From the Magazine

The Truth Is Out There

This fall, true stories will invade movie theaters everywhere. A look at the riveting real events that have inspired Hollywood.

Image credit: Frank Connor

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate

12 Years a Slave
In 1841 Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was kidnapped while visiting Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in the Deep South. After a dozen years in captivity under several slaveholders, Northup, played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men), managed to win his freedom and then publish an account of his experiences. His 1853 memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, became an instant hit, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years. But in the century that followed, Northup's fame evaporated. He was little known outside of academic circles when director Steve McQueen (Shame) and screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) rediscovered him.
''[Northup] was almost like a traveler going into this nightmarish time machine back to the middle ages of slavery,'' says Henry Louis Gates Jr., a lauded professor at Harvard. ''Northup had to play the double role — he was a free man pretending to be a slave and a literate man pretending to be illiterate. If there were an Academy Award for slave performances, Chiwetel wouldn't be the only one who should get one. Solomon should get one too.''
To prepare for the role, Ejiofor, who was born to Nigerian parents in England, did a deep dive into Northup's book. ''To go into the psychology of this tHE Truth is out there man, and the time, in a way that I've never seen represented,'' he says, ''was just mind-blowing.''
After reuniting with his family in Saratoga Springs, Northup unsuccessfully sued his abductors. He became a popular lecturer at abolitionist rallies and took his story to the stage with two plays. ''One hundred fifty years later, he gets his film,'' says Gates. '' Solomon Northup has finally had his day.'' (Rated R, out Oct. 18) —Stephan Lee

Diana
She was, and still is, one of the most famous women on the planet, but this new film explores a side of Diana, Princess of Wales, that's not as well-known: her secret love affair with London heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.
The couple met in 1995 while Diana (Naomi Watts) was visiting a friend at the Royal Brompton Hospital, where she reportedly became smitten with the Pakistani-born doctor, played in the film by Naveen Andrews (ABC's Lost). Khan encouraged Diana to pursue humanitarian efforts, including her global campaign against land mines. ''He was someone striving to make the world a better place,'' says Diana screenwriter Stephen Jeffreys (The Libertine). ''He really taught her to focus and commit.'' The public strain of Diana's life contributed to their split after two years. Her splashy rebound with Dodi Al Fayed ended with her accidental death in 1997.
Khan, who has long maintained a dignified silence about the relationship, has voiced his displeasure about Diana. ''I can see a lot of humor in a lot of bad things,'' he recently told London's The Sun. ''But in this one, I can't.'' (Rated PG-13, out Nov. 1) —Sara Vilkomerson

Kill Your Darlings
Lucien Carr's name may have faded into the footnotes of literary history, but in 1944 he murdered his former Boy Scout master, and the crime deeply affected Carr's close friends and future Beat icons Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. ''It's a story that not many people know but everybody should,'' says Dane DeHaan, who portrays Carr in director/co-writer John Krokidas' debut feature. Steve Silberman, a longtime Ginsberg friend and collaborator, agrees that Carr's influence shouldn't be overlooked. ''It was Lucien who introduced Allen to the people who eventually became known as the Beat Generation,'' Silberman says, adding that Ginsberg (played by Daniel Radcliffe in the film) was infatuated with the glamorous, sophisticated Carr, whom they both met at Columbia University. ''Lucien turned Allen on to everything from marijuana to jazz to classical music.''
On Aug. 14, 1944, Carr stabbed David Kammerer — who had followed Carr from his hometown of St. Louis — with his Scout knife in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Kammerer was labeled a predator who'd made unwanted advances to Carr, but the truth was murkier. ''Lucien was not an innocent,'' Silberman says. ''They used to hang out together all the time.'' Given 1940s attitudes toward homosexuality — a straight man could be expected to ''defend'' himself against same-sex advances — Carr served only two years in prison. Later, he quietly married, had a family (one of his sons is novelist Caleb Carr), and worked as a journalist at UPI for nearly five decades. He died in 2005. (Rated R, out Oct. 16) —Sara Vilkomerson

Captain Phillips
On April 8, 2009, four armed Somali raiders hijacked the Maersk Alabama cargo freighter in the Indian Ocean and attempted to hold its crew of 20 for ransom. It was a poorly planned crime — and the pirates soon settled for kidnapping, holding the Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips, hostage in a lifeboat as a fatal standoff played out with U.S. Navy warships.
Cable news broadcast the crisis live, and Phillips — portrayed in the new film by Tom Hanks — became a blue-collar folk hero for his efforts to thwart the plot. The movie, directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, United 93), is adapted from Phillips' 2010 book, A Captain's Duty.
The real captain says Hanks was less interested in the hijacking and more curious about Phillips' headspace under ordinary circumstances. ''When we met he really didn't want to talk about the story itself,'' Phillips told EW in August. ''He was interested in a little of my background, more so on the merchant marine, the routine of working at sea.''
Four years after the incident, multiple crew members of the Maersk Alabama filed lawsuits against the ship's owner, alleging the crew was recklessly sent into dangerous waters. In a recent CNN interview, the captain declined to comment. ''We live in a litigious society,'' he said. ''Their complaint is with the company, so it's not my place.'' (Rated PG-13, out Oct. 11) —Anthony Breznican

Dallas Buyers Club
By all accounts, Ron Woodroof wasn't a shy guy. The handsome, smooth-talking Texan became a pioneering distributor of unapproved AIDS medications in the late 1980s, putting himself at odds with law enforcement as well as his own friends. But when screenwriter Craig Borten tried to track down Woodroof in 1992 to adapt his story into a movie, he proved elusive. ''I wrote him a letter, and he didn't respond. Then I called, and he didn't respond. So I just hopped in my car and drove to Dallas,'' recalls Borten. ''I interviewed him for three days.''
Borten learned about Woodroof's transformation from homophobic ne'er-do-well into health-care provider who skirted regulations by forming a subscription-only ''buyers club'' that supplied medications to hundreds of AIDS patients. Woodroof himself died of the disease in 1992.
Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof, takes some artistic license. Many characters — including Woodroof's transgender partner in crime (Jared Leto) and his compassionate doctor (Jennifer Garner) — are composites. But McConaughey, who met with Woodroof's family before filming, says the movie's appeal lies in the real events at its core: ''The story was so good and based on truth. That was where all the resonance came from.'' (Rated R, out Nov. 1) —Adam Markovitz

The Fifth Estate
Julian Assange, currently self-imprisoned in Ecuador's London embassy, reportedly hasn't seen this film, which depicts his rise as the creator of the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks. But he's against it. It's partially based on a 2011 memoir by his onetime friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl). ''[Assange] hasn't been a fan from day one,'' says Stacey Snider, co-chairman and CEO of DreamWorks, which produced the film. ''We tried to adhere to the essence of truth-telling for a movie, but we also tried to hold ourselves to an even higher standard because he is alive and awaiting an unknown fate.'' David Leigh, the Guardian editor who helped Assange coordinate some of his most famous leaks, calls the movie ''broadly true.'' The film takes liberties, he says, but Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Assange is ''creepily like the Julian I knew.'' (Rated R, out Oct. 18) —Adam Markovitz

Originally posted Oct 09, 2013 Published in issue #1281 Oct 18, 2013 Order article reprints
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