Saturday, January 28, 2006

Miscellaneous: And Nothing But

Irony fans found much to savor in Oprah Winfrey’s public shaming of writer James Frey on Thursday. Frey defended A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, the “memoir” touting his recovery from addiction, even though it’s filled with lies and exaggerations, hallmarks of an addict’s behavior.

Then there was the spectacle of seeing Oprah, avatar of the self-help movement, forced to listen while the man who “embarrassed” her parroted its language in her face. When Frey talked about coping mechanisms and how the ordeal would make him a better person, she had to think: what have I wrought?

By the end of the show, I felt bad for Frey. I don’t expect memoirs to be completely accurate. I know how mutable the truth is.

A few years ago, a producer set out to make a film about a criminal who operated in the Pacific Northwest. The subject of the story was dead, but the producer had secured the cooperation of several of the man’s friends and family members. And for some reason, he hired me to write the screenplay.

I quickly decided that my first loyalty was to the story, my second to the facts. I was as faithful to my research as possible – but if I could condense three events into one, I would. If a fictional scene would cover the same ground more effectively, in it went. Based on a true story can be a very liberating phrase.

We’d be pitching the project and the producer would say, “This guy’s life was incredible. There was this one time ...” And as he described a scene from the script, I’d think: That never happened. I made it up. But that was just my producer doing his job. He had sizzle to sell.

What gave me pause was when the subject’s friends and family started doing it. They would sometimes talk about events not as they remembered them but as they had been recreated on the page, in different locations and with others present. If the movie were made, it would become the official story. They simply wanted their own recollections to jibe.

The film still hasn’t been made, although there are occasional flurries of interest. Eventually this man’s story will be told, because his life was simply too colorful to ignore. If my script is used, it will be filtered by the director’s vision, altered by actors, and in all probability rewritten by someone else. And at some point, when what I see onscreen deviates from my version, I will say to myself: that’s not how it happened.

The only person who knows the truth is in the cold, cold ground. And I know if he were here, he’d lie about it. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to tell his story.

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate confirms two of my long-held beliefs: art house theaters suck, and always trust your money to a topless woman.