A few weeks ago, I found myself watching TV, or more appropriately, re-watching. This was a film I have seen four times prior. For some reason, this time I noticed five little words that immediately changed how I would think about this story and interpretation on film in an unexpected way.
“Based on a True Story”
I don’t know why, but somehow it always escaped me that one of the best biopics ever, Goodfellas, issued those five words giving the cinephile heightened expectation. Ray Liotta’s character was Henry Hill (pictured above) who was the real deal gangster from the movie.
As I was watching it this time, I was astounded at this man’s life (even more than usual). Knowing that what I was watching on screen wasn’t just conjured up by some Hollywood screenwriters, that changed how I felt about him to some degree.
The job of a movie that’s based on real-life is different than an original story. There is, of course, the standard make-the-audience-happy-while-also-making-money job each film, original or biopic must do. A film with its basis in reality — real characters, factual story (most of the time) — has an obligation and a responsibility to do right by those people and that story. If the past has shown us anything, a true story that bends the truth will be found out and punished for those flaws.
The way I see it, a “BOATS” (you know, “Based on a true story”) film has three key objectives that must be done successfully for the film to stay afloat (see what I did there) at the box office, and ultimately hit home for the audience.
What are they? Well, I’m glad you asked…
- The creators must have something to say about the original story the film is based on.
- The movie has to be true to the story
- The movie must be not only accurate but authentic.
The last thing a BOATS film has to do is simply be a good, entertaining movie. Of course, that’s easier said than done, which is why it’s important to pick a story that will resonate.
A Story Worth Telling
When a movie is based on a true story, it normally surrounds the life of one person or a group of people, landing it in the genre of a biopic. This importance for a director (or writer) having something to say about the story is crucial to the film.
Whether it’s a personal stake in the story (i.e., Greenbook), or just a creative way to bring it to life, the movie has to be one worth telling. A story people want to see brought to life and a story that the filmmakers can tell well. Otherwise, it will fail every time (i.e., The Walk)
Art Imitates Life
Some would argue just because a movie is based on a true story a film doesn’t have to stick to the facts. (Those people would be wrong, but that’s beside the point.) When a film begins with those five words, the audience expects the truth. Now, you might say this doesn’t leave room for artistic insight … and you’d be right. There are countless BOATS films that take ‘artistic license’ with the details of the story.
When a film that is based in reality can take actual fact and translate it on screen? That’s gold.
Disney’s Miracle (based on the famous “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY) is the litmus test for what a great BOATS film should be. The story was authentic, the casting was perfect, and the details, oh the details…superb. At the end of the film, there is a tribute to the real Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) who died shortly after principal photography. The tribute read: “He never saw it. He lived it. “If you’ve seen the movie you know, but for those that haven’t let me be the one to tell you: The audience lives it too because of the accuracy of the story and the actors and creators of this film.
Real People Telling Real Stories
Authenticity is the formula filmmakers use to connect us mere mortals with the stories we love so much. But when a movie is based on a true story that authenticity becomes far more important. If the actors don’t act genuinely, if the story on screen doesn’t ooze it, then the film will be lacking.
When we watch movies and we can connect with the character (no matter if they’re a hero or villain) we root for them more, we want them to get whatever it is they’re after.
Even though Will Farrell is not my favorite actor, to be honest, I only like him about a quarter of the time (cue Internet rage), his performance in Stranger Than Fiction is utterly beautiful. It’s magic. It gets me every single time I watch it. Harold Crick is a real person to me.
A true story means something more to the audience. As soon as we see those words we prepare for a genuine performance of a figure we recognize and that’s why…good or bad…when a movie is based on a true story we get ‘the feels‘.