UCLA Screenwriting Graduate Program chair, Richard Walter, is a successful screenwriter, author, and acclaimed media pundit. He has written numerous feature assignments for the major studios and has sold material to each of the major television networks. His latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting (Plume Publishing, 2010), has received rave reviews from novice and established screenwriters alike. Mr. Walter has appeared multiple times on The Today Show, The O-Reilly Factor, Hardball, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country, CBS News Nightwatch, NPR, KABC-Talk Radio, and numerous independent television and radio stations. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have described his work and the program he directs at UCLA.
I was granted the opportunity to ask Mr. Walter some screenwriting questions specifically relating to biopics with the timeliness of The Social Network taking home a big chunk of change at the box office. A leading expert witness in intellectual property litigation, Mr. Walter’s advice should be heeded by all screenwriters considering writing a biopic.
JO: With the recent release and critical acclaim of The Social Network, a potential assumption of screenwriters is that pop culture biopics are front and center in the current zeitgeist. Is Mark Zuckerberg’s story an example of lightning in a bottle or the start of a new trend of biopics about current pop culture icons? Will movies about Harvey Milk, Andy Kaufman, and Truman Capote, with their limited box office success, give way to movies about more widely recognized figures like Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, or the Numa Numa Guy?
RW: There are no trends in movies, and if there were, it would be a mistake for writers to engage them, since they would have to be in the works years earlier.
JO: In a recent entry on your website, you pose the question, “Does The Social Network movie need an opening disclaimer that it’s fiction?” Besides killing the entire marketing campaign, the movie’s box office success would likely suffer if open admission of a heightened version of the truth were present. Your question has two answers, does it not? One based on ethics and one based on box office returns?
RW: The ethical obligation of a screenwriter is to write the best script he/she can, one that will provide the best movie for the audience. It is arrogant and presumptuous to think anyone knows The Truth about historical events, including the development of Facebook. Writers should forget about the data and go for the most emotional impact that is possible to achieve.
JO: What power, if any, did Mark Zuckerberg, or anyone else depicted in The Social Network, have over the creation of the movie?
JO: Does that mean a screenwriter can tell whatever version of The Truth they feel is best for the story without concern for legal repercussion from the real people depicted in a movie?
RW: I am not a lawyer, and cannot give legal opinions. That said, however, there are lower standards for films depicting public figures, such as Mark Zuckerberg, as compared to unknown, private individuals. Still, anybody can sue anybody for anything, and people depicted in films who feel they have been defamed or slandered or libeled, or experienced character assassination and/or defamation, can litigate, so there is risk here. The best established defense is that the writer has told the truth, but different people in different places have different opinions regarding what precisely constitutes The Truth regarding any particular issue.
A writer can try to win signed permission to depict a real-life character, but that could cost money. The goal in such an agreement is to have a clause in which the subject of the movie forever waives his or her right to litigate. In any and all instances, it’s a good idea to avoid malicious intent and a callous disregard for the facts.
JO: What are the most important details for a screenwriter to remember when embarking on a biopic about a person still living?
RW: There is only one detail: tell the best story that you can. There will never be agreement among the participants that is fully accurate, as everyone has their own view as to the circumstances.
Conclusions from Mr. Walter’s sentiments: If writing a biopic, write the best story possible without defaming anyone. If you can afford it, get signed permission from the subject or the subject’s estate to protect yourself from future legal headaches. And keep in mind, while there are trends and cycles in Hollywood, screenwriters should not try to write according to what’s popular now, because by the time a trend is recognized and a screenplay is written to follow said trend, the trend will be over.
Just write the best story possible. Period.
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