In the wake of all the controversy surrounding ABC’s docudrama “The Path to 9-11”, I believe it would be helpful to explain the process of how these scripts are written and then vetted by the networks.
I have a fair amount of experience in this format. In fact, several years ago, I adapted Jon Krakauer’s best selling Into Thin Air (retitled, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest) for ABC. Like “The Path to 9-11” Krakauer’s book was based on true facts. Many participants of the Everest climb that were the book’s subject were alive and several had tragically died on the climb.
The responsibility for such a project weighs heavily on any responsible screenwriter.
How do you tell the truth and at the same time keep the drama going, for truth is often not terribly dramatic. The writer is often forced to collapse time and events–for film time has absolutely nothing to do with real time; that is the nature of the medium. Sometimes the writer has to use a composite character to represent the attitudes of several. Audiences can only follow so many characters in a particular time frame.
And then there is the human factor. At a certain point the screenwriter must take a point of view, it is the nature of good drama. It is impossible and not particularly desirable to be purely objective. When researching the project, something clicks in this writer’s mind and heart and I become a certain character — take on his view of the world, his faults, his strengths, his values.
At that point, the movie should mutate into a recognizable moral landscape.
Writing “Into Thin Air” was an excruciating process. I had a moral responsibility to those who died and to those who survived. Yet there were serious questions of responsibility — but Krakauer never really came to any final conclusions in his book, only endless and bottomless questions. So I was left with a moral vacuum — a not-so- classic tragedy.
When you write a script like “Into Thin Air”, and of course, “The Path to 9-11”, you are forced to question every scene, every word, every punctuation mark. Is the scene true to the events? Is the dialogue accurate? If I don’t have any record of true dialogue and I’m forced to make it up, do I have a consultant who can verify how the real live people talked?
And then the writer has to judge the reliability of his consultants. Often they go Hollywood on you and start telling you things they think they want you to hear. You have to keep arms length from your consultants; you are always walking a knife’s edge. You need them, they need you, but is the truth being told? The writer must always be on-guard, suspicious, for if there is one truth I have learned over and over again in Hollywood it is this: everyone has a private agenda.
I must have spent hundreds of hours talking with Jon Krakauer on the phone, trying to get the voices and characters just right. I think I drove Jon crazy.
And then, finally, when you hand in the script you get notes back from the network. Always they demand more drama, more conflict. You tell them that this is the way it happened and you really can’t change things. It’s a difficult tug of war. You have to be strong, yet pliable. You have to protect your work, your characters, your baby, yet not alienate the network brass — or they will fire you, and you will no longer have any control.
When the script is finished and the project is given the green-light, you have to annotate the screeenplay for the network’s Standards and Practices Dept., AKA: the lawyers.
Here’s what the screenwriter has to do: footnote every single scene and piece of dialogue in the movie. In essence the writer has to defend his choices. Is this scene true? What are the sources? Is the dialogue fictional, drawn from the book, or a composite? This process is, you can imagine, laborious.
Several days later, you get notes back — and they are always a huge shock. You are told that you have to change this and this and this. There are pages and pages of changes. They are afraid of lawsuits. In fact, terrified. The changes are as large as cutting entire scenes, as small as one word changes in dialogue.
I always argue. Do my best to protect my work. There is always a compromise, but again, it’s delicate balancing act. You can’t be inflexible. Often, they are right, you’ve been carried away and been unfair to one character you have grown to despise. Often you have gone overboard with a particular dramatic arc and veered too far from the truth. You have to go back and fix it. Discipline is restored. You get closer to the truth and this writer sleeps more soundly at night.
Finally, the lawyers are satisfied, and let me tell you, when the lawyers are happy, you heave a sigh of relief for you feel that if they have given your words their seal of approval, and you are content with the drama — well, the world is correctly aligned.
I can only imagine that the vetting process on “The Path to 9-11”, before any film was shot, must have been excruciating. Far more detailed than what I went through on my film.
Let me add a crucial note. Once you are on location, once the actors are working: stuff happens. Good actors, well, technically speaking, they act. You cannot control them. You cannot, should not, rigidly block them. You can only sit back and let the magic happen. They become the auteurs of the moment, and certain flourishes will arise within a scene that will inevitably modify the tone of any scene, and in an amazing domino effect, thus subtly and not so subtly the film becomes something different than what was on the page. If the director and producer (often the writer) are doing their job, the changes are harmonious with the original intentions of the screenplay. If not, it can be disastrous. This is the nature of the medium. Be it docudrama or so-called documentary, for documentary is just as much artifice as drama — witness Michael Moore’s shameful “Farhenheit 9-11”, a tissue of lies — that is by the way, being used by jihadists as a teaching tool about how to view America.
There is no absolute truth in a docudrama, only shades. A fine writer/producer like Cyrus Nowrasteh would only work at the highest standards of honesty. And as I have indicated, ABC’s Standards and Practices are always meticulous in their insistence on accurate script annotation. That ABC is making cuts to “The Path to 9-11” to pacify Clinton and his loyalists is deeply regrettable. Yet, I have no doubt that the film will still make a deep impression on reasonable Americans.
The Path to 9/11 ABC, Sunday and Monday at 8p.m. Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central. No commercial interruptions.