Monday, February 22, 2016

Biopic Not Documentary: Benghazi, 13 Hours, Teenage Bodyguard

I've been looking for something to blog about that is relative to my writing and art. Many of us have of late been immersed in the insanity that is national politics and international issues. I found one that was born from politics and delves directly into those things, screenwriting and film production in general.

The web site recently had an article about the film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016).

In that article they claim:

"The Benghazi movie 13 Hours was supposed to help bring Hillary Clinton down, but that mission's not accomplished."

Where did they get the idea that it had anything to do with politics and not just a vehicle for talent, and to make money for a studio? Salon had an article on just that topic. Yes, it is a project filled with considerations, politically speaking. Mostly from the right wing trying to make something out of nothing. When it has been shown time and again and with each new incarnation of what was supposed to have happened, that it was simply a bad situation turned worse?

"The 2012 Benghazi attack took place on the evening of September 11, 2012, when Islamic militants attacked the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.Stevens was the first U.S. Ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979. The attack has also been referred to as the Battle of Benghazi." - Wikipedia

I personally find it sickening that the right has pursued this tragedy for political purposes. Just as they have done so many others disgusting things going back to President Bill Clinton related to a personal marital issue. Something they only pursued in order to embarrass a sitting Democratic president, to push him basically into entrapment through yet another in a never ending series of fishing expeditions in order to find anything they could then pursue.

The right knows no decency in politics.

From what I have been able to gather it is typical that the right would claim Benghazi was the fault of the left, of Hillary and Obama, of the Obama administration in general. However, so much of the blame actually falls on the Republican party for previously cutting funds too much for these consulates worldwide that previous year. But we shouldn't talk about THAT now, should we?

It's repeatably been shown that all the disingenuous and disinformation from the right has no bearing in reality for what actually happened. But it served its purpose because even today it is a rallying cry among many conservatives about how the democrats are scum. Like thy bully in the schoolyard, starting a fight and then pointing at the victim and crying that they started it. It's a juvenile but effective tactic.

I'm unsure of the purpose (sort of) of that web site in decrying the film as a political statement rather than what it is, a film for entertainment to explore the types of things that happen in a situation such as this. It is not however some kind of legal document, documentary or even docudrama to explain what had happened. Those in the right who try to push it as such, are just being dull and base as usual.

Enough of politics here though. It's not why I'm writing this.

13 Hours is just a film. From what the accounts are of it so far, a pretty good film, regardless of how much money it has made. I watched it and found it a pretty good film. The truth behind it really isn't the point.

How does a screenplay get made for a film like this?

This is why I chose to blog about this film. I have myself written and am currently rewriting my own film biopic (biographical picture, first use according to Websters' is 1951 probably from Billboard industry magazine). MacMillan defines it as: "movie based on the events of someone’s life."

I had always thought it was bi-opic ("opic" for ocular, visual, "bi" for biographical) but I think bio-pic makes more sense. Oxford defined it as: "1950s: blend of biographical (see biography) and pic." So either way.

Point being, a biopic is a film for entertainment based on real events and people. But not adhering 100% to reality and again, films are made to make money.

It is after all the, Film Industry. Not the Film Historical Society.

My friend and I back in 1974
The title of my biopic is Teenage Bodyguard. It is also known as, Slipping The Enterprise. In the photo above I'm standing in front of my parent's car. My friend home on leave from the Army, the rifle in the in front of me and the shoulder holster and .357 magnum aree all are in the screenplay.

It is about a week out of my young life at eighteen in 1974. A week with me against the Tacoma mob who called themselves, "The Enterprise", while I was with one of their strip club waitresses, a frightened "murder witness".

It seems they wanted to "talk" to her. She however wanted to get the hell out of town, For myself, she had convinced me that I just wanted to see her safe. It was an interesting week. This mob had law enforcement up to the Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney in their pocket. It was later that decade when many of them were indicted, found guilty and sentenced to prison in a well publicized trial.

I have mentioned this story and screenplay before but I don't think I've gone into detail about how one takes history, what actually happened, and turns it into an entertainment film for audiences. Many events films have been made from would be pretty boring in a theater and would best be left for the History Channel. But even History Channel realizes the need for entertainment in their history shows if they want to survive as a network.

To make a biopic interesting there has got to be artistic licence involved.

You have to skew things a little or a lot to make a film entertaining, to entice and thrill. Otherwise it's just boring. True, some documentaries have been very entertaining. It's all about the desire and orientation of the project from the beginning. In a case like a film such as 13 Hours, or American Sniper for that matter, the purpose was to make a film for entertainment, a drama with action, essentially. As always in these projects, there is a desire to make money. Otherwise no one will touch it, produce it, I'm sure.

Military type stories are easier to make entertaining merely by their nature. But the reality of say, two men sitting in a calm during battle, who just sit there and talk with much of what they communicate coming through the shorthand of their professional orientation, where they could communicate much without a need to speak, would be quite a boring film. So you have to dramatize, make things up, use things you find from their letters, recorded voices, comments from family, friends and coworkers. Compress, hybrid things, information, situations and even people.

In essence, you make Art.

In my own screenplay for Teenage Bodyguard I was the principal character, Time was my enemy in my trying to remember things as they happened and writing it all down decades later. I had to research for months to find the associated issues that happened back then. As it turned out, through my research, reconstruction of events and reconsideration after all these years, I discovered a part of my past that I didn't even know existed.

Things happened to me during that week in 1974 that I had no clue about when they were happening.

I was lucky. Unlike those in 13 Hours, who died, I survived, obviously. Especially as I am writing the screenplay, the audience may very well know, as the film would begin in a theater, that I survived.

They do not know however, the background (as I didn't at the time either). Or if my client survived, the strip club waitress running from the mob. They believed she had witnessed an anonymous murder. She believed they had committed the murder (and probably did).

To this day the murder is labeled, "homicide by unknown suspect".

I know what I know from spending that week with her until she could escape to get on a plane, leave town and never be seen again. And I never saw or heard from her again. Did she live through the week I spent with her, armed with a .357 magnum in a shoulder holster, protecting her? Did she make it to that plane? If she didn't survive, am I still experiencing the guilt from failing at my task as bodyguard, even though I was at the time only eighteen?

If in reality and in the end I had gotten her on her flight (and I'm not saying that I did or didn't), did she survive through that next day, week, or month? Or did the mob finally catch up with her? They had to know where she came from and was probably going back to. How hard would it have been for a crime organization who had national connections, who could reach back to New York City as well as Las Vegas, to kill her any time they liked?

What I knew was pretty boring. I can't tell you here all that I knew or all that is in the screenplay but reality needs a plan to make it a film. It's all in how you tell it, what you tell, building tension, allowing limited release, injecting elements of surprise, humor, fear, and so on.

During the construction of the screenplay you have to use the screenplay format to flesh out what will work and if you have to change things for artistic license, or follow a plan that in some ways deviates from what actually happened, then that is what you have to do.

It is not a historical document after all. Speaking for myself, that is something that took me years of screenwriting to get over, and then actually get down to writing it. I first ran into the concept of staying true to the original, in doing an adaptation of a novel for another author. Then I did another for another author.

Writing an adaption is in many ways like writing a biopic.

You have a kind of blueprint to follow. Rather than historical events and people, it is a novel previously published and therefore, for some people, a kind of historical event. You have to remain true to the "event(s)", the story, perhaps for fans of the novel, and remain true to the spirit of the original.

But you have to make it entertaining for the novel reader too. You usually don't want merely to put the novel on the screen because frequently that just doesn't working. Transliteration from novel to screen (or real events to screen) can easily fail. It's easy to test out. Many times taking an original, and exactly duplicating it on screen simply fails. What works in one format for a variety of reasons just doesn't translate well to another format.

And therein lay the major disparity between what many expect and what a screenwriter and filmmaker produces in a biopic.

For instance, rather than showing a scene exactly how it happened the writer may not follow what happened for various reasons. It is the filmmaker's hope however that by the end of the scene the viewer will have experienced the same or similar feeling necessary to have understood what happened. That is, to understand the scene and in using it as set up for the next scene or for the film overall.

It may not however follow physical reality but rather emotional reality.

Therein lay the artistic license. This angers some people, annoys others, and yet has little or no bearing on many as long as they enjoy a good film and feel they have gotten their money's worth.

For others however, it becomes a political statement if not outrage.

Such is the filmmaker's dilemma and life in making a biopic. When it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. But when it goes right, it is Art.

In my own screenplay I had my memories to work with. What I had lived through. I had the advantage (and disadvantage) of being the primary character so I could as screenwriter query myself any time of the day or night when needed.

However there were things and information I did not have and so they required some artistic license to be able to flesh out the story. I did not know for instance, what the woman I was protecting was thinking, only things she said to me, and only as best as I could understand here at the time and eventually remember in what she said and did.

I did not know what the mob was thinking or doing, other than anything I may have seen them do, or historical references to them in documents at this point in time. And that turned out to be a lucky thing and a sticky situation.

This mob in Tacoma as it turned out was highly documented in the newspapers back then, in books and as well in court documents from trials. From all that and from what happened to me I was able to piece together quite a lot. I came to understand more and more of what exactly had happened to me. I found for instance that a "friend" of mine had basically been throwing me to the wolves in order to save himself and his housemate.

I discovered that this "mob" I was up against and who called themselves, "The Enterprise" (and thus my alternate title for the project in being, "Slipping The Enterprise" as we were trying to slip past them), were a motley and dangerous crew.

How do I explain what I was up against when even I didn't know it at the time?

How do I use exposition of the mob's activities and orientation? How to characterize them? The time the screenplay takes place is a good five or six years before their major arrests and court trials. This was a crew who had their hands into many things, as well as paying off law enforcement, judges and, arson and murdering people. Even to the point of threatening their enemy's families and children.

I really had no idea who it was up against. Though I have to say if I had known, it would only have led me to be more careful and circumspect in my actions at the time.

I had to show in the screenplay a crew's activities mostly after the fact of the time I had been dealing with them. In finding that method I found a unique and interesting kind of time shifting format. You get to see what I was going through, and who I was up against by interspersing their history with my story. All through their activities throughout the 1970s.

It was a remarkable concept once it hit me.

I researched for a long time and then wrote out specific times and events. Then I built that into and around my story as a frame beginning with my introduction and activities with the woman in question. A woman who was I see now in hindsight, kind of in shock throughout most of that week.

She would seem fine during the day but then in quiet times she would be very reflective and just...odd. A kind of Post Traumatic Shock type of condition, possibly.

After hearing from her some of her life in the strip club and around a dangerous crew of criminals, it became apparent that she was definitely afraid of them. Like a caged animal trying to get out of town, fearful in what she had seen the night she was at the club during the murder in the parking lot. Even though she claimed she had seen nothing, hadn't she?

She had entered the parking lot about 2AM when the murder went down, but said that she hadn't seen a thing. From my examination of the event and from reports, I find that hard to believe. She swore that it was done by the mob to one of their own guys, a bouncer who worked for the club. A nice guy she said who was nice to her and "the girls", meaning the waitresses and the strippers at the club. But how could she be so sure they committed thee murder unless she somehow had first hand knowledge of it?

The Enterprise had blamed it on someone else and I'm sure they wouldn't have appreciated her turning up to claim otherwise. They had killed before and they killed again. The police involved that night were potentially on the crew's payroll. Something which was later uncovered through the court trials.

Their main bad guy along with the rest of them, went to prison. Including the County Sheriff. Now most of them are dead. Except for that main bad guy. And he was a bad, guy. He is out free now, living in Tacoma, Washington. Something I hadn't expected when I started researching all this. Especially since in the screenplay I used him as the focus and fulcrum for the storyline and pivotal in the murder. Through him we experience much of who that crew was in the screenplay.

In the story I've written he does things he never actually did, but it enhances the story and brings it all together. Otherwise this would have to be a TV or miniseries. As it is it works well together.

The biggest problem I had was in the exposition of who I was at that point in time, and making in it believable. I was an unusual character myself in my past experiences by that time at eighteen. If anyone at eighteen was ready to handle a situation like that, it had to be me.

The waitress was really pretty lucky in finding me, or more precise, in our being thrown together by our mutual friends. Friends who once I had picked her up from their place, didn't want to know where she went after that and didn't want me to tell them. I should have seen that red flag. I should have seen it as not just odd, but a big flashing red light. It wasn't until forty years later that I finally realized much of what was going on back then.

As shown in the screenplay I didn't see that friend much after that week. Then we lost complete touch, until one day I accidentally ran into him and his new wife and baby at the Tacoma Mall. He acted very oddly that day and now I finally know why.

Was he surprised I was still alive that day? He acted like it. Or was he simply nervous (which I had believed at the time) in that I might let it slip that he had been a drug dealer at one time for many years? Was he afraid his family was in danger and that I might pull a gun and shoot him down for what he potentially had once done to me? Possibly in my finally having figured it all out, and then tracked him down for retribution?

Many years have passed since back in those days and I hold no animosity against anyone now about it all. I just find it all interesting academically, now. Whether or not had had expected me to get killed or whether he thought I was seeking retribution, is simply lost in the past. I only seek now to share an interesting story and hopefully produce an interesting work of filmmaking.

As for my friend and what happened to him, as for the woman I spent a week protecting from a mob of murderers and criminals? We know what happened to them, but whether she survived or not?

We may never know. Perhaps it will play out in the film once it's produced?

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