A film director sits in a vintage director's chair surrounded by a clapboard, megaphone, script pages and dramatic lighting as they prepare to call action on a new film based on real events.

How to Write a Screenplay Based on Real Events Without Getting Sued

Lights, camera, lawsuit? Many great films like The Social Network, Argo, and Catch Me If You Can are “based on a true story.” But fictionalizing real events and people always carries legal risks.

In 2018, the romantic drama A Private War, about war correspondent Marie Colvin, sparked a $300 million lawsuit from Colvin’s sister. She claimed the film tarnished Colvin’s legacy by depicting her with PTSD and a drinking problem.

The case was dismissed on free speech grounds. But it shows writing a screenplay based on real events can get you sued, even if you have the best intentions.

So how can you turn a fascinating true story into an award-winning script without ending up in court? This guide provides practical tips for legally and ethically basing your screenplay on real people and events. With proper precautions, you can bring an incredible true tale to the silver screen.

Conduct Thorough Research on the True Story

The first step is immersing yourself in everything known about the real events. This serves two purposes: providing enough detail to craft a compelling narrative, and establishing factual accuracy to avoid lawsuits.

Your research should include:

  • News reports from when the events happened.
  • Documentaries, nonfiction books, magazine articles, etc. See all existing coverage.
  • Court records, police reports, and original documents if available. These provide definitive facts.
  • Interviews with people involved, witnesses, experts, etc. Get multiple perspectives.
  • Field research like visiting relevant locations in person. This can spark ideas.

Dig as deep as possible to separate fact from fiction. Compile everything into a timeline and document of key details. This will ground your screenplay in truth while also revealing gaps you can fill creatively.

For example, the 2015 film Concussion starring Will Smith was based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu. He discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players and fought to raise awareness. The script was developed through extensive interviews with Omalu himself.

Thorough research provides the peace of mind that you are not misrepresenting real people and events. It also lends authenticity to the final film. Audiences can sense when a “true story” rings hollow.

Fictionalize Specific Elements

Films based on reality never follow events exactly. Dramatic license is taken through:

  • Fictionalized dialogue – Don’t use anyone’s actual spoken words without permission.
  • Imagined scenes – Fill gaps in the true story by speculating realistic interactions.
  • Composite characters – Combine real figures into single roles.
  • Altered timelines – Condense or rearrange chronology for narrative purposes.
  • Renamed characters – Don’t use real people’s names without their consent.

These techniques create distance from the true story. It moves your script into the realm of inspired-by rather than 100% factual.

The 2015 film Spotlight about the Boston Globe exposing Catholic Church abuse fictionalized dialogue, timelines, and other elements. But it still adhered closely to the facts.

The Social Network took major creative liberties with scenes, dialogue, and characterizations. This likely helped the studio avoid lawsuits from Facebook’s founders.

Fictionalizing parts of your script makes it less likely to be deemed defamatory toward real people. Just make sure key facts and themes remain accurate.

Use Composite Characters

Combining multiple real-life figures into single composite characters is an effective fictionalization strategy. This merges different viewpoints, experiences, or traits into one representative role.

The 2015 film Steve Jobs consolidated several Apple executives into fictional characters like Andy Hertzfeld. This allowed more creative freedom in how events were dramatized.

If done respectfully, composites can help a screenplay feel more universal. The story becomes elevated from a discrete set of real people and facts into a larger human truth.

Just be very careful that composites written negatively don’t come across as a distorted takedown of any one person. Don’t combine real people in ways that seem mocking or libelous.

Consult a Lawyer About Life Rights Issues

A life rights agreement authorizes you to portray real people or organizations in your film – usually in exchange for compensation. Securing life rights is the strongest protection against lawsuits.

But you may be able to avoid acquiring full life rights if you fictionalize considerably. Consult an entertainment lawyer to assess if your script infringes on anyone’s right of publicity or defames real people. They can provide guidance on:

  • Using real names, likenesses, or biographical details.
  • Depicting private information and events.
  • Portraying living people versus deceased (less legal risk).
  • Defamation risks of negatively depicting real figures.
  • What disclaimers should be used like “based on a true story.”

Lawyers can also negotiate life rights agreements on your behalf if needed. The contract will specify what you can and can’t include related to the individual.

Without proper legal advice, you risk getting sued even if your work is an innocent homage to real events. Don’t wait until your screenplay is finished to talk to a lawyer.

Make Substantive Changes to the True Story

Films based on actual events typically include a disclaimer that certain elements were “fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” This is not just a catch-all legal shield. Your script should make substantive changes to the facts.

Altering names, timelines, settings, and other details can strengthen your case for transformative use rather than copyright infringement. This shows you took creative license to craft an original story inspired by reality.

Don’t make minor cosmetic changes just to claim fictionalization. Actually reconceptualize the narrative, characters, themes, and other elements. This will also likely improve the story anyway.

The Blues Brothers was “based on characters created by” the comedians who starred in it. But the overall plot and story were heavily fictionalized. This likely helped the studio avoid rights issues.

Making substantive changes shows your screenplay is its own unique work rather than copying someone’s life story outright. It becomes your fresh interpretation of events.

Focus on Broader Themes Rather Than Specifics

Minimize legal risk by avoiding excessive specifics from a real person’s life. Don’t recreate private conversations, intimate moments, or other confidential details without permission.

Instead, focus your narrative on broader themes and insight into the human condition. Even if based on reality, your script should speak to universal emotions and experiences.

Spotlight was fundamentally about systemic corruption, not the personal lives of the journalists. This likely made real-life figures more willing to cooperate informally.

The Theory of Everything starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking depicted his relationship with his first wife Jane. But it centered on his spirit and intellect rather than private aspects of their marriage.

Basing your screenplay on themes gives you more creative freedom. You can invent scenes and dialogue to serve symbolism and meaning. Just ensure it doesn’t contradict the core facts.

Weigh Creative Liberties Against Defamation Risks

When writing about real people, you want to avoid:

  • Misrepresentation – Depicting events or traits that didn’t happen.
  • Invasion of privacy – Revealing confidential personal details.
  • False light – Portrayal that implies negative character traits.
  • Emotional distress – Harrowing depictions that disturb living people.

While some dramatization and conjecture are expected, don’t fabricate events or character flaws that could be seen as defamatory.

Also consider how family members of deceased figures would feel about their loved one’s portrayal. Work with them or change names if needed.

However, negative depictions may be protected free speech if they are substantially true or related to public figures/events. There are no hard rules on where creative liberties cross into legal issues.

Tread carefully and really consider whether a speculative scene or characteristic is worth the potential fallout. Over-glamorizing real people can also draw criticism. Find the right balance.


Movies based on reality capture our imaginations unlike anything else. But fictionalizing other people’s lives comes with distinct creative and ethical challenges.

With proper diligence and care, you can turn an incredible true story into an impactful film without legal repercussions. Just remember:

  • Thoroughly research the facts from objective sources.
  • Consult a lawyer on potential legal risks.
  • Obtain life rights if depicting private details.
  • Make substantive creative changes to the real narrative.
  • Focus on capturing broader themes rather than specifics.
  • Weigh artistic license against defamation very carefully.

The truth is often stranger and more compelling than fiction. But basing your screenplay on real events requires thoughtfulness and integrity. By understanding legal best practices, you can craft your own cinematic interpretation of reality.

Just be sure to contact an entertainment attorney before selling your script. With the right precautions, your masterpiece can inform and inspire audiences to see the world in a new light.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it legal to write a story based on true events?

Yes, it is legal to write a story inspired by true events as long as you fictionalize the details sufficiently to avoid defamation, copyright infringement, and right of publicity issues. Consult a lawyer to ensure your story is transformative and not too similar to the real events.

Can you make a film based on a true story?

Yes, many great films are based on true stories. Just be sure to make substantive changes, not closely mimic a creative work, and avoid using real names/likenesses without permission to minimize legal risks.

Do you need permission to make a movie about a true story?

Not necessarily, if you change the details enough and don’t use real people’s names/images. However, getting life rights agreements with living subjects is highly recommended to avoid lawsuits.

Are movies allowed to say based on a true story?

Yes, films can say “based on actual events” or “inspired by a true story.” This signals that events are fictionalized, not 100% factual. Just be sure not to fabricate events or defame real people.

Can you sue someone for writing your life story?

Yes, if they appropriate your name,private details, or life story rights without permission, you may be able to sue for misappropriation of likeness, copyright infringement, or defamation depending on the specifics.

What is it called when a story is based on real events?

Stories based on reality are often called “historical fiction” or “narrative nonfiction.” Terms like “inspired by actual events” and “based on a true story” are also used.

How much does it cost to get life rights?

Getting life rights can range from a few thousand to millions of dollars depending on who you are depicting and how prominent their role is. Famous public figures will be much more costly.

How many pages is the average script?

The average feature film script is 90 to 120 pages. Dramas tend to be longer, while comedies are typically shorter. Independent films may be only 80-90 pages, while large blockbusters sometimes run longer than 120 pages.

Can you sue someone for making a movie about you?

Yes, if they depict you without permission in a way that’s defamatory, violates your privacy rights, or infringes your copyright. But films can tell fictionalized stories inspired by real people with minimal legal risk if done properly.

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