I find stories hidden in history books. These often describe events that are so remarkable that they jump right out at you. You immediately feel that these stories are begging to be told in more detail. You want to know more about the characters and the events, and you know that the public will have the same reaction as you do. So often I don’t have to invent very much to write a novel based on historical events.
Over the summer I have had discussions with a film distributor for my upcoming feature movie “Cadets” about the Valcartier explosion which killed six young cadets in 1974 at the Valcartier military base north of Quebec City. I optioned the book by Gerry Fostaty “As you were, the Tragedy at Valcartier” back in 2015 and wrote a script that I thought was quite effective in telling the real story behind the catastrophe.
Of course, script writers are always under pressure to deliver the perfect script by people who know little or nothing about writing scripts. We are questioned by producers, investors, and dealmakers who have little or no knowledge about the art of filmmaking. Some of these people prefer to see as much historical accuracy as possible on the screen while others want to bend the truth and completely change the course of events.
I have always taken the position that if you are going to tell the true story of an event, you must stick to the facts as much as possible and only invent when there are no facts to guide one. Of course, most movies based on real events need some fictional elements to provoke the viewer or give them an edge. We are not making documentaries. This can be quite difficult to do and at the same time to respect the original story.
Some of you may remember Argo about the American hostages who were hidden at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran in 1979 during the Iranian revolution. The 2012 movie starred and was directed by Ben Affleck who later won an Academy Award for Best Picture. In reality Argo was a totally fictional movie masquerading at a true story. There were so many historical inaccuracies in the movie that even the ex-President Jimmy Carter weighed in against it. Here is what he said on CNN:
“90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie is very good. But Ben Affleck’s character in the film was… only in Tehran a day and a half. And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”
I don’t know many writers who would accept to write such a total distortion of the facts. You’ve got to be a real hack writer to prostitute yourself in this way. The same goes for the recent Sully movie directed by Clint Eastwood about landing the plane on the Hudson river by Captain “Sully” Sullenberger which came out in 2016. Again this is another film that received harsh criticism. The Guardian newspaper calling it a “pious hagiopic that even Tom Hanks can’t save”.
The main concern with this movie is that the antagonistic relationship between Sully and the National Transportation Safety Board was a complete fabrication. Eastwood claimed he couldn’t make the movie without a villain in the piece and there were no villains. So the writers invented a villain, the NTSB. Poor Sully becomes a cash-strapped pilot – he fears his house will be taken away from him and he will lose his pension. He will be judged by the bad guys at the NTSB on his last 208 seconds in the air.
Here’s another Hollywood movie that is a complete invention where the writers twist the facts any which way they can. I am bringing this up because my film distributor told me to take a look at the Sully movie as an example of how to make an excellent movie based on a true story.
Well, I did take a look at the picture and, what really pissed me off, happened in the first few seconds of the movie. If you saw the movie, you will remember the use of a dream sequence in the teaser where a plane is flying through the skyline of NYC just like the hijacked planes in September 2001. Here we are telling a story about an airliner that lands on the Hudson and we show a 9/11 style clip in order to get public attention. Is Sully’s plane going to crash into a skyscraper and explode in a burst of flames? It would have been equally manipulative to have Sully about to crash his car. The idea is to put the spectator on the edge of his or her seat during the teaser. Well, they’ve done it alright but it’s an outrageous and highly manipulative use of images that have nothing to do with the Hudson landing.
Isn’t there a better script out there for the Sully movie, one with a more reflective feel? I think there is. Not everything can be boiled down to good vs evil even in cinema. The cheap manipulation and the choice of villain make this a very bad movie, but it seems to be that the public doesn’t care really anymore about the facts. Fake news dominates the internet.
A lot of people will believe that the NTSB wanted to crucify an American hero and that’s all they will remember. I rewrote my script for “Cadets” this summer and improved it. It has now gone for financing at the SODEC and we will see how it makes out. It sticks to the facts and I think will make a very thrilling movie.
Next time I will tell you more about my “Cadets” movie project.