Q: What are the legalities of using actors to portray real people in a film — a fictionalized bio-pic in which the main character is purely fiction but some of the other characters are real, both living and deceased? For example, if Forrest Gumpdid not use actual footage but instead chose to represent those scenes using actors to represent the famous people?
A: I really liked Forrest Gump when I saw it. I’m pretty sure I even cried in it. Now I hate it for some reason. Maybe it’s just a general backlash against Tom Hanks’ haircut in The Da Vinci Code. But let’s not get into that.
As to your question…we Americans generally think we all have a 1st Amendment right that gives us the ability to say what we please when we please, which has lead to such enlightening phenomena as Ashton Kutcher’s constant Tweeting (thanks a lot, Founding Fathers). What is important to understand, however, is that this right of free speech is not absolute. We are not always free to say what we please, especially when it comes to saying things about other people.
Before answering your question, a word of warning: whether or not your depiction of a real person in a film can open you up to liability is not a question that has a definite answer. It requires a fact specific analysis and even then, it may not be entirely clear how strong of a ground you stand on. Also, you’ve got to remember that we’re dealing with people and people are nuts. Thus, even if it appears you’ve done everything by the books and you’re legally justified in doing what you’re doing, you could still get sued by someone who didn’t like the way you depicted him or her in a movie.
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