Truth Be Told

Producers and distributors weigh in on some of the keys to crafting successful dramas based on real-life stories.

A scan of the recent news headlines returns stories brimming with plot, just begging to be scripted for TV in the years to come. Think of the possibilities for a pandemic thriller of global scale, a TV movie about cross-border political meddling, a limited series centered on the social upswells from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Real-life events and people have long served as the inspiration for successful dramas, and in today’s environment, which in many ways feels like the strangest of times, audiences are even more hungry for stories from the past that can either help them escape the harsh realities or perhaps make sense of them.

“People naturally have an easier connection with topics with a real-life background since they can relate to them and engage even more if they know that there is a true story behind it,” says Robert Franke, VP of ZDFE.drama at ZDF Enterprises.

“With many real-life and true-event stories, people can remember parts of the story or a specific incident,” says Alexandra Heidrich, head of acquisitions and sales for international TV and SVOD at Global Screen. “They have either learned something at school, read about it or heard about it in the news. But they don’t have the full story. This arouses curiosity within the audience. True-event series seem familiar because the viewer thinks he or she already knows the protagonists, as they still have vague memories of the story.”

Even though there has been a steady flow of real-life stories worthy of screen treatment, it hasn’t always been easy to get these projects off the ground. “In many cases, those stories were harder to get produced because of the higher cost inherent in telling period stories, particularly for stories emerging from non-English-speaking territories,” says Christian Gabela, creative executive, head of Latin America and Spain at Gaumont. “With the advent of streaming platforms, however, a greater emphasis has been placed on finding local stories, and with it has come a need to produce higher-budget shows. This has allowed for some of these real-life local stories to get produced at the budget levels the stories deserve.”

Jimmy George, VP of sales and acquisitions at GoQuest Media, agrees that streaming services have helped to spur this already-in-demand genre. “Because of the boom of digital platforms, there is a requirement for original content in a lot of territories. Be it key territories like the U.S. and U.K., but even in developing ones, they all need content. With real-life events, these provide available, authentic, ready material [from which] to craft a good, compelling story.”

George says that it’s easy for audiences to get inspired by the true-life tales of real people from the past. “In the times that we’re living in, we need to be inspired to carry on and keep going ahead in life. At the same time, there are some great personalities whose stories need to be told; the world needs to see them. These stories are authentic, relatable and relevant. They work because they talk about human triumph.”

GoQuest is currently highlighting two dramas that are inspired by or based on real people: Queen and Ek Thi Begum, both from India. Queen has a theme of female empowerment, set against the backdrop of a vibrant India in the 1960s to 1990s. It’s a biopic inspired by a famous figure: a movie star who went on to become a political icon. “It’s a story of a woman who starts from nothing and achieves a lot,” says George. “Don’t we all want to see that? A fact-based story that truly inspires viewers during these very trying times.”

There’s also an inspirational female-empowerment story at the center of Russia Television and Radio’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, based on the novel by Guzel Yakhina recounting her grandmother’s dramatic life. Meanwhile, striking a more sinister tone, The Blood Widow is about the most notorious female serial killer in Russian history.

Ekaterina Efanova, drama producer at Russia Television and Radio, says that these types of stories play off of people’s innate curiosity. “They want to know how it happened, who is to blame and what was really going on,” she says. “True stories also give the audience a chance to live through happy and tragic events along with the character; it’s an opportunity for them to gain experience and skills. They can dive into the story and find it very exciting.”

Efanova adds that in terms of historical context, these kinds of stories “help viewers not only identify themselves with a historical character, but they provide education as well.” Their appeal comes down to what she calls “the timeless truth: that life itself is an incredible scriptwriter. No one has succeeded in topping the plot twists of real-life stories.”

A more recent historical event, the 2015 FIFA corruption case, commonly known as FIFA Gate, comes to light in El Presidente from Gaumont for Amazon Prime Video. The series, which was showrun by Oscar-winning filmmaker Armando Bó, recounts the unlikely rise of Sergio Jadue, the former president of the National Association of Professional Football of Chile, and his central role in the global scandal.

“While most of the characters are real and serious research was performed to ascertain the facts of the events, Armando and his writing team did take creative liberties in order to fill the gaps where information was lacking and reach the ironic tone of the series that makes it so much fun to watch,” says Gabela.

The ZDF Enterprises catalog has a number of dramas based on historical events, among them Munich ’72 and Ship of No Return—The Final Voyage of the ‘Gustloff.’ There are also those inspired by real people (Beate Uhse: A Lust for Life and Love, Ottilie von Faber-Castel, Freud).

While historical events and biographies of famous or extraordinary individuals are certainly fertile ground for dramas, Global Screen’s Heidrich sees another type of tale coming to the forefront. “The subgenre of true crime is probably one of the most popular of all, and not just on TV or [digital] platforms, but also increasingly in podcasts,” she says.

“Often, true crime deals with particularly bizarre cases, stories that evoke horror in us,” Heidrich continues. “I think people love this horror factor and the view through the keyhole. You can observe everything from a distance; you can look into the lives of other people and feel that justice has been served when the guilty party is punished. Secretly, you act as the jury yourself. This lets you reassess your own value system.”

In this vein, the company’s fall slate features Dark Woods, which follows the disappearance of a woman who went missing in Lower Saxony. Inspired by real events that took place in the late 1980s, the miniseries tells the story of a family tragedy and of a brother searching for his missing sister for more than 30 years. “It is a story that leaves you both shocked and speechless,” says Heidrich.

Global Screen is also presenting Turbulent Skies, a historical adventure drama from the Netherlands inspired by true events. The story, set from 1919 to 1930, portrays the feud between KLM’s Albert Plesman and aircraft manufacturer Anthony Fokker.

For Turbulent Skies, producer Topkapi Films stuck to the facts as much as possible, Heidrich says. “Almost everything in the series happened in reality. The writers concluded that the lives of both Plesman and Fokker were so rich with drama, and their personalities so different, that they didn’t need to add too much fiction to it, apart from a few instances.”

Topkapi Films used the biography of Fokker for the series, with the permission of author Marc Dierikx. “Luckily, he happened to know a lot about Plesman’s life, too,” says Heidrich. “In this way, Dierikx became a fact-checker for the story.”

The script of Dark Woods was inspired by one of the most mysterious criminal cases in German post-war history. The plot follows the same course of action as the original case, “aligned according to dramatic requirements, without claiming to exactly reproduce real events,” Heidrich notes. “Individual characters in the series, namely the family and the perpetrator, are inspired by the life story of the protagonists in the original case. Many characters, especially those from the investigating authorities and the public prosecutor’s office, are typified fictional characters. Others are completely fictional characters.”

Wolfgang Sielaff, the missing woman’s brother and former head of the Hamburg State Criminal Police Office and chief of police in Hamburg, consulted on the series. “For Bavaria Fiction, the producers behind Dark Woods, it was very important to involve Sielaff and his family as well as his private team of investigators in the production because they wanted to treat the victims with the utmost respect,” says Heidrich.

With Russia Television and Radio’s inspired-by dramas, Efanova says the producers were striving to re-create the periods as accurately as possible. “We examined archive documents, diaries and letters. We had historians, archive and museum professionals, costume and household advisers to consult us during our work. Some of the episodes were shot on the historical sites protected by the government, so we needed to get special permission for shooting there.”

ZDF Enterprises’ Franke is of the opinion that the level of creative liberties that can be taken “depends very much on the individual production and the creativity and intentions of the makers and creators. If you want a high level of authenticity, you will work with consultants and may also require permission to make a story as close to the real story behind it as possible—in terms of the characters described, the locations, props, manners, historical accuracy and so on.”

In his overall take on historical and factual accuracy versus creative license, Franke likens it to the experience of watching a movie after you’ve already read the book, in that there will always be critics. “Some will be enthusiastic about the film; some will say it should have been closer to the book and dislike it. Personally, I think that the outcome is what matters in drama productions. If you want a 90 percent accurate description of a person or event, you have to watch a documentary about it. A drama made based on the same event might still be excellent and enjoyable, even if there is only 10 percent reality in it. The only thing that matters is that the audience enjoys it, either for authenticity or for pure entertainment.”

Gaumont’s Gabela says the balance of fact and fiction is best left to the discretion of the writer, “who ultimately is looking to squeeze the greatest narrative value out of the factual foundation of the story.”

The story in Gaumont’s El Presidente has its roots in Chile, but the event had global resonance, and Gabela says that it’s these types of true-life stories that are primed to travel. “Local stories often travel well because they have a universal relevance that transcends the interests of the local audience,” he says. “This is typically achieved by showcasing a captivating universe and a set of characters whose personal conflicts and motivations feel grounded in basic human emotions.”

Global notoriety of a historical figure can certainly help give a show international legs, but it’s not a requirement, says ZDF Enterprises’ Franke, so long as the audience can connect to the character and the story. “The character in a drama production may even be easier to sympathize with than the real person portrayed might have been,” he adds.

GoQuest’s George believes that the current political and social climate will propel a wave of interest in inspired-by dramas, perhaps in some unexpected ways. “Uplifting and motivational stories will give audiences positive inspiration during these tough times,” George says. “More and more of the audience needs to escape into these real stories, which can inspire them and give them hope, and most of all, keep them engaged and entertained. Plus, with the expansion of digital platforms commissioning their own originals, this is going to fuel a lot of the stories that appear in the content market.”

Global Screen’s Heidrich is also enthused by the prospects for heartening and inspirational shows to spring from the roots of real life. “True crime and historical events will surely stay with us for a long time to come, but perhaps this preference for true stories will spill over into other areas,” she says. “I would like to see stories of people who have achieved something extraordinary, stories that encourage and inspire. I think we could all use uplifting stories at this unusual time.”

The fact remains that reality can often be more captivating, or twisted, than what even the most imaginative of fiction storytellers could come up with—which means there’s plenty of real-life material ripe for TV treatment.

“Sometimes we are surprised by reality,” says ZDF Enterprises’ Franke. “Just look at this year. There have already been movies about viruses, etc., but we took this as something coming from the imagination of a scriptwriter. Something that might occasionally happen in a faraway country but never on our doorstep. And then COVID-19 hit us, and the world still has not defeated it. Just before this happened, we were in the middle of producing our coming-of-age drama and post-apocalyptic disaster thriller Sløborn, which tells the story of a group of islanders confronted with a fatal virus. In a radical, uncompromising manner, the series raises the question of what happens to us modern people when the thin varnish of our civilization collapses and reminds us that reality can sometimes be tougher than anything that could be imagined.”