An antidote to the ‘true story’ – why Boyhood’s Bafta success is deserved

Ellar Coltrane grew up whilst Boyhood was filmed. © Universal Pictures

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has beaten off the competition to scoop the Best Picture Award at this year’s Baftas. Filmed in sections over 12 years, Boyhood is in some ways the ultimate cinematic take on reality. It tells the story of a fictional family, but draws on the lived experience of Linklater and the actors.

And it was a risky venture, given that the younger stars might have chosen to opt out during their teenage years. At one point, Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, asked to be killed off, at another she was keen for filming to restart because she wanted an iPhone. In the end, both stayed and the film is a triumph. However, this was not a confessional “true story” but followed its own logic over time – which gives the film its artistic integrity.

Reality has inspired most of this year’s top movies. The Theory of Everything, the British biopic based on the life of Stephen Hawking, was awarded four Baftas and The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing and the Enigma code, was nominated in nine categories (but missed out on any wins). Both are tipped for Oscar success. Of the eight films that have been Oscar nominated for best film, five are either biographical or autobiographical. In the best actor category four of the five nominees are playing a real person.

This isn’t new: factual stories are a staple of cinema. One of the earliest films ever made, produced in Australia in 1906, was based on reality – The Story of the Kelly Gang. Meanwhile the biopic has been popular in various incarnations since the 1930s. But there does seem to be an increasing trend for “true stories” in Hollywood. Three fact-based movies were nominated in 2013 when CIA thriller Argo won best picture Oscar and six in 2014 when 12 Years a Slave triumphed.

Digital narcissism

So why is this? One theory is that Facebook and Twitter play a part – users see their own lives as a visual narrative, constantly posting picture of their holiday destinations, cute cats, restaurant meals and (inevitably) sharing smiling selfies.

If you see yourself as the star of your own movie, it’s gratifying to see “real people” doing the same thing on the big screen. News and global gossip is the life blood of social media. Many studios are hiring consultants specialising in “social listening” to help publicise their movies, using algorithms to analyse activity on social media.

Equally, true stories breed controversy which can go viral on Facebook and Twitter – a gift to film publicists. The recent complaints about inaccuracies or distortions in films such as American Sniper, Selma and Big Eyes are fuelling the media frenzy that help Oscar winners pull the crowds.

The dispute between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, and director Bennett Miller is a case in point. Schultz has strongly criticised Miller after reading reviews which assumed the film showed he had a sexual relationship with John du Pont, a relationship which never happened.

So perhaps such deviations suggest that audiences hungry for fact-based stories are being short changed. What is the value of the “true story” if the narrative parts company with the source reality? New Yorker reviewer Christian Caryl, for example, thinks that the portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game stereotypes him as the nerd-as-genius and ignores both his complexity and the collaborative nature of the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park.

Ethics of the true story

Fact-based films have their literary equivalent – creative non-fiction. And it’s a genre that operates within clear rules. As writer Lee Gutkind puts it:

‘Creative’ doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a licence to lie.

But it seems that this code of ethics doesn’t apply to films.

If the facts are too constraining, then why not dream up an original idea? It’s not just about escapist fantasy either: invention can reveal more than re-engineered facts. Werner Herzog once stated:

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.

The desire for the actual, lived narrative is understandable – yet there can be profound truth in fiction. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida has been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film and took the best foreign film BAFTA this year. This is the fictional story of a Polish novice nun in the 1960s who discovers that she is Jewish. It has a real historical context, but its reach is much wider. Pawlikowski said:

I wanted to make the film very specific and very concrete, and at the same time universal and poetic … Audiences in Brazil, Spain or Finland respond to it because it transcends the time and the place where it is set.

A made-up story can carry more weight than re-cooked “reality”. So strong is the air of authenticity and verisimilitude in Linklater’s mesmerising Boyhood that it’s like looking at childhood, adolescence and the passing of time with an emotional magnifying glass. Linklater tells an invented story freed from biographical “fact”, yet he uses the cinematic form to illuminate the changes in family life in a way that would be impossible in any other medium. It’s no biopic – but it tells us something true.

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