When Getting It Wrong Makes It Better

From Writer Unboxed:

In the late ‘70s, when I was a freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, a film crew descended upon our quirky little town to shoot a movie. At the time I believe it was called “Bambino,” but that would change. The movie focused on an annual bicycle race the university hosted, called the Little 500 (a reference to the famed Indianapolis 500, the big annual auto race held 50 miles to the north). The Little 500 was the event of the year for students and townspeople alike, and to this day it draws crowds of 25,000 whenever April rolls around.

When you live in smalltown central Indiana, it’s not every day that Hollywood comes calling, and both the city and the university greeted the film project with open arms. It was the talk of the town, and soon we began seeing sections of the campus and surrounding area cordoned off while a cafeteria, courtyard or local street was commandeered to film some scene.

What was the movie about? Nobody really knew, other than that the climactic moment would be a reenactment of our big bicycle race. And – most thrilling of all – there was an open call to attend said reenactment as an extra, since they needed the stadium in which the race was held to be full of people. As a bonus, they also needed a ton of competitive bike riders, and since my dormitory floor had a team that had qualified to compete in the real race, the guys on that team were hired to ride in the reenactment, while the rest of their loyal floormates fake-cheered them on from the stands, hoping to be captured forever on film.

Suffice to say, we were stoked.

It didn’t take long for some of the novelty to wear off. The film crew seemed to be everywhere, and they showed no signs of ever being done. It became tiresome to have to walk around to a rear entrance of an academic hall, because the front of the building was being used for some scene they were shooting.

Even more troubling, we began to notice what they were getting WRONG. We heard talk that the movie would highlight rivalries between students and “cutters” – a derogatory name the filmmakers were using for the local townspeople, harkening back to a bygone era when Bloomington was home to a large workforce of limestone cutters. The problem was, the limestone quarries had been closed for years, there was little or no actual rivalry, and nobody called them “cutters.” “Townies,” maybe. A few called them “stonies” (for “stone cutters”). But what was all this “cutters” nonsense? No, this did NOT bode well.

And then there were the race scenes. Despite the initial surge of interest, it quickly became evident that there was no way to actually fill the stadium where the race was being filmed day after day, because nowhere near enough people were showing up. So the film crew would direct us (yes, yours truly was in some of the crowd scenes) to all shuffle back and forth to different parts of the stadium and sit together in crowded clumps of people. After one shot was completed, we would be ushered to some other section of the stands, and we began to understand that they would somehow stitch together the footage to make the stadium appear full, when in reality you were likely seeing the same much smaller group of people over and over again, sitting in whatever section of the stadium the camera was capturing at a given moment. Although this was long before the advent of CGI, even then we were skeptical of such a low-tech approach. (You’d be surprised how quickly a bunch of 19-year-old Midwestern punks become experts in critiquing filmmaking techniques.)

The movie didn’t come out until the following year, by which time it had been renamed “Breaking Away.” Back in Bloomington, we all flocked to the movie theater to see it, hoping to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the bike-racing scenes.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for the finished result. A film that we had assumed would be about our famous bike race was instead more of a buddy movie with a side order of romance, tacking on a trumped-up rivalry between students and townspeople that in no way represented the real dynamic of the artsy little town we all knew and loved. The verdict was swift and unanimous:

Clearly, this movie sucked.

So imagine our surprise – and righteous indignation – when the film became a hit, earning not one but four Academy Award nominations, and actually winning for best screenplay!

How could this be? The lead actor had skinny legs, and everybody knew that the best competitive cyclists had legs like sequoias. And during the “cute meet” when the male and female romantic leads first crossed paths, the girl rode away on a motor scooter (which nobody rode on that campus), and – wait for it – drove the wrong way up what any self-respecting Bloomingtonian knew was a one-way street! And in what had to be the worst blow of all, during the race scenes, the cameras swept past the crowds far too fast for any of us to recognize ourselves.

This was an outrage. How could Hollywood have gotten our world so wrong?

It wasn’t until many years later, when I began harboring serious thoughts about becoming a storyteller, that I realized that with little or no exception, nearly everything that movie got wrong actually made it a better story. More on that in a moment, but examining the success of Breaking Away made me start to realize that getting the facts right is not always the goal in fiction. Getting the story right is.

A hard lesson from a bitter pill

Still, that can be a bitter pill to swallow. I think most of us get bugged when a book or movie gets something wrong – particularly when it’s something about which we have highly specialized knowledge or experience. In my case, as a professional musician, I can tell you that music is something that they almost NEVER get right in books or movies. This can happen whether the music is the focal point, or merely a side detail.

Because I’m a drummer, people always ask me what I thought of the movie Whiplash, and I have to carefully temper my response in order not to go full Ebenezer Scrooge on them. I mean, sure: the film might have provided a platform for some powerful drama – and okay, some damn good acting – but it was utter nonsense in terms of realism, basically amounting to nothing more than a thinly disguised sports movie where a ball was swapped out for some drumsticks. Two thumbs down from The Keithster.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

3 thoughts on “When Getting It Wrong Makes It Better”

  1. I suggest that the OP assumes something not in evidence: That “getting the facts right” and “getting the story right” are mutually exclusive. Especially as to settings and memes that do exist but are outside of ordinary-filmgoer (or -reader) experience, overfidelity to the story at the expense of the facts indicates that the writer can’t handle the truth.† To the contrary, one can get both the facts and the story right; to name a few other examples, also from film, alphabetically: All the President’s Men (which also managed some incredible misdirection based in fact!), Argo, The Battle of Algiers, Breaker Morant, Des, Hilary and Jackie, The Killing Fields, Reversal of Fortune.

    The OP is misusing the word “facts” when it means “obsessive detail.” At best. Besides, the author of the OP definitely went to the wrong Big Ten school.

    † Snide disparagement entirely intentional, and you just really don’t want me to begin a laundry list of how that film got so much wrong that was “mere facts” that nobody who knows much of anything about any of the three crammed-together settings can watch it without being thrown out of the story half-a-dozen or more times.

  2. My father lived on an island, Only 1 real road with a couple of short side streets to various beaches. A movie showing someone arriving at the island and catching up in the car,had virtually every part of the trip in reverse, apart from the ferry terminal.

    On the other hand watching a long trip up the coast in a speeding car had me listening for the roar of the roar of the engine as I realised they where about to pass right outside the cinema before the realisation that with filming time that could have been a year ago.

  3. Years back there was the movie “Three Kings,” whose producers actually came to Metro Detroit to round up Iraqis to be in the movie. The rapper Ice Cube plays one of the main characters (an American), who allegedly goes to Iraq as a vacation from Detroit. That part was funny-funny, but what was funny was the scene showing him working at Detroit Metro Airport. That airport is not far from where I grew up, so you can imagine how perplexed I was when I saw the mountains in the background. There are no mountains in Michigan, people. Their presence didn’t improve the movie, it was just silly. I think the filmmakers said leaving the mountains in was just an accident.

    Whereas, the guy from Journey said he thought “growing up in South Detroit” rhymed better in “Don’t Stop Believing.” There is no South Detroit. There’s a Southwest Detroit, which has Mexicantown. The writers at Vulture sleuthed out the answer by simply talking to Steve Perry:

    Yes, but what about South Detroit? For the love of Tim Allen, what about South Detroit? To that, Perry pleads poetic license, and ignorance, despite the fact that a quick glance at a map would have alerted him to the issue. “I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit,” he says. “The syntax just sounded right. I fell in love with the line. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned that there is no South Detroit. But it doesn’t matter.”

    So I guess getting facts wrong got the song right. Or at least it did for people who actually listen to Journey.

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