Q. I've come across what I believe to be a fantastic true crime story with a built in narrative and many interesting details to work with. Is it possible to tell a true crime story in screenplay or comic book form and not get buried under a mountain of lawsuits?
My understanding is that you can use anything that appears in the public record. Trial transcripts are public domain, and as I understand it, one has no right of privacy as regards things that have already appeared in public.
If you are using someone's reportage -- say you're basing your screenplay on a series of articles by a reporter -- you're on shakier ground. Usually the studio will want to see that you've optioned the rights to the reporter's work. I believe that if you've based your screenplay on many
reporter's stories, you might not need the rights. If a story element has appeared in two reporters' stories, then neither of them can be sure you took your information from them.
However, why not finesse the whole thing and adapt the truth? I doubt there are many true crime stories so compelling they can't be improved on. A knife becomes an ice pick. An SUV becomes a Hummer. An immigrant from Mali becomes a refugee from Rwanda. Your job in adapting true events for the screen is to distill what is cinematic and personal, what supports the story you want to tell, and to fill in the gaps. Unless the notoriety of the crime (Zodiac
) or the reporter (Capote
) is part of the attraction of the story, you may be better off without the rights. That will force you to judge each scene not by whether it happened, but whether it is necessary to the story. It will force you to ask yourself if you can't do better. (Should the playwright's lover bludgeon him to death with his award statue? Or with a hammer, and then bemoan how he should
have done it with the statue?)
Then you can slap an "Inspired by a true story" on the script and you're off to the races.
Labels: adaptation, craft, rights