Right now, I am working on an adaptation of a non-fiction book. I am trying to stay true to the spirit and facts of the story, but I am also seeking to elevate the drama. This balancing act/struggle may continue for some time. I have to figure out a way to tell the large story without diminishing or totally fictionalizing important details.
In Spartacus, a film directed by one of my heros, Stanley Kubrick, there was a conflict about those kinds of issues which put screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, in conflict with director Kubrick. There is a 78 page set of notes that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo gave to Kubrick and producers Eddie Lewis and Kirk Douglas after seeing the first rough cut of the film. I will say that again – Dalton Trumbo banged out 78 pages of notes for his director and producers about the rough cut of Spartacus. Below, an excerpt including Trumbo’s Large Spartacus/Small Spartacus analysis.
“I am going to try to point out as objectively as I can what I consider to be our past mistakes which have brought us to this present condition, not to arouse old differences between us, but to resolve them in a way that we shall not have to fear their repetition in the future. From the very beginning there have been two perfectly honest points of view on the nature of the Spartacus story. They are, I hope, objectively summarized below:
LARGE SPARTACUS: The revolt of the slaves was a major rebellion that shook the Republic.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was, in reality, more on the scale of a jail-break and subsequent dash for freedom.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it lasted a full year.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was much briefer duration.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it involved a series of brilliant slave military campaigns, and the defeat of the best Rome had to offer.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was a simple dash to the sea.
LARGE SPARTACUS: That it was finally put down only by the overwhelming weight of three Roman armies against the single slave army.
SMALL SPARTACUS: That it was put down by one Roman army.”
Trumbo argued for a large Spartacus. This was not an Indie film. This was not a history book. Spartacus was to be an epic film, a Hollywood movie. Trumbo preferred a Spartacus which moved hearts on the silver screen over historical veracity and perhaps character enigma.
Kubrick saw the film very differently. He told an interviewer: In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as [historically] real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us that he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn’t, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this might have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom? In the film, Spartacus was prevented from escape by the silly contrivance of a pirate leader who reneged on a deal to take the slave army away in his ships. If I ever needed any convincing of the limits of persuasion a director can have on a film where someone else is the producer and he is merely the highest-paid member of the crew, then Spartacus provided proof to last a lifetime.
For my non-fiction script, the goal is to be LARGE without fudging the truth. No matter what the scale of the story being told is, the inherent proportions of the events, the stakes need to be internally massive, emotionally real for the characters. The emotions inherent in a script may be epic without battalions of soldiers on-screen whether it is a big movie or very small film.
Looking for something to watch with my wife (no thrillers or action movies) I stumbled on Friends With Benefits on Netflix streaming and read that audiences and critics had liked it much more than its studio lookalike movie, No Strings Attached, which I have completely forgotten even though we watched it no more than 6 weeks ago. Friends With Benefits is better. Much better. Thirty minutes in, though I found myself engaged, I was surprised to see that the wonderful Richard Jenkins was in the cast. I wondered to myself why he had allowed himself to be in this negligible film. Then the plot got a bit more complicated. The internal issues of the protagonist, played by Justin Timberlake, were well delineated and palpable. Timberlake’s conflicts with his love interest, Mila Kunis, functioned well in the context of the story. But I still couldn’t figure out why Richard Jenkins was there playing this innocuous role of Timberlake’s father – who has Alzheimer’s Disease. I didn’t see the signal of a subplot and that may have been the beauty of it.
Ultimately, Richard Jenkins delivered a speech with a message in the third act which brought home the protagonist’s internal conflict very well. It also gave the father character stature, depth and some unexpected back story of his own. The justification for Richard Jenkins’ presence in the film was delivered excellently, on point, moving, highly effective. That subplot enhanced and almost super-charged the narrative.
I watched another Netflix streamer, Down to the Bone, with the wonderful Vera Farmiga. After re-watching The Departed and Up In the Air, I was curious about her earlier roles. Farmiga won a Best Actress award at Sundance for Down to the Bone and she is great in the film. The screenplay is narrowly focused on the protagonist. The film keys to the isolation of this main character. Subplot is minimal if non-existent. The film concludes on a sign of hope for the protagonist, but there is no sign post to redemption or happiness. The resolution is still evocative and effective, true to the nature of struggles with addiction. Because the life of Farmiga’s character touched so many others in the film, it is interesting to speculate whether some embellishment to secondary characters, a slightly more structured approach to their narratives, (her friend, husband, children) could have amplified the story, provided more insight into the film’s concerns. As it stands, Down to the Bone is a fascinating character study. It could have been a great film rather than just a good one. Appropriate subplot might have made the difference here. Maybe not. Thoughts, anyone?
LINK TO BLOG POST ON GOINTOTHESTORY.COM –
On publication date 2/28, I’ll stop photographing the manuscript of my novel, Peloponnesia. (I hope.)
The Artist – ground-breaking script for a (mostly) silent film. Wonderful love story. Fantastic movie about the movies. Mmmmm.