WHAT JOURNALISTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING SCREENPLAYS: Narrative Writers on the Similarities - and Crucial Differences - between Journalism and Screenwriting

Nieman Reports, Spring 2018 | Go to article overview

WHAT JOURNALISTS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT WRITING SCREENPLAYS: Narrative Writers on the Similarities - and Crucial Differences - between Journalism and Screenwriting


How many journalists regard the Watergate scandal as a love story? Peter Landesman does and that is, arguably, the key to his success as a screenwriter.

Landesman was sitting in a Chicago bar when he heard on the television news that Mark Felt, second-in-command at the FBI in the 1970s, had just outed himself in the July 2005 issue of Vanity Fair as Watergate's Deep Throat. Landesman remembers turning to the guy next to him and saying, "Who the f... is Mark Felt?" He resolved to make a movie about the Washington bureaucrat who changed the course of a nation: "I knew immediately it was a great story, someone that anonymous doing something that brings down the presidency."

But he also knew he had to step away from the well-trodden ground of "All the President's Men." He needed to find the emotional heart of the story, and he found it in Felt's relationship with his wife.

The 2017 movie "Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House" centers on the connection between Felt's public actions and his relationship with his emotionally troubled wife. The film shows how Felt's toxic home life and his anger at being passed over to be director of the FBI fueled an urgent need to bring down a corrupt presidency. "Journalism is about information," says Landesman, who was a New York Times Magazine contributing writer before turning to screenwriting and directing. "Movies are about an emotional tether to the audience."

Turning real-life events into screenplays requires an understanding of a simple truth: Film focuses on the "intimate world," as opposed to the "public world" of journalism, in the words of Mark Harris, a distinguished professor in the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.

With a number of this year's Oscar nominees and other critically acclaimed films based on real events, journalists may dream of transforming their work into feature films. But even those who have succeeded in Hollywood say writers steeped in the art of reporting must be ready to make adjustments--in everything from their conception of narrative to their understanding of the difference between nonfiction and cinematic truth.

Michael Maren, a foreign correspondent turned screenwriter, believes journalism is the perfect training ground for film, and cites some big names to prove it, from the late romantic comedy writer Nora Ephron to Mark Boal, who wrote "The Hurt Locker." Citing essayist David Shields, Maren calls the film industry's search for the next big true story "reality hunger." Shields' 2010 book by that name was a manifesto arguing for an artistic movement that obliterates the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. He argues that they are artificial in a world where fiction has become mundane and reality is more shocking.

Intellectual arguments aside, the screenwriter's prerogative to focus on a narrow slice of truth, of course, can spark a real-world backlash. Steven Spielberg's movie "The Post" chronicles the two weeks leading up to The Washington Post's 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret documents that revealed how the government lied about the Vietnam War. But the narrative, written by first-time screenwriter Liz Hannah and "Spotlight" writer Josh Singer, revolves around the professional blossoming of Post publisher Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep. Although the movie focuses on The Washington Post, it was The New York Times that broke the Pentagon Papers story and won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Borrowing a term from comedian Stephen Colbert, Landesman calls this artistic license "truthiness." It's unacceptable in journalism, but it can make a powerful movie.

Journalistic skills can both help and hinder the screenwriter. Both crafts require an understanding of the essence of a story, an ear for dialogue, and an ability to listen. But journalism's reverence for information, context, and comprehensiveness can hamper the fast-paced plot needed to make a screenplay work. …

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