The Facts Behind Great Fiction

Lisa Rosenberg October 4, 2011

The path to authentic storytelling lies in research.

To many of us, “research” seems a thankfully dead concept, left behind in the rigors of formal schooling. Yes, creating stories and characters that ring true on the screen may take a bit of investigating, but not much that can’t be found in a 15-minute sweep through Wikipedia and other popular sites. Not so.

Effective primary research doesn’t just skim the top layer of easily harvested details, but plunges much deeper, into the entire realm of the story. Real time spent in primary research—present day interviews, personal correspondence, old footage, and so on—often yields gems that could not have emerged in that first, shallow sweep.

My own research for a current feature project, set in the 1940s in the U.S. and England, has taken me down the scraped metal steps into the bowels of a government documents repository, to the baking Texas desert, to the personal letters of ordinary people and historic luminaries on two continents, to out-of-print memoirs and historical biographies, to once-confidential military documents and the Congressional Record, to recorded interviews, photos, and videos and to museum collections.

Through all of this excavating and more, I’ve been searching between the lines for the content and context of my characters’ lives. I’m seeking particular details that can telegraph a whole world in a single object or incident. I’m learning how my characters, both imagined and adapted from real people, talked to and about each other. Finding the shape of their personal and cultural attitudes informs how they behave in the story—and how the story will turn out as a result of their actions.

Any film based on a real person or real events demands deep, painstaking research—not only to turn up a list of key facts, but also to bring to life the world from which those facts emerged. Even an entirely fictional story presents some version of the truth in a particular context, and that truth can only feel real if it is shown to us through the authentic details found in real life.

For example, The Hurt Locker (2008, director, Kathryn Bigelow, writer, Mark Boal) portrayed a real arena—the world of American Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) bomb squads operating during the Iraq War—through fictional characters. But, the screenwriter was not focused on doing research for a screenplay when what he experienced would be just that. In 2004, he worked as an embedded journalist with the elite bomb disposal unit in Baghdad. As IEDs (improvised explosive devices) proliferated throughout the region, the EOD squads suddenly came to play a central role that they had not played in any other conflict. Boal went on repeated missions with the squads, observing them diffusing IEDs from as close as 100 yards away.

When he returned and began to develop the script, he did further research into the lives of the soldiers in these units, and military advisors worked with both writer and director through the development and filming processes. As he developed his story from his own experiences and observations, he still had to decide who his characters would be, and how to give each a representative voice and perspective. The depth of his preparation resulted in a story that not only feels true on the screen, but that also moves at a pace that feels as agonizingly slow as real time in the dire arena of his characters.

In The King’s Speech (2010, director, Tom Hooper, writer, David Seidler), about the stuttering problem that nearly destroyed King George the VI of England, the screenwriter used a combination of his own experience, historical research, and what he calls, “informed imagination” to create the story. A stutterer himself, who had speech therapy as a child, Seidler grew up admiring the King’s heroic efforts to overcome his problem. Writing as an adult, Seidler encountered roadblocks to research exactly what had occurred between the King and his unorthodox speech coach, Lionel Logue. Because the royal family downplayed the King’s problem, little had been spoken or written about it. Volumes of material, however, had been written about the King himself, so the writer was able to combine his personal experience with stuttering with a deeply resourced knowledge of who the King was and how he fit into the context of his time.

Late in the process of creating the story for the film, the writer learned that Logue had used Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” in his therapy sessions, a technique that became the foundation for psychoanalysis. This knowledge and his research into the personalities and outlooks of his two core characters allowed him to use his “informed imagination” to invent believable interactions between the men that resulted in their life-changing relationship. About two months before filming commenced, a contact with Lionel Logue’s grandson yielded diaries of Logue’s that no one had known existed, including extensive notes about the King’s therapy. Though well into the final draft at that point, the writer was able to integrate the diary—another key piece of primary source material—into the script, yielding what were to become some of its most memorable lines.

In The Help (2011, writer/director Tate Taylor from the Kathryn Stockett novel), the original novelist’s own life story forms the basis for her research into writing about southern black maids in the early 1960s, their ambivalent relationships with their white employers and the efforts of a young white writer to publicly tell their stories. The novelist grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1970s, as a white girl with a black maid who served her family for generations, much as the characters in the novel and film do. She created a story out of a world she felt she knew well. But her research beyond her own life was scant; in interviews, she has revealed that she interviewed a single, southern white women and her former black maid who were employer/employee in the early ’60s.

Writer/director Taylor, a close childhood friend of the novelist who grew up in the same Mississippi town, also brought his own experiences to bear and did further interviews with some women who had been maids at the time. The resulting film gets the visual details of the time and place just right, and successfully reveals the dichotomy in the lives of African American women, especially in how some came to be close to the white children they cared for, even while being relegated to a decidedly second-class position for the many years of their loyal work for white families. The screenplay features powerful performances and solid moments of humor.

But the film is also a prime example of a story that could have benefited from further research. Taylor’s screenplay is based almost exclusively on a book that itself reflects the narrow perspective of the writer, who admittedly didn’t broaden her investigation of the characters to go beyond the impressions she formed during her own childhood. It gives us a story with characters we care about and a recognizable villain in the smug, unconsciously racist character of Hilly. But it doesn’t actually give us much in terms of the stories of the black women it purports to celebrate, beyond what we already see. What’s in Skeeter’s book that will turn the community on its head—beyond the incident of the tainted chocolate pie? What happens to these women, in the dangerous, economically frozen framework of their lives once the book humiliates the pillars of the community, and the white heroine skips off to a publishing career in the north?

Because the preparation for the work never went very deep—didn’t tap the broader historical record that could have formed a more complex portrait of the maids’ economic and social positions, and didn’t focus on extensive, substantive interviews with black maids who actually worked during this time period—the story remains stuck on a surface level. It plays like a 3–D postcard for the period, revealing the emotional tumult underneath the poised setting, but doesn’t give us the deeper content that the story deserves. Further interviews with white, household employers of the period might also have yielded a companion aspect that the film is sorely lacking: a portrait of the casual, completely accepted, inherited patterns of racism that even kind white women—such as Sissy Spacek’s ditzy matron—and their successful husbands likely espoused, and that promoted oppression far more pervasively than the actions of one tragic-comic villainess—such as Hilly in the film—ever could have.