Issue 5: Lesson 5—Research (Part 2)

Photo courtesy of: Tom Murphy VII

In our last lesson, we looked at the importance of research when writing any film, but especially when tackling a fact-based feature. We also promised a closer look at the different types of research you might need to undertake. So, in our second lesson on screenplay research, we consider how to approach finding and utilising historical facts…

Screenplays should be living, breathing things that bring people and events vividly to life in a way that’s visual, relevant to modern audiences and authentic.

As we move through this series of lessons, and indeed if you consult other screenwriting resources, you’ll discover just how crucial characterisation is in achieving these aims and how the strength of your screenplay will depend very much on things like multi-layered protagonists (and antagonists), well-developed supporting characters and that old standard, the character arc.

However, you also need to place these characters into worlds that are believable and that you, the writer, are comfortable creating your story within. If you’re writing about your childhood home or somewhere else you know well, your job is made much easier. However, if your story takes place decades, centuries, or millennia ago in far flung lands, you’ll need to put serious, focussed and time consuming effort into familiarising yourself with all relevant aspects of your chosen time period.

In order to illustrate this, we’ll take a real life example of a true life tale and outline the research required.

The story: Nineteenth century America. A German immigrant has risen to become a celebrated engineer who has the vision and technical know-how to bring to life some the country’s foremost bridges, a crucial step in America’s industrial development.

He is a genius, yet lacks human warmth and raised his children harshly. His eldest son was born in America and he too became an engineer. He also served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War. His wife is a remarkable woman in her own right, achieving a level of education and independence rare during this time. They are a formidable team; yet the son remains in the shadow of his father – both in his own mind and that of his peers.

The father is chosen to work on one of the greatest engineering projects of the age. However when he dies, the son takes over and has to battle all manner of obstacles, including political scandal and debilitating ill-health, in order to get the project finished. He does so with the help of his wife, who becomes his eyes and ears when cannot act for himself. The project is hailed a great success.

The research: While the story lends itself to the screen, in order to develop an effective screenplay, we need to take a step back and take a look at all the elements.

Here’s the synopsis again, with potential research questions added…

Nineteenth century America (Where and when does this story take place?).

A German immigrant (Who is he? Why did he come to America? Was German immigration prevalent back then? Where did they primarily settle?) has risen to become a celebrated engineer (Where did he go to school? Why is he so celebrated?) who has the vision and technical know-how (What were other engineers doing at the time? Why is he a visionary?) to bring to life some the country’s foremost bridges, a crucial step in America’s industrial development (How was the country developing? What did it look like? Why were bridges fundamentally important?).

He is a genius, yet lacks human warmth and raised his children harshly (Why was he like this? Who was this man?) .

His eldest son was born in America (So, how did he view America? Were his German roots still part of his character?) and he too became an engineer (Did he want to, or was he forced?).

He also served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War (What exactly did he do? How did this affect his future life? Was he a willing soldier or part of the hated draft? What was the Union fighting for?).

His wife is a remarkable woman in her own right, achieving a level of education and independence rare during this time (Who was she? Where was she from? Why was she considered remarkable?).

They are a formidable team; yet the son remains in the shadow of his father – both in his own mind and that of his peers (Who were the other key player here?).

The father is chosen to work on one of the greatest engineering projects of the age (How did the project get off the ground? Why was he selected? Was anyone else in contention? Did he pitch for the job or was he specifically requested?).

However when he dies (In what circumstances?), the son takes over and has to battle all manner of obstacles, including political scandal (Who was involved? What was it about? What was the outcome?) and debilitating ill-health (What happened? How was he treated?), in order to get the project finished.

He does so with the help of his wife, who becomes his eyes and ears when cannot act for himself (How was she received? What did she think about her role? Was she in the public eye?). The project is hailed a great success (What was its real importance?).

OK, admittedly that’s a little clumsy to read, but it does highlight the various issues that we need to get a firm grip on before moving forward with the screenplay. True, some of the finer points will be worked out during the structuring stage, but, as we’ve pointed out before, it’s important to know the facts before you start obfuscating them to fit the screen story.

Going back to our annotated synopsis, a few areas we’ll need to conduct research on are:

  • Nineteenth century US migration (especially from Germany)
  • America’s industrial development
  • The Civil War (at least the part our guy was involved in)
  • The history of engineering and where it’s at during this period
  • The political environment of the day
  • The role of women in nineteenth century America

If you’re grappling with a similar project, here are some tips to get you started:

If you don’t already, get yourself involved with a good library – ideally an academic one. Consider national sources, such as the British Library or Library of Congress, where you can search for records and gain reference privileges.

Newspapers and journals can be invaluable. Search online for the location your story is set in and ‘newspapers’. See what comes up. You may be lucky and find direct free access to what you want. Otherwise, you might need to pay for access, or get to the sources via a library (microfiche). If the newspaper has been around a long time, it’s likely to have archives stored somewhere. The New York Times is a good example, as you can access articles online going back to 1851.

Wading through history records can seem daunting…so here’s a neat shortcut that, at the very least, will get you off the mark: Find a really good book (meaning a serious and thorough tome) about the exact time period in which your story takes place (if the event you want to fictionalise has been written about directly, even better). Flip to the back where you’ll find the bibliography and work through it, noting any books or periodicals you think will be useful.

In our example, doing this leads to such sources as:

  • Private collections held in two separate academic institutions – containing unpublished letters and a biography by the protagonist (screenplay research gold)
  • Archived newspapers – some of which were freely available online
  • Books containing basic background – covering all the main research areas outlined above

When conducting research, cast your net widely but in a designated area. Make a list of the questions you want to answer and always be thinking about how your research is improving your understanding of your characters and the wider world they inhabited.

Get creative with your searching. Remember that people who lived in bygone ages did a lot of writing, as this was the main way to communicate. Finding authentic letters, or other documents written by or about the people you want to fictionalise is pay dirt.

You’ll also need to roll up your sleeves and do some cramming in the library. Take a notebook with you to the library and be sure to note down important details, as well as where they came from (source and page number). It may seem like school but will save you hassle in the long run. Don’t discount other historical documents too – like reports and government publications.

Remember, you’re not studying for an exam or doing prep work for a history thesis. You’re researching a screenplay. Stick to what’s going to help you write your film.

So, how much time should you devote to all this? It really depends on lots of factors (the time you have to spend and how easy it is to access sources, etc.) but, as a guide, put aside up to six months, even a year, in order to do a thorough and comprehensive research job.

Conclusion
All this this may seem a little ‘belt and braces’ (i.e. overkill), but it’s important to understand the real world you want to fictionalise. That means getting as close as you can to walking in the shoes of your characters.

Explore what they did, what they believed in, where they went, who they spoke to.

Think about the social customs of the time. Where your characters conservative or scandalous?

Who was in government? Did you characters support the government of the day?

What were the main social movements – what were people campaigning for/against? Which camp were your characters in?

What were the main threats? Was war brewing? What was the country’s position on the world stage?

Just as you have concerns and feelings and ideas about the world you live in, so too did your characters. Build up a full picture in your mind. Get comfortable moving around in their world.

Then, when you know everything you need to know, close the books, clear your desk and start writing…

Next time, we take a look at conducting journalistic research for your screenplay (tape recorder at the ready!).

Issue 6 of RSL is out 3 August.