Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Real people

Just a quickie today.  I know I always say that, but there’s lots on – more on that below.

I’ve got four new scripts I’m working hard on at the moment and they have one thing in common: they are all based on real people.  One is a romcom that is very loosely based on a true story I heard about many years ago, so for that sake of this blog post it’s the exception to the rule.  But the three other projects are all directly based on real people who did real things: one is a modern-day war tale of unspeakable heroism which I’m trying to replicate as faithfully and unsentimentally as possible; another is a period tale about a now-dead man who did something incredible, and about whose life certain facts are known and well documented; and the third is a sort of a hybrid tale – a fictional story based on a real person.  In projects one and three I have met and talked with the people I’m writing about, and in the second project I have spoken to people who knew the man in question.

I’m writing about this today because I spent yesterday afternoon with a director talking for three hours with one of the ex-military guys featured in project one.  I recorded the interview and I’m going to spend this morning transcribing my notes from our conversation.  But I know already what I’ve got.  It’s fucking gold dust.  It’s moment after moment, nugget after nugget of pure, compelling, original, distinctive and totally real dialogue, character and narrative material.  The sort of thing that I would usually spend hours trying to dredge up from some long-forgotten part of my psyche, and even then it wouldn’t be a fraction of the quality of the material generated by our meeting yesterday.

It has prompted me to think three things, in particular.

1.  If my plan with this war project is to replicate people’s thoughts, words and deeds as accurately and faithfully as possible (I’m taking UNITED 93 as a reference point) then what is the actual role of the writer?  In an ideal world, I won’t ‘invent’ a single line of dialogue in this script – it will all come verbatim from interviews and transcripts.  And yet I do think I have a role, and it’s the same role the writer always plays.  It’s knowing what to look for.  It’s shaping, finding a structure, giving a direction, making it ‘movie-shaped’, to use Jane Goldman’s expression.  The only difference is that the raw material is coming from the outside, rather than from within (although, if we’re being literal, most of the within began without too, so it’s not technically a difference after all.)  It does make the writing process easier, though.  Not only do you have this database of raw material for you to turn to if you’re ever running dry, you also have certain set-in-stone elements – characters, timings, events – that force you to focus your thinking.  I always prefer half a dozen immoveables to a totally blank piece of paper; at least then I know what I’m working with.  (The danger comes when outsiders to the project consider those immoveables more moveable than you do, but that’s another war to fight.)

2.  Real is always better than made-up.  It just is.  Audiences know it, and film-makers know it when they see it, that’s why they get so excited about it.  It’s no coincidence that all four projects I’m working on are based on the truth: it just gives a surer basis on which to build a project.  That doesn’t mean they all need to be documentaries, or docu-style.  They can be dramas, of course.  Just founded on something real, something true.

3.  (The following is Stating The Bleeding Obvious, but it bears repeating.)  So it follows that, if you don’t have anything really real with which to start, or to which to tie your characters and actions, then it’s your job as a writer to get as close to it as possible, every step of the way.  Real emotions, real dialogue, real behaviour, real-world ‘you wouldn’t believe it if they made it up’ improbability.  This is Good Writing 101 of course, but my meeting yesterday – with ‘a real person’ – reminded me of that.  Real rules.  Fake blows.  The rest is detail.

And so, back to it.


  1. All very true. Reminds me of when I co-wrote a romcom a few years ago with a good friend. We made a pact at the beginning that every line of dialogue had to have been something that we said, or we remembered someone else having said.

    Re-reading the screenplay, I reckon 3-5% of it was true to our pact.
    Moral of the story? We all KNOW that real is better, but real is harder and it's easy to lose your way.

    (from Simon Bates)

  2. Thanks Simon / Raoul / Zorro - re-reading the blog, point 3 doesn't come across quite as I intended it - I think I was trying to say that even if you don't have something 'real' on which to base a story or character, then you should write as if you did. The same rules apply, interrogate your characters as if you were sitting in front of them with a dictaphone etc.

    Hope you're well Simon.

  3. Very excited to hear about your four projects! I have been following your writing since the release of Chalet Girl. I am an actress and would one day love to work one of your scripts. Until then I will carry on enjoying your work.

  4. Thanks Elle - good luck with it all

  5. 'I always prefer half a dozen immoveables to a totally blank piece of paper' - right up to the moment you start cursing them for stuffing up your story structure! I was determined to stick to history for a biographical script I wrote (currently with your agent, as it happens). I discovered why this extremely famous person had never had the biopic treatment: his life was in about 30 acts rather than 3, and it's very hard to avoid the highlights-reel effect. ('The Iron Lady', anybody?) Historical events have similar issues (and others such as your protagonist not driving the action).