I learned the difference between truth and reality from the film Big Fish. Probably not in the way you would expect, however. This article is going to have some spoilers about the film so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to you should probably stop reading right now. Also, it gets pretty personal and depending on your view of such things overly schmaltzy. It has screenplay advice but not until after a long winding story of family loss.
My grandfather was not larger than life. You can’t be larger than life, he was the exact size of his life. He just filled up so much space around him with it. I owe a lot of who I am to him. My overdeveloped sense of justice, my belief in what a person should do for those around them, a love of the TV show the Rifleman. That’s all from him.
Which now that I think about it is the main way I knew him. Through TV. Thanks to him I’ve seen every episode of Walker Texas Ranger. Every Bruce Lee movie. Most things John Wayne has been in. Quite a lot of Gunsmoke. All of Highlander. The list goes on. I also have my aversion to drinking from the man. He was not a pretty drunk.
He died. As people tend to do. It isn’t like in the movies. He died in a hospital bed. I only saw him the once. I don’t remember getting the option to go back but my mother tells me I was invited and declined. I don’t blame me. The rail on the side of the hospital bed was cold against my hands. He couldn’t speak. The gruff whiskey thick voice he’d had all the time I knew him was instead a mumbling stroke addled mess of nothing. He laughed occasionally, but a man who had always been nearly perfectly round was gaunt and thin and sad and dying.
They ‘pulled the plug’ at my mother’s urging. As I said, it wasn’t like the movies. He didn’t flat line as the camera panned up. Or take my mother’s hand one last time and say something clearly. No, he sat there in the hospital bed well aware of what was going on for two weeks.
My mother spent a lot of time with her dad over those two weeks. But as I said it was hard to communicate with him. She had to watch him go as slow and painful as one can.
She handled it very well. She only cried a lot instead of all the time.
Now, let’s jump forward a decade or so. The release of the film Big Fish.
It’s a movie about a son and his dying father. I saw it, it was by director Tim Burton who was possibly at the height of his fame. A lot of people were pissed off that it had a cheery cartoon like quality to it. They wanted dreary spiral filled Burton. I found the film charming, especially the use of music. Any film that uses a track from Buddie Hollie can’t be all bad.
I took my mother to see it as I had thought it was fun and right up her alley.
I don’t think she ever forgave me.
The father in the film was my grandfather. The way he talked, his propensity for long drawn out stories that probably had little baring in reality. His refusal to accept help or discuss his private life. Even the kind of voice he had. Or the way he looked at the end of the film dying in his hospital bed.
I have never seen my mother so emotionally distraught. Nothing else has ever come close. By showing her this film I had ripped her heart wide open and let it spill out over the movie floor. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was to never show her that movie again.
We probably talked more about my grandfather that day after the film than we had in the decade after his death put together.
It wasn’t that the film was true to life. My grandfather was a mechanic and not a traveling salesmen. His tall tales were rarely so extreme or whimsical. Drinking was his main vice not women, and as I said he didn’t die in some neat pat Hollywood way like the father in Big Fish does.
The father in big fish gets to see his son finally accept him for who he was. They share a profound moment between one another even through the haze of heart attack and death. They truly connect for possibly the first time in their lives during that passage from living to gone.
It’s utter crap. How many people actually get to do that? I mean, if you have. Lucky you. I’ve lost many people and I’ve been by a lot of hospital beds and gotten a lot of late night phone calls. The closest I’ve ever come to a Hallmark moment was talking to one of my Grandmothers who asked me if I’d be coming down from college to visit and I’d said ‘oh, hopefully in February’ ‘that’d be nice’ she said. I agreed. Hung up. And being a bitter college kid thought that it sure was a pain that family always wants you around.
She died. I felt bad.
But that’s what I’m getting at. The film Big Fish was not true to life. However it hit upon a truth. It captured to my mother the essence of who her father had been. It was so emotionally taxing thanks to the ways it altered reality to present the same story she’d gone through in an hour and a half that it nearly killed her.
So, what I’m saying is this. If you want your screenplay to ring true. To have a feeling of reality and honesty. Don’t go looking for real events. Real events are messy. They involve dozens of characters and take hours and hours. Real life isn’t full of metaphors and catharsis. Closure doesn’t come to those of us who deal with reality.
Speaking to truth and speaking to reality are very different. I’m referring to truth as an emotional truth. As something that speaks to someone and feels honest and real. It’s different for everyone. One person’s hammy is another’s perfect fiction.
Still, you can’t find that emotional core spending your time trying to perfectly replicate the way people talk. Or making sure that every weapon in your WW2 epic is exactly as it really was down to the bullet count. You find that emotional core by figuring out what part of the story moves people.
For my mother it was seeing a once strong proud man mumbling in his death bed in a hospital with no one around but a single one of his children to see him off. That image was truth to her.
If just a single moment in your script strikes someone as completely emotionally honest then to that person, odds are you’ve written a good script.
Something to keep in mind.
Also, I’m sorry mom for sharing such a private story, and I love and miss you grandpa. I wish I had known you better. I hope you wouldn’t mind me talking about this.