Winter 2020

Injustice Dramatized

For directors of fact-based dramas, fighting the good fight means knowing when to fortify the storytelling and when to pull their punches

By Hugh Hart

The Report director Scott Z. Burns took inspiration from '70s thrillers The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor to convey an austerely objective point of view. (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima)

"Based on a true story":

Few things galvanize a moviegoer's attention at the opening of a film as much as those five words. They signal serious intent, high purpose and the implicit guarantee that the characters and their struggles about to unfold on screen must surely be inspiring, outrageous or otherwise exceptional to merit filmic treatment.

Especially riveting are the fact-based dramas that reanimate the lives of unsung heroes who've risked life, limb and reputation to right the wrongs practiced by mighty institutions.

If late film critic Roger Ebert had it right when he said, "Movies are like a machine that generates empathy," then how much fiction can be mixed in with the facts to maximize dramatic impact? What responsibility does a director have to the actual people represented on film? How can a filmmaker take a strong point of view without lapsing into soapbox proselytizing? In search of answers, DGA Quarterly reached out to the directors behind four movies that wrestle with the challenge of dramatizing real-world injustice.

In The Report, director Scott Z. Burns follows Senate staffer Dan Jones (Adam Driver) on a six-year investigation to uncover the truth about the CIA's post-9/11 torture program. Working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), Dan spends most of his time in a windowless basement room in Washington, D.C., poring through secret cables, emails and other incriminating documents en route to producing a 6,700-page account of CIA malfeasance. "I committed heavily to Adam's point of view," Burns says. "I wanted the character of Dan Jones to become a tracer bullet not just through the CIA's program but through the American government and the challenges we face in a time where we're crippled by a lack of accountability."

Adam Driver stars in The Report as Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staffer Dan Jones. (Photos: (Top) Atsushi Nishijima; (Bottom) Ginny Filer)

In tune with his by-the-book hero, Burns let the facts speak for themselves. "I felt the storytelling had to be governed by the same rigor we see in Joe as he does his job. The tone I was going for had to do with finding a place that wasn't about right or left, right or wrong. It's more about the question, 'are we able to still identify a fact in this world?' The beautiful thing to me is that Dan really did try to conduct a nonpartisan investigation."

To convey an austerely objective point of view, Burns found inspiration in movies like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. "I've always loved political thrillers from the '70s," he says. "I wanted to convey that sense of paranoia in our main storyline, so we went with cooler tones, using that Alan J. Pakula/Sydney Lumet kind of grammar. My rule was that the camera would always either be on the dolly or on sticks. We were very, very selective about moving the camera."

The Report gains intensity with flashbacks reenacting the torture of suspected terrorists, including Gul Rahman, who died in captivity. Burns says: "For the interrogation scenes, we pushed more toward this yellowy-green world of memory, added a layer of grain and shot handheld. We used uncoated lenses because I wanted to allow for some flares that would create a sense of chaos in those flashbacks."

In building the foundation for his story, Burns, who also wrote The Report, talked extensively to the real Dan Jones, lifted dialogue directly from his report, interviewed SEALs and spoke with psychologists, lawyers, human rights investigators, senators and reporters. But he faced one complication: Jones' 525-page executive summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report from 2014 was heavily redacted by the CIA. To fill in the narrative gaps, Burns created composite characters with fictitious names, including Maura Tierney's "Bernadette," a hybrid of several women employed at the CIA's so-called Alec Station devoted to the capture of Osama bin Laden. He says, "Because so much of the report is redacted, it was impossible to assign certain events to certain characters with any degree of certainty," he says. "That necessitated invention."

(Top and Middle) Director Doug Liman on set with actor Naomi Watts, who portrayed undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in Fair Game. Plame's true identity was leaked by the White House in retaliation for public statements made by her husband Joseph C. Wilson (Sean Penn); (Bottom) The real-life Plame and Wilson. (Photos: (Top & Middle) Everett; (Bottom) Alamy)

When Doug Liman directed the 2010 political thriller Fair Game, his central characters were hardly obscure. Undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame (portrayed in the film by Naomi Watts) made headlines in 2003 when the White House leaked her true identity, in retaliation for her diplomat husband Joseph C. Wilson (Sean Penn) publicly refuting Bush Administration claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Liman adhered scrupulously to public records in his depiction of the administration. "We held ourselves to this standard where we would not make up any scenes that take place in the White House," says Liman, who developed the movie with writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. One scene, for example, shows Scooter Libby walking into White House vice presidential counsel David Addington's office to see if revealing Valerie Plame's name would be a violation of the law. "That scene was described by Addington on the witness stand at Scooter Libby's trial, and we know that because Jez and John-Henry attended that trial every day," Liman says. "In all the years since Fair Game came out, the facts in the film have never been contested."

The private turmoil experienced by Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson invited a more intimate approach. To prepare for his role, Penn moved into the couple's Arizona home for a few weeks prior to filming so he could soak up Wilson's mannerisms. "Sean became friends with Joe. I did not," notes Liman. Penn urged Liman to imbue the movie with an explicit anti-war stance, Liman recalls. "Sean was like, 'We should show dead babies,' and we feuded over that. I was very strongly against the war, but people don't go to a movie to hear my political views. With Fair Game I was like: 'I'm making a spy movie. Valerie Plame tried to keep bad people from getting nuclear weapons. That could be the plot of a Mission: Impossible movie."

In the interests of verisimilitude, Liman and his crew traveled to Iraq to show the real-life consequences of Bush Administration policies. "We filmed in Baghdad while bombs were still falling," says Liman. "That was my commitment. I felt if we're going to portray a war in Iraq, I wanted the audience to understand that this is a real place we attacked. It's not just images on CNN. It's real people going about their business."

Liman, whose Fair Game 2018 Director's Cut includes the update that Libby received a 2018 pardon from President Trump, notes that in Fair Game, marriage, not political skullduggery, provided the necessary catharsis. "If Valerie Plame had her way, nobody other than a few friends and her family would ever know her name, whereas Joe Wilson wanted everybody to know his name," Liman says. "He's a true American hero who didn't keep his mouth shut when everybody else did, and his actions cost Valerie Plame her career. They're polar opposites, and that relationship is more interesting than anything we could have imagined or invented. When we looked at Valerie and Joe's marriage, we realized we'd found our arc."

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (top, in headphones) works with actors Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy, which dramatizes civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson's real-life 1992 courtroom battle to exonerate a wrongly convicted death row inmate. (Photos: (Top & Middle) Jake Netter/Warner Bros.; (Bottom) Screenpull: CBS)

Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton based on civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson's 2014 memoir, focuses on real-life, racially biased injustice. Set in 1992 Alabama, the courtroom drama details how Stevenson (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan) fought to exonerate wrongly convicted death row inmate Walter "Johnny D" McMillian (Jamie Foxx). "Every event that happens in the movie happened to Bryan Stevenson, whether it was something that was recorded in his book or something that we learned through interviewing people with him," Cretton says. "But to create a satisfying emotional ride, the flow of the narrative definitely had to be massaged because we needed events to happen in a certain order."

Prime example: The execution of Richardson's client Herbert Richardson (played by Ron Moore), a pivotal sequence in the movie, takes place midway through Just Mercy. "That scene really sets up the stakes both for Bryan and for [Walter] McMillian," Cretton says. "Bryan really did watch that execution, but in reality, it happened maybe a year earlier than where we placed it in our timeline."

Cretton consulted closely with Stevenson in developing Just Mercy and absorbed the lawyer's advice when it came to casting the film. "Bryan made me very aware of the sensitivity we needed to portray characters who have been incarcerated and have families," Cretton says. "A lot of those people will watch this movie, so a big part of the process was not just finding an actor who could pull off the performance; I also had to cast good human beings who have deep empathy for their characters. When you see these performances, you're not watching mimicry; you're watching actors open up a piece of themselves that's real and vulnerable."

That vulnerability came through loud and clear on a 60 Minutes segment from 1992, which featured interviews with Stevenson, McMillian and felon/witness Ralph Myers. Filmmakers methodically replicated the telecast, which plays a crucial role in the Just Mercy saga. "We used the exact same shots, lit it exactly the same," Cretton says. "We had the original [segment] right there while we filmed, so the actors were able to watch the real people and then say the lines verbatim, with all the little tics and 'ums' and everything. If you play those clips side by side, they're almost identical.

In the reenactments of the courtroom scenes, Cretton and Jordan realized they needed to resist any temptation to go "over the top" after consulting with Stevenson during preproduction. "Bryan reminded us how strategically stupid it would for him to lose control and tell off the sheriff and the D.A. or call out somebody in the courtroom," recalls Cretton. "Bryan's a total outsider in this system, and if he let his emotions go, the repercussions would fall back on his clients. So Michael and I found moments where his character clearly wants to explode but he's struggles to keep it in."

Cretton, who made his feature directorial debut with Short Term 12 and is now prepping Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, observes that unlike fictional features, the dramatization of an actual injustice demands a deep allegiance to real people and their hard-won perspectives. "It's impossible to do a movie about Bryan and not have a point of view on the death penalty," Creston says. But it's not about speechifying, he points out. "In our movie, we looked at the way Bryan in his book allowed the readers to make their own decisions." Judging from the film's key witness, he succeeded. "I remember the first time Bryan Stevenson watched Just Mercy—it was the scariest two hours of my life. I just stood outside, sweating. For me, humility was a big part of finding the heart of this story."

Above, director Ted Melfi, on set with Taraji P. Henson, got to know real-life NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (bottom), whom Henson portrayed in Hidden Figures. (Photos: (Top) Hopper Stone/Fox; (Bottom) NASA)

Hidden Figures director Ted Melfi adapted Margot Lee Shetterly's book about three mathematically gifted black women at NASA whose contributions to John Glenn's historic 1962 Mercury flight had previously been ignored. Describing the balance between fact and poetic license, Melfi says: "It's a tightrope walk because you have a responsibility to the source material and the people you are portraying in the film. You also have a responsibility to engage, entertain and educate the audience."

One of Hidden Figures' most effective scenes illustrates the point, Melfi says. "Kevin Costner's character, the head of NASA's Space Task Group, knocks down the 'Colored' restroom sign and proclaims there will no longer be white restrooms or colored restrooms—simply restrooms. It's a big cinematic moment. In reality, the head of NASA's Space Task Group wrote a memo and a maintenance man removed the signage. It's more dramatic to show the head of NASA's Space Task Group doing it himself rather than an unknown maintenance man who is not a part of the film's plot. For me, it's important to distinguish exactly which facts, details and events are crucial to the story and where you can achieve a better cinematic experience by taking creative license."

In prepping for the film, Melfi got to know Katherine Johnson (portrayed in the film by Taraji P. Henson), now 101 years old. "I interviewed Katherine multiple times and felt a deep imperative to infuse the story with this sense of pride, hope and courage that oozed from every pore of her being," he says. "Katherine had one overriding hope: that Hidden Figures would be about all three of the women. There's a line in the film, 'We get there together, or we don't get there at all.' Katherine Johnson's one script note became the film's main central theme, showing folks of all types working closely together for the greater good."

Intent on capturing the camaraderie at the heart of the film, Melfi rehearsed for two weeks with Henson, Janelle Monáe (who portrayed Mary Jackson) and Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan). "We spent three or four hours a day in my office talking about the script and our feelings and our emotions and what we'd been through, stories from our past, and how we saw black and white in America today," he recalls. "It was an amazing process because those three women fell in love with each other, as humans, and that translated to the screen."

That art of translation, from raw fact into compelling drama, calls on filmmakers to respect the power of catharsis. Fair Game director Liman, currently in preproduction on a project about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, says: "The thing I always try to keep in mind is that when you make something based on real characters, you still need to have a first act, second act, third act. Your characters still have to change or grow or learn something. It's a lot of work to find the emotionally engaging elements that you expect fictional characters to have, but that's why people go to the movies."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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