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In recent years, true crime and real-life events have seen a resurgence on scripted television. And while it’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, turning fact into compelling drama comes with its own challenges.
“Reality is messy,” says Rene Balcer, veteran producer of Law & Order, who this year spun the franchise that often rips cases straight from the headlines off into the NBC limited series True Crime: The Menendez Murders. “While a true-life story can offer the writer an abundance of ready-made riches, if you get into narrative trouble you can’t just have Vin Diesel drive his car through your front window and save the day. And while it’s true that reality often strains credulity, the fact that something actually happened is no defense if it strikes a false note in your narrative.”
In the case of the Menendez brothers’ murder trial, source material was, indeed, abundant. “The logistics of the storytelling were daunting,” says Balcer. “The Menendez case stretched over eight years, involved two trials — one trial had two revolving juries — two defendants, two sets of defense lawyers, two sets of prosecutors and witnesses galore, all of which had to be compressed into eight 41-minute episodes.”
Not only did Balcer have to truncate the events into palatable form, he also had to tell a controversial story while keeping a risk-averse legal department happy. “If we were going to offend certain members of the family, we would only do so if the facts backed it up,” he says. “Most of the family members believed that the brothers were molested, at least by [their father,] Jose Menendez. We presented both points of view, but with a bias toward what the testimonial evidence indicated; that the brothers were in fact molested by their parents.”
As if creating a dramatically engaging narrative about one of the most sensitive events in U.S. history wasn’t hard enough, in turning former FBI Agent Ali Soufan’s and Lawrence Wright’s accounts of the events leading up to 9/11 into a series, The Looming Tower creator Dan Futterman and his writers also had to have all scripts for the Hulu series vetted by a lawyer.
“We had a researcher who was footnoting every script, and often the lawyer would task her with coming up with some more footnotes: ‘Where did this come from? What are you relying on? What’s the conjecture here?'” says Futterman. “We were working under that kind of scrutiny.”
The issue they often faced was that their research appeared to contradict itself. “You have to decide what you believe is the most likely thing that actually happened,” says Futterman of conveying the persistent conflicts between government agencies that rendered their counterterrorism investigations fatally ineffective. “There were certainly some moments where we were trying to figure out, ‘How do we express this moment in which information was denied? Was it sloppiness? Was it deliberate?’ We got to a place where we felt comfortable expressing it the way it came out in the show.”
While both The Menendez Brothers and The Looming Tower take calculated liberties in regard to chronology and composite characters, Discovery Channel’s Manhunt: Unabomber takes more dramatic creative license regarding one key event in particular.
Centering on FBI agent Jim Fitzgerald’s (played by Sam Worthington) investigation of the Unabomber case, which led the agency to Ted Kaczynski (Paul Bettany) based on his manifesto, the series features many key scenes of the two men going head to head — events that in reality never took place.
“I said to everyone, ‘There’s no version of the show without the cop and the killer meeting,'” says executive producer John Goldwyn. Real-life Fitzgerald, who acted as a consultant on the series, initially took great exception to the scenes. “It was a very legitimate position for him to take,” says Goldwyn.
But the exec producer, whose casting of actors Worthington and Bettany was a major coup for Discovery Channel’s relatively new foray into scripted fare, was adamant that this was a situation where taking liberties within the narrative was not just warranted but non-negotiable.
“I said to [Fitzgerald], ‘Jim, I understand. I really do. But when you have the opportunity to have actors of this caliber in your show, there is going to be an unspoken expectation from the viewer to see them face off,'” Goldwyn recalls. “He accepted it, and I think, in the end, embraced it.”
In his true crime anthology series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac & The Notorious B.I.G. for USA, showrunner Kyle Long took similar liberties, creating a fictional meeting between the two detectives who put everything on the line for the investigation into the murders of the rap icons.
“Greg Kading and Russell Poole never met,” admits Long. “The meeting happened in real life between [police officer] Daryn Dupree and Russell Poole. It didn’t happen with Kading there, so I cheated a little bit.”
Long wrestled with the decision, but ultimately found it was important for the show. “I knew it didn’t fundamentally change the truth,” he says. “These guys really did put everything into this case and they kind of got screwed over by the departments in the same way. I just felt like it was necessary and tied everything together.”
While Long dealt with sensitive material that implies both police corruption and criminal activity on the part of well-known entities that still roam free, the legal implications were not the reason he thought the show would never get made. “When I wrote this, part of the reason I thought it’s just too hard [to realize] was the casting,” says Long. “When it came to Tupac I thought, ‘How are we going to find this guy?'”
Long deferred to director Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails) when it came to the hiring of Marcc Rose as Tupac Shakur (the actor’s only previous credit was a turn as Shakur in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton) and the entirely unknown Wavyy Jonez as Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls. “One of the things Anthony and I are most blown away by is Marcc, because he was very inexperienced, and I knew this was really on his shoulders,” says Long. “It’s so gratifying to hear, ‘Oh my God, the guy who plays Tupac is amazing,’ because we had a real anxiety about getting it right.”
Jonez was discovered through a cellphone clip he sent in. “He’d never been at an audition,” says Long. “It could have gone so wrong. They really stepped up.”
A retelling of any real-life event is guaranteed to invite critique. After they created Waco, Paramount Network’s miniseries about the 51-day standoff between David Koresh’s religious cult (known as the Branch Davidians) and the FBI and ATF that resulted in a fatal fire, killing 76 Branch Davidians, brother filmmakers Drew and John Dowdle faced criticism for making the members of the cult too relatable. “That’s a funny thing that Drew and I turned over in our heads,” says Dowdle. “Like, we could have made them more monstrous somehow.”
Appearing too sympathetic to the Branch Davidians is a reproach that they can accept. “The whole project came from a place of looking at the story differently,” says Drew. “We were writing a ‘bad guy’ character, and to flesh it out more we wanted to give him a backstory, like, maybe he grew up at Waco and that insanity is what made him this horrible, crazy person.”
Drew adds that reading David Thibodeau’s 1999 book A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Storybook was “such an eye-opening experience for both of us. It was totally different from any narrative of Waco we had ever seen before.”
It is a story they feel could not have been told accurately without consultants from both sides of the conflict. While Thibodeau was on set to inform the actors about life inside the compound, FBI hostage negotiator Gary Noesner filled them in on the events outside it. “I remember, one day, looking over and seeing Thibodeau and Noesner, the real guys, breaking it all down and making sense of it together,” says John.
Adds Drew, “There were times in the script stage where Gary Noesner would say, ‘Hey, this scene isn’t completely fair.’ We really wanted to honor that. Not just so they would stand behind the show, but so that we could feel that we got it right.”
While the challenge often is truncating an abundance of material, sometimes the dilemma is the opposite. In producing the follow-up to the hit limited series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, producer Nina Jacobson found that FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace proved a more difficult story to tell than its predecessor.
“Whereas with the O.J. Simpson trial virtually every person involved with the story had written a book, in the case of Versace, we had much less information available to us,” she says.
The series creators based many of the key events in the story of Andrew Cunanan, who murdered the famous fashion designer outside his Miami home, on Maureen Orth’s 2000 book Vulgar Favors. They gathered additional information from newspaper accounts and available video footage. “But what happened between David Madsen and Andrew Cunanan, for example, when they went missing for several days, or how exactly some of the murder scenes went down — the only people who know about them are dead,” says exec producer Brad Simpson. “They had to be imagined based on what we knew of the personalities and the crime scenes.”
That’s where the storytellers must rely heavily on what they call “emotional truth.” “Marcia Clark used that phrase after she saw [People v. O.J.]. She said, ‘It’s not a documentary, but they captured the emotional truth of what happened,'” recalls Simpson, adding that producers did not, for either season, contact any of the people involved. “We want to be cognizant of the victims, but at the same time we think it’s best to tell the story based on historical evidence and to try to unpack what happened but not be beholden to telling one particular story in one particular way. That’s been our approach for the Crime Story series in general.”
But how does one tell the most compelling story where the outcome is already known? “I think it’s really challenging,” says Ken Biller, creator of National Geographic’s Genius series, which this season features Pablo Picasso (played by Antonio Banderas). “So much of the tension of drama comes from the audience wondering about what will the character do next. We know that Picasso’s going to die at the end of the story. We know that he’s going to become wildly successful and famous. The trick then becomes the creative speculation about the inner turmoil of these characters.”
Biller, who based much of the dialogue on letters and events on research, turned to nonlinear storytelling to create suspense within the narrative. “It’s a technique where we could inject surprise and irony into events by juxtaposing what the younger character was expecting was going to happen with what really happened,” he says.
While the consensus is that spinning reality into a working narrative is often a tougher nut to crack than fiction, those who have turned it into an art form have learned to embrace the challenge.
“I’ve really gotten to enjoy it,” says Biller. “We might know what happened when these characters emerge from the room, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘What could they possibly have said to each other that would make them emerge from the room with this outcome?’ It’s a really fun challenge.”
This story first appeared in a May stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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