in the real life events you are portraying.

With thorough research behind you, even if your screen story forces you to make some potentially controversial choices, you’ll have the knowledge at your disposal to remain sympathetic to the facts while shaping them to suit your screenplay. And, in the process, counter any criticism with a well-informed rejoinder (yikes again!). (See our analysis of Selma for more.)

So how do you find out all this information?
There are lots of ways to uncover the information you need. Indeed, as a screenwriter, you’ll be required to put on quite a few hats (as our current article series demonstrates). These include:

  • Historian – there is a wealth of information available that you can track down and utilise (books, periodicals, letters & diaries, photos etc.)
  • Journalist – those experts out there waiting to criticise you might also like to share their knowledge with you
  • Investigator – sometimes there’s no substitute for going to a place and following in your character’s footsteps

Each project will be have different requirements in terms of research – maybe it’ll be one or a combination of all these.

However, the thing to take away from all this is that while a certain amount of research is a basic necessity when writing any film, with the fact-based film it is a crucial element in achieving credibility, authenticity and believability.

Next time, we continue our look at research with a deeper look at uncovering historical facts (have your library card at the ready!).

The next lesson will be available on 20 July.

(Image: “DoPracowania” by Maciej Bliziński)