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From Chariots of Fire to The King's Speech

Writing Biopics and Docudramas

Alan Rosenthal

Publication Year: 2014

Over the past decade, movie audiences have become hungry for films based on real people and historical events. Never was this more evident than during the best-picture showdown between The King’s Speech and The Social Network during the 2011 Academy Awards, a scene then repeated, with Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty in the 2013 awards.. While Hollywood moguls have come to recognize the box-office revenue and critical acclaim that accompany such films and are now fast-tracking many docudramas into theaters, there remains a need for more reality-based film scripts.

In From “Chariots of Fire” to “The King’s Speech,” writer, director, and producer Alan Rosenthal presents a manual for screenwriters to develop their bio-pic or docudrama from concept to completion. This comprehensive guide begins with an overview of the genre before providing screenwriters with all the techniques and insights needed to navigate the often intimidating landscape of screenwriting for reality-based scripts. Included within the volume are tips for such challenges as inception and research, developing dialogue and narration, and capably addressing any legal and rights issues that may arise. Also included are appendixes containing useful marketing tips and broadcast guidelines.

A practical, down-to-earth manual for experienced and novice screenwriters alike, From “Chariots of Fire” to “The King’s Speech”  is the only manual dedicated explicitly to writing the bio-pic and docudrama. Rosenthal shares his decades of experience in the film industry, along with hands-on tools and maps, to help screenwriters completely master this popular film genre.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

When David Seidler took to the stage in 2011, to receive the best screenplay Academy Award for The King’s Speech, he must have been a very happy man. He was seventy-three years old. The idea for the film had been with him for years, and now his efforts were crowned with the small golden statuette in his hand. Seventy-one years before, his work might have been admired,...

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pp. xi-xiv

First, my thanks to all those people and organizations who let me look at their films and burrow through their scripts. In particular, I would like to thank Ruth Caleb of the BBC, Ian McBride of Granada TV, and Brian Siberell of HBO; they all gave me immense help and made this book possible. I would also like to thank Henry Breitrose, David Elstein, Peter Goodchild,...

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pp. 1-8

Early in 2011, the two most important candidates for the Oscar for best film of the year were The King’s Speech and The Social Network. In the end, The King’s Speech took the award not only for best film but also for best script. Two years earlier, the film Milk, about gay rights activist Harvey Milk, was nominated for eight Oscars and won for best actor and best original ...

Part One: Clearing Your Head

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1. The Popular Genre

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pp. 11-14

Whether you call them docudramas, dramadocs, fact-fiction dramas, or something even more exotic, one thing is clear: reality-based stories are the most popular drama genre on television today. In fact, it would be a most unusual week in which we didn’t see at least two or three stories based on real incidents featured on TV. And it’s been that way for a long time....

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2. What Is Docudrama?

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pp. 15-18

You want to write reality-based dramas, and fact-fiction, but wait a minute. What are we talking about? What is this strange form that floats somewhere between documentary and fiction. What is docudrama?...

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3. Choosing a Dynamic Subject

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pp. 19-32

On Sunday, November 22, 1992, the front page of the arts and leisure section of the New York Times bore the legend “MURDER, MAYHEM STALK TV. Television in frenzy over real-life sagas.” Although the article discussed TV docudrama in general, its main story dealt with the strange and lurid case of Amy Fisher....

Part Two: Starting to Work

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4. Research

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pp. 35-46

Research is the master key to fact-based films, and you undertake it with two objectives in mind. You are looking for facts, and you are trying to get to the heart of the drama. In order to write your script, you must know your subject in depth, inside out and upside down. Only when you really know the subject will you be able to see where to go: how to shape the film,...

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5. The Dramatic Elements

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pp. 47-62

You’ve found your subject. It looks commercial. It has audience appeal. You’ve done your research, and you think you’re on to a winner.
You’ve got a good story. It’s about an attractive person with whom the audience can identify, caught in a threatening life crisis. You’ve got villains....

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6. Shaping the Total Drama

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pp. 63-80

After considering the elements of story, conflict, and character, you still have a few questions to answer before tackling the script. Your concern is how to shape the film into a logical and emotional whole. Here, you are concerned with problems of approach, framework, attack, and rhythm. You are taking another look at structure and form but from a slightly different angle....

Part Three: From Treatment to Script

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7. The Outline Treatment

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pp. 83-102

You don’t have to do a treatment, but it helps, especially in fact-based films. The treatment is your first attempt to outline the drama. It will show you and your commissioning editor several things:

The flow and development of the story
Who your main characters are...

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8. Writing Dialogue and Narration

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pp. 103-121

On a recent journey, I read the following in an airline magazine. “Only rarely does Hollywood have anything interesting to say in terms of intelligent dialogue. Lines such as ‘Hasta la vista! Baby!’ and ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ now pass as the height of screen writing.”...

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9. Beginning Your Script

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pp. 122-128

The moment has come when you are ready to start the script itself. Your first task is to make sure that when you do write, your work follows the standard conventions for script layout. They are fairly simple, and many of the rules you will have picked up by merely glancing at the script examples ...

Part Four: Special Considerations

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10. Adaptations

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pp. 131-153

Writing adaptations is tricky, problematic, challenging, and fun. And they are very much in demand. Malcolm X, Citizen Cohn, The Gathering Storm, and In the Name of the Father were all adapted from biographies or autobiographies. And the Band Played On and Barbarians at the Gates started their lives as best sellers. My Week with Marilyn was based on Colin...

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11. Print the Legend?

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pp. 154-162

When challenged about the veracity of an incident in one of his films, the director John Ford is reputed to have said something like, “When it’s fact against legend, print the legend.” If questioned about truth and fiction in docudrama today, one suspects he would also have said, “To hell with the truth, go for the drama.”...

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12. Rights and Legal Issues

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pp. 163-176

Before I became a filmmaker, I worked as a film attorney in London. Every day, writers and producers came to our office in hope and in fear. Their stories were usually similar. They had landed a movie deal but wanted to make sure it was airtight. They wanted to make sure they would get promised money on time, that they wouldn’t be sued for what they were doing, that...

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pp. 177-182

You’ve finished. The bound script lies on your table in all its pristine glory. Next to it is a glass of wine. For once, your wastepaper basket is empty. The title in the middle of the first page says To the Penal Colony. Directly underneath it are the words “A screenplay by Irwin Nailer.” In the lower ...

Appendix A: Broadcast Guidelines

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pp. 183-185

Appendix B: Marketability

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pp. 186-188


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pp. 189-197

About the Author, Back Cover

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pp. 198-199

E-ISBN-13: 9780809332991
E-ISBN-10: 080933299X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332984
Print-ISBN-10: 0809332981

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2014