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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The privileges and pitfalls of making movies about real people

Diana Nyad, a marathon swimmer, in Ket West, Fla., July 29, 2011. The Oscars slate this year is packed with films rooted in historical events and biographies. How much influence should the subjects have? (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)

By Julia Jacobs

When Walter Naegle was first approached over a decade ago by producers who wanted to make a feature about his late partner, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Naegle needed to be talked into it.

Rustin, who had been the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington — and an openly gay public figure at a time when few were — had already been the subject of the nonfiction “Brother Outsider” (2003). Naegle remembers saying to the producers, “What do I need you guys for? We have a very good documentary.”

But Naegle was persuaded, in part by knowing that a vast audience could be reached with a fictionalized feature, and he gave his blessing, starting a yearslong process of consultation with filmmakers that culminated in “Rustin,” directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Colman Domingo, who has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance.

When Naegle saw the film for the first time, he felt overwhelming relief. “Colman’s performance had really captured this person who I cared about,” he said.

At Sunday’s Academy Awards, Rustin is one of several historical figures who are the focus of nominated films. Other real-life subjects include the father of the atomic bomb, a lauded American conductor, and the victims and perpetrators of the Reign of Terror in the Osage Nation in 1920s Oklahoma.

Historical or biographical conceits have long been fodder for the Oscars, lending an air of significance and gravity to film projects, and a tantalizing challenge to actors. But adapting real stories comes with real people, presenting filmmakers with a delicate choice: How much should they involve their subjects — or their subjects’ families — in the productions?

“Nyad,” the biopic about long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad, was made in close collaboration with the woman herself and her friend and coach, Bonnie Stoll. (Annette Bening, who portrays Nyad, and Jodie Foster, who plays Stoll, are both up for Oscars.)

Following Nyad’s efforts to swim from Cuba to Florida in her 60s, the movie was adapted from Nyad’s memoir, and she read every draft of the script, said Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who directed the movie with her husband, Jimmy Chin.

“The thing that really is my north star with making films about real people is that their life in the film becomes real,” Vasarhelyi said. “I’m always acutely aware that it really matters for the real person.”

Vasarhelyi recalled that Nyad, who is portrayed as a bullheaded athlete with a penchant for exaggeration, at one point told the filmmakers, “I’m more likable than this.”

Despite the filmmakers’ eagerness to work closely with Nyad and Stoll, they saw importance in setting boundaries. At a certain point, Vasarhelyi said, they closed the script for feedback, and arranged for Nyad and Stoll to visit the set only on the final day of shooting in the water tank. When Nyad suggested that she perform her own swimming stunts, the answer was, “Thank you, but no thank you.”

“There’s the story and the writer to protect, and our movie to protect, but then it’s also about respecting the process of your actors,” Vasarhelyi said.

But one clear benefit of collaboration is that it tends to stave off public criticism, which can cast something of a pall over a movie after its release, as happened with “May December,” the Todd Haynes-directed drama that is nominated for best original screenplay.

The film is loosely inspired by the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher who pleaded guilty to second-degree child rape in 1997 for a sexual relationship with one of her sixth-grade students, Vili Fualaau, and then married him after she was released from prison, when he was 22.

There are numerous differences between “May December” and the real-life Letourneau story — including the circumstances of their meeting — but the fictionalizations were not enough to prevent objections from Fualaau, who in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter criticized the filmmakers for not contacting him. (Letourneau died in 2020.)

For “Maestro,” the biopic about Leonard Bernstein’s career and marriage that received seven Oscar nominations, there was something tangible at stake when the movie’s star and director, Bradley Cooper, approached Bernstein’s three children: the rights to Bernstein’s music.

“Once he had permission from us to make this film, he had the option of never talking to us again — it was his movie,” said Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s oldest daughter.

But Cooper went the opposite direction, she said, sending frequent questions about their parents and their upbringing, texting the siblings in a WhatsApp group, sharing iterations of the script and showing them edited footage in a screening room at his home. One limitation, Bernstein said, was that the family never visited the production during filming, describing it as a “closed set.”

The blessing of Bernstein’s children also provided a layer of protection when Cooper, who is not Jewish, was criticized for using a prosthetic nose to portray Bernstein, who was Jewish. “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that,” the Bernsteins said in a statement before the film’s premiere, which seemed to put much of the criticism to rest.

That level of protection was not universally viewed as a benefit: In his review of “Maestro” for The New Yorker, Richard Brody criticized the film for what he called a “scrupulous avoidance of controversy,” raising the estate’s cooperation as one potential factor.

The filmmakers’ calculus tends to be affected by whether traumatic events are at stake and whether the movie could be viewed as exploitative.

Before filming began on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the epic about white men’s murderous plot to steal Osage oil rights, descendants of the victims asked the director, Martin Scorsese, to visit them in Oklahoma. That meeting led him to more deeply engage Osage people in the production and to shift the story’s focus more toward the experiences of their relatives.

And in making “Society of the Snow,” which chronicles the Uruguayan plane crash in 1972 that resulted in the deaths of 29 people and left 16 stranded in the Andes for more than two months, director J.A. Bayona interviewed all remaining survivors extensively, putting the actors in contact with them and with the families of the dead.

The in-depth consultation process for the movie — which is nominated in the international feature category — took years, but Bayona drew the line at sharing the script with survivors and family members, recognizing that it would open the door for opinions from hundreds of people on the minutiae of the film.

“We wanted the freedom to tell the story,” Bayona said.

Gustavo Zerbino, one of the survivors, worked closely with Bayona, even going with him to ask for the blessing of one of the mothers of the dead to make the movie. But after spending so much time together, there came a point when Zerbino said he was able to let go and let the director work. “We believed in you,” he said.

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