(Recently published in Written By, the magazine for the Writers Guild of America)
This guy has a plan to build the biggest bridge in the world. So he goes to the mayor and the city council and after a lot of political wrangling they say yes. On the first day, he takes a boat out on the bay to scout the location. There's a freak accident and, p.s., the guy dies. He has a son, a young budding architect, who decides to finish his father's dream. A few years into the 14-year odyssey, the son gets very ill. So his wife rents an apartment with a view of the bridge, puts her husband's bed in the window, and, knowing absolutely nothing about building bridges, spends the next eleven years finishing the bridge for her husband and his dead father. It was 1883 when she finished. They called it The Brooklyn Bridge.
So what's the movie? Is it a love story about the young couple? Or is it about the mayor who risked his career? Or is about any of the 27 people who died in the building of it? Maybe it's PT Barnum, who drove a heard of elephants over it at the inaugural? Or is it about the oldest woman in New York, interviewed in 1969, who thought a man on the moon was pretty cool, "but nothing compared to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge."
I'll tell you this much, whatever you do, you'll never tell the complete story, word for word, in a two hour movie. But what you can do is capture the spirit of the event, make sure you don't violate the historically relevant moments, and you can find the emotional experience for an audience, make them feel the pain and the exhilaration of the true story. But to do that, you're gonna have to be brutal.
That was the challenge in tackling the true story I chose to write about. North Country, adapted from the book "Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law" by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy-Gansler, is a film about a living breathing community amidst the iron mines of Northern Minnesota, where hardworking people live a less than sunny existence; they seek the security of a hard days work and the paycheck that comes with it, but the flip side of that security is fear, fear of the physical dangers at the mine, fears of job loss, of resultant poverty, fear of the entire iron industry being decimated by foreign competition. And when women started working there for the first time, they lived in fear of persecution, harassment, even violence at the hands of the men. And the men in the mine had a new fear of yet another way they could lose their jobs, and their very sense of self. The resulting conflict between the men and the women became the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit in history.
That's what the true story is about. What I had to figure out - what every screenwriter has to figure out - is what's it really about? I mean, in movie terms. Because all that stuff up there is great, but there are very real problems to contend with: the actual events took place over 28 years; we didn't have, nor could we possibly attain the life rights of the hundreds of people involved in the true story; and finally, how do you remain respectful to those historical events, as well as the personally intimate ones that those women hold sacred, while still honoring the very real, and often competing responsibilities to the audience.
I needed a character - a woman who could share the DNA of all of those heroines who really lived it and who could serve the story I needed to tell. Sometimes you create a composite character, not just to simplify the telling of the story, but to form a "doorway in" to the film. Whereas, a documentary requires that the audience be a witness to the events, to understand and appreciate the facts as the filmmaker presents them, a narrative film requires that the audience be a participant in those events, to enter wholly and completely the world of the story. So, a narrative film is not only a different form of storytelling from a documentary; it's a different form of story-experiencing. Hence, the need for the doorway in, a character on screen who represents the viewer. When that character feels pain we feel pain, when she feels triumph we feel triumph. The nitty-gritty, chronological details of a real life don't usually unfold in a way that allows for that identity-bonding. The storyteller must craft it and must often do so by adapting certain aspects of the "true story" to fit the confines of the medium.
The composite character that I crafted is named Josey Aimes, played pitch-perfect by Charlize Theron. Josey is a woman who not only finds herself in conflict with every man in her community but (and here's the "what it's really about" part) is also trying to reconcile the relationships with the males closest to her - her father, who has long since stopped trying to keep her safe, and her son, who, no matter how hard she tries, she can't keep safe from the secret she can't share with him.
In order to allow myself some breathing room in the character , I felt I had to establish some ground rules for the screenplay. Any major event that occurs in the movie had to be based on a real event. Everything that happens to a woman in the mine on screen had to have happened to someone in real life. Same with the events in the courtroom, they had to be grounded in truth. If I could live with those rules, I felt I had some room to utilize Josey to suit my needs.
How does an audience relate to sexual harassment? They don't. It's one of those buzz words that causes an unfair response from many people. Like Affirmative Action. So, why do they care about it in a film? They care if they care about Josey. So I decided to make that connection through the universal and primal issues of family, the need to feed and clothe your kids, to protect them from harm. If Josey dealt with those themes, we would deal with those themes. What we'd know is that all Josey wants to do is "go to work, get paid end of the week, feed my kids, and maybe have some left over for a beer Saturday night." And that anyone tells her she can't, because she was born with different plumbing, is intolerable. You don't have to work in an iron mine, you don't even have to be a woman, to appreciate that.
But the true story is also about a court case. For me, the most compelling part of that was not the victory. The victory is implicit. The genre tells us they win. The title of the book tells us they win. The most compelling part for me was the creation of the class, the moment the women stood up for themselves and for each other. That was it. That moment. Is it the whole story? No. It's the one that mattered the most to me.
The moment itself was real - that solidarity really happened, and it happened within a close-knit community after a long and painful process for these women. Historically, the very women who at first testified against Lois Jenson, the intrepid miner who fought against sexual harassment, eventually joined her class suit, and that case was decided in their favor. But it didn't happen all at once. They did it one at a time, each in her own way. But I had to compress that moment of truth for the sake of the story. I needed a moment where an identity-bonding could happen between audience and the characters. When those women stand up, we stand up. This moment happens for Josey in a big, important, emotional scene at the end of the film. Is the on-screen moment fictional? Technically, sure it is. But emotionally, thematically, and even historically - it happened. In real life, the result of these women standing up for each other and themselves was exultation. I wanted the audience to experience that feeling. So I made it all happen in one moment, a moment of truth, a movie-moment. And, not incidentally, the other big revelation of the film's third act (I won't spoil it here) - the movie's deepest secret - is not invented from whole cloth either. If you read the book, you'll see that, shockingly and tragically, it is rooted in someone's painful reality. But the way it's put together on screen is fictionalized. I compressed and shifted pieces of the actual story to transmit certain emotional truths for the audience, as well as to protect the privacy of those who really lived a version of the event. These are the choices you make when you adapt the sprawling truth of a life, or many lives, to a movie screen. You search for the truth and find a way to tell it in your fiction.
Bruce Springsteen once said that in his songs, the verses are the blues and the chorus is the gospel. He's essentially saying that you can talk about any topic you want, no matter how challenging, as long as you find the part that lifts us up. Writing a story based on a historical record of abuse, harassment, and loss requires the same thing. The true story lifted up, to a very real degree, women across America. That's the gospel. And that's the chorus of the movie.