These words were hammered into us relentlessly by our first Dramatic Writing professor at NYU, and it’s as true today as it was then. Because the most important shift in consciousness a screenwriter adapting from real life needs to make is detachment. We have to separate from the facts of what happened in order to shape the events and situations into a good story. To do this, we have use our imagination, and take some liberties. But what about when you’re writing a biographical drama about a real person and there are constraints on how much you can make up and on how much you can leave out?
I’ve been experiencing that very thing these last few months as I’ve struggled to adapt the true story of a mobster’s life into a screen story. The script is to be based on a nonfiction book about his life, and the book is filled with historical and character details which I need to include. But at the same time, somehow, I have to detach from all that and invoke imagination, conjure inspiration and make art. I have to admit, it’s been hard. I am reminded that a writer never really masters their craft; each new project renders us clueless, humbled by our task.
The act of writing a biopic, and of writing on assignment for others, brings in its own challenges and makes following the abstract, idea-centered path difficult. I finally turned in a draft of the treatment last week. How I got there was a slow dance between the literal and the figurative, which is what we always engage in when we’re shaping true story into screenplay. We work with the clay of life for a while, getting a handle on what really happened. And then we have to stand back and ask fruitful questions. What are the themes? How does this character grow and change? What does the shape of the storyline look like on a graph? And so on, back and forth, molding the clay, until the life events take a three-act structure, characters are in conflict, and the drama rises and falls. This takes time, immersion into the character and their life, and most importantly, a willingness to let go and allow history to become story.