I felt inspired to write this blog about the tenuous relationship between truth and fiction because many of this year’s possible Oscar contenders are biopics, (The Imitation Game, Selma, Big Eyes, and Foxcatcher to name a few). Each is enduring controversy about the degree to which historical facts may or may not have been distorted in their telling. I want to explore the idea of whether emotion can be a kind of fiction in all truth. Facts carry truth. However, each person’s perception and experience may add some fiction to what is. Storytelling is perspective, not a dry relation of facts.
With The Imitation Game, there is controversy over the factual truth. As quoted from the article in Deadline Hollywood, “The Weinstein Co.’s has been scrutinized by historians who argue the film, directed by Morten Tyldum and scripted by Graham Moore, beefs up Turing’s contributions to England’s codebreaking exploits, his relationship with female analyst Joan Clarke and the degree to which he might have placed on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum in the name of artistic license.” In the same article, this is what is said about Selma, “Paramount’s Selma, the critically acclaimed account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965, weathered a volley on Monday — just as the Oscar polls opened — over its suggestion that President Lyndon Johnson didn’t quite step eagerly up to the plate to help out King and his cohorts in their quest for equal voting rights.”
The question becomes how much liberty is too much when it comes to adding fiction to the facts? Imagination is a huge part of story. Imagination comes from the writer and director. The moment they are hired, it is up to them to bring the facts to life through a unique perspective that tells the story while elevating the emotion. What artists bring to historical events is a different worldview. They are adding their voice and their emotional truth to the events that happened. They add a unique angle. In the process, we get to learn about this events in a flavorful way that entertains while informs. We need to embrace this. We shouldn’t question it. We shouldn’t doubt it or criticize it or try to take away from all that it is. We should relish in how the imagination adds an element to story that can make it something that lives on in our hearts and our minds because of the way that it was told.
The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are two of my favorite movies this year. I haven’t seen Selma yet. I left these films feeling totally fulfilled on an emotional level. I felt tremendous respect for the writers and directors involved. I thought that they did a masterful job of adding fiction to the truth where needed in order for the stories to work. I did not feel that if I found out that certain facts were distorted or that things were embellished upon that it took anything away from my experience of the stories. In fact, I loved how the worldviews of the writers and the directors merged. The facts of the stories came together and transcended fact in a way that made me feel the events and the message being expressed.
In my career as a studio executive, there was a time when no one wanted to touch autobiographical stories. Writers were told not to write them. Real life was viewed as not all that interesting. Now, there’s a trend toward exploring how your emotional truth can get you work as a writer. It’s about your story. It’s about understanding how to tell your story in a way that can be sold. It’s about how your truth, when mixed with certain concepts, can make them stronger. We all know that life with all the in between moments just isn’t as compelling as movies. Real life story arcs don’t often transpire in the way that fits dramatic structure. So, fiction is needed to make a fact-based truth come to life through various emotional lenses.
I believe that fiction is infused in every story. I think that this is what storytelling is. From the time that we are children repeating to our parents what happened at school during the day, we learn to embellish or add our view to what happened. From our perspective, this may be totally true. From someone else that witnessed the same event; their view may be totally different. The most important part about telling a story is being able to come from a place of emotional truth. Emotional truth is not the same as factual truth. With factual truth, technical facts are given about events that occurred within a certain time frame. What brings fact to life is emotion. With emotion, you get a different kind of truth, a valuable kind of truth. Fiction might be added to this truth. However, if it is written and directed well, the emotion is what comes through, rather than the facts.
When we go to the movies, we all have different views on what strong story is. This is because we all view and experience story through events that happened in our own lives that led to similar universal emotions that we connect with. It doesn’t make one right and the other wrong. It just means that one person felt what was being said and the other may not have had the life experience of a similar emotion to help connect them to the story.
There is a purpose for fiction to be added. Life doesn’t happen in a perfect dramatic structure. Moments of life are worth telling. You have to structure it. To tell a story well, you have to structure it in a way that will allow the audience to understand your message and feel what you are trying to say. To do this, the writer and director have to add their worldview to the equation. So, whether these factual films are sticking to the facts or not, the emotional stories being told are being told brilliantly. We need to celebrate this.