Issue 5: Feature Article—The Screenwriter as Journalist

In the last issue, we drew some parallels between the screenwriter and the historian. In this second article in our short series on the screenwriter’s role, we look at how employing journalistic skills can take a film to the next level…

When was the last time you learnt something new at the movies? More specifically, when was the last time you watched a film that opened your eyes about an aspect of the world, in the same way as a news report or article?

When planning any type of fact-based film, there will always be an element of journalism coming into play. As we’ll get into more fully in next issue’s lesson, the research process will involve getting beneath the surface of the story in order to get a full picture of the facts. For example, all the way back in Issue 1, in our analysis of American Sniper, we discussed how writer, Jason Hall, went beyond the ‘facts’ laid out in the source material and kept digging until he found the truth about his protagonist.

However, the idea of the screenwriter as journalist can apply beyond just the research stage of writing a film.

In this issue’s analysis of The Killing Fields, we coin the phrase ‘dramatic reportage’ to describe the film’s approach to showing the realities of what was happening in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. However, it’s a phrase that can be used more widely.

The term ‘dramatic reportage’ can be used to describe films, or elements of a film, which attempt to evoke the reality of a situation or series of events. In these types of films, a central narrative is often set against a socially or politically turbulent backdrop.

For example, in Born on the Fourth of July, the main narrative follows Ron Kovic from idealist small town boy to paralysed anti-war veteran. In the process, our eyes are opened to the realities of the Vietnam War and the terrible conditions Kovic endured in the military hospitals that treated him. Likewise, in Missing (1982), we follow Ed and Beth Horman as they try to find out what happened to their son/husband, who disappeared during the 1973 military coup d’état in Chile. In the process, we delve into the US-led coup and the government’s reaction when the Hormans start digging for information.

Films like this have a twin purpose – to tell an emotionally engaging story and to inform viewers about the world. Given this remit, it’s not hard to make a connection between the work of the screenwriter and that of the journalist, with both doing their best to show the world ‘as it is’ – albeit while working in very different mediums with very different requirements.

Makers of the dramatic reportage film have a clear agenda to reveal the truth about a certain situation or event through what (The Killing Fields producer) David Puttnam referred to as “important fiction” – using fictional devices to communicate fact. At the heart of this is the idea that film offers the opportunity to maximise the impact of what really happened through fiction. In discussing The Killing Fields, Puttnam also talks about showing the gruesome realities of Cambodia through this “heightened fiction” – amplifying real life in order to make a more emphatic point.

It goes without saying that all of this has to be underpinned by thorough research into the events being portrayed and, where possible, engagement with those involved, in order to fictionalise events and present an accurate version of the truth. As director, Roland Joffé said of The Killing Fields: “[the film is an] attempt to get close to some reality and some sense that people might understand what life might have been like if you were living in that country.”

So we can see that films like The Killing Fields can be likened to a reporter going in and showing how things are ‘on the ground’.

Dramatic reportage films can take people up close to the action, uncensored and heightened to maximise the emotional impact.

In some cases, this can be even more effective than a journalistic account. With a film, you have a captive audience which is forced to watch the events as they unfold; a grand stage on which to tell the story; all the technical wizardry of cinema; and the opportunity to evoke emotional connections to the characters. This can take the film beyond the journalistic report on TV, online or in print, which, in today’s dynamic and fickle world, can easily be turned off, clicked away from, or skimmed over.

Of course, the danger of all of this is what writer Tom Paulus (writing in Photogenie) refers to as the “prevalent aesthetic of investigative journalism” – i.e. presenting things in such a way to suggest reality when in fact they are wholly or largely hypothesised.

Going further, Paulus references a recent trend towards ‘realistic’ filmmaking, pointing to such films as Zodiac and the two-part Che. He also hones in on the spate of 9/11-inspired films, such as Rendition and Zero Dark Thirty which he says employ “a run-and-gun camera style that brings the viewer into the moment, presenting an ‘eye-level’ or ‘boots-on-the-ground’ view of history”.

Going even further, Paulus’ article discusses the argument that the maker of the ‘realistic film’ has some kind of inherent moral duty. Simply put, if you portray real life on screen and expect it to be treated as fact, you need to nail your colours to the mast and declare a side. For example, much of the criticism of Zero Dark Thirty stemmed from its lack of conviction over the issue of torture, meaning it failed to ‘editorialise’ the issue and come out for or against the practice in the context of the war or terror.

Overall the Photogenie article raises lots of interesting points, some of which we’ll no doubt return to down the line. But with regards our ‘screenwriter as journalist’ theme, it is interesting to consider whether the ‘dramatic reportage’ remit does indeed come with a moral duty.

If you tune into Fox News you’ll get a very different spin on current events than if you read the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Plenty of media outlets and publications freely display their views and gain readers/viewers who share those points-of-view. Likewise…

Filmmakers who feel strongly enough about making a dramatic reportage-style film do it because they want to shine a light on something and say: ‘look how wrong this is’ or ‘I’ll show you what’s really going on’.

In The Killing Fields, we share Schanberg’s outrage at how the suffering in Cambodia is spun in the US media. In Missing, we want to know what happened to Charles Horman. In Born on the Fourth of July, we recoil at Kovic’s treatment following his injury. In All the President’s Men, we want Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of Watergate.

Think about the dramatic reportage films you’ve seen. No doubt, on some level at least, you react either positively or negatively to the outrage expressed by the protagonist and/or the filmmakers – in the same way some media stories provoke a strong emotional response and invoke lively debate in the real world and on social media.

Do a dramatic reportage film right and you’ll hit a real nerve (and hopefully even annoy the hell out of a few people!).

But this last point begs the question of when a desire to reveal the truth in film crosses the line into the preachy and self-indulgent.

So, next time we explore the idea of the ‘screenwriter as social and political commentator’.

Issue 6 of RSL is out on 3 August.

[References: The Killing Fields DVD, 2-Disc Special Edition, 2005, Omnibus ‘The Making of The Killing Fields’ & exclusive interview with producer, David Puttnam]