Q: I wrote a script based on my grandfather’s service in World War II. It’s obviously very personal. We’ve got a filmmaker whom we really like who’s interested in optioning it. I think this guy will do a great job, but my grandfather is still alive and I just want to make sure his image and story are going to be protected. I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it but thought I’d check with you guys…
A: Every writer’s script is that writer’s baby and, to a person, they’re almost all concerned that some producer is going to acquire their script and turn it from Gone with the Wind to Gone in 60 Seconds (the Nic Cage version). The problem is, every producer is afraid they’re going to acquire a script and have some obnoxious screenwriter chirping in their ear telling them how to make the movie (producer’s generally think screenwriters should be kept in small, dark, smoky rooms filled only with coffee mugs and typewriters). Once screenwriters sell their scripts, they’re usually no longer involved, unless they have some right to do rewrites.
This can be especially problematic, however, when you’re dealing with a true life story. It’s one thing if a producer turns your fictional character from a peace-loving tree-hugger to a chain-smoking seal-clubber, but it’s a whole different story if that was an actual person, especially if that person is close to the writer and alive.
The fear for you is that they’ll somehow take your grandfather’s story and change it in a way that changes his image or story which would be incredibly upsetting for him. Therefore, you’re well within your rights to ask for certain limited approval rights when it comes to changes to the script the filmmakers may make.
A word of warning: this can be tricky because a producer’s soul will tell him to balk at giving a screenwriter any kind of approval rights. Therefore, make sure you’re sensitive to this — appeal to that producer’s soul (no matter how tiny and black) and explain what it would do to your grandfather if he was to see his true story twisted and changed.
I would recommend asking for approval only over material changes to events in the script or portrayals of any true life individuals. In other words, if the producer wants to add fictional characters or scenes that were not in your original script, they could do so without needing your approval. But if they were going to, for example, turn your grandfather’s true-life friendship with a woman into a fictionalized sexual relationship, they would need your approval (because it would qualify as a material change to both true life events and your grandfather’s character).
You can’t hope to control the final vision of the picture, but you are justified in looking to protect your grandfather’s story.
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.
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