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How To Write A Screenplay About Factual EventsJFK

Writing about factual events is both appealing and challenging for screenwriters. Many films have been promoted with the tag line, based on fact.

Oliver Stone based the script for his film, JFK, on two non-fiction books: Jim Garrison's On The Trail Of The Assassins and Jim Marrs's Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy. The mainstream news media tried to discredit the film before it had even been released. But the media only succeeded in drawing attention to the film, ensuring its success. When Stone published the script for JFK in book form, he included 340 research notes with supporting facts for the story, as well as news articles written by high-profile journalists who chose to attack the film.

In writing the script for JFK, Stone condensed a large number of events and characters from the Kennedy assassination. He chose New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as the protagonist (hero) and businessman Clay Shaw as the antagonist (villain). Garrison was the only person to ever charge and prosecute anyone for involvement in the Kennedy assassination. He charged Clay Shaw for conspiring with other people to murder President Kennedy. Shaw was the director of the International Trade Mart—a business organization—and worked for the CIA.

Oliver Stone uses Jim Garrison's investigation of Clay Shaw as the main focus of JFK. In the film, Garrison determines that Shaw planned the Kennedy assassination with David Ferrie, a CIA agent who knew Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused by the U.S. Government of being the lone gunman in the assassination.

Stone uses the trial of Clay Shaw in the film to show that multiple gunmen were involved in the assassination. In the court room scenes, Jim Garrison tells the jury that the assassination was carried out through the use of assassins firing guns at President Kennedy from three different locations in Dealey Plaza. Garrison explains the actions of the assassins by showing and analyzing the Zapruder film, a real-life 8mm film in which President Kennedy is shot to death.

By focusing on Jim Garrison's investigation and the trial of Clay Shaw, Oliver Stone clarifies and dramatizes factual events from the Kennedy assassination. By choosing Garrison as the protagonist and Shaw as the antagonist, Stone avoided using too many characters. The result is a film that shapes facts into a riveting story.

Screenwriting Exercise Series 

To write a screenplay based on fact, ask yourself several questions:

1) Who is the protagonist (hero) of a news story involving a tragic real-life incident?

2) What does the protagonist do to confront the antagonist (villain) who was
     responsible for this incident?

3) When does the protagonist realize that he must confront the antagonist in some way to
     resolve the conflicts caused by this incident?

4) Where does this incident take place? Describe the geographic location.

5) Why did the antagonist take part in the tragic incident? What was his motivation?

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