[14 February 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s the difference between fact and fiction, a documentary and a completely made up piece of work. For Hollywood, the “based on a true story” genre has come to mean a lot of things, and not all of them are good. While differing variations on the theme—inspired by, drawn from—can be crafted (or mocked, as American Hustle did when its title card announced that “some of this actually happened”), the end result is something lifted from real life, molded into a movie, and then released to the always gullible public. Sometimes, the tales being told are so far from the truth that it’s hard to see where the legitimacy ends and the lies begin. In other cases, the filmmakers might as well have gone ahead and made a documentary, their desire to be faithful to the source souring everything that they hoped to accomplish. Still, Hollywood is so bereft of original concepts that they keep gloaming onto these ripped from the headlines question marks with relative efficiency.
With that in mind, may we humbly suggest ten more? After all, if you’re going to take on the tale of an overweight gun runner who worked for the CIA and the drug cartels, or a penny stock swindler who went on to reinvent himself as a motivational speaker, or a psychic couple who circumvented the globe tried to prove or disapprove various paranormal phenomenon, why not take on the ideas we have listed below? Sure, there are hundreds of others, but for us, these are the ripping real life yarns that would make for equally ripping cinematic entertainment. Granted, we may be behind the times on a few of these (meaning there may be projects already in development or stuck in development Hell), but whatever the case, we’d rather sit through a three hour overview on any of these crazed concepts than 90 minutes of tame newsreel retreads.
While the above description seems less than sensational, Holmes is notorious for being one of the first confirmed serial killers in the history of the United States. He was already considered a murderer when his home town of Chicago became the center of the then biggest event on the planet. Offering his strangely surreal house (consisting of commercial space and several windowless, maze-like rooms) as potential accommodations, Holmes lured tourists into his trap. He eventually confessed to killing 27 people, though police at the time put the count closer to 200. While there’s a decent documentary about the case, and several books, this story just screams for a solid Hollywood treatment (perhaps with someone like David Fincher behind the lens?).
In 1862, Sarah Lockwood Pardee married William Wirt Winchester, treasurer of the famed gun makers. When he died of tuberculosis, the newly widowed woman was convinced that the spirits of those her husband’s weapons killed were coming to claim her family (she had lost a baby boy sometime before). So she set about building a structure to confuse the potential ghosts, a mansion outfitted with doors that opened into walls, stairs that went nowhere, and numerous confusing construction designs. In the middle was a séance room where Mrs. Winchester would seek psychic guidance for the next day’s building. Numerous TV shows have investigated the structure for signs of possible haunting. Find a prominent A-list actress and sign her up for this story pronto.
At first, it seemed specious. A frightened mother claimed that she and her children were driven from their home by considerable forces of evil, including multiple demons that possessed and tried to harm her and her family. There were accounts of levitation, and of her little boy walking on the ceiling. Naturally, all of this would be easily dispelled if it wasn’t for the fact that the woman had witnesses, many from Indiana Social Services, attesting to the same thing. She called the horrid house a “portal to Hell”. While TV personality Zak Bagans recently bought the place for $35,000 (as a backdrop for his ongoing series Ghost Adventures) , we bet James Wan could fashioned one heck of an Exorcist like scare show out of this story.
It was known as the War of the Currents. While Thomas Edison battled to have his direct current, or DC system, adopted as the standard, George Westinghouse wanted the European concept of alternating current, or AC used. Stuck within the situation was famed physicist and engineer Nikola Tesla. He held several AC patents and hoped the process would beat out Edison’s. Thus began a back and forth consisting of horrific publicity stunts (the iconic man behind the light bulb would electrocute animals in public to argue for AC’s unreliability) and accusations. It wasn’t until General Electric stepped in and developed its own version that we got the power we have today. With a few name actors, this could be one of this always intriguing true life industrial (revolution) thrillers.
They say there’s not enough action films featuring women. So why, then, hasn’t someone pounced on the story of Russia’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment, known later as the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment. This all-girl outfit flew nuisance bombing and precision campaigns from 1942 until the end of WWII, and according to the records, they flew over 23,000 sorties, dropped 3,000 tons of bombs and was the most highly-decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force. The nickname was derived from the German word “Nachthexen” and it is said they were perhaps the most feared of all the USSR’s aviators. They flew less than reliable planes and still managed to make a significant impact in the outcome of the war. Talk about (potential) girl power!
They were four outcasts from Queens. They came together over a love of classic rock ‘n’ roll and a feeling of alienation that seemed to infest the entirety of the early ‘70s. Yet, somehow, Johnny (Cummings) Ramone, Joey (Jeffrey Hyman) Ramone, Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) Ramone, and Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone managed to transcend their situations to become the preeminent punk band of all time. Horribly disregarded during their career, their backstage bickering and in-fighting was as legendary as the music they made. My idea for the biopic is a bit out there, but hear me out. We take the Ramones, their divergent real life personalities (Johnny: ultraconservative Neo-Con, Dee Dee: deranged drug addict, Joey: Phil Specter worshiping romantic, etc.) and set their story within a manufactured Monkees like sitcom setting. Then tell the truth. The result would be a revelation.
In his amazing memoir, Shock Value, John Waters paints a portrait of outsider art circa the ‘50s and ‘60s that is part fringe dwelling, part squatting, and a whole lot of genuine juvenile delinquency (especially shoplifting). How the man behind such memorable films as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble met his many creative soul mates—Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey, and Harris Glenn Milstead, otherwise known as diva drag queen Divine—would make for an amazing movie. Waters paints vivid pictures of drug use, amateur onset antics, and a Baltimore ill-prepared for such haughty ‘Hillbilly Ripoffs’. The eventual birth of Dreamland Studios would provide the feel good icing on this decidedly camp and kitschy true-life cake.
While the rules are more or less the same, the sport we see in 2014 is a billion light years away from the struggling spectacle of some 50 years ago. Coaches were paid nominally while even the most celebrated players had to find a second job “off season” in order to make ends meet. There were no billion dollar TV contracts or video game/jersey revenues. Instead, the football names of that era laid the foundation for all the hoopla and money-fueled mayhem we see today, and many aren’t even recognized for their contribution. This would be a sprawling epic, something touching on the growth of the sport as well as the individuals who made the biggest impact toward where it is today. America’s new pastime deserves such a historical overview.
It’s one of the most intriguing true crime books ever written. Thomas Thompson’s bestselling tome was turned into a tepid TV movie way back in 1981, but the casting (Farrah Fawcett, Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross) left a lot to be desired. Besides, that adaptation failed to focus on the things that made the story so unique: the opera loving doctor who marries into Houston society, the cold fish wife who becomes sicker and sicker over time, the mistress waiting in the wings, the family trying to see that good old fashioned Texas justice is done. Imagine someone like Todd Haynes tackling this material, with its oversized manors, ornate music rooms, accusations of feces in the wife’s éclairs, court room melodramas, and so very much more and say it wouldn’t be sensational.
As a boy, he spent time with traveling carnivals in the South. In the Army, he met future king of the roadshow Kroger Babb. While working as a regional marketing man for Paramount, he started hearing stories about individuals distributing their own unique films around the country—and earning big bucks in the process. Jumping on the nudie cutie bandwagon, David F. Friedman quickly became a exploitation pioneer. Teaming up with Herschell Gordon Lewis, he brought the splatter film into the horror movie mainstream and reimagined the genre with the something called “the roughie”. While he eventually turned to soft and then hardcore porn, he ended up going back to the carnival where he got his start.