Based on a True Story

Every second film at the cinema these days seems to be ‘Based on a True Story’, or ‘Inspired by True Events’. It seems that truth sells and audiences are drawn to real life stories. But sometimes artistic license is taken to the extreme with the lines truly blurred between fact and fiction. Claiming a film’s plot is based on a real story isn’t always altogether true, nowadays it is just as likely to be an example of post-modernism, or a good marketing campaign.  The dollar incentive of ‘truth’ means that more and more ‘true story’ movies are being made with very tenuous connections to the real events- hence the ‘inspired by’ tagline.

Maybe we are all just getting a bit more cynical, but the veracity of films that claim to be based on real events often overshadows the actual quality of the end product. Films that claim to be based on a true story are, more often than not, judged on their truthfulness rather than their artistic merit.

From shark attacks to Central American civil wars, serial killers to nightclub owners, Trespass writers take a closer look at ten films which are either based on true stories or inspired by true events…


Monster (2003)

Patty Jenkins’ dramatisation of serial killer Aileen Wuornos’ troubled life is littered with alterations and manipulations of the truth, but also uses documented facts to create its world. Many scenes of Wuornos’ life as a barfly living on the fringes of society were obvious invented out of thin air, or – if anything – based around he said/she said testimonials of locals who claimed to know Aileen in her early days. Monster changed the names of all involved except for Wuornos; Christina Ricci’s Selby Wall was actually Tyria Moore and her victims’ names were also changed. This video of Aileen’s confession, when compared to the movie version, shows how Monster didn’t simply recreate its scenarios.

Charize Theron as Aileen Wuornos

On the other hand, Charlize Theron used Nick Broomfield’s award-winning documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer to perfect her performance and it can’t be argued that Theron gave a spot-on portrayal of this drifter-turned-prostitute who took to murdering johns to fund the life she always wanted. Monster portrayed Wuornos somewhat sympathetically, but was released a year after Wuornos’ execution in 2002, which Jenkins chose not to show.

United 93 (2006)

One of the most controversial films of the last decade was Paul Greengrass’ take on the only 9/11 hijacking that didn’t reach its target. Apart from its opening scenes, which show the terrorists praying on the morning of September 11, United 93 plays out in real time, alternating between airplane’s terrified, heroic passengers and the workers and government officials on the ground trying to divert disaster.

Greengrass and his team of filmmakers went to great lengths to get the film as historically accurate and painstakingly cast as possible. One passenger, Mark Bingham, a gay footballer was played by one of the few openly gay actors in Hollywood, Cheyenne Jackson, and many real officials and air traffic controllers played themselves. The filmmakers were criticised by some for their portrayal of several characters like German passenger Christian Adams. Dialogue and events were obviously fictional due the unknowable factor of what really happened – something admitted in the credits – although the passengers’ farewell telephone calls were used as paint a picture of the tragic events for both the government and the filmmakers.


Open Water (2003)

On a micro-budget self-financed by writer/director Chris Kentis and producer wife Laura Lau, Open Water went on to gross fifty-five million dollars. The film is based loosely on the disappearance of Americans Tom and Eileen Lonergan on a SCUBA diving trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The couple was only discovered missing when their bags and belongings were found on the boat two days later. The details of what happened were never fully uncovered but somehow they were left behind.

Taking creative license from the historical unknowns, Kentis depicts the terrible situation of a couple stuck in the middle of the ocean, attempting to stay afloat and fend off the unseen beneath them. A major change is the location, which in the film becomes the Bahamas.

Writing on the film, Roger Ebert reflected- “it gets under your defenses and sidesteps the ‘it’s only a movie’ reflex and creates a visceral feeling that might as well be real.”[1] What it depicts may be pure speculation, but watching Open Water the audience has the feeling that they are experiencing a terrible truth.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

The critically acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry is based on a well-documented hate crime in a backwater town in Nebraska. Brandon Teena (an Oscar-winning performance from Hilary Swank) was a transgender man who was raped and killed by two male friends after they discovered his true identity in 1993. Director and co-writer Kimberly Peirce meticulously researched the story and the script itself was in development for five years.

Even with such attention to detail the veracity of the film was disputed by some of the real-life people depicted. Lana Tisdel, who was Brandon’s lover and is played in the film by Chloë Sevigny, sued the film’s producers. She claimed that the film falsely portrayed that she stayed with Teena after discovering she was biologically female.

The film’s release occurred close to the brutal murder of gay teenager Matthew Shepard and this event and the release of the film increased public interest and awareness of hate crime in America.


Salvador (1986)

The year of 1986 marked the arrival of multi-award winning director and provocateur Oliver Stone. While his semi-autobiographical Vietnam war film Platoon won the awards, the better film was found in Salvador.

Based upon the true life experiences of hard partying war photographer Richard Boyle (James Woods), Salvador delved into the violent rule of the American backed, fascist Salvador government, and their bloody civil war against the communist rebels whose fight for liberty brought its own body count.

Behind the scenes another war was brewing, with Woods and co-star Jim Belushi constantly at loggerheads, while Stone was finding the on location shoot a constantly problematic and dangerous experience, with real life  Salvadorian soldiers always present and duped into believing they were being portrayed as the good guys (Stone’s anti-communist quotations in his script for Scarface wining him favour).

In the end Stone created a near masterpiece, full of grit and fury, while Woods garnered an Oscar nomination for his mesmerising turn.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon proves that reality is indeed stranger than fiction.

Based upon true events, the film stars Al Pacino as Sonny, a Vietnam veteran who attempts to rob a New York city bank in order to find his transsexual lover’s (Chris Sarandon) sex change operation.

What follows are a series of blunder which turns what should have been an in and out job into a hostage situation, with seemingly every cop in NYC drawn to the action and the salivating media lapping up this most colossal of screw ups.

Directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet, Dog Day Afternoon is a film which draws the viewer into every tense standoff and the blackest of comedy, found in this most thrilling and surreal of situations.


Almost Famous (2000)

A fictional story about a fictional rock band, Almost Famous is at least almost true.  A semi-autobiographical work about a teenaged rock journalist, writer/director Cameron Crowe was himself a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone.  William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a 15-year-old pretending to be a lot older than he really is, is given the opportunity to follow the up-and-coming band Stillwater on tour as they start to make it big.  Along the way he does drugs, has sex with groupies, and lives the rock’n’roll lifestyle.  But he also falls in love with groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), and learns how complicated people can be.

Almost Famous is a mostly fictional tale, but it’s often fiction that can reveal the greatest truths: and Cameron Crowe’s film is one of the most honest and warm-hearted coming-of-age tales around.

Into The Wild (2007)

A spellbinding and heartbreaking film, Into the Wild is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, which outlined the two year wilderness trek undertaken Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch). Growing up in suburbia, McCandless rejected what he saw as a materialistic and superficial existence upon graduating from university, and – after giving away $24,000 to Oxfam – began hitchhiking around the country. He experiences the highs and lows of life on the road, eventually facing up to his own mortality.

Into the Wild is a harrowing film, which is made all the more harrowing because the viewer knows it is real.  This film, directed by Sean Penn, asks deep questions of the viewer: what motivates us, what makes life worth living.


24 Hour Party People (2002)

“When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”

-Tony Wilson misquoting John Ford in 24 Hour Party People

In this film eclectic British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom explored the life of Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) and his influential record label Factory Records. Looking at Manchester’s music scene during a pivotal time in the British music, the film presents Wilson as a maverick whose life was changed by witnessing the Sex Pistols infamous first gig. Focusing on the rise of the ‘Madchester’ era, filmic versions of bands like Joy Division (later New Order), Happy Mondays and Oasis all feature, as well as Wilson’s notorious nightclub The Hacienda.

Told from the perspective of Wilson, with plenty of 4th Wall breaking and caustic wit, Winterbottom’s film captures the atmosphere of a unique time in Britain’s cultural history. The veracity of this comedy is highly debatable. Given the copious amounts of alcohol and drugs consumed by the main players during the late 70s- 90s timeframe this film covers, it is doubtful there were many reliable witnesses to tell the story, but Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cotterell Boyce weren’t concerned with pure truth, and happily mixed reality with myth to create a great film.

Goodfellas (1990)

Based on the life of Henry Hill, a mobster turned FBI informant, Martin Scorsese’s film is considered to be one of the greatest gangster films ever made. Adapted from crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy, the film looks at how Hill went from a member of NYC’s infamous Lucchese family to witness protection.

Ray Liotta stars as Hill, with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (in an Oscar-winning role) playing his two best friends. The film tracks the trios rise from petty criminals to mid-level mafiosos covering a time period from the 50s to 80s.

During filming the real Hill was smuggled onto set, and acted as an advisor to the actors. Hill claims that De Niro would often call him to ask about small details of his character, Jimmy Conway, how he smoked, his technique for pistol whipping.

Remembered for its jail cooking instructions and Pesci’s maniacal character, who couldn’t take a joke, Goodfellas offered audiences an honest appraisal of the gangster lifestyle.



Fargo (1996)

Fargo, among the best of the Coen Brothers’ films, opens with the description, “This is a true story.”  Except, it’s not.  Some elements of the story are similar to the 1986 murder of Helle Crafts, whose husband gruesomely disposed of her dead body through a wood-chipper.  Joel Coen has noted that, “We weren’t interested in that kind of fidelity. The basic events are the same as in the real case, but the characterizations are fully imagined… If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.”  Rather than being based on a specific scenario, perhaps the filmmaking duo were aiming for a more general sort of truth: truth about a particular society, a particular location, a particular point of time in American history.


The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Everything about The Blair Witch Project was real. Or so they told us. An elaborate series of online websites, images and documentary footage were hailed as real and that Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C Williams had in fact disappeared in the woods of Maryland. Theories ran wild as to whether it was real or not – dashed soon enough by the three stars looking remarkably fresh-faced at the red carpet premieres – and before long The Blair Witch Project had changed cinema as we knew it.

In 1999 The Blair Witch Project was a gamble; would audiences fall for the act, and would they still pay money once they knew it was a fake? Over ten years later its effects are still felt with movies like Paranormal Activity ruling the box office. The events may be a hoax, but the power of its “based on a true story” marketing hook was one of the greatest stunts the movie business ever pulled.

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