1. Tell it like it was.
Kevin Kerslake, director of the documentary “As I AM: The Life And Times of DJ AM,” gave himself a straightforward but daunting task: to tell the life story, from birth to untimely death, of the adventurous DJ AM, who survived substance abuse, addiction, rehab and a plane crash just before he died. Fortunately, for Kerslake at least, AM was also a “digital packrat,” and his laptop contained thousands of archived files including songs and pictures. Most importantly, AM “delivered a 40-minute autobiographical speech on his eleventh sober birthday,” which highlighted the events he felt had formed his character and stood out most in his mind, from high times to “cesspits of profit and corruption and the teen rehab industry.” Kerslake was able to listen to this speech because AM “stuck a recorder in his pocket,” so he “followed [AM’s] lead” and this story became the backbone of the film.
Kerslake described his research as “pretty comprehensive” and said that AM’s friends and family who have seen cuts of the film all “adored” it and said it was accurate. Perhaps too accurate. The filmmaking team had a difficult time cutting down the information to fit into a 90-minute running time, and had to trust that some of their best footage might still be seen in a Bonus Features section. For the final cut, they stuck to the most interesting and compelling parts, even if it meant leaving out factual details. Again, they took their cues from their subject, a known embellisher. As Kerslake put it, AM “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
2. Play with the facts.
When Pamela Romanowsky, director of “The Adderall Diaries” set out to adapt Stephen Elliott’s memoir about crime, writing, abuse and so much more, she wasn’t sure exactly what tale she was telling. There was “no shortage of material” surrounding the events and people depicted in the book, so her challenge was “finding within that wealth of material what was the story.” At the Sundance Writers Lab she focused the script on the relationship between Elliott and his father, how their versions of real events differed, and how they were “both the victim…how is that possible?” Romanowsky did some self-examination, thinking about times in her life when her memories conflicted with those of the people around her. And, of course, she was in the unique position of being able to call her main character. But she didn’t call anybody else. She said of the people on whom the other characters are based, “those relationships are not necessarily happy ones…where people are in prison, it did not seem advisable [to contact them.]” Still, her main concern was to “be respectful” of the real people whose lives she was using to tell this story, rather than making it a “super loyal adaptation” of the book. She also admits to moving dates and locations to make everything work cinematically.
In a universe and a medium where there may not be one true truth, who do you write for? Yourself? The audience? Not, apparently, your subject. Romanowsky remembers, “my first-ever conversation with Stephen [Elliott], I hadn’t written a word yet, so I didn’t know what I was doing with the screenplay, he said, ‘I’m probably not going to like anything you do, so you probably shouldn’t try to please me.’ There was “freedom in that.”
3. Let research inform, not dictate.
“Men Go To Battle” director Zachary Treitz has been hearing about the Civil War since he was a child. Originally from Kentucky, his grandmother would tell him stories about how her family helped build the town, but lost whatever wealth they’d made after backing the South. When he began work on the script, with co-writer Kate Lyn Shiel, it felt “maybe apocryphal” to be using dubious and personal family histories as their main source material, so they did “pretty extensive research” at “several archives around the South…reading first-hand accounts not from [Treitz’] family but from other families…17-year-old-girls to old men and everyone in between.” They were particularly inspired by how, in letters and diary entries, “quotidian details…would be juxtaposed with huge events.” Weather was a daily concern, and then, so was death. Each were given a line in that day’s entry.
All of this information helped the filmmakers faithfully recreate “the tone and mannerisms of the time,” but the point of the film had always been to showcase the two main actors, to give them a personal story to act out with the war as their backdrop. The result is a period piece, not a historical movie. The research didn’t inform the narrative, explicitly, but in writing it became their “crutch and foundation.”
4. Make it up.
Nick Sandow, director of “The Wannabe,” described his film as being about “real couple who fell in love and decide to try and fix the John Gotti trial” in the early ’90s. Except the real couple, Thomas and Rose, never tried to fix the trial. They were just big fans.
Sandow and Thomas came from the same small town, and Sandow related to Thomas’ desire to “be something you’re not,” the way an actor or crime enthusiast feels the urge to jump into what he sees as a real-life mobster movie playing out on his TV screen. So the real Thomas started showing up to the trial, which led to this detail being included in later articles about him, which led to Sandow becoming “fascinated by this character who was obsessed with John Gotti” and wanting to turn that story into a film. Soon, Sandow realized that his character had an interest, not a motivation. He needed a goal to work for in the first act. Thus, the idea of fixing the trial and profiting off its outcome was born. In a way, this (highly fictionalized) version of Thomas got his wish: he’s in a gangster movie that plays with the tropes of gangster movies…and yes, Scorsese is a producer. Wannabe no more.